The struggle to stay on track

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New research has uncovered fears about how the cost of living crisis will affect youth participation in sport and we speak to an organisation which helps the next generation through athletics

Mark Lancaster used to be a civil engineer. His time might be taken up in numerous other ways these days, but his mind often works as if he still is one. As soon as he identifies a problem, he immediately starts to think about the solution. It’s an approach which has served him well. 

It’s also an attitude which is exactly what his sport – and the young people he works with – needs in abundance right now. Lancaster is not only a national sprints and hurdles coach, he is also the founder and managing director of GMAX Trackstars, a London-based athletics organisation with a difference. 

Its mission? To unlock the power of sport for young people. To help develop them into athletes, into coaches and fundamentally skilled individuals who are stopped from following the kind of path which has one destination. Prison.

It is crucial work which is coming under threat from the cost of living crisis. In new research for charity Sported, 94 per cent of community sports groups admitted to fears about how the rapidly changing financial climate will affect their young people. 

GMAX is one such charitable group. Even though their unique funding model – a bustling yoga studio and café provides the income which goes into funding coaches, delivering sessions and school visits – the pandemic also halted the substantial development momentum which had been underway. 

GMAX Trackstars

Lancaster is talking to me from that very studio in Lewisham as we start by discussing how important it is for GMAX to be able to offer their services to the local youngsters. 

“It’s an absolute need, because we’re working in a very deprived area, where there is gang and knife culture,” he says. “We operate as an intervention. We do work with the police and we try to work with schools.”

One of the reasons Lancaster stepped away from engineering was his desire to help young people. It’s a source of enormous pride when he recounts tales of individuals who might have been “written off” but have since been diverted away from “the pipeline from playground to prison” by GMAX showing them a very different track. 

He admits, though, that it’s not just the more obvious cases he needs to worry about. 

“We had an incident recently where a girl decided to steal something – and this is a girl who is on a good pathway to success within sports,” he adds. “But they’re attracted to things that they will get in trouble for and we’re trying to stop them getting so occupied with things they don’t need to be doing or think they can get away with. 

“The mobile phone has become mum, dad, girlfriend, boyfriend, friend… it’s become their life and if we don’t intervene and give them some mentoring or some practical skills, we’re going to lose a whole generation of young people who will just wander this earth.”

Lancaster is dismayed by the lack of priority afforded to physical education in schools which, in turn, places even more importance on organisations such as his. He contends that there is an underestimation as to just how profoundly sport can affect lives.

GMAX Trackstars

“As Nelson Mandela said, sport speaks to youth in a language they understand,” he says. “It’s the one tool we’ve got and if we don’t make it a priority then we will come up with a lot of issues in later life.”

He continues: “Once you’ve made a name for yourself [in athletics], it’s not like a Facebook like or an Instagram like, it’s a permanent success that you are recognised for and people and companies would love for you to be part of their organisation simply because they know what kind of athlete or person they’re getting.

“One of the athletes I worked with went through his degree, left university and wasn’t having much success with employment, but he went to this particular firm and he got the job off the back of the fact that he was an athlete.

“They knew that he was committed, worked hard, was driven, had targets in his life and worked hard towards them.

“That’s the kind of individuals we want to try and mould and create. Sport does all of that – particularly athletics – because it’s about the individual. It’s not about somebody else deciding how good you are. It’s all about you. And that’s what we do in athletics. It makes such a difference.”

Lancaster sees a worrying trend of youngsters low on confidence and life skills, something which became abundantly clear when he conducted training under the Government Kickstart scheme, which provides funding to employers to create jobs for 16 to 24-year-olds on Universal Credit.

“We took on 20 coaches, but the work ethic for this group of young people was very low,” he reveals. “They just hadn’t got the confidence and the programme was way too short for us to actually nurture them, to get them to understand what it is that they need to do, how they need to do it and how we can actually develop them to become specialist coaches, which is something that the sport needs.

“We just need time to change the status quo of how society has moulded young people to be a little bit less interactive with sport. We have to be super aggressive in making sure that they understand what it is that they’ll get out of it.”

There are bright spots on the horizon, though. GMAX recently organised a world record attempt at the Olympic Stadium – they now have the fastest time for 20 people running 400m in relay. The event attracted a number of participants and raised £12,000. 

In the absence of outside funding streams or support, thinking creatively has had to become the norm for athletics, a sport which Lancaster insists is stuck firmly in the past. 

“We can do novel things like that and create that excitement, because we’re the only sport that hasn’t really done anything to attract more people,” he adds. “Snooker has done it, darts has done it, cricket has done it. We really need to do something and that’s what GMAX is all about. If you do the same thing, then nothing changes.

“Track and field is the last bastion of high performance which is still amateur until you put on a GB vest. To a young person, that is not something that’s going to incentivise them [to get involved].

“I’ve been involved in track and field for the last 30 years and the bureaucracy… when all is said and done more is said than done, so we’re just taking the bull by the horns and delivering a service.”

The battle to get more people “through the door”, which can be the hardest challenge of all, goes on. There has been support from Lewisham Council, while former England football captain Rio Ferdinand is also now involved, but Lancaster would dearly love more help in his mission. 

What would be on his wish list? 

“Venue hire, coaching and accessing the education system to offer a sports delivery programme that is sustained – it’s not something that we just do for 12 weeks, it’s part of the curriculum,” he says. “We would have a better impact through our award and assessment system.

“We’ve been selected to drive the pilot for that in Lewisham to deliver it as an extra curricular service. We will start to create good athletes off the back of that, then we will take them on and train them from playground to podium with our programmes outside of school. There’s a pathway of development and the potential for success is there.”

Realising it is the hard part. 

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» This article first appeared in the December issue of AW magazine

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