Jonathon Harper is a constant presence around the club, usually to be found at the head of a string of wild children. As coordinator of the J-team, he leads our junior athletes on adventures on club days and organizes them for race days. Here, we ask Jonathon some tough questions and compress his answers into a few thousand words.
Jonathon, when did you join Scottish, and when did you take up your role as J-team coordinator?
My daughter Ariana turned up for the first time at the Dorne Cup in 2006. We had a nice young Canadian woman looking after the J-team then called Robyn Holland. She lent Ariana a singlet and somehow had Ariana officially registered with the club on the spot! I joined later that year. Robyn went back to Canada at the end of the 2010 season, so I took over from her at the beginning of the 2011 season.
What is the J-team, and what do you do as coordinator?
The J-team is our group of primary and intermediate school aged kids. Most of their parents run in the club, but not all. It began life seventeen years ago with one of the walkers, Murray Gowan, taking the kids for a club run on Saturdays. The name and more ambitious objectives arose when a group of well-organized parents ran the J-team. That group included enduring members: Phil Sadgrove, Bev Hodge, Jenny McDonald and Chris Harp. While the only official brief I have been given is to organize races, teams and activities to keep them occupied, I keep the other traditions alive. The extra bits include coaching tips, finding out about each young athlete’s goals with running, reporting results with regular emails, and promoting our special team spirit.
[For a detailed history of the J-team, see Jonathon’s article in issue 12 of ON THE RUN – Sept 2012]
What do you most enjoy about working with the J-team? What do you like least?
At first I was a little taken aback at the mischievousness of one or two of our creative young characters. Now I really enjoy the challenge, and have found ways to keep on top of it all whilst maintaining my sense of humour! Which brings me to what I like the most; and this is the part of our club spirit that most attracted me to the club in the first place. It is the way that we all pull together. No matter what happens; no matter what disagreements we may have, it is clear to me that everybody feels a sense of loyalty, mutual support and belonging. Like my predecessors, I do miss those club runs with my mates.
When working with junior athletes, what is your main measure of success? How do you know if you are doing a good job?
My prime customers are the kids. The number one consideration has always been this question, “Are you enjoying your running?” So I want lots of yeses to that. I guess I am fortunate in that I am a bit of a kid myself at heart. You need to be.
Running often involves feeling exhausted while pushing your body through difficult conditions in cold and windy weather. How do you help kids to find running fun?
We have a few special running activities the kids have enjoyed even in the cold rain. A hare and hounds following trails and signs made from white flour has worked well. We have done orienteering with maps in minus five degrees of wind chill in sleeting rain and wind. Another favourite activity is going up to Central Park, doing some training around a loop there and then jumping on the flying fox and climbing frames. Just like adults, kids enjoy a variety of interesting places to run.
In your experience, what are the most common mistakes made by junior runners? When coaching juniors, what are the main dangers to look out for?
I think the most common problem with kids is what we call being a rabbit. There is nothing wrong with sprinting at the start of a race; but when it goes on for 20 seconds rather than about 10, any runner will blow up. Falling over is probably problem number two for kids. At the start of a big race, the slower ones need to keep out of harm’s way by being at the back on the line. The third most common mistake in my book is thinking you will win a major race with little training. Talent can get you quite some way as a 5 year old, but as you move up the grades I see very few runners winning medals without being in a good training group.
You recently won a Wellington Sports award for your work with junior athletes. Can you tell us what the award was for, and how you came to be the winner?
The award (which I never believed I would win btw) was based on the results of my athletes, mostly the squad I coach called the Flying Squad. Luckily for us, most of my squad members are also Scottish members.
What work have you done to improve your coaching, and to gain coaching qualifications?
I completed the IAAF levels one and two track and field courses. They gave me a good grounding in the basics. I think the first aid course I did was also a good idea for any coach.I am constantly consulting quite a number of other coaches and experts. I communicate with many of our top athletes. Hamish Carson has passed on quite a few useful ideas and I keep in touch with his mum Julie to follow his progress. I have applied many ideas gained from my studies for my qualifications and work as a school-teacher and psychologist as a coach. Don Dalgliesh is another great source of advice and mentoring. Don has a unique way of shattering conceits and hubris in a humorous way that brings me back down to Earth.
Interview by Simon Keller