Setting aside those who actually compete in track and field, it’s fair to say that athletics in the UK is largely a male-dominated sport. Boardrooms, decision-making panels, event coaching teams – while showing some progression – are all still heavily controlled by men.
However, UKA level three performance coach Cathy Walker is taking this in her stride.
In the early 2000s, with a desire to return to athletics after giving up as a talented 16-year-old due to illness, Cathy approached Herts Phoenix AC to see if she could get involved with coaching – and she was ambitious right from day one. “I started coaching the young kids’ session, but my ambition was to coach older teenagers and adults. I also didn’t want to limit myself to simply ‘helping’ with sessions. So, I decided to get on with my qualifications and accelerate my coaching journey”, she explains.
Cathy built her coaching qualifications up to what was level three and had a successful group of 200m, 400m and 800m athletes; but it is the middle of those distances which holds a particular place in her heart. “I think the 400m is the best race on the track. It’s the thinking athlete’s race: you have be able to “read” the race; to have stamina; to be fast; and have reserves both physical and mental to call on!”
As she progressed through her coaching journey, guidance from the late Lloyd Cowan helped Cathy to hone her coaching skills at a time when she admits she was having a ‘wobble’ as to whether she was good enough. However, in 2009, following a restructure at work, Cathy left her role with the knowledge – and, just as importantly, the confidence and ambition – to become a full-time athletics coach.
Since then, Cathy has been coaching both disability and non-disability athletes with great success. She coached Maria Verdeille to the 2018 Commonwealth Games, with Maria eventually placing sixth in the Women’s T35 100m. Cathy was also part of the England Athletics National Coach Development Programme for nearly a decade, and more recently has been selected to participate in the second cohort of the UK Sport Female Leadership Programme.
It seems then that Cathy is somewhat an anomaly in UK athletics; perhaps due to her previous work experiences.
Cathy is no stranger to male-dominated environments, having worked in both the defence industry and in the motor trade. “The motor trade is a ‘laddish’ environment where I was looked down on, ignored, laughed at, and belittled. I was expected to be a receptionist or an office clerk. Yet I sold more cars than many of my male peers and built and retained a customer base that I was proud of”, she explains. Cathy’s ability to build long-lasting business relationships with her customers left her male colleagues asking why she could do it and they couldn’t; and they slowly began to change the way they engaged with prospective clients based on the example Cathy had set.
When Cathy moved to a multinational aerospace corporation, she started on the shop floor of the company’s telecoms department: “I don’t think too many people ever noticed me there!”, she jokes. She later progressed in to a new role designing and building insulation for the antennas on satellites, and found she had to be forceful in order to get her opinion heard by her male colleagues.
When technological developments meant the more manual element of Cathy’s role became obsolete, she was told she would likely have no future in the team as she didn’t have an engineering degree. So, in an act of defiance, she simply moved departments to the ground systems directorate, dealing with the company’s military ground and sea-based technology. But once again, Cathy found herself in an environment where her skills and experience were underappreciated and often ignored. “There were a lot of ex-military men in that team, but the department was in a real muddle. Many of them spent a lot of time talking about how much they had to do, but very little time actually doing it.” Determined to make a difference, Cathy bravely spoke out and exposed some of the shortcomings – landing herself a whole lot of extra work in the process. “Their response was ‘well if you’re so good, you sort it out’. They fully expected me to find out what actually, their version of the workload was a fact. But, unfortunately for them, I did indeed sort it out!”, Cathy recalls.
And that was the start of a very successful career progression for Cathy. She was promoted in to a management role and ended up running that same department for eight years, where she learned invaluable skills which she is now successfully transferring in to her coaching career. “I learned an awful lot about people”, she explains: “Their sensitivities; their sensibilities; fears; priorities; their families; how to communicate with individuals rather than a whole group at once; and how to recognise when to make time for people who don’t appear to want any help but in reality, actually do.”
It isn’t surprising then to hear that Cathy takes a very holistic approach to coaching – and feels that others should, too. In the last five years she become a qualified life coach and registered hypnotherapist. “Athletes are whole people; they have lives which get complicated”, she explains. “Their lives get messy; home events can take precedence; there’s upset, joy and grief. These factors should all be considered by coaches and worked with, not around. They shouldn’t be ignored, or treated as something that’s just getting in the way.”
Cathy is using these skills to great effect, and says that one of her most memorable coaching successes was supporting an athlete suffering with anxiety. Despite her abundant talent, the athlete had got to the point where she simply could not face seeing an athletics track. With careful and collaborative support alongside the athlete’s family, Cathy was able to help the athlete cope with her anxiety and she returned to training once more to everyone’s delight.
“Adopting a holistic approach to coaching doesn’t mean that athletes have to tell you everything; they don’t need to disclose exactly what is going on in their lives”, Cathy explains. “We, as coaches should be observant and if we realise that all is not well, we should be caring and considerate enough to allow athletes the space to deal with whatever is happening. Trust is probably one of the biggest parts of a coach/athlete working relationship.”
Through the UK Sport Female Leadership Programme, Cathy is sharing this holistic outlook with coaches from other sports, while learning from them, too. Programmes like this demonstrate a clear progression in the desire to invest in female coaches in UK sport, but the opportunities are few and far between.
As someone who has bucked the trend throughout both her corporate and coaching careers, what then does Cathy think needs to be done in order to encourage more females to follow in her coaching footsteps? “Make it a legitimate profession where coaches are contracted and paid”, she says. “We need to remove the archaic idea that athletics is an amateur sport ‘that anyone can do’ and ‘anyone can coach’. We need to get rid of the attitude that says that it’s a sport where everyone involved is a happy volunteer.”
Cathy says that in her experience, many skills or services that are given away for free are treated as valueless. “Why would you give credence to a PE teacher, or a football coach, or a tennis coach, or a golf coach; yet not to an athletics coach? Because those in the other sports are paid so they appear more legitimate of course. Let’s have all licenced track and field and running coaches regarded as legitimate!”
Cathy also asserts that we need to get rid of the opinion that athletics coaching is something women just want to do at a grassroots level because they have children in the sport – the “oh, ask that mum to be a helper!” attitude, as Cathy puts it. “Men aren’t thought of in this way so why should women be? Men would be asked if they wanted to be a coach, not just a ‘helper’ working with small children.”
Give women “committed focussed athletes who are there because they want to progress; because they have goals; because they want to excel”, Cathy argues. And if women are given that opportunity, they might well be able to follow in Cathy’s inspirational footsteps.
Author: Becki Hall
Becki Hall is a life-long sports fan; from a very young age, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, the answer was always “Sally Gunnell”! Becki has competed in track and field since the age of 11, with regional and national success as a junior athlete. She qualified as a personal trainer in 2016 and an athletics coach in 2019 after developing a love of sports coaching through working as a multi-sports assistant on school holiday camps during her teenage years.
Becki is passionate about encouraging female participation in sport and exercise – within athletics and beyond – at both an athlete and coach level.
Becki works full-time as a marketing communications manager in the defence and aerospace industry, and has a particular interest in copywriting and content marketing.
In her very little spare time Becki still trains 5-6 times a week, with sessions covering throwing, sprinting, weightlifting and even a rare cameo over the hurdles when her body allows. Sadly, she never did grow up to be Sally Gunnell, however.
When she is not competing or training at the weekend, she is usually found stood in the cold watching her partner play football or bemoaning her ever-failing fantasy football team.