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UKA Coach Building A Better Coaching Environment

Year Of the Coach: Julien Raffalli

Julien Raffalli didn’t intend to be a coach; he didn’t plan to make the UK his home either.

Now he is, and he has.

Having initially moved from France on a six month temporary work secondment in 2004, Raffalli has now settled down with an English girl - they marry this summer - and has a high quality pole vault training group based out of Manchester’s SportCity.

“When I moved to the UK I honestly thought “that’s enough”,” says Raffalli, “I didn’t think I wanted to continue my involvement in the sport while I was here, but I had a friend who was in the UK for a few months and he asked me to coach him during that time. We went to SportCity one evening and there were a few athletes pole vaulting without a coach. I naturally started to give them some advice and before I knew it I’d promised to come back the next day, and within 24 hours I’d inherited a group of athletes.”

By then he’d asked to extend his stay in the UK indefinitely, and, by his own admittance, was experiencing a sense of déjà vu. “I actually started coaching for the first time when I was around 20,” he says. “I’d been injured and I was getting back into training, I got into it without really meaning to; I was giving advice and I suppose I fell into it.” And so his vocation began.

Already his athletes - who include UKA Futures Programme trio Andy Sutcliffe, Katie Byres and Holly Bleasdsale - have won English national titles and achieved lifetime best performances in 2010 to date and all three are on course to earn selection onto Great Britain and Northern Ireland teams this summer. In fact, 16-year-old Katie Byres (Sale Harriers Manchester), the England under-17 champion with a PB of 4.01m, a UK All-Time best (under-17) has this month (March 2010) been named in the first wave of selections for the European Youth Olympic Trials in Moscow, Russia, on 21-23 May.

Sutcliffe (also Sale), crowned England under-20 men’s champion in February 2010 following an outstanding PB and second place finish in the Aviva UK Championships and World Trials (5.36m) a fortnight previously, is the only member of Raffalli’s original group to have remained in the sport, although the others have stayed in touch.“Andy had only been vaulting for four months or so at the time we met, so we’ve pretty much been together since the start,” says Raffalli. “He went into the UK Championships very confident; he’d never opened at 5.00m before but he’d been looking good so we thought we’d open at that height and he went on clear 5.36m on his first attempt,” a mark which eclipsed his 5.10m best in 2009.

According to the Frenchman, the value of the group element is immeasurable and worth more than the talent of each individual: “I’ve now got eight in the group and we train five times a week. Like other events, it’s so important that we train as a group so that they can push one another. If you’re the best in your squad then the others in the group want to be better than you so the standard keeps improving.”

“It’s actually the group element that’s important for me. I don’t mind what level they’re at, I just want to see their commitment; I want to see them work together and to feel the pain together.”

While Sutcliffe is one of the original group members and the profile name attached to the set-up, Byres, a product of the Vault Manchester set-up - the brainchild of Raffalli - represents the genius behind his coaching exterior.

“Manchester City Council got behind the Vault Manchester project on the basis that we tied it into overall regional development,” he explains. “Prior to the first meeting I got a group of athletes to have a go at the event, like a come and try. Katie started at 1.40m and cleared 2.32m. She’d done a few jumps with me prior to then but she was relatively new to the event (2007).

“Within 12 months she’d jumped 3.60m and already this year she’s reached a new lifetime best and UK All Time best of 4.01m.”

Vault Manchester is the leading UK pole vault meeting and was inspired by an event run by Raffalli’s dad, also a pole vault coach, in France. “Andy (Sutcliffe) and his dad came to my dad’s place in France; we went to the pole vault meeting my dad ran; the music was loud, there was a big crowd and there were hundreds of vaulters. They both said “you need to have this in the UK.””

“The basic idea is that two beds run parallel and there’s a live DJ. The athletes pick the music they want for their run up. We’re basically trying to make it quick, sharp and funky. The officials are really into it now too. We’ve worked with them since day one so they’ve come around to what we want to make this work. Now the athletes can’t wait to enter and the officials can’t wait to get involved. Entries have been up year on year and 2010 has been our highest to date; we probably had the top ten best UK athletes this year in addition to overseas competitors including a Greek guy who broke his national indoor record with 5.70m.”

Making up the promising trio under the leadership of Raffalli is 19-year-old Holly Bleasdale (Blackburn), the 2010 Celtic International victor. “Blackburn Harriers asked me to do some coaching and they paid me to go along for six consecutive weeks for two hours – it was the only paid pole vault job I’d ever had!,” he laughs. “They pointed Holly out to me because she was excelling in a variety of events. After six weeks I went back to the club coach/President and said “she’s good, if she ever wants more pole vault coaching she can come along to join my group on a Saturday.” I helped her out a bit informally and she got up to 2.70m with essentially no coaching. She asked if my offer of coaching was still open and if she could join the group. She cleared 4.05m within her first full year at the event and is ranked second on the UK All Time list with only seven months of focused coaching.”

Raffalli, a former French junior international himself, has a PB of 5.20m. He’d started vaulting at the age of three after his dad - when he’d followed him around the track during one of his own coaching sessions - gave him a brush stick to go and play with in the long jump pit.

As a first year junior he was unfortunate to miss out on the European Junior Championships after a hamstring injury put him out of action, but in a twist of fate, it was the start of his coaching career.

“At the start I was just involved with beginners,” he says, “but there was a Tunisian girl who jumped 4.20m to make it to the 2004 Olympics; she was the highest level I’d coached in France but I didn’t get to go with her to the Games as I’d moved to the UK earlier that summer.”

And so here he is, six years on, with the prospect of three juniors making the grade as GB internationals in 2010 and the opportunity to watch then in action.

“I hope Andrew can win a medal at the World Juniors, and my favourite colour is gold,” he says. He’s getting better every day and I’m seeing him improve. I’d have been happy coming out of the indoor season with 5.30m and he’s cleared 5.36m.

“Katie’s made the European Youth Olympics Trial and hopefully she can go on to make the Final in Singapore in August, while if Holly gets to the World Juniors that will be a success in itself and a great learning environment for her. If she gets there I think she can make the final.

“I always sit down with my athletes at the start of every year to see what they believe their targets are, what they want to achieve and what it would mean to them. All three are pretty much where they want to be, so I think it’s going to be a good summer.”

“If we can achieve all of that, it would be an amazing year.”

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