UKA CEO tells Stuart Weir about her background and focus for the future
Joanna Coates began her role as UK Athletics (UKA) chief executive in March, during a time of great uncertainty.
Last month, in her first interview with the wider media following her appointment, Coates gave strong views on a range of topics, addressing ‘ethical success’, the need for a ‘culture of collaboration’, organisation changes, reviews and more.
The national governing body has come under repeated fire in recent years and has faced multiple reviews, including of its performance system and relationship with Alberto Salazar, plus numerous leadership changes.
Here, in an interview with Stuart Weir, Coates shares further insight into her background and focus for the future.
Stuart Weir: What attracted you to the job as CEO of UKA?
Joanna Coates: I had been at England Netball for 10 years, I was made an offer to go to the London Legacy Development Corporation and I stepped out of the true running of sport, I suppose. I missed it terribly. I missed the chaos of running a national governing body – the stress and the pressure, getting calls in the middle of the night, “there’s a hole in the netball court”, and things like that. I just missed it.
I was approached for the UKA role – I think head-hunters approached a few people – and when they did, I thought: “yes, that would just be a dream”.
I had worked in football, in truly commercial sport, but never in an Olympic sport. I had worked for netball which is grassroots through to the elite and Commonwealth, but for a sports administrator, this is the dream job.
SW: What do regard as your best achievements in netball?
JC: Everyone points to the Commonwealth Games gold medal, which was the first time we’d ever done it, and that was amazing. But for me, I still believe it was the growth in grassroots and that people are now proud of their sport. That is what I think my greatest achievement was.
Now I work for a sport where delivery at the elite level is really important. My heart is in trying to join up that pathway from grassroots to elite so that everyone has an amazing experience in sport.
For me, seeing netballers who were truly proud of their sport – grass roots up to elite – was the achievement.
SW: You’re not an athletics person. Is that a weakness or a strength?
JC: I think it’s a huge strength. I had never played netball and they never got me on a netball court! And I still don’t play netball. But I was able to go in there with a fresh pair of eyes and make quite tough decisions because you don’t have the emotional connection. You can look at it more as a business and ask: “where do I need to make change?” And I don’t think I did a bad job there.
I want to take all the learnings that I’ve had from sport over the years and apply it to athletics. I think you can look at it with a really fair pair of eyes, because you don’t have the emotion, you can be very critical of things. But don’t get me wrong, you do then fall in love with it!
Of course, you need people around you who have the knowledge of the sport – that’s the key thing. Surround yourself with great people who understand the sport. Learn from them and consult them. But I think that coming in fresh is a good thing.
SW: How do you restore public confidence in UKA?
JC: I think we restore confidence by having a really good plan. I’m always talking about this and I think I’m boring people to death. Unless an organisation has a really good plan that everyone buys into, you can’t restore confidence – because nobody knows what their part of the plan is. So it’s writing a very clear plan which has some very strong themes in it.
A few of the themes I’m talking about, which will restore confidence, are coaching, competition, communication, culture and behaviour. Things like that need to be a big part of that plan. Once people start to see that we are delivering against the things that they – as our customers – think are really important, then we start to see people have confidence in the sport they love.
We are in a privileged position that we have an opportunity to make decisions on their behalf. Once they see a plan – that they believe in – working, I think then they will have the confidence to give us, once again, the ability to make decisions on their behalf.
SW: You also said “there definitely is an issue around trust”.
JC: I think people have lost their trust in athletics because of all the negative stories they’ve read over the last few years. There’s a lack of trust that what they see is real. And absolutely what they see people do in track and field is real. We need to have processes in place that we can prove that it is real and regain the people’s trust.
We can do that through good clinical governance and more transparency around those issues, and that’s certainly what I’m looking for. It’s something the chief medical officer and I are discussing. It’s about how we make it all more transparent. I think once we do that, we will regain people’s trust.
SW: What lessons has UKA learned from the Salazar incident?
JC: That’s a really interesting question which has never been posed to me like that before. I think it has learned to have exceptionally good processes for decision making. I think that’s one of the biggest lessons, that you have to have very sturdy processes in place.
I think it may also be a lesson learned that when something like this happens your sport can really suffer because it can take hours and hours of executive time and resource away from growing the sport.
Remember I wasn’t there when it happened and so I’m only seeing the results of it.
SW: How would you like to see coaching develop?
JC: I would like to see coaching develop in the way that many sports have it; you have the right coach with the right athlete at the right stage of their development. I would like to see a coaching strategy that matches the number of athletes we have in this country. If we can map the numbers then we can say there are so many athletes, then we need so many coaches.
What Toni Minichiello and Malcolm Brown have done so far on coaching strategy is a really good piece of work and we need to take that on now. We will be developing a coaching steering group to drive that work forward. I’m also a great believer that if an athlete really loves their coach and doesn’t want to change coaches, we shouldn’t force them to. We should enable them to stay with that coach and put all the support around them if they choose to have it.
I think there are two important things. We need to make sure that we can educate coaches at all levels so that we have suitable coaches for athletes at each stage of their career. But if an athlete loves their coach and is developing with that coach, you don’t remove them from that environment, you add to that environment.
We know that a lot of the time, what coaches offer is a lot more than technical support; they offer emotional support and a connection which is really important to an athlete. don’t think you should take that away. It’s about building a structure which gives coaches opportunities to develop and also ensures that we have enough coaches at each level to service the organisation.
SW: How do you see 2020 developing?
JC: I would love to be optimistic that there’s going to be a season with some events. At the moment, all we can do is follow government guidance.
We all want everyone competing again but we don’t want to see a spike in the virus. With regard to the competition season, we will keep optimistic until the point where we are told we have to cancel.
That’s what we did with the Müller Anniversary Games. We were later than most in cancelling because we wanted to hold on to the thought that potentially we might have something this year. Commercially we need to put on those events.
SW: Is it viable to run the Gateshead Diamond League with no spectators?
JC: No, it is not. Economically it makes no sense. We are not football, we don’t have those massive broadcast rights.
SW: It is a huge legacy that you must continue, with the success of UK athletics. Can you give us three key goals?
JC: I’m going to go medals first, because I think I’d be criticised if I don’t! I need to put elite success first.
In 2024 I would like to see us deliver more finalists in the Olympics and Paralympics. I think making a final at the Olympics or Paralympics is unbelievable. So, I am stressing our goal of finals rather than medal tally. My performance director and UK Sport will probably be very cross with me for saying that.
My second one would be that we have change the perception of the sport, that people believe what they see is real. That’s really important to me – that we have left all of that behind.
Thirdly, that there’s a real and joined up system between grassroots and elite success and that the grassroots is thriving.