Neil Featherby leading the Norfolk Schools Cross Country Championships just prior to him giving up the sport aged 16 Picture: Neil Featherby
Earlier this week I was speaking to a fairly well-known local athlete, now in his senior years, who is still competing with great distinction, along with a determination to match that of much younger athletes.
Memorabilia still retained as part of Neil Featherby’s collection of his sporting past - programmes from the English Schools Cross Country Championships of 1972 and 1973 Picture: Neil Featherby.
However, he does also have a very good background in running, which goes back to his school days which saw him winning lots of races, including a Norfolk Schools cross country title before disappearing from the sport for several years after leaving school.
Having a similar background myself – winning a few Norfolk schoolboy titles for cross country and on the track as well as giving up at an early age – I asked why he walked away from the sport when just 16.
Needless to say it was pretty much the same reason as me and many others going back decades – getting a full-time job and preferring to socialise in the way most young teenagers do.
Nevertheless, he also said that he suffered with low self-esteem at that stage in his life and was never really encouraged to continue with his running once he walked out of the school gates for the last time. This, of course, was something else I could relate to.
Back then, life was very different and whilst we do still lose talent after school years, the infrastructure between teaching and the club coaching systems is now more set up to try and ensure young people continue with their chosen sport beyond educational years which, in truth, has been pretty apparent when you look at the success we have had during the last decade or so at world level.
Talking of teaching and coaching, a couple of weeks ago I was asked to say a few comments in a short film being made for the PE Departments of the West Norwich Schools partnership. It reminded me of my school days and how in truth I was pretty much a nightmare pupil, other than when it came to PE. Whilst I think I got on reasonably well with some of the teachers, it really was one teacher who used to encourage me to not only run, but play football too. Incidentally, the only reason I was a semi-decent footballer was due to my running.
My PE teacher’s name was John Philpott and I felt I just had to mention him when recording my few words. Why? Well, firstly, it was my chance to say thank you (albeit 46 years later) even though he will not have seen it, but also due to the importance of communication, respect and understanding between young people and those who they look to for guidance. I can still see him now standing beside the school track shouting out times as I repeatedly circled the track doing reps and intervals during what should have been his lunch break.
Despite the fact that I did hang up my running shoes and football boots at such a young age after leaving school, I was also lucky enough to receive a good talking to by my uncle, who most certainly pulled no punches. I did also go and pay a visit to my old PE teacher if only for a chat on his doorstep. On the back of those conversations, I knew exactly what I had to do to get my life back on track and with that I was more determined than ever to at least achieve something from my running, if nothing else.
Totally out of the blue and by sheer coincidence, I also had my old school report from Autumn 1973 sent to me a couple of days ago. I was 15 years old at the time and it certainly made for some interesting reading as well as summing up where I was with my mindset at the time. Needless to say the report only had one A, which of course was for PE (“a very good cross country runner and capable footballer”) with all other grades being pretty poor with such comments as “could do better”, “has the potential”, “ has made little or no effort” and even “lazy”. I do remember receiving this report at the time and feeling pretty rubbish about myself, especially the lazy comment, particularly as I was running at least 80 miles each week in training which in truth was not exactly a good thing for a 15-year-old to do in his last year of school, but certainly did not make for me being lazy.
I have always been fascinated by what lays behind the driven forces in people, especially those who really are highly motivated. In many cases it really is a case of “show me a room full of winners and I will show you a room full of insecurity” for which setbacks in life can at times be such a long-lasting motivator in some individuals. Nevertheless, teaching and coaching really is an art and whilst we all play a part in helping our young people develop through childhood into adulthood, it is the teachers and coaches out there who really are doing an amazing job when it comes to the development of our young people in the hope that they will go forward and hopefully achieve everything in life, be it sport or otherwise.
In hindsight, I really should also send a belated thank you to all those other teachers of mine who not only made honest, but wise comments in my school report of 47 years ago, which went a long way to pushing and driving me on for well beyond my school days to try and be the best I could be as an athlete, businessman and, dare I say, advisor to others as well.