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My visit to the BJA Walsall centre. 

This past Saturday I travelled up to Walsall to visit the BJA Centre of Excellence at the invitation of Nigel Donaghue. Upon arriving I got to sit down with Kerrith Brown and Nigel after getting a tour of the facility.

After 8.5 hours with these two men, I was in the car and on my way home having learned more about the changes happening within the BJA and the setup inside the Centre of Excellence and the performance programme.

I'm writing this on Sunday evening after having a little time to review what I saw and heard as well as to consider how it ties into what people asked me publically and privately to looks at.

What I would like to do is divide this into two parts, one about the association and second the performance programme/centre of excellence.

For those of you prone to TL;DR, here is a summary:

I think the BJA is in a state of change. Kerrith Brown (Chairman) spent a long time sharing the changes that have taken place, are taking place and he wants to see happen within the association/ His approach is to find a segement of the organisation and dig into the heart of it and change what needs changing. Given the current negativity I sense in the membership; I think he is following a wise strategy which he hopes will leave a stronger more closely knit association in the long-term.

On the perfomance side, I think Nigel Donaghue (Performance Director) is putting in place a structure based on what he has been told to deliver by the BJA and it's funding partners. I think he is doing it to the best of his ability. I personally don't think the approach is the correct one and worry that culturally the performance programme feels very similar to the Dartford experiment that it mirrors so closely.

So on with the long version:

BJA Changes:

I spent almost 8 hours with Kerrith and Nigel on Saturday, both in quite formal presentation mode and also in more relaxed situations over food or walking around the campus.

Kerrith spoke openly with me about the situation he walked into as the new chair and how he has approached making changes internally. Obviously, as he took post British Judo was on a precipice; after all the London2012 funding and lack of string performances Judo was hit by funding cuts and targetted for more. Kerrith described how he needed to focus on securing funding first and foremost.

History shows that Judo managed somehow to hold onto good funding both performance and grassroots. Despite protestations I see and hear and have heard; British Judo remains well funded. British Judo has it's performance money and it's grassroots money.

He spoke about changes at board level and how he intends to havr all elements of the association examined and revised appropriately. This will include areas asuch as the grading systems, competition structures, communication, areas and counties, associations with AJA/BJC etc.
This for me is really a positive message and one that fills me with some confidence that the BJA might just dig itself out of the mess it has managaed to find itself in. We spoke about the disconnect between clubs and head office. Between the guy/girl teaching a class of kids in the local school hall and the staff member(s) in Loughborough and how these two groups of people are so removed from one another.

We spoke about the poor communication and how in my view the BJA needs desperately to find a “community manager”, by which I mean a person who is responsible for being the link between the member clubs and the association and it's staff. To date the closest to this I think has been the efforts Andrew Hafflner has been putting online. He is one of the few officials of the association engaging with the wider BJA community and explaining the associations position when appropriate and listening and referring back to HQ where appropriate.

We did not agree on all things, but on some might say a suprosingly large number of areas. It is a tough job, the BJA has lost a lot of control over itself. The funding bodies are demanding that the BJA do what they say it should and given the associations failure to perform internationally and also to increase participation it is not suprising.

Performance Programme:

Again there was a lot of agreement between myself and Kerrith and Nigel. Nigel has put a lot of structures in place and again is not entirely the master of his own ship as the funding comes with a tight leash. The mistakes of the past are still hurting the programme. It is hard to lead the required revolution if someone else is telling you what to do.

What Nigel has done is put some fundamental basics in place, athletes have plans. Not as long as I would like (they are now up to 12 months) and not as detailed as you would like to see. But as Nigel described many of the structures, it is the first time they have been put in place at all. This amazed me as it really is coaching 101.

I am not a fan of the centralised programme. The new world of Judo with the WRL is far more about individuals and building multiple paths. I am not in the majority I think here. A centralised programme is an approach I advocated for my native New Zealand, so it is not that I dont think they can work... it's just that I don't think that in the UK it is a model that will work.

Perhaps it is not even so much about centralisation as it is about how you approach a programme. Walsall is very much like Dartford; an enforced central centre. And Dartford did not work. For me it is crazy to think that the cultural issues that prevented Dartford working would disapear just by moving it to Walsall.

It is a top down decision, the BJA decided to have a national centre (under pressure from funding bodies I am sure) and then hired a performance director to deliver their plan. The Performance director is now making that happen, moving first the Juniors and then the seniors to Walsall on a non-voluntary basis. Time will tell if the clout of the BJA is strong enough to make players move. I would expect that when push comes to chove the BJA will remove the “self-funded” option from players not based in Walsall along with any possibility of funding or selection.

The programme really needs to pick up their act if they want to win the “hearts and minds” of the athletes, coaches and wider community. This weekend was the ONST; Open National Squad Training. People had come from Wales and Scotland to attend. Yet when I arrived just before 11am the 9:30am-11:30am session was finishing early. It was not a “one off”; it was a question raised to me prior to my attending by more than one person via Facebook/Email. Why would a session on a big weekend end 30+ minutes early? It took me over 2.5 hours to get to Walsall, if I had brought a player to train I would be pretty annoyed if they lost 25% of the session for no reason.

The BJA performance programme has I should say gotten a bit more of a handle on the WRL. It notoriously did not understand the importance of it leading up to London2012. Now at least it is front and centre on their minds and they have started to talk with some nuanced understanding of the new reality of our sport. I was also pleased to see/hear some planning around who players have fought as opposed to merely looking at results on the medal table.

There are some oddities I observed during the actual training. There were a good number of coaches bowing on at the front of the group. No bow to joseki, in part because for some reason the traditional portrait of Kano was absent. Not many of the “coaches” were engaged in anything more than taking up space or propping up the walls.

Along with the missing Kano portrait, I noticed one other Judo faux pais. World number 1, Automne Pavia was on the mat. I would have expected that she would have been shown a little respect and invited to stand with the coaches during the bow as opposed to actually standing behind others in the line of players.

Talking to Nigel and Kerrith, it is very clear that Walsall is the future of the BJA. Loughborough HQ will be moving I believe, all players will be there. I would assume (or at least hope) that all coaches will move to Walsall too.

This is putting a lot of eggs in one basket.

Of course the centre is not the entireity of the performance programme. I sat in on a AASE meeting where coaches from around the country involved in the running of this programme to get young people prepared for high level training were being spoken to by the BJA staff about the programme. It was clear that to date there was been little or no real collaboration between AASE and the BJA performance programme. It was good to see the comnversation taking place as the AASE locations really should be the main pathway for athletes to entire the national programme.

I was also shown the new BJA iPad App. This is a comprehensive tool that takes all the paperwork that the programme has and puts it online via an application from ILG. It is a snazzy app, able to do many many good things. As a geek it really appealed and got my attention.

As a coach and obsessive about performance programmes, the iPad seemed like a gimick and like the centre itself indicative of the common “brick and mortar” approach to building a programme. Call it a “bits and bricks and mortar” approach perhaps.

The well regarded Southa African sport scientist Ross Tucker wrote back in 2013 an article called “Bricks, mortar and high performance inefficiency” ( ... fficiency/ ), which resonates very much for me. The gist of the article is that it is not about what you can build or buy. Rather it is all about the athletes and what they can achieve.

However, as the title of the Tucker article suggests; the approach the BJA seems to be implementing is not necessarily a path to failure just inefficiency. The BJA programme for me repeats the strategy used in previous Olympic cycles. A forced centralised programme, heavy on facilities and staff (and now tech), heavy on procedures. But for me it feels light on athlete focus and creating systems that match the needs of the athletes. This echoes the concerns that I have had raised with me directly and indirectly.

As I write this, the centre is now 12 months old. It feels unfair to “pick on” the programme when it has only had a short time to get it's house in order. I as with many others in the BJA want to give the programme a chance... but the clock is ticking.

Kerrith Brown and Nigel Donaghue both seem committed and passionate about making changes and improving the BJA and the BJA Performance Programme. On the association side, I am filled with some confidence. On the performance side it is good to see some structures in place and some planning.

If Rio2016 was today, the BJA would have nine athletes competing, qualified via the IJF WRL. This is actually a pretty darn good situation to be in if the BJA is able to maintain this level of ranking. The approach they are taking is very structured and based on the idea that you can build a “pipeline” where if you feed in enough people at the top a world class champion will pop out the other end. It is not a model I believe in, I am of the philosophy that you take each player on their own merits and and needs and tailor the support mechanisms around them that they need. As opposed to shoe horning athletes into a programme.

The approach is ineffecient, not inneffective. The athletes in the system can make it to the Rio (and beyond). The programme can be stronger and will improve I hope; it already seems to have made some improvements. But is it money well spent? Would the players make it without the BJA performance programme? Would more? Would fewer?

There is a lot of money being given to the BJA and it is being spent. I see millions going in and worry that we are not going to see this translate into medals when it counts. I worry that the talent is not being nnurtured if it does not fit into the rigid structure of the centralised programme. I worry that the culture of the BJA has not changed enough especially on the performance side. On the administrative side I think I am seeing more rapid change and improvement.


My overiding impression of the trip to Walsall was that it looked and felt a lot like Dartford when the BJA Performance Programme was there under Margaret Hicks, Patrick Roux and Jane Bridge. The facility is smaller and less polished, there is accomodation onsite and a university campus and facilities there which is a big improvement.

Kerrith Brown impressed me on several occasions. He was very open and communicative and very much convinced me that he wants the BJA to change and to change for good. Not only was he there talking to me, he was also on the mat. I had to laugh and call him over and say “I doubt you'd see the Chairman of the Football Association training with the team!”. This is not a man sitting in an ivory tower looking down. This is a man getting stuck in and trying to implement change it felt to me.

Nigel continues to be one of those people who you know is pouring every hour he has into his job. He is in a tough position though. The BJA is being pressured (as a result of it's failures in the past) by the funding bodies. When Nigel took post in March 2013 the BJA had already decided on a centralised programme and to put the centre in Walsall. So he is not really the master of his domain. He is, I think, building the structures that others have decided should be there. He is adding his own touches but the programme is the same as leading up to London2012, but in a new location, a smaller budget and a harder mountain to climb to even get players to the games. The “bricks and mortar (and now bytes)” aproach as Ross Tucker describes it is symptomatic of a 1st world country with money to spend.

I would prefer to see the BJA invest the money it receives on success. By which I mean on the players and coaches in the country who have proven they can produce international level players. I look at the top players and have to ask why the money is not invested in where they have chosen to train. Where have our top players come from? What could those clubs do with the money the BJA has spent on Walsall? What could the money spent on the new iPad app do for the self-funding players?

My genuine hope is that I am being a “grinch”, that I am being a pessimist and that come Rio2016 Nigel gets to laugh in my face and tell me I was wrong, I really do.

The simple fact that Nigel and Kerrith invited me to visit Walsall and spent their time with me fills me with some confidence that I am wrong. It shows a level of interest in engaging with others I hope is a sign of change.

The BJA is changing and I look forward to seeing changes in the competition structures when theycome in particular. We are a sport where the national governing body does not organise competitions; this is pretty odd. I wonder how many other Olympic sports NGBs doing organise inter-club competitions on a national scale.

The openess to engage and link with BJJ I think is good if done properly and with the right reasons as the drivers. I understand the BJAs perspective on the UFC partnership; I see the benefits to the BJA and although ethically I can't agree with it as UFC is cage fighting; I do feel the partnership has the potential to really help the BJA if it goes well.

The performance programme is getting it's act together. The basic structures and planning seems to be put in place. Where I feel an athlete-centric programme is required, the BJA is going for a centralised one size fits all approach, like it or leave. I feel like we are repeating the approach used in previous cycles and expecting different results.

I worry immensely that so many people I respect do not feel that the performance programme is on the right track and that some of the really awful things that pagued the previous performance programme seem to be re-occuring.

So here is a few thousand words written on my time in Walsall.
Scanning back over what I have written I realise there is plenty more to write.

I'd like to congratulate and thank Nigel Donaghue and Kerrith Brown for making the effort to invite a vocal critique in and to share with me their time, opinions and passion.

I hope that history will show that I was pessimistic and that 2014 was the year that the BJA started to change direction, and that success followed on the foundations built this year. That the cultural and orgainsational changes in the BJA and the BJA Performance Programme made a real impact and change the tide of public opinion. That it was in 2015 the BJA membership started to fell some confidence in the association again.
I hope that 2015 is recorded as the year that the players felt the performance programme were on their side and bending over backwards to help them. That the club coaches felt that the BJA was taking work off them and making their lives easier and better. That the members of the clubs felt part of the association and that their association was building for Rio2016.

I have strong opinions obviously, and am happy to discuss your strong opinions. Please do leave a comment below or email me via


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