Thank you Ron

Seven-minute story

Thank you Ron

Pain was not how he controlled us; it was humiliation and the fear of pain. For our PE lessons we were expected to arrive with our kit clean and in good order; our plimsolls – yes, this is serious history – no grubby trainers then – our plimsolls had to be immaculate, white, blancoed to perfection.

Before the lesson started we lined up against the gym wall and Ron – Sir or Mr Pickering to us – would walk past. The movement of an index finger would indicate that your trainers had not passed muster and you would move across to a new line that formed up along the middle of the gym floor. When the selection was complete the line in the middle of the floor bent over and each rear end was addressed by two fingers flipped, humiliatingly past. No pain, no discomfort, just humiliation.

Then there was the lesson, setting out correctly and safely any equipment that was required, learning how to watch out for our classmates. A pink mist was Ron’s stated aim in the gym, which of course we soon learnt to appreciate as the nonsensical humour for which it was, a hangover perhaps of Ron’s time in the army. We enjoyed sharing this joke; I think he was pleased that we were men enough to see beyond his bluster, to see it for what it was, his joke about a mixture of sweat and blood.

There were always the basics to get right and Ron would explain to us why we should approach an activity in a particular way so that when we tried hard to lift or stretch or turn or jump as he encouraged us, we knew we were doing the right thing and this sound advice would stay with us. I remember one lunch-time when I had gone out on my own to practice the discus on the school’s lower field. Suddenly, his words of advice were reaching me from the upper field, directly behind and above me, and I realised that he had been watching me for some time, until he was ready with some words. It was not only my lunchtime, but it was also his lunchtime. It was a good time to engage with us young people so there he was.

And it was not simply the star athletes who were keen to train – I was certainly no star. Ron ran a system of standards; we kept a record of our best performances at various events, not in competition with others, but in competition with ourselves so that noted improvements in performance gained house points. The point of the system was that anyone who wanted to could join in, irrespective of their capacity to run, jump, or throw, which was good for fitness and meant that anyone could contribute to house competitions even if they had no chance of beating other pupils in direct competition.

Ron’s coaching certainly was effective. He taught me for the last time when I was fourteen. Once I left school I dropped athletics and occupied myself with girls and farming. Twenty-five years later I had just arrived at a school in Lancashire as the new deputy head. I was walking across the school field and came across a colleague teaching a class how to throw a discus. I asked the teacher if he was going to show them how to turn, how to spin round twice on the circle before releasing the discus. He shook his head; he was not a PE specialist. Would he like me to show them? A gardener had left his spade nearby; I hung my jacket on it and picked up the discus.

There was, I must admit, an element of showing off in all this and, by lunchtime, word had gone round the staffroom that the new deputy could really throw the discus.

Before he left Wanstead, Ron had taken some of my class mates to the Rome Olympics. On their return Ron turned this to good use, telling us about the world’s best athletes they had watched and explaining their training and techniques, all really inspirational stuff, while we showered and changed after PE lessons. At Easter Ron gave up a week of his holidays to run a pre-season athletics courses; one year he persuaded Mary Peters, a really famous athlete, to pay us a visit and demonstrate her skills in the pits at the far end of the upper field.

We once asked Ron why he didn’t smoke: at that time there were very few concerns about smoking. Ron explained that he had smoked while he served in the British army when duty-free cigarettes and tobacco were provided for servicemen who might well have felt obliged to accept what was almost a gift. Then a fellow PE instructor had called out to him.

“Hey, Ron. Catch this.”

It looked like an old, leather rugby ball but it felt and weighed like an enormous piece of coke, lightweight, crumbly coal that was used as fuel in boilers. When Ron asked what it was, he was told that he was handling the lungs of someone who had died of lung cancer. He did not smoke after that.

I have recently made a new friend; his daughter is marrying my son later this year. Mike was a PE teacher and once attended a lecture given by Ron when he had come to national prominence as Olympic gold medal winner Lyndon Davis’s coach and then as the BBC’s athletics correspondent and anchor man for “It’s a Knockout.” Having experienced something of Ron’s approach to coaching it was fascinating to hear what he had said to young PE teachers, particularly about the difference between training, which is what you do to dogs, and coaching which requires you to understand and explain what it is that you are teaching. Ron was clearly as good in the lecture room as he was on the field.

Ron and his wife Jean, a former champion hurdler, are no longer with us, but with the many memories and the inspiration there is the Ron Pickering Memorial fund, set up by Jean to help young athletes get started on their careers.

A footnote. When Ron left we were lucky that he was replaced by Wilf Paish, who later coached Tessa Sanderson, another Olympic gold medallist. He was a very different man, half Ron’s size, but also inspiring, and, despite Ron’s warning that his would be the last of our Easter athletics courses, they continued under the new man.

What impressed the writer about Ron Pickering as a teacher?

Are there lessons that teachers could learn from Ron Pickering?

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