After being instrumental in the success of Team New Balance Manchester, the 41-year-old explains why he’s leaving coaching behind – for now – to start a key endurance running role at UK Athletics
It was one of the hardest career decisions he’d ever had to make, but it was also the opportunity of a lifetime.
When Steve Vernon – now former coach at Team New Balance Manchester – accepted his new position as World Class Programme (WCP) Endurance Performance Manager at UK Athletics, he knew he’d be bidding farewell to coaching, for the foreseeable future at least.
His love affair with guiding athletes was one which had flourished in recent years. A self-confessed student of the sport, Vernon has always had a coaching brain. He learned a huge amount from his respected personal coach Dave Turnbull, but also from former Butler head coach Joe Franklin (now at the University of New Mexico) in the US.
Throughout almost two decades of his own athletics career – which included GB international vests in cross country and mountain running – he was simultaneously and relentlessly reading and absorbing information from a vast collection of athletics-related literature.
The 41-year-old started coaching his own athletes in 2010, working with Ross Millington and Jonny Mellor among others in the first few years, before taking up an official role as coach of Team New Balance Manchester – a project he was instrumental in creating – in 2014.
When Mellor broke the tape at the Manchester Marathon in April in 2:10:46, followed home by his training partner Millington in a 2:11:37 PB in second, it was a special occasion for Vernon. After more 10 years, it marked the end of a chapter which had featured the pair from the beginning.
“It’s tough when you part ways, but it’s for the right reason,” says Vernon, who had worked with the Great Run Company and British Orienteering prior to coaching full-time.
“When I went for the job, I didn’t want to tell the athletes because if I didn’t get it, it wouldn’t change anything. There aren’t many jobs in athletics and there definitely aren’t many jobs in endurance – this is probably the only job I’d have gone for. It wasn’t as if I suddenly wanted a career change – it’s just that, when this opportunity came, I thought it was the right fit for me.
“When I was actually offered the job, that was when I realised it was a really tough decision. I communicated with them [the athletes] as soon as I possibly could, and fair play to them all, they were really pleased for me, but it was also a shock to a lot of them.
“I’d have regretted it if I hadn’t gone for it. I can always come back to coaching, but this is an opportunity of a lifetime to work within the national governing body of a sport that I love, and with some of the best athletes in the world.”
Vernon started with UKA last month, leaving his former athletes at Team New Balance Manchester in the capable hands of Helen Clitheroe. His new role is non-coaching, working specifically with WCP athletes and their coaches across Podium, Podium Potential, and Confirmation levels.
“It’s a really focused role where I’ll be working with 26 coach-athlete pairs and supporting them with everything they need to perform at their best,” he explains. “That’s the athletes on Podium trying to win medals, athletes on Podium Potential trying to make that transition from world and Olympic finals to hopefully becoming medallists, and athletes on Confirmation level getting to compete at major championships.
“There will be elements where I’m working with Chris Jones in his role developing the endurance strategy. Having a strategy there is vital, not just to support them now, but the stepping stones through to [the 2028 Olympics in] Los Angeles and beyond. So it’s the next six months, the next two years through to Paris and then the next six years through to LA, and putting plans in place to make sure we’re supporting athletes and their coaches on that journey.
“We [want to] have more people at Podium level, more people at Podium Potential … so there’s a lot of strategy going to go around it, it’s not just the day-to-day job. I want to look at long-term strategy – what do we need to do to have more people at the highest level of the sport?”
This time last year, Vernon – alongside a few of his athletes – spoke to AW about the rise of Team New Balance Manchester. Crucial to its success, without doubt, was his leadership style.
“I think you have to be really open and transparent, and you have to communicate,” he said of his approach at the time. “You have to sit down with the athlete and understand what their goals are, what they want from you as a coach, and what you expect from them as an athlete.”
That much, he says, remains true, admitting his ethos as a coach will influence how he’ll operate in his new position. “Teamwork, trust and transparency are really important to this role and a big part of it is communication,” he says. “First and foremost is teamwork. The coach and athlete are at the top and then it’s the team around them that I’ll be part of, so I really want to make sure that UK Athletics are doing everything they can to appropriately support the World Class Programme athletes.
“I’ve got to have good relationships with these people, too, and I think it’s an important time for our athletes to have real trust in the governing body to support them. Then it’s about being transparent with stakeholders, with the athletes and coaches and with the wider team.
“This is not about me telling them what to do, but it’s them telling me what they need and then looking at how I can enable the system to make a positive impact.
“These coaches and athletes know what they’re doing, or they wouldn’t be where they are today. What we’ve got to do as a national governing body is to look at how we work collaboratively with the Home Country Athletics Federations to support athletes to fulfil their potential, how they transition through different levels of the pathway and how we support them on the World Class Programme.
“There are already certain areas where we’re doing really well – we can compete globally in the 800m/1500m, and we’ve demonstrated that and we’re winning medals. It’s an area where we’ve always been strong. There are other areas where we’ve got such rich tradition and some superb talent, but we need to start producing at world level. We need to be able to compete across all distances.”
In his previous coaching role, Vernon guided athletes to over 50 national championship medals and over 50 international vests, as well as having individuals selected to compete at every major championship in road, track, and cross country.
His own role has changed, but the ultimate goal – that of success – remains the same.
“I feel like I’m in a safe place,” he concludes. “It’s always going to be high pressure, it’s always high responsibility, I get that, but there have been some great appointments [at UK Athletics] in recent months and I think there’s a great team now that will support each other.
“I’m excited more than anything and hopefully, with my experience in work, life, and coaching, I can really help our World Class Programme endurance athletes be the best they can possibly be.”
» This article first appeared in the May issue of AW magazine, which you can buy here