Interview with Ian McGibbon - November 2003

In the world of university archery you are probably one of the most familiar faces and voices, notably with the ACME organising team (more of that later). You first took up archery in Northern Ireland in 1991, more than ten years ago. How did you become interested in archery and could you give us the highlights of your shooting and organisational career to date.

That's a big question in itself! I first learned to shoot with the club nearest to my parents home, in a town called Newtownards, just outside Belfast. The club held a try-out session as part of an evening programme at the local Leisure Centre, where you could turn up and try any of the sports that the Centre hosted, and I was one of many who wandered around the various sports - after having tried a number of other sports, I discovered the archery club, thought it looked interesting, and that I would try it briefly, then move to the next offering. Instead, I stayed with the archery club until closing time!

I first started to take the sport seriously in 1994, when I went to University (at Dundee). The competitive side of the sport was new to me, but Dundee didn't have a lot of people, so I rapidly progressed to being on the team - and I later captained the squad for a number of years. I have been shooting for a long time, though, so there have been a lot of highlights - I guess some of my best memories are of winning team silver at the SUSF Outdoors (with Atle Wold, in his novice year!), being awarded my Full Blue by the University, or more recently, winning the Northern Area outdoor championships (in 2001), the Skye tournament (in 2002), or finishing fourth at the SAA Premier event this year. The 1200 FITA scores I've shot are also highlights!

My organisational career started in 1995 with the SUSF Indoors (I helped Dundee's then President, Eddie Danks), and then went on to BUSA Indoors 1998 (I was also SUSF Organiser that year), and a number of BUSA occasions since. I've also helped Gavin Simmons (Imperial) on a number of occasions with County of London events, and as you know, was insane enough to volunteer for the EuroNations 2003.

To what extent has your shooting been curtailed by your coaching and your organisational roles?

Quite a lot, at times! I don't think that the organisational work I have done (with the exception of the EuroNations, which took up a lot of time) has had that big an impact, as most of the work can be done away from the shooting field, but of course there is the obvious side effect that it's very difficult to organise an event and then participate in it as well!

The coaching has definitely had more of an impact, as a lot of coaching can only really be done during practice times, and those of us shooting in London are restricted in terms of when we can practice. Accordingly, my coaching efforts limit the time when I can shoot. The biggest limiting factor on my practice time is my job - while being a solicitor has paid off all of my debts, and allows me to buy a lot of archery toys (some say too many!), it does mean I can't always practise when I want to.

Would you have it any other way?

No, as far as coaching and organising is concerned, I don't think I would - there are times when I wonder if there is a better way to balance the competing interests, but I enjoy the coaching I do, and I wouldn't give it up. As I've mentioned, the organising is easier to balance away from the practice field. There may come a day, though, when the long hours culture at the office annoys me once too often!

How long have you been coach at Imperial?

I first met Leo Lang (the then Captain at Imperial), late in the summer of 2000. I was initially hoping to find extra space for practice (my local London open club are only able to shoot once a week indoors, and not for that long), but I started helping out once I had shot with the club a few times. I picked it up gradually, and my first full season coaching the team, and the novice intake, was 2001/2002.

The London derby, on 7th February next year promises to be one of the highlights of the first season of South East Universities Archery League (SEAL). Why do Imperial College and University of London have separate archery clubs, when Imperial College is part the University of London and also why other London colleges don't have clubs?

As I understand it, University of London is an umbrella organisation that (a) awards academic degrees, and (b) from a sports perspective, has clubs for most sports. Each of the colleges' students (including those from Imperial) can join a ULU club, which is particularly helpful for students at those colleges too small to have their own separate clubs (e.g. School of Pharmacy, where Mati Lang studies). It's a kind of federal system, if you like, with those colleges strong enough in their own right to field teams being allowed to do so. If you shoot for an 'independent' club (i.e. Imperial) you can't shoot for ULU.

In some ways, Imperial and ULU being separate clubs is also a product of history. For a long time, there was no incentive to set up a ULU club, as archery only took place under the auspices of the Imperial Rifle and Pistol Club; it can be difficult to persuade ULU to permit new clubs to be established, and they don't give new clubs any resources for a period of two years. It's a credit to Veronica (Bray), and her persistence, that ULU Archery exists at all. Once the ULU club did come into existence, the clubs considered a potential merger, but for various reasons, decided not to go ahead with it, and to remain separate. Although I believe that a combined club could produce an incredibly powerful team, the fact that both, separately, are still strong performers is, I think, good for competition locally and nationally. The separate set up also allows Imperial to develop its novice programme to a greater degree than ULU has been able to achieve.

How much is Imperial looking forward to this competition and what sort of benefits do you hope will accrue to all competing clubs, both in terms of performances and general club health.

I've touched on this already, but my belief is that keeping the clubs separate is good for healthy competition. Apart from anything else, it helps keep the local county balanced - there are three or four strong teams, vying for the top spot, not just one mega-university club. It will also, I hope, have the same effect in SEAL. Both teams are strong enough alone to win the league, but neither is guaranteed the victory. Both are also susceptible to good performances from the other clubs in the league, while a combined performance would be hard to beat. It also encourages the 'derby' atmosphere that you allude to in your question.

Do you consider Imperial to be favourites to win SEAL and would this tag sit comfortably with the club's archers?

I suspect that many do regard Imperial as favourites to win, after their strong senior performance last year; as BUSA double silver medallists, and having finished with the bronze and in fourth place at BUTC, the track record is certainly an impressive one. However, like any university club, Imperial has been hit by archers graduating, and a couple of key team members aren't around this season. The senior squad will have to work hard to retain last year's level of achievement. It's also worth remembering that we had fewer novices last year than in previous years, and so the next generation isn't as strong, at least in terms of numbers of intermediate archers coming through, as I would like. I don't know if the 'favourite' sits comfortably with the team - I do know, though, that there is a definite confidence that Imperial can win the league, although I think it is tempered by the knowledge that other teams in the league are strong enough to prevent Imperial domination. The first match will be a good test, I think, especially on the novice side of things, as we have all started from the same basis there - and Imperial are several weeks behind the other teams in their training programme, after some early problems with the range.

Imperial's novices have over the last few years been very successful and good novices have been transformed into good seniors. What advice can you offer to uni clubs struggling in these areas?

I won't tell you everything we do - can't give away all our secrets, after all! I do have some thoughts, though…

First, I think there is a common misconception that you need to have qualified coaches to deliver the results. Many clubs have placed emphasis on 'official' coaches, or assistant coaches, with the relevant pieces of paper. My own view is that the paperwork is not that important, and that in fact many receive the coaching certificate who should not. That's a debate for another time and place, but it's worth noting that Edinburgh don't (as far as I know) have any qualified coaches, and that Imperial's first really successful season happened before I was qualified. The main reason, in fact, that I obtained my coaching paperwork was to make sure that Imperial would be able to keep its own paperwork in line with Union rules. One of the keys to producing good novices and intermediate archers, though, is simply having experienced archers sharing that experience.

While I'm not going to explain everything Imperial do to train novices, I will say that I believe the best way to achieve continued success and development is based on three simple elements.

The first is that you have to have a structure to the teaching and learning; you don't leave the novice to sink or swim, because if you do, most will drown (to continue the metaphor!). Accordingly, Imperial and other successful clubs have dedicated novice training sessions.

The second element is to try and emphasise a simple, but consistent, approach to the actual shooting. I've seen a lot of people 'coach' novices, and not be able to help the novice in question, because the 'coach' is focussing on minute and complex details of form, to the detriment of something more basic and fundamental. I firmly believe that the basic elements of form - things like posture and stance, keeping in line, using consistent reference points - cannot be emphasised enough. There are subtleties to how an individual shoots, of course, and that's where the more advanced coaching comes in. For novices though, setting out on their archery careers, I think that clubs should concentrate on teaching the basics, and encourage consistent application of those basics. I suspect that most archers who have been shooting for any length of time, particularly those who have achieved good scores themselves, might tell you the same. Consistency also comes from having those teaching your novices adopt the same approach - anyone teaching novices at Imperial concentrates on the same points of basic form, so that archers are not confused by hearing mixed messages. It takes some self-discipline initially, but the results are fairly clear.

The third key element is one of awareness, both of the wider archery world, and how a novice archer might develop, including making it clear that dedication and financial commitment are often needed. Many of our novices are encouraged to buy their own equipment, for example, since it's self-evident that you can't compete against the best in your category unless you have equipment set up and tuned to you - the average novice is not going to shoot top scores with a club bow, after all. The element of awareness also extends to letting our novices know what sort of standard they need to achieve, if they want to succeed. I know that I will get into controversial territory here with some coaches, and I agree that in the normal run of things, it's important to get a novice to enjoy their archery, and not worry too much about the score, BUT, it's also important to explain that if they want to compete, exactly what a novice will need to achieve. Some archers do worry about that score, and I think it's important to acclimatise people to the levels of achievement required.

When you were at Dundee you were a SUSF Organiser. How much help did you give SEAL organiser Gavin Simmons?

Gavin and I talked about SEAL quite a lot to start with, including how the league might be structured, and potential competitors to include. However, while we discussed a lot of the different considerations a league organiser has to keep in mind, the finished product is very much a product of Gavin's efforts, with help from David Jesson at Surrey. I was too busy, with my professional commitments and the EuroNations work, to really get involved in the nuts and bolts of setting it up. Gavin and David can (and occasionally do) ask for my views on particularly queries, but part of the idea behind the league is to get more people at least slightly familiar with the organisational side of the sport, so that knowledge is no longer centred in the hands of a few 'usual suspects' like me.

Imperial, under your guidance, have a "5 year plan". How far along is the plan now and what goals have you met so far?

The plan started life as a three year plan, intended to culminate this year, and running in continuous cycle from now on. However, I have learned that nothing ever goes quite according to plan, and due to a number of minor setbacks, or areas where our original ideas didn't work, we have lengthened the initial 'phasing in' to five years. At the end of the five years, we hope to have delivered a programme that, in the longer term, will give Imperial a three year cycle of sustainable achievement.

To answer your second question, in crude terms, year one was a 75% success, with novice team gold both indoors and outdoors, and a placing in the top five, and then the top six, respectively, for the senior team (we had hoped for top five at both competitions). Last year, the intention was to sustain the novice success rate, and start to develop the senior team. While the senior programme delivered its goals, with the good results at BUSA and BUTC that I've already mentioned, our novice programme came off the rails a bit. We tried to do a few things differently, and although we did manage fourth place at the indoors (and very nearly third, with some creditable individual performances, and having increased the novice team average score by about 250 points in the last couple of weeks before the event!) we didn't deliver a good enough team on the day. We learned from the mistakes, and Imperial did take individual medals at the outdoor event - Eloise and Rui even did quite well in the team event, finishing sixth, despite being a person short, for quite a long time! I was disappointed that we were unable to field a full team, as I think by June the Imperial squad might have been strong enough to challenge Edinburgh's impressive team; they were certainly capable of 2100 scores by the time we got to Lilleshall.

Compare the standard at Imperial now and at the start of the plan.

The standard is now much higher; the senior squad now aim to deliver a 2200 team score by the time we get to BUSA (or before if possible!), as we take the view that this is the required standard on the indoor round, if you hope to take medals. In 2000, the team often shot 2000+ for the team round, but scoring more than 2100 was a good result. On the novice side of things, Imperial is still a very young club, so doesn't have a long tradition - we get to make that up as we go along! However, I think it is fair to say that we now produce novices who are capable of winning medals, and who also have the motivation and capability to make the transition to intermediate and senior archers, while before retention of novices was more of an issue.

What gave you the idea in the first place and what are the targets at the end of the plan?

The first idea was the result of a number of discussions at the range, in the pub, at parties, or at shoots during late 2000 and early 2001. The club wanted to achieve certain things, and the rest of the plan came from giving the basic goals detail and structure ahead of the 2001/2002 season, i.e. year one of the plan. There are a number of targets at the end of the plan, but the main ones are to be, consistently, one of the top clubs in the university network, and also - in some ways more importantly - to be able to sustain that high level of achievement once the current team (and coaching staff!) have moved on.

Is it surprising or even disappointing to see many universities doing little or nothing in the way of long term planning.

It's very disappointing, as the most likely outcome is that the gap between the top squads (teams like Edinburgh, Imperial and a few others) and the lower end of the table (naming no names!) will simply grow, and we leave the less well developed clubs feeling excluded. It is not entirely surprising, though, as the cyclical nature of the clubs makes it very difficult to sustain long term planning without alumni or continuing post-graduate help - Imperial have both at present, so it has been easier to manage the long term aspects of the planning.

Edinburgh look most likely to come between Imperial and the national titles. How do you assess Edinburgh's decision to not use a few of their top archers in SUSF League matches. Is it a foolhardy risk or a shrewd move?

I think it's a shrewd move. The risk is, quite simply, that Edinburgh will lose the league. The team in the Pleasance have assessed that risk, and have clearly taken the view that the benefit to their SUSF squad members, in terms of experience and development, outweighs the reputational risk of losing the league. Given the diminished nature of the league, and the more national focus of the Edinburgh squad, they may also feel that losing SUSF is not as important as it might once have been.

It may also be the case - and you would have to ask Mr Phillips and his team to be sure! - that they feel that the SUSF squad is strong enough to deliver, notwithstanding the fact that strong contenders like Matt Nowicki aren't on the team. That looks more likely when you consider that, looking at the calibre of the squad, which includes some very experienced names, there is every possibility that the other SUSF teams may not be able to deliver a team strong enough to stop them! Edinburgh have dominated SUSF for a very long time, and although there have been upsets along the way, no other Scottish club has come close to the consistently high standards that Edinburgh achieve.

Could we see Imperial do the same in a SEAL match?

Not this year, I think, though ultimately that decision falls on this year's Captain, James Thatcher and he doesn't have to listen to me! I think that our current senior team can still benefit enormously from the league match experience, and we also need to establish the calibre of our opposition before we can accurately assess the likely impact of not taking our top squad. Don't forget that this is also SEAL's inaugural year, and we want to both see it bed down successfully, and also to do it justice - I know some will be offended that Edinburgh has (effectively) made the statement that they don't need to try in the SUSF league any more!

Once things become more familiar in SEAL, we may re-assess our approach. I don't, therefore, rule out Edinburgh's approach for future years.

Let's rewind to June and just after the BUSA Outdoor Champs, there was a meeting of BUSA Archery Sports Management Group. Who was there and what did you talk about? What is the formal relationship between BUSA and BUSA Archery SMG?

John Sullivan, Andy Somers, Marie Atkinson (from BUSA) and I attended the meeting. We talked about a lot of things, ranging from the basic format of the domestic events to the much debated novice awards issue. We also talked about increasing turnout, and encouraging more bids for future events - that in turn led to a discussion about money!

I think we achieved a great deal at the meeting, most particularly in that novices will now be recognised. I think that Marie also found it useful to talk matters through with us face-to-face. She isn't an archer, and although she does act on our behalf, and tries to help us as much as she can, she simply doesn't have the depth of archery knowledge that we do. What appear to be simple black and white issues to us mean little to an outsider, and Marie gives us that perspective, and then (and this is your question about the relationship), takes it back to HQ and tries to persuade national council to take whatever action we want them to take, be it amending the regulations, or altering other facets of the domestic set up.

Basically, the SMG provide specialised advice to BUSA, channelled through the Sports Administrator to the decision making bodies, with a focus on the domestic events programme - although we did discuss the selection process for the World events at our meeting in June.

What things did this SMG meeting achieve?

The awarding of novice medals is the clear immediate improvement. We also had an invaluable opportunity to put our point of view, and more importantly that of our 'constituents' i.e. the students, to BUSA itself.

To some extent is BUSA simply catching up with what has actually been happening "on the ground" (most infamously, medals for novices). Should we be sceptical or hopeful about the SMG and what it can do, and why?

I was initially sceptical about what the SMG might be able to achieve, and I think that so far, we have only been able to bring BUSA archery up to date. However, now that the theory has been brought back into balance with the practice, I think we have an opportunity to develop university archery, which is why I signed up in the first place. Bringing BUSA archery up to date was a necessary first step, and I think we've made good progress there, since we're now in a better position to actually develop things.

It's a slow process, as there are a number of administrative layers that any decision must go through - it's not as simple, sadly, as the SMG making a bold statement about how something must be done! I know that the lack of real power is something that has frustrated John Sullivan for some time now, and I have more sympathy for his position now that I've seen how it works. We are only an advisory body, really, but unless we ask for something outrageous (including expensive!), I think that the BUSA governing councils are minded to listen to their SMGs.

I think my suggestion would be that we should be hopeful about what the SMG might achieve, at least for now, but I would ask that people let the SMG know about the issues that they want brought to BUSA's attention. Without feedback from our 'constituents', we can't do much!

ACME. Why?

ACME was almost an accident, to begin with. I got the idea when Andy Somers asked me to help run the 2001 BUSA Outdoor event, when he had the (then original!) idea of hosting the shoot away from a university campus, at Lilleshall. He also roped in David Spinner and Tim Mundon, and it was Tim who created the scoring database that allowed the leaderboard and results to be generated so efficiently.

I've been to a lot of shoots, and I felt that the way we were able to run things, although a tribute to Andy's hard work in advance in preparation, showed what could be done if we assembled an experienced team for the on-the-day nuts and bolts. That demonstration, and my recollection of past disasters at BUSA events (how many of your readers remember, for example, the outdoor event at Stoke…?) got me thinking about whether or not we might do the same again. ACME grew out of that thought process, and some (perhaps predictably) drunken conversations on the day and subsequently.

As an aside, I think the turnout and general atmosphere of the shoot in 2001 vindicated Andy's decision, and the continued support for that venue at the events run by Imperial and Edinburgh also highlight the quality of the venue - and further, I hope that potential hosts will continue to use Lilleshall, as I firmly believe that it's one of the best venues we could hope to use.

ACME has been helping to run BUSA Championships indoor and outdoor since June 2001. Former students hanging around and helping out is not a new phenomenon, so what are ACME's general aims and why has the situation become formalised?

The formalisation was intended, in part, to set us apart from the ad hoc efforts of alumni in the past. Much of that help was localised support, and depended entirely on connection to the local club. We're different, in that we exist in a stand alone capacity, and our services are available 'for hire' by any host. I should probably add that, in order to reduce the fears of some reading this, it should be pointed out that, at present, I don't mean to imply that we charge for our services! The formality was also a necessary precursor of the EuroNations event, as an informal body wouldn't have been able to process the volumes of material or finance that were involved in the event.

Basically, ACME is intended to be a resource for hosts that lack the experience to run a large scale event themselves - this includes BUSA events, as they have now become much bigger.

The ACME crew will travel to support a local host, as we did this year in Birmingham (arriving only on the night before the event) - the host still has to provide additional helpers to deal with the venue preparation and so on, and also has to obtain halls, bosses and all the paraphernalia to go with it. The ACME box of tricks lies mostly on the scoring and admin side of things, and my current flat mate, Paul Williamson has become our chief technical wizard. The database we now use is his creation, and that's why you'll see him mostly chained to the computer at any event we do.

For how long can the hosts of BUSA championships expect ACME to be helping out?

Good question! We have no plans to withdraw our services at present, so for the foreseeable future, BUSA hosts will be able to call upon us.

Does the argument that ACME are actually holding back the development of "new" administrators within student archery hold water, or does the spread of the regional leagues negate this?

It's a fair argument, I suppose, but I don't think that we are actually limiting development - quite the reverse, I hope, as we enable hosts that otherwise wouldn't have the experience or expertise to run big events to do so. As I've already mentioned, the hosts work with us on the day and in advance, and hopefully are able to learn from our accumulated expertise, again working towards a 'de-centralising' of knowledge away from the usual suspects. We have certainly learned a few things along the way from our hosts!

After the Euronations event in the summer, will ACME be volunteering to run the British Champs in 2004?

NO!!! I think a commitment of that magnitude would need a lot of serious thought, and forward planning, not least the six months lead time to apply for record status. It's also worth noting that the British National events already have an established organising crew, and we would be displacing them, rather than assisting a host that needs our help.

Perhaps more importantly, it would need to be a consensus decision, taken by the whole ACME crew - and since you're one of them, you'd have to agree as well! [True.] I'm more of a spokesman for the collective, rather than a president or chairman… (or at least, that's the idea…)

Maybe a British event in subsequent years, though... :¬)

ACME certainly has standards to maintain, if not because of the professionalism then because of the t-shirts and shades. In all seriousness how much is "image" a problem?

The image thing also started as a joke, among some of the original members of the crew, like Dave Spinner and myself. Part of it was image for image's sake, and I'll admit that it's probably just vanity, but I think we do look more professional than some shoot organisers.

Part of it, though, is a combination of the practical (as a competitor, you can find an ACME shirt very easily at a competition), and part of it is a clear statement that sets us apart from other organisers. I do believe that we offer something different, in terms of the efficiency of scoring and administration, and the image goes along with that - like any brand in any marketplace, the ACME badge is intended to make us identifiable, and provided that customers are happy with our services, they will remember the brand, and ask to use us again.

Ian, thank you very much indeed.