By Mike Rowbottom

A group of female athletes are lying on mats by the running track attached to Tonbridge School, in Kent. They are being taken through core exercises, designed to strengthen the body, by Tonbridge’s famous favourite daughter - Kelly Holmes.

Dressed in black shorts and crop top, Holmes, who turned 40 this year, still has the lean look of a competing athlete, although she insists that nowadays, with her commitments to the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust and her work as President of Commonwealth Games England, she hardly gets time to train.

Maybe so. But she hardly looks like she sits at home eating buns.

Among those stretching and straining at her command are Charlotte Best, who made her senior British debut in this year’s IAAF World Indoor Championships, and Emma Pallant, who also broke through to make her first British appearance at last month’s European Team Championships.

"Butt down, stomach in, huge push," Holmes says, acting on her own orders. "And relax. Right. We are going to do that again..."

It’s scorching weather. In fact, it’s South African weather...

Six years ago, in the South African city of Potchefstroom, the newly adorned Olympic 800 and 1500 metres champion spent four weeks making good on a promise given before the Athens Games had got underway - namely to set up and run the On Camp With Kelly project for the benefit of the eight up and coming British running talents chosen to be the first intake.

At a time when she could have been maximising her financial opportunities with appearances in the wake of her double Olympic triumph, Holmes remained committed to the mentoring initiative she had formulated in January 2004, and which was backed by Norwich Union and continues to be supported by that company under its new name of Aviva.

Since that initial camp, there have been regular get-togethers including a training camp in Spain in 2005 and a camp in Melbourne during the 2006 Commonwealth Games. The number of young athletes involved in the scheme has now been capped at 60, 15 of whom are male runners.

So UK Athletics now has a generation of young middle distance runners who have hitched their wagon to Holmes’s star - and with the help of the former  Olympian and her dedicated team, they are rising.

"I sometimes see the girls to give them a confidence boost," says Holmes as she makes her way into the welcome shade of the clubhouse to have lunch. "Emma Pallant came over to see me here the other week - she was worried that she was lacking speed.

"So I put her through a series of timed runs which showed her she was not. It was a really good session, and she went away from here really buzzing."

In the wake of her 1500m victory at the European trials in Birmingham a fortnight ago, Hannah England (pictured), who has been one of Holmes’s On Camp athletes since 2005, paid tribute to Holmes’s input, saying how she had texted her before the race with advice and encouragement.

"I had watched her racing in the European Team Championships and there were quite a few things I thought she could work on which I told her about afterwards," Holmes recalls. "I told her she needed to have something left for the final 100 metres. It’s easy to break with everyone else with 200 or 250 metres to go, but sometimes you don’t need to do that. You have to know your own strengths are."

And after England had missed successive selections at the Olympics and World Championships despite finishing third in the national 1500m trials twice, Holmes decided to up the ante.

"Last year at the end of the season I was hard on her," she says with a grin. "I told her, ‘I don’t care what happens, you’ve got to win the European trials.' I kept on about it all year. I bugged her. But that’s the only way in which you can guarantee selection for a major event, assuming you have the qualifying time. I didn’t want her to fall foul of that process again.

"Some of these girls have been with me since they were 16 or 17. Hannah applied for the first selection but she didn’t get in. She came in the next year in the second intake."

England followed up her win at Birmingham by finishing strongly to take third place in Saturday’s Aviva British Grand Prix at Gateshead.

"Our big objective in all this was to keep young athletes in the sport through the transitional periods of their lives," Holmes continues. "We have a huge amount of medical and practical support, and we try to give the girls life skills as well as help with their running. We go into all kinds of things like nutrition.

"So that if they get injured, or get ill, or they have a row with their coach, they will have a better idea of how to deal with the situation.

"What played that part for me as a teenager was the Army. That was my boot camp - it was all about discipline, responsibility and character."

One of the scheme’s other notable success stories concerns Charlotte Browning, one of the original Gang of Eight, whose progress seemed to be on hold for a number of years before she broke through this year with prestigious victories in the US Collegiate (NCAA) indoor 1500m and outdoor mile.

"While she was growing up, we had to work a bit on how she took account of herself," Holmes recalls. "She sometimes had a problem with the way she spoke to people. We had to work on her a little bit about being respectful. But she has really applied herself, and she’s getting the rewards now.

"As a group, they are relaxed and happy with each other. Yes, they are rivals on the track, but that rivalry is on the track. It’s very stressful and emotional trying to be your best as an athlete, and it is good for them to be able to relax amongst others who have the same mentality.

"I am not their coach. I work with their coaches, and they work with me, but I am there as a mentor for them. And I want them to be able to pass on what they have gained to other young athletes. That’s why all the On Camp athletes do a coaching course themselves."

Holmes is off to her house a couple of up the road in Hildenborough to prepare for an evening  barbecue she is holding for the athletes in her back garden. They meanwhile have been given the responsibility of arranging a session with 70 younger children from local schools.

"I’ve left them to do everything," Holmes says. "I’m trusting them with the planning, the signage, registering the children and parents, organising the training groups."

Back in the cafe, the athletes are finishing off their food - fizzy drinks and Danish pastries - only kidding - and making their plans for organising what will effectively be On Camp with On Camp With Kelly.

Now 22, Dani Christmas (pictured), another of the Potchefstroom Eight, reflects on her expectations as promising 16-year-old athlete.

"When I started On Camp I didn’t realise how key it would become," she says.

"It could have been the case that Kelly came over to South Africa for part of the time to get things started. But she was there with us for the whole four weeks. She didn’t just leave us to our own devices. And it’s something she’s kept going ever since.

"She isn’t a coach - I am coached by George Gandy at Loughborough - but she is always there in support. Girls we race against could be of the same standard, but because of our experience with On Camp, when it comes down to dealing with pressure situations, we would cope better."

Pallant confirms the details of her individual speed session with Holmes.

"I had a race where I really struggled, and I thought I had lost the ability to go quickly," she says. "So I came down to do a speed session with Kelly. She set what I did and timed it, and was able to show me I was wrong.

"When I joined the scheme I thought it would be a confidence booster to be associated with someone like Kelly. But it has been much more than that."

By way of another example, Pallant mentions a similar moment of doubt she had in 2008 after being selected for the World Junior Championships in Bydgoszcs, Poland. "The same thing happened. I came down to do a track session here with Kelly and my doubts disappeared. And Kelly came to Poland as well to watch me win my bronze medal."

Best is sitting outside in the narrow rim of shade around the sports complex. She was due to be in the original party for Potchefstroom - but she was prevented from travelling when she suffered appendicitis.

"I remember sneaking off to the hospital toilets to call Kelly," she says. "You weren’t supposed to use phones. It was terrible timing."

Best had to delay her On Camp entry to the following year, but by 2007 she was the group’s outstanding performer as she finished fifth in the European Under-23 Championships.

After undergoing an ankle injury last September it looked as if her indoor season would be a write-off, but after entering a high quality grand prix meeting at Birmingham - at her coach George Gandy’s suggestion - she did well enough to earn selection for the World Indoors in March.

"Kelly has had all sorts of injuries in her career, and she was able to set me a rehab schedule including aqua-jogging and gym sessions," Best says. "It’s great to have someone so experienced to talk about things with. It was a lot of help."

Ongoing rehab has also been highly appreciated by Kate Hindle, whose progress since finishing fourth in the UK School Games 800m has been checked by injury problems related to a peculiarity of her running style.

"I’ve had stress fractures in my lower leg, and problems with my hips," she says as she basks in the sun on the grassy bank that rings the track. "The basic problem is that my legs 'cross' when I run – which means my feet don’t land straight, and that causes the injuries."

But with the support of the On Camp team the problem has been much alleviated as strength exercises in her upper body have altered the balance of her running action.

As one of the new girls, 19-year-old Leigh Lennon (pictured) is getting used to the level of support, and has found the advice on nutrition particularly useful. "We spent a day  with Ainsley Harriott looking at healthy eating," she says. "Kelly has told us its important to eat the right food. I used to eat loads of crisps. I do still give myself the odd treats..."

"Yes. But not crisps any more." Her sentence is finished by her dad, Don, who is also her coach. "Kelly is very open to suggestions from the girls’ coaches, and the coaches likewise," he says. "I’ve benefited immensely from her over the last two years. One of the main things she has advised me to do is to look widely for advice."

Another On Camp athlete, Stacey Smith, enjoyed a profitable weekend as she won the 800m at the BMC meeting in Solihull in a personal best of 2min 03.17sec. Smith was reportedly on the brink of leaving the sport when she was signed up by the On Camp scheme in February 2007 after winning silver in the English Schools 800m the previous year.

Holmes's original aspiration to keep young runners in the sport has been validated by research published in February last year by Dr Anna Waters, a BPS chartered performance psychologist from Chrianna Consultants.

In order to examine retention more closely, Dr Waters paired the 10 athletes who joined the On Camp scheme in October 2004 and April 2005 with athletes of the same age and most closely ranked to them in 2004.

By 2008, it was found that 80 per cent of the On Camp group were still competing in 800 and 1500 metres. The equivalent figure for the other group was 20 per cent.

Perhaps On Course With Kelly would be a more appropriate name for this project…

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the last five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames