The early weeks of March 2020 now seem a distant memory and at that stage I really didn’t think that 14 weeks later I wouldn’t have coached a single session in the normal face to face manner with my Portadown FC Youth 2008’s. While we all knew that Covid-19 was going to have an impact, it was hard to believe at that stage what lockdown would really mean for our everyday lives.
A normal coaching week would see me deliver sessions for the 2008’s on a Monday and Wednesday for 29 boys alongside my 4 co-coaches with games on a Saturday in the NIBFA National League and the Mid Ulster Youth League. A lively bunch who love playing the game but most importantly enjoy each other’s company and having some fun. After a week of suspended club activities, lockdown arrived meaning they were now suspended indefinitely or so we thought.
In the early stages of lockdown did we really envisage what lockdown actually meant? I’m not so sure! From a far I had seen the footage of other countries already in this stage, empty streets, roads with no traffic it seemed strange and it certainly was once reality arrived. I have always enjoyed coaching and get a great deal of enjoyment from it on a weekly basis, seeing the young players develop from both a skill perspective but also as people, this had now been taken away, and as a coaching group we wondered what was possible in this new normal.
Quite early in lockdown it was evident that sport had a few innovators and social media had examples of people delivering sessions in a different way through mechanisms in the virtual world. Delivery was now possible again with an array of opportunities such as Zoom, WebEx, Microsoft Teams or Facebook Live. The advent of Zoom in work gave me an opportunity to test Zoom in the club environment and following a discussion among the coaching team it was agreed that it would be good to offer an opportunity of regular contact during lockdown.
So I set up a zoom account and embarked on organising our first session, with the focus just to catch up with the kids and see how they were, alongside showing them some skills that they could practice at home. The kids loved it, an opportunity to see their football mates and have a bit of craic, I was surprised they enjoyed it so much, but why? If you think back to your own youth you were probably ahead of the game from a technical perspective of that of your parents or grandparents. When I was 8 my Granda got his first Video Recorder and within a couple of weeks I knew it inside out – much to my parents dismay as I wasn’t supposed to touch it. Now I am the one seeking advice or help from the younger generation! We now live in a technical world were kids have all the gadgets to maintain contact, mobile phones, xbox, playstation and various apps. However the important distinction at this point is at times they still need the activity to be organised or facilitated even if they don’t think that is the case.
In that first zoom we asked them what they wanted the sessions to be and they talked about fun stuff and quizzes, and we had introduced trick shots so they wanted to continue with these but create them themselves and then challenge each other. Was this important? I think so as it gave them a connection straight off and a feeling of being involved. I hadn’t really asked myself what was the need, what was the why? I’m a coach, lockdown had stopped my coaching this was an opportunity to restart - let’s go with it and see what happens, it doesn’t need to be planned or structured, it can be what it is. This makes me think… do we sometimes try to structure too much rather than go with a flow, or leave sessions open to challenge, or development as we go through them? How often at the start of a session do we say what do you want to do tonight? Session objectives can still be delivered in a session that isn’t the session that has been planned, you just need to be innovative or creative to do so.
So over the last 14 weeks we have went for it, we have had trick shots, coaches’ challenges, player led match analysis, quizzes of various types and a Chocolate Chip Cookie Bake Off. The Bake Off was certainly a highlight and nowhere near my thoughts when we set out on this journey. Ten minutes in, when I realised I had told them to put double the amount of flour in as was needed, I did think “what am I doing?” But someone always rescues a session, and in this case it was one of the boys Mum’s who shouted across the virtual space “put a cup of water in and it’ll be fine”, and as we all know Mum’s know best! and the cookie’s were great!!!
So in summing up what has this lockdown journey created, at a webinar early in lockdown Mark Garraway had discussed the importance of ‘belonging’ and defined this as the “degree to which athletes feel they are cared for, respected and connected to their club”. Do not be afraid to try something different as in some ways you are always creating the new normal. Lockdown has given this group of players a greater sense of belonging to their club, through activities that they have suggested and participated in and we will no doubt discuss the memories that we have created for years to come, especially every time one of us has a chocolate chip cookie!
by Alan Curran, Club & Workforce Manager, Sport Northern Ireland
@alan_curran @SportNINet #SportNILearning
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