Growing up in the Smyth house-hold meant being surrounded by coaching. I don’t mean Dad taking on the role of the PE teacher from Kes in the back garden … because nothing could be further from his style! But the importance of coaching and the impact it could have on the lives of those being coached and those doing the coaching, was ever present. As a club, Interprovincial and International level coach and coach educator, the hockey season was spent watching Dad work with players and the summers were spent watching him work with his coaching colleagues. On more than one occasion, family meals were shared with World Cup and Olympic winning coaches and it was only relatively recently that I appreciated why hockey people had spent so much time discussing “The Inner Game of Tennis”!
In a bid to navigate his way through lockdown and find focus in a project, Dad, with the assistance of Mum, has taken to putting his memoirs to paper over the last few months. I was fortunate enough to get a sneak preview recently. In between a few tears and lots of laughs, one thing was strikingly obvious; throughout the majority of his life, even before he probably considered himself to be one, coaching has always been and continues to be the thing that makes Dad ‘tick’. To quote one of my favourite sporting movies, coaching is his ‘Happy Place’ and has undoubtedly enriched his 70 plus years of life just as much, if not more, than the multitude of players and coaches he has, in his own words, “had the pleasure” of working with.
Which got me thinking … for those of us charged with trying to encourage new recruits into coaching, could we shout a little louder about the opportunities that exist and the enjoyment it may bring to their lives? Through the medium of Zoom, I challenged Dad to turn the clock back 50 years and talk to his 21 year old self about the most rewarding parts of the journey that lay ahead. This is my interpretation of what I heard …
Inspiring the next generation
By becoming a coach you’ll have the opportunity to inspire the next generation, in a way that you probably can’t imagine right now. The good news is, in all likelihood, you won’t need to be a tactical genius or a technical wizard to do it; but by making it fun, being interested in the person and not just the player and role modelling the values and behaviours you would like to see in them, you can be a really positive influence on the lives of the people you work with. Remember that while a little bit of success as a coach is always nice, in years to come, you might just look back and consider how successful you were through a very different lens; seeing the players you coached now coaching and their children (or grandchildren!) in love with the sport will be just as satisfying as any victory on the pitch. And, if you’re fortunate enough to hear the words ‘you’re the reason why’ or ‘if it hadn’t have been for you’ from time to time, you’ll understand how much more important they are than any trophy or medal.
I was never much of a fan of school. Probably because I was always more interested in looking out the window to the sports pitches than listening to what the teacher was saying at the front of the classroom! But by becoming a coach you will have the chance to enter the most amazing learning community, where every session and each game can provide you with the opportunity to grow, develop and challenge yourself and others around you; particularly in skills and qualities that can enhance your life outside of coaching – like resilience, trust, communication and empathy … and all within a sport that you love. As a coach you will be offered regular and varied development opportunities; often this may be as simple as an interesting conversation with a colleague. Embrace and immerse yourself in as many of these as you can and seek out a good mentor – they will help to guide you through the ‘fog’ when times feel tough.
Over the years you will have the opportunity to develop the most unexpected, life-long friendships through your coaching, often spanning across generations; with your players, the opposition, fellow coaches, sports volunteers and the often, much-maligned parents. Try not to keep parents at arm’s length. Involve them as fully as you can and be open and honest with them about what you’re trying to achieve. Remember that you are taking care of the most valuable thing in their lives. If they can see that you have the best interests of their child at heart (and as coaches we should ALWAYS have the best interests of the child at heart!), they might not always agree with you, but, over time, they will respect and support you. During the COVID-19 restrictions, my wife and I were overwhelmed by the support and generosity of our friends … the food shops, fresh baking, prescription collections etc … almost all received from parents of players I had coached over the past 40 years!
I’ve often heard the saying that “nothing ever beats playing”. Maybe so but rest assured that, sooner or later, ‘Father/Mother time’ will prove to be your toughest opponent! Coaching can be a great way to continue to stay involved in and contribute to the sport that you love, long after the body has started to creak a little too much to make it on to the playing arena. Even before that inevitable day has arrived, it is worth considering that the experience of coaching others while you are still playing may well improve your own enjoyment and performance, as you gain a better appreciation of developing skills, understanding tactics and improving how you communicate. So don’t wait until the ‘boots are hung’ up to get involved. Clubs and governing bodies should always be keen to support the next generation of coaches and you might just be surprised how well young players will react to you if you do.
As the conversation was drawing to a close I was struck by the number of times that Dad had used terms such as ‘opportunity’, and ‘chance’ when describing the journey that lay ahead to his younger self and queried this with him. His response seems like an appropriate note to finish on.
“That’s because coaching is like most other things in life – there are rarely any guarantees and you’ll only get out what you put in. So get involved, commit to it as fully as you can and enjoy it … and when you take time to reflect in 50 years (or more!), you’ll not be disappointed by how much your life has been enriched by coaching!”
By David Smyth, Coaching Consultant, Sport Northern Ireland
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