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Emma Doyle: Coaching Female Athletes - empower and engage

“Well she was a big ball of energy,"...was how several delegates described the delivery style of Emma Doyle during her expertly facilitated workshop offered to coaches from across Wales at the Sport Wales National Centre. A joint partnership between Tennis Wales and Sport Wales Community and Elite Sport teams, led to an inspiring and captivating event. With over 50 delegates in attendance, the floor ranged from grassroots coaches to elite Performance Directors, representing over 30 sports organisations.

Emma made a forthright observation upon arrival in Wales, in that we possess a set of unique qualities; by our nature, we have a certain “determination and grit”, in that we will go to great lengths to achieve our aims, regardless of the obstacles in our way. She deftly utilised this observation in a manner that engaged and entertained the audience for the remainder of the morning.

Emma deployed a unique delivery formula that promoted competition, discovery and reflection. Each delegate was assigned a team and throughout the session Emma interacted with the audience and dependent on their input and engagement would award points to be collated at the end of the session. Emma’s utilised a story or anecdotal methodology that gave insight into her background and experiences, and supported in personalising her messages and humanising her as a deliverer. Each story came with a key message that needed to be identified and once uncovered, indicated a coaching coping strategy when working with female athletes. For the remainder of this passage, I’ve attempted to summarise my learning from the experience, in a context that will hopefully bring it to life for the readers. (Watch out for hyperlinks for additional learning opportunities!)

Emma aptly identified that based on the VAKAd (Visual, Audio, Kinaesthetic, Audio digital) principle that 60% of athletes are kinaesthetic learners. Does that mean that with everything we as coaches do, they must touch and feel the problem? Not necessarily, but by the very nature of sport, they will want to get “hands on” quickly. However, by Emma’s figures, we still have 40% who will prefer to see, hear or comprehend the detail before diving in. As coaches, our learning environments should cater for a variety of learning styles to offer the widest experience. Emma suggested it is important to consider the “Stretch” principle, in that when working with girls it is important not to over stretch them under pressure by throwing them in the “deep end” of their comfort zone creating stress. We need to gradually increase the complexity of their experiences to challenge their ability. However, to plunge them in the deep end, may disengage them from sport or physical activity altogether. Emma shared a variety of strategies of how this can be achieved, but the most prolific tactic that can define you as a good or the best coach is the ability to listen. Tune in to your athletes and understand where they are at. Help them resolve problems at a personal level to construct their confidence. Confidence can only be built over time, when coupled with meaningful experiences to challenge and build self-esteem. In order to promote this with your athletes, coaches simply need to match and mirror what their athletes say and do, and if you’re working with children, come down to their level. With girls specifically, Emma suggests being attentive to them; talk about what they want to talk about and take genuine interest. This will allow you to be endearing and build a closer rapport to influence how the athlete is coached.

Within the session, there were several powerful and empowering debates. One of which revolved around how a coach interacts to progress and engage athletes through a session. The question posed: As a coach, is it better to lead or follow the athlete? – Have you ever had a player turn up to your session and the first thing they do is pick up the closest piece of equipment and start “swinging for the fences”? If the answer is no, please give me a call, because I want to know your secrets! We’ve all seen as coaches or experienced as spectators the swimmers that dip (or jump) in and out of the pool when the coach turns their back; rugby players that kick balls at goal because the coach is talking to their parent or another player; tennis players that immediately start pinging balls off the wall or in every direction as soon as they lift a racquet or gymnasts that tumble on the mat before they’ve even thought about a warm up. The challenged posed was, is this ok? – According to Emma – YES – acknowledge it is going to happen (sport is a pressure release after all), let them get it out of their system and focus or direct their seemingly frantic efforts towards your session aims. As Emma quoted: “Great coaches follow first, which then allows them to decide how to lead”.

A large period of the session heavily focussed on the ‘how’ of coaching, referencing the oh so familiar coaching styles continuum that you will all be acquainted with from your Level 1 Coach Education course. What Emma proposed was that actually, the education system (whilst it has been making significant advances in recent years) has enforced a behaviour within students of accepting and seeking being told what to do. As coaches we are seeking to break the barrier of being told and empower our athletes to decision make for themselves, this comes home even more when working with young girls. By giving them the power of choice, they are far more likely to engage and remain within your sessions.

Consider also, the way in which you and your coaches interact with your athletes, as this message was the take home ticket for me: “The way we talk to children, becomes their inner voice”. To explain, in a pressure environment, the inner voice dictates the decision making process and language we use matters. If we are negative with our athletes, their inner voice will be negative – I can vs. I can’t do this, focussing on performance measures vs outcome measures. They can very much build a mountain to climb for themselves out of the simplest of challenges. Think about how you provide feedback, is it framed positively or not. Are you focussing on the problem, or visualising the solution? Are you focussing on what the issue was or how the challenge will be approached differently “NEXT TIME”. Think about allowing athletes opportunity to identify their own challenges and decide what it is they want to work on: skill, attitude, quality, knowledge, experience or an area of their life.

By getting the athlete to focus on specifics (and not ‘letting them off the hook’ with an “I don’t know” answer), you can really explore their psyche. Ask searching questions and seek detail in their responses. Consider some of these next time you speak to an athlete about their performance.

  • What specifically went well in your day today? / What were you in control of today?
  • Tell me more…
  • ...Next Time, what would you do differently?
  • Athlete asks you: What was the score? Present it from their perspective:
    • Result was 6 - 4, 6 – 4, but presented as 4 - 6, 4 – 6
  • What did you learn? – Positive reflection, positive mind frame
    • Yourself
    • The opponent
    • The game
    • Life – “Sport is the greatest metaphor for life”

Also consider if these types of questions would help with parent interaction and performance measures in between training and competition. Supporting the reflective process of the athlete but also to build their confidence and self-esteem, as opposed to the “Did you win?” approach.

Finally, there was a resounding message that supported not only working with girls, but any athlete as an identifier of good practice in coaching. Athletes will have success and will experience failure. Failure is part of sport and more importantly part of life. It is how we use failure and react to failure that defines who we are and who we can be. As coaches we play a vital part in developing these coping strategies in athletes. I’m not advocating deliberately losing competitions to experience loss, but actively seek a learning opportunity in failure when it happens. It will help to develop resilience and problem solving in your athletes if explored without judgement or bias. If an athlete is facing a problem, consider how you change their perspective of it and maintain positivity. Giving them distance and an alternative viewpoint to think clearly – often physically changing body position or posture will have this effect – stand up, sit down, walk around. If you want to make only a small difference as a coach, consider this mantra:


On the back of reading this blog, I’d like to finish the same way Emma did. Consider now as a result of any learning that has taken place, one thing you will now start to do, stop doing or continue to do. Write it down and make it a focal start point for reflection and personal development moving forward.

Dan Owens, Coaching Advisor (Wales), UK Coaching

Follow: @dan_owens9


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