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Your Country Needs YOU! Practical Strategies to Help Accelerate 'The Great Coaching Comeback’

Experienced coach, coach educator and mentor Dan Cottrell offers some sage advice to coaches to help them RECOVER and REINVENT at this pivotal time. He tells Blake Richardson that the key to bouncing back from the biggest crisis in a generation is for coaches “just to be there” and not to fret about having to make instant or radical changes to their coaching practice before they have got accustomed to the post Covid-19 landscape

Coaches are catalysts for change and have an instrumental role to play in the nation’s recovery – an incontrovertible truth that UK Coaching has been shouting from the rooftops throughout this wretched pandemic.

Unfortunately, Covid-19 has had a significant impact on coaching at all levels across the country. This has had inevitable consequences for the communities that the UK’s three million active coaches serve, with activity levels falling sharply and social interaction being severely curtailed, undermining people’s physical health and further advancing an historic rise in mental health problems.

According to Sport England’s Return to Play Survey, 19% of volunteer coaches – who make up approximately 50% of the coaching workforce – expect to give less time to volunteering than they did before the pandemic, with 14% at risk of not returning. CIMSPA, meanwhile, is predicting a 14% reduction in the number of paid coaches. Such losses would further impact on the sport and physical activity recovery plan, and the recovery of the nation.

Now seems an appropriate time to revive the Lord Kitchener recruitment poster, and that famous World War One slogan that embodied the British war effort: Your country needs YOU!

These words have never rung truer. We simply must encourage coaches to return to coaching post Covid-19, as they are an integral part of the operation to get the nation back on its feet.

A call to arms

To stretch the war on coronavirus metaphor, the Great Coaching Comeback is D-Day for the recovery of the nation.

Here’s to a future where the three ‘Rs’ also make a comeback to describe the state of coaching and the health of the nation: revitalised, reinvigorated, recovered. A fourth ‘R’, reinvention, holds the key to making that happen.

Experienced rugby union coach Dan Cottrell – who works with the Bristol Bears Development Player Programme and is a coach mentor at Broad Plain RFC and the former Director of Rugby at Cranleigh School – is bursting with ‘reinvention’ ideas to help rally the troops.

Dan has coached at every level: international rugby with Wales Women; representative rugby with Ospreys Under-25s, Under-18s and Under-16s; has coached his son’s team from Under-6s through to Under-16s; and before moving to Bristol coached Swansea Schoolboys Under-15s.

He has extensive first-hand evidence of coaching’s ability to transform people’s lives and is brimming with practical advice to help strengthen coaches’ resilience, confidence and motivation at this critical time and galvanise the coaching workforce around this common cause to get the nation moving.

“There are a number of dangers that could put coaches off returning post-pandemic,” says Dan.

“A key one for me is, if you are a coach, you will probably have seen, heard and read an enormous amount of coach education material that has been shared online during the past 12 months. And you may feel under pressure to have to do this… and this… and this… on your return, but feel you are not capable of doing that. That can be discouraging for some coaches.

It is important you filter the ideas that you know are going to work for you. Ask yourself ‘what things do I think will make a difference and can I put them into place practically with my particular group or team?’.

But the most important thing is just to be there, and not to worry if you feel you are not yet prepared. The fact that you are there creates an enormous amount of goodness.

“I know that sounds obvious, but I think a lot of coaches need reminding of that fact.”

It is the coach equivalent of the brooding participant who is put off coming back to training because they think they aren’t fit enough. They convince themselves they will find it difficult and can end up talking themselves out of returning.

To borrow another famous slogan: Just do it!

“Coaches are agents of change, but you can’t be an agent unless you are there,” adds Dan. “So just get down there and enjoy being with people who want to play the sport, because you will get a tremendous buzz out of that.”


Don’t put pressure on yourself

In the same way that too much information can be a motivation blocker, so can too little information. Coaches who have avoided digital learning during the cycles of lockdown – whether by choice or forced upon them through life’s circumstances – may feel they have become deskilled.

Whether your confidence has waned through lack of training, or by soaking up so many new ideas in your time away from coaching that you have reached saturation point, a great many coaches have expressed a nervousness about returning.

After such a long hiatus, coaches can also be forgiven for having simply forgotten how much pleasure and satisfaction they get out of helping and interacting with people.

“You have to take away all that fear,” says Dan, whatever the root causes may be.

“I know, for example, from observing coaching chat online, that many coaches feel under a lot of pressure to make the comeback fun for participants, right from the get-go.

“The element of fun can fill a lot of coaches with horror, because they can work out how to run mechanical sessions – lay out the cones in a certain way; run certain drills – but there is a fear they are unable to guarantee fun.

“Actually, as long as you give the usual thought to planning, organising and structuring the session, the players will enjoy that session. They may not be falling about laughing but they will have taken a lot from it: the human contact; the chance to express themselves for the first time in a long time.

It is not down to you to drive the fun; the players will drive it, if you give them the chance.”

Of course, there are interventions you can make to inject the fun and humour element, but Dan’s advice is “don’t sweat it at this moment”. Accept that it will take a bit of time to find your feet and for the players to find theirs.

Take things slowly

The word ‘reinventing’ can itself throw coaches into a panic, as if in some way they are being asked to reinvent the wheel. You are not!

The secret to success when it comes to reinventing in the new coaching landscape is to embrace the lowercase ‘r’ (reflect, reimagine, redefine), not the capital ‘R’ (Radical). Nobody is expecting you to rethink your whole coaching philosophy or tear up those tried and trusted coaching techniques that have served you so well.

It will take time to assimilate to the rhythm of coaching and its unfamiliar challenges, and subtle changes trump giant leaps.

“It doesn’t mean you are creating something enormously new, just reorganising what you know already, in a way that allows you to do the things that you want to do," says Dan.

Remember that the most important person in the coaching session is you, and it’s important you enjoy what you are doing. As soon as you stop doing that, the players will notice, and that will have a negative effect on the whole group.”

Part of the reinvention process then is to pace yourself.

There is a reason so many accidents happen at the start of a Formula One race. Overexcited drivers desperate to steal a march on their opponents run the risk of spinning off at the first corner in their haste to overtake and improve their position. But coaches don’t need to go from nought to 100 in a few sessions. It is not a race.

If you want to get the inside track on excelling as a coach on your return, then Dan’s advice is to “take things piece by piece, a little bit each week”.

He proffers another analogy: “It’s like when people who have been on diets, or have been starved of food, over-indulge when they go back to eating, and they don’t understand why they feel so ill.

“You will probably come away from your first few sessions both elated and disappointed. Elated that you’re back and reunited with your participants but then realising that you’ve got a mountain to climb.

Try to be one thing, not lots of things. So, don’t try and cover too much in every session. Don’t try and be four different types of coach.

“You do not have to have all singing all dancing sessions. Most coaches don’t have the time. If you think like that you are going to get burnt out. Not every part of your session is going to reach every one of your players.”


A rare opportunity for reflection

Coronavirus has wreaked havoc on people’s lives in a multitude of ways, but the extended time-out has at least presented coaches with the prime conditions needed for effective self-reflection: the space to conduct a deeper analysis of your coaching methods and to refocus and realign yourself with your core beliefs and values, with the intention of gaining a fresh perspective to inform future behaviour, develop key strategies and learn from your experiences.

When do most of us, if we are honest, make the deliberate choice to reflect? Our hectic lifestyles often prevent us from physically and mentally distancing ourselves to the extent that is necessary.

Because of the frenetic pace of modern life, time is a precious commodity. This was the case before coronavirus, and it is the case today.

A solution to inefficient planning is to learn to build session design and general admin into your weekly routine. Make this commitment another part of your reinvention.

Just as you would turn up for training, say, every Tuesday night from 7 o’clock to 8 o’clock, you might also plan into your diary a time when you are going to prep for sessions, so you don’t waste time worrying about it or finding you are not in the right frame of mind for it.

“You may know you have half an hour before Line of Duty on a Sunday night. That becomes your prep time.

“What I think coaches will find, and what I found, is that you will spend two months planning for the first session, including reading up on Covid protocols, and then just 20 minutes for the second. You soon get back into the rhythm of things.”

This should help allay the fears of those coaches apprehensive about delivering sessions in line with existing guidance on social distancing.

If you are worried about implementing Covid-secure measures, then take the time to read up on the rules in your weekly planning session when you are in the correct headspace.

How well do you delegate?

If you are still a little nervous, another simple solution is to learn to delegate.

“Unless you are running an organisation completely on your own, you will have a support network. I would recommend utilising it. Understand how that support network can support you and work towards creating a stronger support group around you.

“So, while it is important to become familiar with Covid protocols, be aware that there will be people you can lean on to help you manage this.

“One thing we have all learnt in lockdown is that loneliness is awful and it’s important to share. You see that in Tweets all the time, where someone asks for help and they are flooded with advice and encouragement. It’s quite moving to see, especially when people show their vulnerability.”

A problem shared really is a problem halved and you can be in no doubt that positive support is freely available from the coaching family whenever you need it.

You do not have to solve every problem on your own. But you do have to ask for help from time to time to get access to that support.


A question of timing

A final piece of advice from Dan as you prepare to reunite with your participants, is to give them a bit of space to do what they want at the start of the first session back.

“One of the mistakes I made at my local club’s Under-18s was to be too formalised in the first half an hour. So, the next week we gave them a slightly gentler introduction to the session.

“Some players immediately snapped out of their torpor, but plenty struggled with that, so it’s striking the right balance between learner-centred or participation-centred sessions and being mindful of what your participants want from the sessions.”

There is a danger, says Dan, that coaches think they are being player-centred or player-led, and think they know what the players want, when actually they are labouring under a false impression, because they are asking the wrong questions or asking them at the wrong time.

“Players will be arriving with different expectations of what they want. But asking the players five minutes before training starts is not as effective as saying, ‘I’m going to ask you these questions and I want you to give me the answers in two or three days’ time when you have had time to think about it more carefully'. This also gives the coach time to factor their answers into their planning, or to adapt their plans.”

R is for Remember

We’ve covered a lot of ‘r’ words in this article on how to retain and reinvigorate the nation’s coaches – reinvent, recover, reflect, redefine, rethink – but perhaps the most important thing for coaches at this moment in time is to remember why they fell in love with coaching.

For Dan, it is the small things that add up to make a big difference.

“For example, when somebody who hasn’t spoken to you for a while says ‘thank you’ at the end of a session; when somebody suddenly ‘gets’ something and has that lightbulb moment.

The outstanding benefit of returning to coaching for me personally has been the chance to get back talking to people in a way that creates energy, because the energy that they are then expressing gives you energy.

“What I also love about coaching is the simple fact that when you provide the training, other people arrive too and are pleased to see you. They have only made the effort to be there because you have made the effort to be there. That, I think, is brilliant and is something we shouldn’t forget.”

Britain may be finally winning the war against coronavirus but, remember too, as the healing process continues, your country needs YOU to help erase some of the scars the pandemic has left behind.

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