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Females Talent and Performance Safety and Welfare

Cognitive Diversity Key to Better Coaching Environments – for All

Charlotte Potterton speaks to Women’s Super League Academy Coach Ali Speechly about how diversity in coaching and mental health awareness can elevate any and every coaching environment, improving the experience for everyone involved

Women’s Super League Academy Coach Ali Speechly’s coaching journey began with an opportunity, and since then she has been driven to extend that same opportunity to other young girls eager to get involved in and enjoy sport. 

It all began when Ali was playing Sunday League football. All the clubs in the League were offered two or three places per team on the women’s ‘FA Level 1 in Coaching Football’ course, and Ali was one of the two from her team.

With Level 1 in her possession and Level 2 in her sights, Ali then began coaching for one hour a week at an after-school club. That proved to be a pivotal time, sparking both a real love for coaching and an ironclad determination to improve the opportunities available for girls to take part in sport and to have access to high-quality coaching from a young age – from women as well as men.

I really enjoyed it! And I enjoyed coaching girls specifically because I never had those opportunities at grassroots level when I was younger, and I would have loved them. That really spoke to me. You can provide these girls with a role model and opportunities to play that they might not otherwise have. It kind of went from there.”

Now, looking back on a wide-ranging coaching career that has included a variety of environments from grassroots to Academy, and positions spanning Head Coach, Assistant Coach and Community Football Coach, Ali’s drive to improve herself, and to continue providing the best possible environments for the people she coaches, remains undimmed. 

“I’m determined to really learn and grow as a coach,” says Ali, “and really push myself and challenge myself, saying ‘yes’ to things that take me outside my comfort zone because I want to develop as well.”

Opportunities in coaching 

Ali is clear that greater diversity in coaching and better mental health awareness can only improve the coaching experience for everyone involved.

But in discussing the need for more opportunities in coaching for more people, Ali makes the important point that a better understanding of accessibility is required in order to recognise the barriers to involvement.

“The thing that strikes me about getting into coaching is that you need a lot of time, and you need a reasonable income. It’s about making it accessible to all, but what does that actually mean?

“I don’t have children, so I have a lot of time and more disposable income. There’s a lot of parents and mothers who would want to go into coaching and would be brilliant at it, but don’t have the time or resource.”

Ali goes on to highlight the value of different ways of thinking that would be derived from supporting a greater variety of people into coaching roles.

I think the reason that diverse backgrounds are important, not necessarily just ethnically but socially as well, is because then you get cognitive diversity. That’s one of the things that’s often lacking in sport.”

Having someone who thinks differently contributing to the discussion can make all the difference, not only by bringing new ideas to the table, but also by offering an opportunity for others to recognise the unconscious biases influencing their decisions and thoughts.

“I would say that everywhere a decision is being made, you need diversity. But especially in football, you tend to have a lot of white men at the decision-making levels, and they tend to choose the same things.”

Often, this is unintentional, but it can negatively affect the experience.

“This is the thing as well about micro-aggressions and racism: people are from such closed backgrounds that it doesn’t even occur to them that they’ve made a judgement on someone because of how they look,” Ali explains.

“For example, teenage girls and pre-teen girls can be disruptive, regardless of who they are and where they’re from, and yet in the past I have observed black girls getting told off for being loud and disruptive, but the white girls are being equally loud and disruptive.”

As well as being important in decision-making, cognitive diversity can elevate your sessions, giving young people role models to look up to, and supporting people from all walks of life to get involved, have fun and achieve their goals.

The more you have diverse coaching, the better it is for everyone. It’s better for the players and better for the coaches. It’s just helpful to have different people around so that we can all learn naturally from each other.”

Bringing life skills to coaching

Ali recommends using your unique perspective, experiences and ideas to inform your coaching, helping you to connect and engage with the players you coach on a personal level.

“I came to coaching relatively late in today’s world,” Ali explains. “I didn’t start coaching until I was about 31 or 32. Because of that, I brought a lot of life skills with me, and a lot of people skills.”

These skills have proven indispensable, both in crafting strong coach-athlete relationships and in building positive learning environments tailored to individuals.

It is the latter point that Ali is clear has been transformative in her coaching, irrespective of the aims of her participants.

It’s really important for me to engage players as people, because ultimately, I’m trying to teach them something, but everyone learns in different ways. If I don’t know anything about you as a person, then it’s difficult to understand who you are as a learner.”

Ali has only limited experience of playing organised football, but it is her experiences that offer indispensable insight into how recognising individual differences can help deliver great coaching experiences, not her knowledge of the game. 

“For the short time that I played, what I realised was that I need to see and do something in order to understand it. If someone just talks to me and gives me instructions, I don’t get it until I’m doing it. I’m really conscious of that, and as such have been able to identify with the players who are just standing there nodding. I know that they don’t get it, because I was that player.

"It’s about getting to know them as people so that I can get through to them as learners and help them do things in ways that make sense to them.”

Connections are key when looking to develop

When considering what advice to offer newcomers to coaching, Ali immediately hits on the wide-ranging benefits of networking.

“People talk about networking all the time, but I think it is really important, in terms of diversity of thinking and in terms of support.

“For instance, there are so many female coaches out there. There aren’t enough, and there aren’t as many as male coaches, but there are lots, across all disciplines.”

Building connections within coaching can be valuable in helping you succeed and develop, but it is just as important to have people in your network to support you, ready to have your back during challenging moments, think outside the box, and help you recognise that you do have the resources to flourish in your environment.

I would encourage female coaches in particular, but all coaches generally, to network and reach out, not just within your sport but across disciplines, because you’ll learn a lot and then you’ve also got a support network. This is particularly important for women, because you can feel quite isolated.

“It’s important for women to share their stories with each other, so that we can take comfort in them and also learn from them. We will come up against things that are challenging and often unexpected, and we have to navigate them and bounce back from these things too.”

Supporting mental health and well-being

Ali also feels strongly about the importance of building an awareness of mental health and well-being in coaching, having first-hand experience of the profound impact that involvement in sport and physical activity can have, and is clear that this is an indispensable element of coaching.

“I have anxiety and depression,” Ali explains candidly, “and football is something that has always helped me, because it helps me focus my mind.

"Whether you’re playing or coaching, you’re so focused on that activity that you don’t really have time to worry about things.”

This can be as simple as lifting your mood in the moment but it can have a long-term impact too – and be part and parcel of delivering a great coaching experience that inspires you as well as encourages people to keep coming back.

Physically getting out and coaching always lifts my mood. Even if, beforehand, it’s cold and raining, once I’m there, I love it, and I’m glad that I’ve done it.”

Ali also highlights the importance of recognising when a sporting environment can have a negative impact on mental health and well-being, such as through the pressure of competing.

“I’ve been having conversations with my players recently about how they feel in their approach to match day,” Ali explains, “and most of them have said that it’s a mixture of nerves and excitement, and when we try to drill down into the nerves, they’re saying that it’s intrinsic. No one outside of them is telling them that they need to be better than this, it comes from within.”

Ali’s strategy for managing this is, again, to focus on the individual, recognising the support that they need in the moment, and working with them to build skills such as resilience. Diversity of thinking can be of inestimable value in this, enabling you to better understand that the people you coach face challenges and obstacles in all parts of their lives.

Making opportunities for players to talk

“The coaches know the players best, because we spend the most time with them,” Ali says. As such, even when coaching in environments with designated well-being officers, she recommends always taking a proactive approach to supporting your players.

I have always been empathetic towards players who maybe display certain signs or symptoms that something isn’t quite right and I have always tried to carve out opportunities for them to talk.”

This has proven indispensable on more than one occasion, instilling a confidence in the players that she will be there to hear their concerns or worries, whether they come to a head during a session or a match.

“At one club,” Ali remembers, “a player was in tears at half-time. It didn’t seem to be about the game, because that was a disproportionate reaction to what was happening in the game, so I said that we should go and have a chat. We went and stood behind our goal, and I pointed at the play every now and again and said: ‘I’m going to pretend that we’re talking about this, but I want to know how you are.’”

The outcome of that conversation was a second chat with the player’s parents about the fact that she was describing the symptoms of depression. 

While emphasising that not every conversation ends in that way, Ali stresses that it is important to be sensitive to how your players are feeling, especially as changes in someone’s personal life can have a wide-ranging impact. By recognising how their emotions might be affecting them, you’re better placed to offer the support they need.

To embed an atmosphere of openness and support in Ali’s current environment, they “have made the conscious decision to start asking players about how they feel.”

Some encouragement about returning to coaching

For coaches concerned about returning to coaching, Ali concludes with a warm reminder to remember just what it is about coaching that you love so much.

“If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that you never know what’s going to happen, and you have to seize the day. If it sparks joy in you, do it today. Don’t put it off or worry about it, just do it and see. If it doesn’t work out for whatever reason, then you’ve found that out. But if you don’t try, you’ll never know.”

Ali adds that while it’s important to have a plan in place to deal with current restrictions, you shouldn’t let the details prevent you from getting involved again.

“Depending on what sport you work in and what type of set-up you have, there’s loads to think about, and it can feel quite stressful and overwhelming. But once you’re back out there, the minute you’re with those players, you just forget about everything else. So just do it! Give it a go and see what happens.”

Ultimately, the reason coaches coach is for that joy that those players have. That’s your motivation: to help bring joy to others.”

Two priorities now and in the future of coaching 

Diversity and mental health are two subjects that constantly receive attention in the press – often for negative reasons. But there are always positive stories to pay attention to as well, and the determination, resilience and joy palpable in those stories provides further confirmation, should it be needed, that environments in which diversity and mental health awareness are paramount are environments in which people can flourish.

Finally, what Ali Speechly has shown is that all coaches, from all walks of life, and working in all environments, have a part to play in this positive movement – so get out there, do what you can, and don’t hesitate to reach out for support on your journey.

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