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UK Coaching Team
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Rapport Building and Communicating Developing Mindsets Self-care and development

Stacey Copeland: My Amazing Coaches Filled Me with Self-Belief

Sporting all-rounder Stacey Copeland rose to the heights of Commonwealth champion as a professional boxer and experienced the unforgettable high of an FA Cup final as an elite footballer. She tells Blake Richardson that coaches have had a monumental impact on her life, “by supporting me as an athlete but, first and foremost, supporting me as a human being”

A lot of people have gone further than they thought they could because someone else thought they could.” – Zig Ziglar

Self-belief can help you accomplish those improbable feats you first fantasized of as a starry-eyed child who had fallen truly, madly, deeply in love with sport. 

A distinguishing personality trait of high-performing athletes, self-belief is a game-changer; the golden ticket to unlocking your full potential.

There are other desirable psychological attributes for sure, but none as soul-stirring or as enabling. When you believe you can achieve anything, dreams can become reality.

Not all aspiring athletes possess it, of course. Without the right opportunity and the right support, that unswerving confidence in your ability to succeed can remain hidden and untapped. 

And even renowned athletes can lose their self-belief, becoming reliant on coaches to help them restore that faith in their ability.

Stacey Copeland says she owes a huge debt of gratitude to the coaches she has worked with for helping her to develop into a fearless competitor with a strong inner belief system that she retains to this day.

She reserves the most glowing tributes to her GB Boxing coaches, her father Eddie (a former professional boxer himself who doubled as her trainer), her professional boxing coach Blain Younis (“I wouldn’t have won the Commonwealth title without him and his belief in me”) and American college football coach Nick Cowell, who helped her through a particularly tough time in her life.

“It was Nick who first opened my eyes to the impact a coach can have on an individual,” says Stacey of the adopted Texan with the broad Devon accent, who took Stacey under his wing when she first arrived at St Edward’s University in Austin on a football scholarship.

He wasn’t the first to show me what a massive impact coaches can have, as I’d had coaches who influenced me hugely before that, but he had a life-changing impact on me beyond sport.”

All these coaches had something in common: incredible people development skills and philosophies that prioritised the person over the performer. 

So unwavering was their belief in her, that it elevated her own levels of self-belief in the process.

I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have had some of the most amazing mentors you could ever wish for as coaches, in both my sports.”

Boxing runs in the blood: Stacey with her dad and grandad, who coached her as a youngster

 

The human touch

Stacey says the personal legacy of her coaches is not defined by their “incredible tactical and technical knowledge”, influential though this undoubtedly was during her two careers. Her enduring impression of her coaches is the valuable role they played in shaping her as a human being.

“It is how they made me feel that I value most without a doubt. I’ll give you an example. As a boxer, when I first went into the Great Britain team as a non-funded, non-podium boxer, I felt the coaches weren’t going to treat me like they did those who had represented Team GB at the Olympics. 

But from the minute I got there, those coaches made me feel like I mattered, like I was valued, like I was important. And more than anything they helped me believe in myself.”

Having that firm belief in her competence as a footballer and a boxer shaped her actions on the pitch and in the ring, and her actions shaped her success.

One of her greatest achievements was winning a silver medal at the 2014 European Women’s Boxing Championships in Bucharest.

That was the first time in my life, standing on that podium, that I felt worthy and deserving of something I’d achieved. And that’s because the coaches – and my wider team, including my sports psychologist – believed in me every single second of every day,” she says.

With that network of support – and let’s not forget the tireless commitment to the cause Stacey herself showed – she would go on to win a multi-nations gold medal and three national titles at amateur level. And, after turning professional, in 2018 became the first British woman to win the Commonwealth title.

Tackling inequality

Stacey shared her story of the transformational impact her coaches have had on her life at UK Coaching’s Duty to Care Leadership event held during UK Coaching Week.

Also speaking at the virtual event was elite swimming coach Mel Marshall, who echoed Stacey’s views on how feeling valued and having someone who believes in you can change your life.

She cast her mind back to the start of her coaching career, when she spent time mentoring young offenders. This experience of working with hard to reach groups from difficult backgrounds, who had experienced traumatic childhoods, helped to cement her belief in the importance of inclusion.

She is now a leading advocate for inclusive practice, driving home the message that everyone should be given the chance to develop equally and be made to feel valued and that they belong.

I remember going into the first session with this group of lads and this one guy was effervescent, he was full of energy, he was captivating. I thought, ‘if someone just helped him and put a framework around him to enable him to channel that energy and enthusiasm in the right direction, he could be one of the greatest leaders of all time. But he’d never had that support.”

Certainly, nobody had told him they believed in him.

“Coaches have to dig under people’s behaviours and dig under people’s challenges and help illuminate them to uncover the best version of themselves in the right environment. 

“There are millions of gems out there that are left under the sand because we don’t take the time to work them out and shine them off like diamonds.”

Stacey has experienced the harsh reality of a lack of diversity and inclusion in sport.

As a kid, female boxing was illegal, and I had to have my hair cut short to pretend to be a boy to play in the football team.”

The entrenched inequality in the sport prevented her from fulfilling her dream of representing Great Britain at the Olympic Games.

As a natural welterweight, she was fighting a losing battle to qualify for Rio in 2016. There were only three weight categories for women – flyweight, lightweight and middleweight – in contrast to 10 for men. Dropping down to 60kg to fight at lightweight or bulking up from her 69kg division to compete at middleweight (75kg) were unrealistic goals.

Women will compete across five weight classes in Tokyo. Unfortunately, the slow but steady progress on gender equality has come too late for her.

 

Empower, enable, embolden

Before embarking on a competitive boxing career aged 29, Stacey had enjoyed success as a footballer playing for Doncaster Belles in the FA Women’s Premier League and had represented England at Under-18 level.

When she was scouted for a football scholarship in America, she said it coincided with “a very low point in my life”.

Cowell helped her through this tricky time by providing the emotional support blanket she needed.

He profoundly impacted me as a person. His impact on developing me as a player was important, and mattered to me and was significant, but the impact he had on me as a person was life-changing, and I don’t use that word lightly. Many coaches have had an impact on my life, but he changed fundamentally who I am.

“It was a brand-new start going to America but as an individual, inside I was quite broken, and this coach recognised that and put that first before everything else. He put me on the journey towards healing and battling some of those demons that the situation I had been through had triggered.”

Cowell would empower, enable and embolden his players to make the right decisions. And this athlete-centred personal philosophy worked wonders for Stacey’s self-belief.

The team-talk before the team-talk

A perfect illustration was the off-season leadership programme that he put Stacey and three other players through in preparation for their senior year, when they would be sharing the captaincy of the large squad.

“His philosophy was: The less he had to do, the better the job he was doing as a coach. He would empower us to take on that leadership role and showed faith in us that we were capable of doing that.”

By convincing the captains, for instance, that certain tactical decisions, “or having to reach a required standard in the [dreaded] bleep test”, were not, as players would often complain, unfair but necessary. It meant the coach had allies equipped with the skills to defuse potential flashpoints and maintain team unity.

“We understood what the team was trying to achieve and were on the same page as the coach. And we did that job for him: convincing the team that it would make us better and stronger and help us towards our collective goal. And it did.” 

Stacey graduated with a degree in Sociology from St Edward’s University, having previously played college football for Lander University, before finishing her playing career in Stockholm.

Her experiences in both football and boxing have taught her an array of essential life skills but she has two main pieces advice for other stargazers with lofty aspirations: 

  1. Taking care of your needs as a person as well as an athlete is crucial, and ultimately can help you perform better in competition. 
  1. Fuel your self-belief. And to do this, surround yourself with people who inspire you, who support you and who believe in you, and who will help you take those critical steps on the path to realising your potential.

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