Learning as a coach never stops. I started any kind of coaching during my third year at Ulster University, when I undertook a placement year at Athletics Northern Ireland. Coaching wasn't something I'd thought too much about, until I was asked if I wanted to complete my UK Athletics Level 1 Coaching qualification in 2010.
The reason I hadn't seen coaching as an option for me was because I'd always hated speaking in front of others and especially in front of groups of people, whether it was answering a question in class or the terrifying prospect of reading a passage in my school’s Assembly. Like most things though, as soon as you veer even slightly out of your comfort zone, confidence slowly begins to build and any associated fears become eradicated over time.
For me, being tasked with leading a 5 minute warm-up over several sessions was how I began to practise coaching (under supervision) i.e., organising a safe space for athletes to work in, projecting my voice so it could be heard throughout, and getting everyone ready for their main sprint session with appropriate progressive exercises.
When you first start off in coaching, 5 minutes feels like an age. On top of that, more often than not, you pick out the negatives when reviewing how you got on and let them dominate your thoughts, instead of focusing on anything you did particularly well. You learn however that coaching is rarely perfect, and any negative experiences can be used to adapt future sessions for the better.
The Plan-Do-Review process, taught during the UK Athletics Level 1 Coaching course is something that is never ending and a crucial part of of the overall coaching 'puzzle'. I've been lucky that the jobs I had throughout my 20's gave me opportunities to work with a wide variety of groups and ability levels, ranging from primary school age (8+), developing athletes (15-20), high performance, and those with specific disabilities. Experience with a range of athletes coincided with delivering sessions in various locations and venues across Northern Ireland, including primary schools, secondary schools, athletics and team sports clubs.
When you know you're going to be coaching somewhere you've never been, it’s rational to feel nervous and unsure of what to expect when you arrive. As an 'extremely organised' person, I'm grateful for my instinct to plan in advance. Session planning includes an array of factors that when you begin coaching, the majority wouldn’t even cross your mind! But when you think about a session in more detail from start to finish, there’s a great deal to consider, e.g.,
• The ages and ability level of the athletes
• How many will be involved
• If it will be indoors or outdoors and on what type of training surface
• If there's any specific disabilities or needs within the group that require differentiation
• Details on the equipment available
• The time of the session
• How long it will take to get to the venue (and if this will take longer in traffic)
• Specific session goals for the group
All together, this forms an extensive list when it comes to session planning - but if you don’t have this information in advance then: you’ve failed to prepare (so prepare to fail)!
Another difficulty I faced after overcoming my initial apprehension of taking charge of groups - was how to fill the time within my sessions. When you first start any coaching, you're often a product of what you've experienced and seen before as an athlete. This is what you're used to, most knowledgeable about and likely most comfortable with delivering at the beginning. The more you put yourself out there and are willing to learn from and observe those more experienced, the more ideas you'll have, the more you'll understand, and the more your delivery will improve because you’ve witnessed how different activities can be utilised and how various groups can be managed.
In my early 20's, I'd been working part-time for a number of years as an Athletics coach, after gaining my Level 2 (supervising coach) qualification - which involved delivering and supervising sessions focusing on improving the running, jumping and throwing of school children and developmental athletes. I'd got over my fear of dealing with large groups but the next invaluable learning experience was attending a workshop which broke down the different disciplines into progressions, starting off at the very basic level and eventually morphing into the specific Athletics event itself.
This was extremely useful, as it gave my sessions meaning and helped me to establish session goals instead of time-filler activities, with no real purpose behind them. After embedding this framework of coaching - planning time was greatly reduced, exercises became much more focus-driven and it also provided me with the means of being creative when coaching groups where their facilities lacked equipment, for example - working on improving high jump run-up and technique, without necessarily having a high jump mat at the venue.
One of the best assets you can have as a coach, which can determine the effectiveness of your sessions, are the questions you ask. Learning to ask open questions on a consistent basis to check for understanding, has been my greatest tool in over 10 years of coaching. It has helped me deal with managing large groups and ensure the activities I carry out run smoothly. This is because everyone (especially younger athletes) knows exactly what they're supposed to be doing at all times.
As a novice coach, simply asking “does everyone understand?” seems reasonable. This may however invite a chorus of “yes!” or nodding among your group without having a full grasp of what they've been asked to do. Instead, asking athletes:
• “Where should your toes be pointing?"
• "Can you show me what position your arms should be in?”
• "What colour cones do you stop at?”
• “When does the next person run?”
…are all examples of questions that, when answered, ensure you as the coach know the athletes are ready to undertake the task effectively and safely. This is because you’ve heard them repeat your instructions back to you, instead of hearing an ambiguous "yes” response.
When athletes are asked open questions, it requires deeper thinking and encourages them to become more responsible for their own learning. For instance, open questioning can be very useful in group coaching scenarios, especially when giving technical information as it prompts the athletes to think about why they're doing the exercise, subsequently aiding information retention. Examples include:
• “What direction should we push the ground to go forwards?”
• ”Should we keep our toes pointed up to our shins or down to the ground when sprinting?”
• “Should we hit the ground hard or soft and why?”
If an athlete understands the reason for doing something, there's a better buy-in, as they’ll appreciate the benefits to practising. Because of this, there’s a better chance they’ll practise more consistently and make improvements.
Team Sport Focus
As a sprinter for over 15 years and an Athletics specific sprints coach for the majority of my coaching journey, I've always been interested in how speed can be weaponised in competitive team sports and knew that my experience coaching speed could be utilised here. My first experience was in 2012 when I began taking weekly S&C sessions for 3 current basketball internationals - the Maguire sisters. As well as improving strength, power and resilience to injury, I made sure that's speed was something we consistently worked on. This led me to coach blocks of sessions for Basketball Northern Ireland and subsequently, a number of one-to-one sessions with players from different sporting backgrounds.
The more I engaged with team sport players (and coaches), it became clear that speed was a very popular and sought after asset but also, there were a lot of misconceptions as to how to train it properly. This is where Speed Solutions came about, and in the summer of 2018, I began working one-one with more players, including Joel Cooper (Linfield F.C.), and also taking more group sessions with clubs from a range of different sports.
When COVID hit in March 2020 - like many others, I worked from home. Also living by myself gave me a great deal of time to begin to look at Speed Solutions as a full-time vocation. This included building a website, developing video resources, and promotional material. In May 2021, I had left my full-time post, and began to promote Speed Solutions on various social media outlets, as a service to help individuals and team sport players improve their speed for their respective sports.
Since starting Speed Solutions, I’ve delivered sessions in 40+ clubs across Northern Ireland comprising of Football/Soccer, GAA, Rugby, Hockey, Basketball (and Athletics clubs) - all with the common goal of improving their speed to ultimately get there first when necessary!
There are several recurring problems I hear of when dealing with team sports regarding the views of coaches (and players) on speed as a whole, it's place within weekly training and also how to go about actually developing it. These include but are not limited to:
• Focus being on other performance factors with speed pushed down the priority list
• Speed work is often rushed and therefore lacks quality
• If speed is included within training, it is often done inconsistently - hindering improvement
• There is often an uncertainty around what to do - coaches often prescribing sessions with the aim of improving speed but with little recovery between sprints
• Speed is not widely recognised as a skill
To address some of the above, I've been delighted in the past year to be able to construct a 'Speed Development & Sprint Mechanics' coach education workshop for specific team sports. This caters for club coaches who may have some knowledge but also those who are completely brand new to coaching speed. Speed Solutions has has travelled across Ireland delivering the following format in several clubs, featuring:
1 hour 45 mins Underpinning Theory Presentation with coaches covering:
• Acceleration / top speed technical models & coaching cues
• Improving your “Coach’s Eye” when it comes to coaching speed
• Sprint drills & progressions for youth players
• Similarities / differences between team sport players & sprinters
• Current problems with developing speed among team sports
• Misconceptions regarding speed
• How to effectively train speed
• RAMP warm-Up structure
• Speed session examples & how to embed speed consistently within your club training
1 hour 45 mins Practical Session delivery to a selection of club players featuring:
• RAMP warm-Up
• With embedded max velocity / top speed drill series
• 20m sprint testing
• Progressions to develop acceleration
• Demonstrations throughout
• Demo of how speed can be included consistently and effectively in your training
The workshop's aim is to educate both coaches and players, leaving them with the knowledge, coaching cues and confidence to implement different elements of speed training consistently within their sessions - so it can be unleashed when required on the pitch!
One of the most frustrating aspects of the past couple of years since starting Speed Solutions, is not being able to cater for absolutely everyone who gets in touch with me - either because there's only so many hours in the day or because of geographical reasons.
Looking ahead, Online Coaching is something I'm excited about launching later this year in the hope that I can reach more players further afield, keep in touch and help them to make significant improvements to their speed and overall gameplay!
Why choose Online Coaching?
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