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How High Performance Coach of the Year Danny Kerry has put the Great into British hockey

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Danny Kerry

  • Danny came close to walking away from his head coach role after a tough post-Beijing Olympic Games review.
  • He transformed his coaching approach and the culture within the squad.
  • Self-awareness, specificity, experiential learning and the constraints-led approach are some of Danny’s watchwords.
  • His daily mantra is: ‘Where am I, and where do I need to be; where are they, and where do they need to be?'.

Danny Kerry’s star is shining bright. He has just scooped the High Performance Coach of the Year gong at the UK Coaching Awards after steering the England women’s hockey team to their first European title in 24 years. 

But Great Britain and England’s guiding light – who in June oversaw qualification for next year’s Olympic Games in Rio with gold at the World League Final – has had to endure gloomier times as Head Coach. 

His darkest hour came in the aftermath of The Beijing 2008 Olympic Games when he stood at a crossroads in his career following a brutal debriefing session that saw him being criticised by his own athletes. 

It proved to be a light bulb moment, setting him on a completely different direction with respect to his coaching style and philosophy – a transformation that would in due course also help transform the fortunes of the national team, which took that giant leap from decent international side to world-beaters. 

Danny is a highly intelligent, articulate man who has developed an in-depth knowledge and applied understanding of coaching methods and methodologies. But without some broad shoulders and a generous helping of humility, he would, by his own admission, not have graced an Olympic Games medal ceremony in London in 2012 when Great Britain’s women picked up their bronze medals. 

A Commonwealth Games silver medal at Glasgow last year added to the booty – edged out in a shootout by Australia in the battle for gold. 

His views on what makes a great coach in the world of high performance team sport is essential reading, but so too is his personal account of that merciless debriefing session. 

Somehow, from being at his lowest ebb, he was catapulted into a new coaching chapter, only this time, there would be a happy ending. 

Painful to hear 

So what exactly went on during that process as players, coaches and other key personnel contributed to the post-Beijing Olympic Games review? 

Great Britain had finished sixth after going into the tournament ranked 11th in the world so not too much to gripe about then? 

‘I thought I had given everything for the team,’ says Danny. ‘But in the review process, the athlete group and the staff I worked with really tore me to pieces. They pretty much called me grumpy, miserable and unapproachable. I felt betrayed. 

‘There was a lot of soul-searching at the time. The feedback was pretty harrowing.’ 

The moment of enlightenment did not come immediately. He went home and discussed what had happened with his now wife, Lisa, who assured him he was not the person they thought he was. 

‘I came very close to walking away,’ adds Danny. ‘For people to turn round who you have really respected to effectively character assassinate you was really tough. But actually, they were right. 

‘My way of working was to try to defeat the world by knowledge, and I was very much stuck in my laptop, looking at video, understanding the performance and planning for the next one. I literally wasn’t stepping outside my room in the Olympic village to talk to people and engage them in conversations, which sometimes gets to the heart of what performance is all about. 

‘I was very much about tactical execution and the knowledge of hockey rather than the knowledge of human beings.’ 

The message was received loud and clear, and so began the process of trying to change people’s perception of him. 

Suddenly, from admitting ‘I owned the performance’, the new watchwords were collective ownership, distributed leadership and common purpose, all while keeping a close eye on his outward appearance. 

‘I do live inside my head a lot. If I am inside my own head, thinking, especially around the athlete group, that can appear as if I am unapproachable. I’m not. My face might look like I’m in a mood, and athletes under pressure can potentially read into that. 

‘I’ve made a conscious effort for the athletes to try to smile, have fun and show them I do enjoy it.’

Cut down to size 

It is worth spelling out at this point the dangers of a coach resting on their laurels, thinking they’ve hit upon the magic formula. 

A self-aware coach will be in a constant state of metamorphosis, says Danny, ready to adapt to the particular circumstances of the time. 

Danny found himself in another challenging situation when he returned to the Head Coach role in 2014 (he had stepped up to Performance Director in December 2012). This followed a disappointing World Cup performance in June and a tough review process. The England squad was starting preparations for the following year’s European Championships, with players becoming anxious over the culling of the training squad. 

‘The players were wanting and asking to have conflict-resolution-type conversations,’ says Danny. 

‘People understandably have their own self-interests, and that is when the values of the group and expectations around behaviours are so important.’ 

The answer to setting the team back on the right path was reinforcing the message of collective ownership, says Danny, and: ‘To create a space for people to lead in, build a common sense of purpose and get more mutual understanding within the group.’ 

Culture club 

While his coaching philosophy will forever be a work in progress, Danny has some wise words of advice to coaches on the methods of self-awareness, specificity, experiential learning, the constraints-led approach (CLA) and the importance of coaching culture. 

Regarding culture, he says this is particularly vital in a team sport environment, where a head coach has to work with a large number of athletes – in Danny’s case, 30-plus hockey players and 12–14 staff. 

‘Your ability to have meaningful relationships with all of those is very difficult so I believe strongly in managing through culture. That process means trying to get the athletes and staff to generate their own culture so it is theirs and not the head coach’s – who is just a part of it. 

‘I would say culture precedes performance. It’s absolutely fundamental, particularly if you are in a long-term project, like the Olympic Games. If you don’t work hard at that then you are on a fragile foundation.’

Danny argues that having a common sense of purpose is a prerequisite to building a successful culture. 

‘It sounds a straightforward thing to do but is actually very complex. It involves a long series of conversations, trying to get to the core of why people do what they do.’ 

The presumption is that elite hockey players’ common purpose is to win medals at major championships, but that is not always the case. 

Some players are driven by the urge to be the best they can be. For others, it is about taking one game at a time. People see the world differently, and the ambition of one person may irritate another. 

One player may be so set on winning gold that their one-track mind cannot for the life of them entertain any other viewpoint. 

Danny admits that emotions can run high when these conversations are played out in a group scenario. 

‘It is an important exercise. This process raises awareness across the group of what drives different people. What you get is a broader understanding of why people are there and doing what they are doing.’ 

‘The process is often as important, if not more important, than the words that come out.’ 

And he stresses the importance of revisiting the subject and not treating the practice as a one-off. 

‘It is the glue that binds everyone together, and helps the athlete and staff to manage the environment. We all own the common purpose: collective ownership and collective review.’ 

Danny made reference to the critical national media coverage that followed England’s early exit from this year’s Rugby World Cup, when many commentators said Stuart Lancaster focused too much on culture. 

One culture Fleet Street stringently adheres to is the culture of blame, and at a time when scapegoats were being named and shamed in bloodthirsty fashion, the phrase ‘don’t believe everything you read in the press’ was never more apt. 

Knee-jerk reactions can fly in the face of common sense, a fact recognised by Danny, who gave the criticism of coaching culture in the media short shrift. 

England hockey

JOYFUL AND TRIUMPHANT: England women celebrate their European Championship success

Experiential learning 

Using this framework of constant review and experiential learning (learning through experience and reflection) helps Danny formulate a crystal clear game plan that can be easily adapted when circumstances change. 

It is another ‘must-have’ in a coach’s armoury, allowing you to draw on those experiences and manage the variables that are thrown up during the course of a training cycle. 

‘I don’t believe in a cause and effect, mechanistic type of coaching, where if you do this, this will happen,’ he says. ‘The context is always changing, the opposition is changing, and even the nature of the sport is changing. There are an incredibly complex set of variables within a team sport context. My approach reflects that. 

‘If there was a really beautiful model for team sport success then I think someone would be doing it and making an absolute fortune. 

‘It is vital coaches have built up a lot of experiential and tacit knowledge (knowledge that is difficult to pass on verbally or by the written word) to navigate the complexity. We are not slaves to the data; we very much embrace experiential knowledge.’ 

Dress rehearsal 

Another coaching principle Danny hasexperimented with and developed over the last five years is the use of specificity in his periodised training programme – changing the types of stresses athletes feel in sessions, including trying to mimic the emotional intensity of high profile competition. 

Trying to replicate that in a training environment is not an easy thing to achieve, he says. 

‘It’s easy to create environments that stretch people physically but not so easy to create environments that really challenge them with regard to the amount of thinking they have to do while exhausted,’ he says. 

‘What we do is to build capacity in athletes to thrive when it is incredibly tough. Building that capacity to be incredibly resilient both physically and mentally is one of the competitive edges we can have over other nations. 

‘There are eight matches in 13 days at the Olympic Games so it requires a programme that is pretty brutal.’ 

But coaches should be prudent with its use – as Danny explains, such rigorous regimes are not sustainable. 

Self-awareness mantra 

The role of a high performance coach involves so much more than technical instruction then, with mastery of a myriad psychological concepts a vital component in their tool kit. 

And you can certainly add self-awareness to that list. 

Danny recalls some tight games in England’s successful European Championship campaign when he was worried about transferring his own increasing anxiety on to his players during the quarter-time and half-time team talks. 

‘The ability to catch yourself and regulate yourself and see the game more objectively and impart a clear message [is crucial]. 

‘You can apply self-awareness in one-to-ones, team meetings or staff meetings.’ 

Danny says he has his own self-awareness checking measure, which takes the form of a mantra he uses before all of the aforementioned scenarios: ‘Where am I, and where do I need to be; and where are they, and where do they need to be?’ 

‘It is an athlete-centred approach in that you are trying to see it from their perspective and not just bring your own perspective to it. 

‘But being athlete-centred across a large number is incredibly difficult. You can fall foul, and I have, of having one perception to fit the situation. 

‘The ability to be aware of myself at critical moments has got better, and can still be better.’ 

Danny tries to get his players to practise self-awareness too, challenging them to stop and think about why they think the way they do in certain situations. 

The benefits of self-awareness can be tremendous for the self-development of coach and athlete. 

‘I’ve often thought I have been at my worst as a coach when I haven’t stopped to think about which particular lenses I’ve brought to a situation – when I may have judged it on a very narrow lens,’ he says. 

Think for yourself 

You can add to the complex mix of coaching methods one final piece of the jigsaw. 

Danny is an advocate of CLA, challenging his athletes to find solutions to problems themselves rather than hang on his every word. 

‘I’m a massive believer in continually creating the problems for the athletes to self-organise solutions to,’ he says. 

‘I’m constantly thinking about session design with the other coaches and with some of the other practitioners – such as the strength and conditioning coach, the nutritionist, the psychologist – thinking creatively about how we can create problems in the environment and discuss what a really great outcome might be. Then tell the athletes to work towards achieving that outcome.’ 

There tends to be more of a reluctance among the older players to strike out on their own, preferring an approach of repetitive drilling. 

‘They’ve grown up in an environment where they have had a lot of this type of coaching and perceive it as good coaching. I try to challenge back and tell them that the hockey environment is changing half second by half second, and you have to decide which method or skill to use in which context every time it changes.’ 

Lots to ponder 

Here endeth the lesson – and what a lesson it is by one of the country’s foremost practitioners in the art of high performance sports coaching. 

There is little wonder his demeanour is sometimes wrongly misinterpreted. There is so much information being played out in his head when he is in a training environment that his facial expressions belie the fact he may actually be in a jolly good mood. 

The athletes have learnt not to read too much into it. As for the growing list of Kerry devotees, what they should be able to read into this detailed exploration of his coaching techniques are the reasons why he is held in such high esteem. 

His coaching story stands as a glowing example of how hard work pays off and how, in sports coaching, knowledge really is power. 

This article has been produced from the Coaching Bootroom video below conducted by the sports coach UK Talent and Performance team. 

For more videos like this, visit the Talent and Performance pages of the sports coach UK website.

Have you found Danny's advice useful? Please leave a comment below.

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Comments (14)

   
NickRuddock
Years of experience and reflection packed into one blog post. A great read, thanks for sharing!
11/12/15
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CatherineBaker
Fascinating. Thank you.
16/12/15
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Brett
Loved this article... Biased as a Hockey Coach but puts the bigger picture in to perspective nicely.
17/12/15
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Brett
This probably should read 'I'm a fellow Hockey coach' I'm not calling the Ladies Head Coach bias!
17/12/15
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Wendyrussell
Fantastic read and listen.....can be shared cross all sports and coaches.
23/12/15
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sophia
An excellent account with great insights. I will make sure my students see the video and read the script.
19/01/16
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StevieP
A very inspiring piece in so many ways, and a perfect example of taking on board perceived negative feedback to make longer term positive changes
20/01/16
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Lizbolney
This popped up on my daily digest, but it's a year old. But with the GOLD in Rio, it shows Danny's approach works. Great read.
27/08/16
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tonyMaj
Great to share the ups and downs of coaching and the focus on the knowledge of human beings and developing the right culture with simple mantras for players to follow! Excellent.
27/08/16
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Ralph
Unfortunately, we don't get to hear about the many coaches that don't get gold, that also up and down the country that finally reach the same conclusion as Danny. It's not getting Gold that proves Danny's method works, otherwise we keep focusing on the results and not the journey. It doesn’t account for the many coaches that get the same success, just don’t get the same result.
You’ll notice I separate the two, success is, “you’ve done, your absolute best”; whether you get gold or not it’s a different thing, called result. Unfortunately and bizarrely, we measure success by result. You think everyone that won gold did it fairly? What changed my mind, was my mentor who said, the best coach he ever met, never coach anyone of any note, and because of that, we’ve ‘lost’ the knowledge of one of the best coaches in the world, because no one ever heard of him and perhaps that could be the point of Connect Coaches. I suspect there is a CC member reading this, that is a breath-taking coach, who also none will ever hear of.
Blake, Rob, Nick and Jon (and others) write some brilliant blogs, which take an enormous amount of time and valuable experience, hundreds of views, still amazes me so few coaches make a comment (Let alone tick a Like). Know wonder we never hear from them.

In this article, I hope you noticed he rightly dumped the "I owned the performance" mantra and replaced them with “collective ownership, distributed leadership and common purpose”; what do those three things have in common, that make it so successful?

The person that loves him the most claimed, he wasn’t showing his true self to them. With Lisa's advice, he did change, he showed a side of his character, they hadn't seen before. That's the journey and that's what got the best out of the squad, the courage to self reflect and take a personal criticism on the chin, own up to it. He dared to be human rather than what he thought a human should be. Lisa was wrong, he was the person the athletes thought he was, because that’s the person he chose to be in front of his athletes, that’s what their perception is. That character needed to be ‘assassinated’.

Same with Pain, “painful to hear” really? Pain is a gift nobody wants, yet athletes from every nation are making that painful choice and redefining pain, as a good thing. Trust me, as a medical professional, you are in a lot of trouble without pain perception. Almost all pain is perception, therefore mostly all in the brain. Time to accept pain as a natural growth process and part of being human, not be avoided, just understood.

Norman Vincent Peal sums up what I’ve said in one beautiful quote…
“People would rather be destroyed by praise, than saved by criticism.”
31/08/16
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Ralph
This links in with another of my questions, zombie ideas, “believe in yourself.” As coaches, we really should dump this idea, it might be debatably useful for those that are highly insecure, but highly insecure has no place in sport that I’m aware of.
So what’s so wrong with “believe in yourself”? Is illustrated in the article above, the self that Danny portrayed, wasn’t working for him nor his team. I claimed as did he, that self needed to be assassinated, I’m wrong! There was nothing wrong with the self he was portraying, except it wasn’t his full self. Once he showed the other side as well, that Lisa said they weren’t seeing, problem solved, Gold medal. But remember, they weren’t seeing it because he wasn’t showing it.

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” – Kurt Vonnegut

The main problem with, “believe in yourself” is, belief require no proof what-so-ever, which is why it is linked with, a leap of faith, into the unknown. It is often used as an excuse to not change or not be self-reflective, why would you? Why would you change what you believe in? The self does require proof, belief is future and a prediction, self is present. Mixing present and future often doesn’t work.

I’d suggest we kill off the zombie idea of “believe in yourself” and replace it with, “acceptance of yourself” that solves a lot of the problem of unrealistic expectations us coaches face with all parents but more importantly gives us a realistic starting base to move from.

Sometimes you can’t find a logical, moral or socially acceptable explanation for your actions. Sometimes your behavior runs counter to the expectations of your culture, your social group, your family, your team or even the person you believe yourself to be. In those moments you ask, “Why did I do that?” and if the answer damages your self-esteem, a justification is required, and you want relief.
You can see the proof in an MRI scan of your brain presented with political opinions which conflict your own. The portions responsible for providing rational thought, gets less blood until another statement is presented which confirms your beliefs. Your brain literally begins to shut down when you feel your ideology is threatened.

“an idea is something you have, an ideology is something that has you”

Try it yourself. Watch a Politician you hate for 15 minutes. Resist the urge to change the channel. Don’t complain to the person next to you. Don’t get online and rant. Try and let it go. You will find this is excruciatingly difficult.

That’s the cycle of cognitive dissonance, Danny went through a painful confusion about who he was, which gets resolved by seeing the world in a more satisfying way. Prof. Festinger, “you make your view of the world fit with how you feel or what you’ve done.” When you feel anxiety over your actions, you will seek to lower the anxiety by creating a fantasy world in which your anxiety can’t exist, and then you come to believe the fantasy is reality just as Benjamin Franklin’s rival once did. He couldn’t possibly have lent a rare book to a guy he didn’t like, so he must actually like him. Problem solved.
The Gold medal went to Danny because he solved his anxiety with reality rather than the usual human fantasy. Gold is about being super-human.
The Benjamin Franklin Effect is the result of your concept of self coming under attack. Every person develops a persona, and that persona persists because inconsistencies in your personal narrative get rewritten, redacted and misinterpreted.

If you are like most coaches, you have high self-esteem and tend to believe you are above average in just about every way. It keeps you going, keeps your head above water, so when the source of your own behavior is mysterious you will confabulate a story which paints you in a positive light. If you are on the other end of the self-esteem spectrum and tend to see yourself as undeserving and unworthy, you will rewrite nebulous behavior as the result of attitudes consistent with the persona of an incompetent person, deviant, or whatever flavor of loser you believe yourself to be. Successes will make you uncomfortable so you will dismiss them as flukes. If people are nice to you, you will assume they have ulterior motives or are mistaken. Whether you love or hate your persona, you protect the self with which you’ve become comfortable. When you observe your own behavior, or feel the gaze of an outsider, you manipulate the facts so they match your expectations.
02/09/16
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DanMassaro
Excellent - I loved it when Danny realised he was working with human beings and not knowledge banks!

Very reflective, what more can a coach do or be?

Well done Danny.
03/09/16
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Ralph
According to Melucci (1989), “The freedom to belong to an identity and to contribute to its definition presumes the freedom to be represented”, therefore we need cultural spaces “which enable individuals and social groups to affirm themselves and be recognized for what they are or wish to be.”
04/09/16
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Spodolive
Love the blog, this is what I think represents true expertise, thoughtful, reflective and able to apply his skills and values. That coupled with a lot of grit and honesty. Nice one Danny. I saw glimpses of the journey and it always inspired me. Thanks you.
14/09/16
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Branko011

Great article, showing us the importance of adaptation on the road to success. And meaning of success not only delivered through the medals, but firstly by creating inspiring working environment where everyone is able to perform at his/her best. Well done to Danny, and all other coaches who are ready to take the journey of discovering themselves and their athletes and collaborators, and draw the map to success.

12/06/17
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