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Spread the word: It takes courage to be a coach, says Stuart Armstrong

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Stuart Armstrong

‘Coaches are heroes,’ proclaimed Sport England’s new Head of Coaching at the 2016 UK Coaching Summit in Manchester. Irrefutable fact.

In addressing delegates at the Hilton hotel, Stuart Armstrong saluted the ‘power’ and ‘impact’ coaches have on people’s lives. 

In a rapidly changing sporting landscape, the role of the coach is coming under much scrutiny, in view of the highly publicised ‘new strategies’ that have been rolled out in recent months by the government and Sport England. The release of sports coach UK’s future strategy is also imminent.

Stuart is keen to keep sight of the fact that coaches are a force for good – whichever niche they may operate in in this remodelled environment. 

To prove his point, he told a story of a bubbly nine-year-old boy with a dream of hitting it big in golf. 

During his time working in golf development, Stuart travelled to Shandon Park Golf Club in Northern Ireland, answering a request for help from club coach Ronnie McNeice. 

Ronnie’s mission was to get kids off the streets and on to the golf course. He arranged for coaches from other clubs to come and be part of his Young Leaders Award initiative, creating a community of individuals working with an exuberant assemblage of junior golfers. 

Giving Stuart a tour of the course, he showed him the site of the former clubhouse, ‘before it got bombed’, the fantastic new clubhouse and then, while surveying the practice ground, introduced him to one the young golfers in the scheme. 

‘This young boy bounded over to me, and Ronnie said, “This young man has just won the World Under-10 Golf Championship.” This little kid put his hand out to me and said: “Hello, my name’s Rory.” It was Rory McIlroy,’ said Stuart.

‘At the time, I had no idea what the future for that child was going to be, but I remember making a mental note that he had this confidence, energy and enthusiasm. Ronnie was clearly very proud of him, and their relationship was a really connected one. 

‘Ronnie was playing a role in enabling Rory to go from one place, or one state, to something else and was doing whatever he could to help that process and was doing an awful lot behind the scenes as a complete volunteer. 

‘That story shows the power and the impact that coaches can have.’

Rory McIlroy

A TASTE OF CLARET: Rory McIlroy savours his Open Championship triumph in 2014 as he prepares to kiss the Claret Jug

Acts of courage 

Stuart hopes to encourage more coaches to share their uplifting stories, to help inspire both the present coaching community and the inactive wider community, who Sport England are looking to convert to healthier lifestyles.  

The sporting landscape is undergoing something of a redesign, and while coaching is having to adapt and diversify to meet the needs of a new generation of participants, the core elements that go into making a good coach will never change. 

Stuart provided some clarity for those still struggling to put their finger on what the role of the coach is. 

‘The definition that keeps coming up in Google searches is “a person who trains or directs athletes or athletic teams”. Well, that doesn’t work for me,’ he said. ‘I don’t think that goes anywhere near what we are talking about. 

‘I find myself asking the question, how can we convey the message of the people who are prepared to coach? How can we convey the skill, the impact, the bravery, the courage that they have? 

‘There are so many fantastic stories of people having an amazing impact on other people’s lives. That, for me, is the idea of the coach and something I want to try convey to the rest of the sporting landscape.’ 

Embracing change 

If you change nothing, nothing will change. And while coaches have always been encouraged not to be afraid of change, it is no longer available as an option. 

Coaching is constantly evolving, the definition is broadening, while technology keeps advancing. 

‘The scale of the challenge in front of us is both exciting and daunting, in equal measure,’ said Stuart. 

But he has no doubt that these unlauded heroes and heroines – in their many guises – will rise to the challenge presented by the ‘new order’. 

The need for coaching to embrace change was one of the big themes of this year’s UK Coaching Summit, with keynote speakers and workshops dedicated to the topic. 

Speakers like Damian Hughes, who delivered a fascinating 90-minute presentation on ‘The psychology of successful change, and Barry McNeill, who urged coaches to ‘challenge the status quo’ and to push the message, ‘if it ain’t broke, consider breaking it’. 

‘In the future of coaching session, I heard Paul Thomas talk about creativity and innovation, and doing things in a continuously improving way, and he talked about having multiple micro-strategies,’ said Stuart. 

‘Having a single big overarching plan for something is likely as soon as it’s done to not still be relevant, and it needs to continually iterate and improve. 

‘And that’s a key message I took away from this year’s Summit, that in order to react with change, we need to be prepared to innovate. 

‘The coaching industry needs to be constantly pushing the boundaries and continually finding a better way of doing things, every session, and whenever there is an opportunity to develop an individual in any way.’ 

Members’ question and answer 

ConnectedCoaches members posed some searching questions for Stuart on the future of coaching, which I put to him when he visited our offices recently. Here are his replies: 

Wendy Russell: In order to allow everyone to become more active (as per the new strategy), will there be plans to make disability awareness and coaching mandatory as part of Level 1 and 2 governing body of sport qualifications? Disabled young people are one of the most inactive groups, but most coaches do not – or are not confident enough – to cater for them. 

‘This is an interesting debate: whether we should have mandatory components within coaching qualifications. It’s an area that I do want to look at because, at the moment, there are certain things that are mandatory within most qualifications that might not need to be and could, quite potentially, be creating a barrier to people entering the profession. 

‘I will be looking to tackle that and delve into the qualifications framework. I can’t guarantee that we will make one thing or another mandatory, but taking the principles within the strategy, and also within coaching, around the idea of making coaching much more accessible, we will look at the barriers to entry and at ways of getting people into the profession more effectively and definitely better equipped to do the job.’ 

Richard Cheetham: What does Stuart regard as the key priorities for coach development and education in the UK? 

‘So, that’s a question of two halves. Taking coach education as a starting point, which I refer to as formal learning qualifications, one of the things I’d like to explore is whether our existing qualifications (the different ‘Levels’ in the coach education framework) are actually having an impact in terms of the quality of the experience that the participant gets. 

‘Are our qualifications, currently, equipping coaches to give them what they need to be able to be as effective as they possibly can within the deployment context they are likely to be in? Or could existing qualifications be delivered in a way that is more aligned to the way coaches learn? So, instead of the qualification being the starting point, in fact, the qualification becomes the end point, or one of the marker points, on a learning journey – whereby people are engaged in learning in a number of different ways before they access an assessment of some kind and then get a qualification. As opposed to qualifications continuously being delivered through courses. 

‘That kind of lends itself to the second half of the question on coach development. At the moment, you do a qualification, and then you might want to do some coach development if you want to improve. If you start from the perspective of people being on both an experiential and a knowledge-based learning journey – so you don’t have CPD or post-qualification development CPD, you have learning, and then at some point there is an opportunity to be recognised for your expertise – then coach development is actually the way you get a qualification. 

‘Exploring that as a concept means that, potentially, we start to blend coach development and coach education, and they become one.’ 

Richard Allen: How do you see coaching evolving in the next decade, with reference to elite sport and modern coaching methods? 

‘I think, in the next decade, the vision is a significant move away from instruction and instructor-led coaching and that methodology as the primary vehicle for coaches to impart information or provide some form of knowledge to a performer. 

‘I see a move much more towards an ecological approach, which is the creation of a learning environment and the creation of learning dynamics that enable athletes to be much more self-directed in their learning and more exploratory. The idea is that coaches will be guiding that as opposed to leading it. 

‘Alongside that, potentially looking at a change in the landscape too, with the idea of providing an environment that looks something like a game, where players are encouraged to solve their own problems as they go. Their techniques emerge and are then guided and shaped by the coach based on the problems that the games present, rather than the model we currently have where we basically give a group of athletes what we call the techniques, the tools, to play the game and then we hope they are going to apply them in the right context. 

‘If we want to stay at the forefront of performance sport particularly, then if that’s happening through the pathway, you will get far more game-literate players arriving into the elite space. The emphasis then becomes about refinement of technique for the needs of the modern game.’ 

Matt Wood: What transferable lessons have you learnt as you have progressed between your various roles in sport? For example, are their common strengths and weaknesses you have experienced between organisations or head coaches you have worked with? 

‘If there’s one big one, for me, it’s the lack of connectivity between the participation space and the performance space. This is probably me on my soapbox, because I have worked in the talent landscape for quite a bit as well as the participation and performance space, but the one thing I see a lot of is a real disconnect in coaching between what the elite people want, how they want to do it and how they want to engage, versus participation. 

‘So in my time at the RFU, for example, you’ve got your elite coach development guys, and they work with about 30 coaches, one-to-one, really helping them develop. They think that can be replicated nationally when you’re talking about training 7000 coaches. It’s not always as easy as just doing that. So there’s a complete disconnect in terms of understanding and a significant disconnect in terms of the resources available. And yet everybody wants better coaches. 

‘Linked to that is the paucity of resources in coaching in governing bodies. There is a low percentage of investment, the bulk of which goes into qualification because it’s measurable, it’s easy to see. My view is that, if you can shift away from the idea of qualification and move more towards context-based learning and development of coaches within their environment, and resourcing that, then that’s where the sea change in coaching can come.’ 

Elly Moore: Sport England offers mentoring to those who run clubs via Club Matters. Are there any plans for Sport England to fund something similar for individuals and/or small groups of coaches (Coach Matters)? Not necessarily just around sport-specific technical or tactical input, but more a UK-wide formal cross-sport mentoring process to offer support and guidance around the whole coaching experience? 

‘I have already had conversations internally with colleagues who run Club Matters around how coaching can have a much better presence, and one thing I am road-testing before the plan comes out is the idea of a much more deployer-led model. 

‘So, in a club context, it strikes me that clubs should take much more responsibility for what the coaches do, not just accept that coaches are going to come in, deliver a great session and off they go. They should actually be more involved in saying, if they come into this club, this is the support and guidance we give you, this is how we want it to be done, these are the important factors for us, this is the sort of training we will provide and will bring to you. By doing that, I think new people coming into coaching will feel much more part of a community, even if it’s just a club community.’ 

Andrew Beavan: Certainly, in my sport (cricket), Level 3s and above aspire to be working with ‘performance’ players and above. Can we rely on part-time volunteers, or do we need more ‘professional’ coaches at the participation level? (Thinking mostly about Levels 1 and 2 here, working at ignition/participation stages.) 

‘That’s a good question. I was thinking only the other day, why don’t we have Level 4 children’s coaches? Part of the reason is the motivation for many coaches who are currently on a learning journey is to plough through the pathways and coach at elite levels. But there are a number who are excellent in the environment they are in. So what does an excellent talent coach look like? And what does an excellent club participation or adult coach etc look like? I think we need to find a way of recognising that. If we can recognise the expertise there, then I think those people can then become advocates for others to move in the same way. 

‘Are they volunteers or professionals? By that, I mean are they paid or unpaid? That’s a kind of different matter. The point is, you want to recognise the expertise. Do we need to professionalise, with a big “p” – in other words, do we need to pay people? There’s an argument that you could because you get complete accountability, but that’s up to the deployer. Do we need to professionalise with a small “p”, as in do we need for people to take that coaching seriously and to be very proud of the expertise they have? One hundred per cent. 

‘I think sometimes people think of a volunteer as a well-meaning amateur. It really doesn’t matter what they do as they are just helping. A volunteer coach for me is something different. If they are supported by a deployer, they should be given the best job possible, and in that landscape, yes, professionalisation is a way forward. 

‘In my heart of hearts, if I was running a club, I would want to be paying the people doing the participation work as much as I’m paying people doing the elite or talent stuff. It seems like the right thing to do. It may be one of the questions we will ask through the coaching plan – reward and recognition.’ 

Please share your thoughts on the article in the comments box below.

And you can help inform the new Coaching Plan for England by replying to Stuart's question to members here.

Further reading: 

Stuart Armstrong on the changing role of the coach and the implications of Sport England’s new five-year strategy

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Comments (1)


Some simply brilliant podcasts hosted by Mr Armstrong can be found here http://www.thetalentequation.co.uk/podcasts

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