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Birth of a new career: How to negotiate your first baby steps as a coach | New to Coaching | ConnectedCoaches

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Birth of a new career: How to negotiate your first baby steps as a coach

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Launching your coaching career can be a nerve-racking experience, but you don’t have to make that journey into the unknown by yourself. We are here to assist you and provide some valuable advice to boost your confidence and make the process enjoyable, smooth and satisfying.

  • Personal skills are more important than technical skills when first starting out. Don’t get bogged down with books and research.
  • Get to know the individual motivations of your athletes to ensure they keep coming back week after week.
  • Look at, and learn from, different coaches, and seek out a coaching mentor.
  • Enlist the help of a governing body or county sports partnership to assist you with your search for a club that is right for you.
  • Don’t feel obliged to take coaching qualifications. Learn the ropes first before deciding which path you want to take.

You are holding court in front of a group of 20 children, most of them chatting away noisily among themselves, a few staring expectantly into your eyes and several more climbing up the chain-link fence of the artificial pitch, daring each other to scale to the top and jump down the other side.

There are parents dotted around the sidelines, waiting for you to kick off your first session as a coach.

Are they laughing at you? Are you just being paranoid?

Your outward appearance belies your inner turmoil as you wonder why on earth you ever wanted to be a coach. You wish the ground would swallow you up.

‘Okay, listen up, everyone!’ And you’re off.

First-day nerves, we’ve all experienced them. Whether it’s your first day in a new job, your first day at a new school, sitting in the test centre awaiting your first driving test or standing at the altar waiting to get married for the first time. It is only natural that your emotions are in overdrive, with your adrenaline levels going through the roof.

But (thank goodness there’s a but, I hear you say) as sure as the turning of the tide, so your fear will ebb away. You have to experience that initial dread as a rite of passage to years of enduring fulfilment. As the saying goes, the first step is always the hardest.

ConnectedCoaches is here to help make the process that much easier, with the assistance of members David Turner and Emma Tomlinson.

David is a UK Athletics Lead Coach and England Athletics National Coach Development Programme javelin coach. He also works for sports coach UK as Children, Schools and Safeguarding Lead.

ConnectedCoaches member Emma, meanwhile, is a Level 3 athletics and Level 2 Multi-skills and basketball coach.

The personal touch

One major fear fledgling coaches report having is the worry they do not possess enough knowledge to get by.

But fear not, coaching at starter level is as much about engaging socially as physically, with more emphasis on transmitting enthusiasm in your sessions than diving straight into technical instruction.

‘I always ask people to tell me what their favourite teaching or coaching experience was and to tell me about that particular person,’ says David.

‘Very rarely will they come back to me and say, “They provided me with a vast amount of technical knowledge in every single session.” It’s not really what engages people at that primary level. It’s more about instilling a confidence in them and a desire to keep coming back week after week. They are more personal skills than coaching skills.

‘The technical skills can always come over time as you develop your experience and expertise. But the majority of people out there who want coaching don’t want or don’t need to be bombarded with a really exceptional level of technical capabilities. What they do want is somebody who can inspire them to perform and improve based on their own motivations.’

Whatever your motivations are for wanting to begin a career in coaching, it is important you also have an appreciation of the motivations of those you are working with.

You must strive to get to know each and every player, and understand what drives them to want to come back week after week.

‘The coaching session doesn’t begin when the coach starts speaking, quite the opposite,’ adds David. ‘You want to coach a sociable group, whether it’s children or adults. Most of us aren’t going to be coaching at elite level or looking after higher level development athletes. The chances are, most of us will be coaching people within a club environment who are there to have fun.

‘However, the flip side of that is, although the motivations are different, and it’s not about going to the Olympic Games but about gaining promotion in a Division Two Midlands badminton league match, for example, the reward factors, when you look at the psychological comparisons between those two groups, are almost identical.

‘There will be a very similar emotional reaction in the person who wins that Division Two title as the person who wins Olympic gold.’


All in good time

Emma knew from an early age that she would one day become a coach. What she didn’t foresee was that it would take her until her 26th year to achieve that goal.

Her plans were derailed for a number of years, first by a serious spinal injury she suffered when she was 13. ‘Someone jumped on me when I was doing the splits,’ she explains. The condition, when it flared up, left her temporarily paralysed.

Ignoring doctor’s orders, she began running again, but then had to put coaching back on the back burner when she started a family. She now has five children. But, as she states: ‘I got there in the end.’

Emma owes a debt of gratitude to England Athletics, which carried out some research into which of her local clubs were on the lookout for coaches. They put her in touch with Mansfield Harriers.

‘I popped down to the club and asked if they needed any help, and it went from there.

‘They asked me what I wanted to coach and I said I didn’t know. I helped out at different activities and with different age groups to get an overview and I found my niche, which is working with young children.’

She admits her initiation into coaching young athletes was scary, and that building up her confidence levels took her longer than she had anticipated.

‘It took me about a year before I felt comfortable coaching a set of children,’ she says.

‘I didn’t realise how much went into coaching, to be fair. I went to college to study sport as I wanted to be a PE teacher, but learning about coaching is not same as actually doing it.

‘I felt like a bit of a spare part at first, but the more you watch different coaches, the more your confidence builds. Being able to watch somebody and then replicate what they have done was helpful. It was never frustrating, but those first steps were a challenge.’

A trusted adviser

David has more good advice for coaches taking their first baby steps. By enlisting the help of a mentor, you can cut down on the teething problems.

‘My first mentor, Derek Newton, was a sprints coach when I was at Blackpool Athletics Club in the late ‘90s, through to when I graduated from university,’ says David.

‘He didn’t mentor me on the javelin or specific elements of coaching as I didn’t need that. I had David Parker as my national mentor, but he offered me advice regularly on how he would approach coaching, what he thought I was doing right and what I could maybe do differently.

‘What was really important for me was his perception of blame. He really believed in praising people in public and telling them off in private. I learnt a lot from him.’

Just as everyone remembers their favourite teacher, so inspirational coaches often have a place in the hearts of those they have coached or mentored.

That is certainly the case for Emma, who cites Becky Silver as a role model for her during her early coaching career.

‘Sadly, she is no longer with us, but she was a huge inspiration to me, and she was fantastic in getting the 150 kids we had at the club motivated.’

With Emma struggling to build her confidence, Becky recommended she take the First Leaders Award in Coaching Children, which was memorable for more than just the fact she met Jessica Ennis-Hill.

‘That course gave me the encouragement to know I could do it. Having that extra information, I was able to go back to the club and use it. That’s just the way I work. I am a slow learner but if I write things down, I remember it.

‘Two years later, I decided it was time to take the Coach’s course.’


Find your own level

But don’t be consumed by the need to take coaching qualifications before your logo-embossed club tracksuit has even arrived back from the wholesalers.

If your aspirations do lie in taking your Level 1s and Level 2s, then all in good time. And if they don’t, then that’s fine too.

‘My view is to get as many people involved in coaching as you can and then, if they want to take qualifications – if it’s the right thing for them – that will naturally come as part of their progression,’ advises David.

Stage one for a lot of wannabe coaches will probably be as a coach’s helper. And some people will be perfectly happy to remain in that role of helping out at pre-coaching level.

It will allow you to develop your confidence, and to see if coaching is the right thing for you.

‘Those who are coaching at Level 1 are normally referred to as assistant coaches. Essentially a coach’s helper, it is somebody who is an assistant but is not coaching at Level 1,’ explains David.

‘It enables someone to go out there on the touchlines that very day and start finding their way. They don’t need to be DBS [Disclosure and Barring Service] checked or have any basic qualifications in child protection training because they are always going to be working under direct supervision of a Level 2 or above coach.

‘So, rather than getting bogged down with books and research, I think the best thing is to go and work with a coach you are perhaps familiar with, or with someone you have had dealings with in the past in a club environment that you are accustomed to, and to just start shadowing them.’

Emma agrees that talking to other coaches, and watching and listening to them during sessions, is an important first stage.

But be wary of taking things to the nth degree and repeating a coach’s words verbatim or copying their individual style of coaching. That way trouble lies, as Emma found out to her cost.

‘I made the massive mistake at first of trying to be another coach. In my exam, I always remember the examiner telling me to be myself. “Don’t try and be someone else because it doesn’t suit you,” he said.

‘I took his words on board, and when I went back to the exam, I did exactly that. He told me afterwards that the session was fantastic – “I’ve never know a coach coach like you before.” It put me on a high. It’s about being your own person and finding what works for you.’

One day at a time

Shove a microphone in front of a football coach after a game and ask them where their team can finish in the league, and you will get the standard response: ‘We will take every game as it comes and see where it takes us.’

That hackneyed phrase might draw a moan from the television audience but is great advice for a new coach. Take one session at a time and don’t set long-term goals with regard to your coaching aspirations.

When you have established yourself and found your niche, then you will begin to figure out what drives you as a coach.

For experienced javelin coach David, it is to find the next Steve Backley.

‘For me personally, I hope I am able to instil some of that passion I have for javelin into as many kids as I possibly can, because somewhere out there is the next Steve Backley, who is one of the greatest athletes this country has ever produced in any sport. That is my motivation.’

Emma is driven by the desire to upskill and improve her personal development so that she is bursting with ideas to test out on her athletes, as she juggles her multiple coaching roles in athletics, wheelchair racing, basketball and Multi-skills.

‘Getting great new ideas is a massive thing for me,’ she says. ‘As you progress, knowing your information is key, as without access to that knowledge – learnt from watching or talking to other coaches or from reading about it online (I’m a big fan of the England Athletics website) – how can you pass anything on to your athletes?’

Step up to the plate

Some pearls of wisdom from two experienced ConnectedCoaches members for those just setting out on their journey.

Hopefully, their tips and advice will encourage budding coaches to take those first baby steps and to equip themselves with the confidence to grow and develop their skills over time.

Whether you have modest or monumental motivations, your experiences will be enjoyable, enriching and personally rewarding. So, let the journey begin.

Have you got any advice for new coaches, or are you a new coach seeking advice? Leave a comment below.

Next steps

UK Coaching (formerly sports coach UK) provides a host of resources for those wanting to take their first steps into coaching.

They also have a new online learning course, Discover Coaching which is a fun, self-paced course that will open your eyes to the world of coaching. Being able to connect with people is the most important skill for a coach - an increasing challenge in today’s digital world. That's why this course will enhance not only your coaching knowledge but also your people skills.

Content includes a reflection on the wide range of coaching roles today, a game where you advise a friend who is just starting out, a decision-making game where parents’ demands, the head teacher’s requirements and a child's needs differ etc. The course was influenced by ConnectedCoaches members experiences.

Further reading for new coaches

This blog is also available as a podcast on a number of platforms including Itunes. Listen here.

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Comments (2)


This is a great article, as a level 2 coach in a recreational canoe and kayak club we are all about getting children and young people on the water, having a great experience and wanting to come back. mentoring new coaches, and aspiring coaches is so important in giving this experience.

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Thank you for the encouragement. A lot of points made in the blog are reflected in the course I am currently following to gain a Level 2 coaching certificate. It is good to have those points confirmed independently by established coaches.

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