CORRECT reflection during hurling, camogie or football training is easier said than done. When you’re in the thick of it, there’s rarely time to look at your navel. Reflection, however, is necessary if you want to be an effective and successful coach.
This short reflection focuses on the why, what and how of coaching. Let’s start withYou are a coach. Most people answer this question by saying that they want to contribute to the development of others by expanding the player/athlete’s skill set, thereby helping them achieve their sporting goals in an individual or team context.
But do we always live up to the ideal of putting the player first? Sometimes the coach is too central and gives the answers to the player or athlete too quickly. The best way to make sure that training is more about the player/athlete is to listen more and talk less. I have certainly been guilty, especially in the early stages of my coaching life, of talking too much and being too prescriptive. Over time, I learned to listen more and, accordingly, have more influence on the performance. Listen carefully to what your players are saying – especially their self-limiting beliefs and biases. This is the first step in helping them become better players, individually and collectively. So many players never reach their potential due to a lack of true self-belief.
Some people answer the question of why by saying that they train to win. But very few coaches become serial winners. Most coaches lose as many matches as they win. You will be disappointed regularly if you only train to win. Coaching carries intrinsic rewards beyond winning, even if winning keeps you in a job longer.
Winning is always more likely when you have very good players to coach, but such teams are hard to come by. So don’t let a loss put you off coaching or dampen your enthusiasm for improving players and teams. “Failing your best” is an important part of life, so pick yourself up and keep going when the results don’t come your way. The advice of the late Brian Mullins should really form the preamble to any coaching manual in any sport: hang in there, don’t give up, keep going.
Ethical training does not deny the joy that comes from winning, but neither does it promote winning at all costs rather than equity and integration, especially in the younger age groups. Of course, ethical learning is not easy – am I willing to sacrifice short-term glory for long-term life lessons? Even the more saintly among us know how difficult it is to field a substitution that you know will degrade the skill set on the field and possibly contribute to a loss.
But maybe your team plays better in the long run for a coach who doesn’t have a win-at-all-costs mentality. Perhaps belonging, justice and participation matter more than we realize. Fires rarely burn for ethical decisions, but such decisions can burn brighter for longer and change people’s lives.
The second question focuses onword. What is coaching? What should I focus on?
I put the most effort into hurling, improving the player, improving the team and teaching the grammar of the game. Grammar is important because it allows players to make sense of the game and provides a vocabulary for self-expression. It speaks to the essence of the game and comes before any considerations of structure or formations. To be an effective coach, you need to understand the motor and cognitive demands of the game so that you can technically prepare players to perform skills in difficult situations.
In hurling and camogie, the connection between the hurley and the ball is the most important, so the main task is the kick. A golfer has a set of clubs and a putter only has one hurley, so teach him/her how to hit the right shot at the right time when the pressure is greatest.
As Paul Simon might have said, there are 50 ways to hit the ball – learn them all. Building faith and confidence in your players is an important part of this technical training process. Individual practice through repetition is most important to developing a versatile stroke. But this must be supplemented by real game exposure in collective sessions. You can do this by ensuring that your training consists of different types of games (short, long, shortened, extended, uneven, unfair, umpired, umpired) where hitting skills can be tested and performed under extreme pressure.
Coaching is also about developing relationships and connections on the field. Regardless of which tactical schemes you prefer, the distance between the players on the pitch is very important. You cannot support a teammate if you are too far away; too close and you kill the field and the game. Learning the links requires an understanding of geography and geometry so you can attack through developing width and identifying pockets of space. By defending, you do the opposite – you reduce the field.
The game of hurling is now played in different areas of the field and the coaching requirements are very different for each of these areas. It is for this reason that elite teams now require more than one coach at practice. Most teams can’t afford to have multiple coaches, but that doesn’t mean space and geometry issues can be ignored.
The decisions a player makes with the ball are the calculation of the game – opening up space and closing down space – it’s all about how balls are delivered and received. Your brain prefers the former, not your legs. I’m always intrigued, especially watching games in the minors, when I see the teachers follow the ball up and down the field with no concern for what’s left behind or the ball’s next, most likely destination.
Hurling is a game of chess, albeit a bit more physical. Limerick have recognized this and that is why they are currently the big masters of the game.
Finally,the issue needs to be resolved. Pedagogy is critical to good coaching. Messages need to be delivered to players in different ways because people learn in different ways and at different rates. Some players respond to verbal cues, others respond better to a visual presentation, but all require one-on-one communication between coach and player for the messages to stick. I like teaching throwing through the senses because the game has distinctly recognizable patterns and sounds that resonate with players, but you have to find your own teaching style.
Whatever your approach, supporting players to find their own solutions to the shape and structure of the game is liberating and creates a sustainable platform for performance. If the player becomes too dependent on the coach, then the latter is not doing his job properly. Success is when the player and the team no longer depend on the coach. In the end, the coach has to let the player go, like a good parent lets a child grow into an independent adult.
Allow the player to play with the freedom to fail as well as the freedom to succeed – instinct and intuition matter, especially with children and young players. Competition and fun are powerful allies. Also structure and chaos. The design is good for technical and tactical development. Chaos is essential for decision-making, leadership and innovation. Players feel the flow through an intoxicating combination of risk and creativity, and the moment of bliss is when a coaching session takes place on the border of high skill and serious challenge.
This point isn’t easy to find, and even when found, it doesn’t last long (trust me), but it’s the best coaching experience, regardless of the age or level of players at your disposal. Simplicity can help this process. Less is more and complexity should be avoided whenever possible. And, contrary to popular belief, heuristics can sometimes be the best answer in a complex environment, so rules of thumb and intuition should not be routinely discounted in the sea of data now available to coaches, even at club level.
And finally, most importantly, slow down, listen, watch, and learn all the time as a coach. As Cavafy concluded in his Homer-inspired poem Ithaca: “Take your time in your journey—it is better to last years, so that you are old by the time you reach the island—rich with all you have acquired on the way—not expecting Ithaca to make you rich. Ithaca has given you a wonderful journey – without her you would not have set out – she has nothing more to give you.