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21 Feb 2019 930

Shaping the Future of Coaching

A summary of this year's Applied Coaching Research Conference.

“[Confidence] is hard to define; sometimes difficult to find, and really easy to lose. Coaches can make a real difference, and I hope that today will help you make that difference as well,” said UK Coaching’s patron, HRH The Princess Royal as she addressed delegates at the second Applied Coaching Research Conference at Derby County Football Club on the 19 February.

On a bright, fresh winter’s day, nearly 150 coaching practitioners and researchers descended on Pride Park to ‘Shape the Future of Coaching’, as well as explore contemporary learning solutions; innovative coaching practice, and coach well-being.

The latter of the three aforementioned was the topic du-jour, with Princess Anne’s lunchtime address the cherry-on-top of a day dedicated to acknowledging and freely discussing mental well-being.

From her own experience as an elite athlete, HRH poignantly shared with delegates her view that the secret to physical and mental well-being is confidence.

“Confidence comes with the ability to know what it is you’re doing and how you are going to do it. And that physical activity frequently builds up your confidence. Well coached people tend to be more confident and by that definition they also tend to be mentally healthier.

“I hope this [research conference] has given you some idea as to where you might go with certain types of coaching activity. And I hope it will, more than anything else, underpin your own confidence in what you want to do as a coach; how you want to coach and the end result. And that balance that you need between real success – in terms of measurable success on the one hand – and the feeling that you really achieved something on the other, which might not necessarily be tied to silverware.”

UK Coaching’s own research has demonstrated the positive association between coaching and good mental health; mutually benefiting both the coach and the participant. And just recently, Minister for Sport Mims Davies set out her priorities for ‘increasing access to sport and improving health and well-being’ in her speech at the launch of UK Sport’s future funding strategy, where she talked of the positive impact that sport and physical activity has on the nation’s health and well-being, as well as taking the pressure off our health and social care systems.

This notion was not lost on Dave Hembrough, lead strength and conditioning coach and senior sport science officer at the Centre for Sport and Exercise Science at Sheffield Hallam University, who referenced the speech in his presentation, Powerbelle – Women Who Lift – A Community Model of Female Empowerment and Development of Self-efficacy.

He was pleased to hear the minister’s conviction on reaching ‘harder to reach groups’, including ‘more women; more people from BAME backgrounds; more disabled people; more of the many people who have a hard time finding spare cash for exercise and wellbeing, and more who struggle to find family activity time’, because, he said, it shows that the sector believes that sport and physical activity has a wider purpose – to improve people’s lives, health and well-being. And it is a notion that fits in perfectly with the vision of Hallam Barbell Strength and Fitness Club – of which Dave is the head coach – who wish to create a physically, mentally, emotionally and socially strong Sheffield by providing a range of personal development and physical activity opportunities to a wider audience.

One of those opportunities is Powerbelle, which Dave said, “provides a safe community space for women to enjoy training together without many of the distractions and disruptions they might find in a traditional strength training area of the gym.”

The 10-week, women-only, community strength training programme is the club’s busiest, with over 80 women training every week and four members of staff delivering sessions, supported by several volunteers. The whole idea of the programme is to develop self-efficacy, ie the ability to take control of one’s own destiny, and additionally, to develop coaches through employment and experience in leading programmes.

But why just women?

Underpinning the programme is evidence from Sport England’s Active Lives survey, which suggests that ‘there’s two million fewer women than men regularly playing sport’, “if you look at sports more broadly”, said Dave.

We know conventional sport doesn’t always work. In fact, the statistics that represent women’s participation and engagement in sport show they’re around 10-20% - depending on the age – less active and less engaged in sport than men.

Therefore, Hallam Barbell designed, developed and communicated a programme – endorsed by British Weightlifting – to attract more women who wanted to regularly take part in exercise. “Weightlifting is good because it’s scalable; accessible, ie it can take place in lots of spaces, and improvements to physical fitness are quickly noticeable,” said Dave.

Boiling down to the research itself, Dave and his team took one small cohort of 12 participants and their coaches, each attending one Powerbelle session per week over a 10 week cycle and instructed them to complete a self-efficacy questionnaire at the end. Although the quantitative results were inconclusive, the thematic outcomes were in line with the club’s aspirations for the programme, ie the feedback showed that the women were benefiting from a positive social environment and had positive intrinsic feelings about the tasks they were given; their individual capabilities, and their general attitude to sport and physical activity.

Presenters Dr Alex Twitchen (The Open University), Michael Antrobus and Ciara Allan (The Football Association) and Alice Weaving also made an impactful case for coach well-being through a peer-to-peer research project aptly known as Creating a ‘Peer to Peer’ Learning Culture: The UEFA B ‘Vets’ Project.

The ‘Vets Project’ was designed as an innovative solution to the challenge of the ongoing development of coaches. The long and short of it? Sixteen coaches who participated in a UEFA B Licence football coaching qualification in 2017-2018 volunteered to act as mentors to the next cohort of coaches undertaking the same qualification the following year.

Hampshire FA County Coach Developer Michael explained from his perspective that it was about how they could help coaches informally after they have just finished a formal course and not just give them their certificate and 'hope to see them in passing one day'. “How can we help them on their journey and expand their competencies,” he said. 

Michael also believes that by developing the coaches as coach developers/mentors would ensure the future of Hampshire’s (and the FA’s wider) network of FA mentors and affiliate tutors – especially useful to the coach if that’s an aspiration of theirs once completing their UEFA B Licence.

Transforming into an interactive session, delegates came together to look at case studies from the project and most uniquely, ask relevant questions of Alice Weaving, a living, breathing ‘vet’, who revealed how the project had helped her and indeed the coaches she was mentoring.

Moreover, it was Alice’s experience of the socio-emotional benefits of the project that were most striking, explaining to delegates that she was not only helped practically to stay engaged in the FA’s coach environment, but also helped emotionally.

I think the raw emotion when you get onto a course like that is quite big for coaches. So at the start I was very anxious and very nervous; was I good enough? I was trying to compare myself to other coaches in all honesty. Then on reflection, and becoming a ‘vet’ and seeing some similarities in learners, I thought ‘well, how can I share my experiences and help them through that process and make them less nervous?’ And it’s quite clear with one of the learners that I’m currently peer-supporting, we shared that similar experience of being nervous, anxious and the fact we can sit there and talk about it really helped her progression through the course and made her a bit more confident, as well as myself.

Admittedly, the project is still in its infancy at just nine months old, but what it is highlighting, as Open University’s Senior Lecturer of Sport Coaching Alex Twitchen said, is that there is no need to see formal qualifications as isolated learning opportunities - they actually exist in a wider learning network. “The ‘vets’ group is another network for coaches to access for support and development… and useful for coaches who don’t have an extensive learning network.”

Settling down in the main room after a hearty lunch, delegates had their minds fed too with a stimulating 30-minute panel discussion on coach well-being. Sitting on the panel was Dr Pippa Grange – a sports psychologist who has worked with athletes and leaders in elite sport across the world for over 18 years; Liz Burkinshaw – UK Coaching's Development Lead Officer with over 25 years of experience in coaching, educating and people engagement, and Prof Alan Currie – a consultant psychiatrist in the NHS and visiting professor at the University of Sunderland in the Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences.

UK Coaching’s Head of Talent and Performance Nick Levett, who was compére, started the discussion off with a foundation question on how might the sector better support the mental well-being of coaches.

Pippa opened by stating that having a conversation about mental well-being is a move in the right direction – removing the layers of taboo that still shroud the topic. She said as a sector, “we need to create environments and cultures where care pathways for coach mental well-being flourish”. To that end, Liz reminded the room that we need to move away from looking at coach well-being as if it’s an isolated phenomenon, “one in four people [every year] will experience a mental health problem and that includes our coaches.” From a psychiatrist’s perspective, Alan believes that although the industry has “worked very hard in recent years to make sure the care pathways are there for athletes and that the care pathways for mental health problems have a parity with physical health problems”, in terms of support for support staff 'we’re half a step behind'.

But what are the practical steps that coaches can take to ensure their mental well-being remains on point?

Liz said coaches should consider ‘connecting’ with more people outside of coaching and Alan supplemented her point to say it is “critical for coaches to have a confidant; someone to open up to; to put things into context.” In his view and indeed Liz’s, mental resilience comes from relationships and coaching can often be an isolated and lonely profession.

Lifestyle choices also play a part in mental well-being, and Alan’s doctor’s orders were as simple as going to bed on time; not drinking too much, and looking after yourself physically. Mentally, however, Alan advised coaches to be wary of the dark side of perfectionism, as “being overly self-critical when high standards are not met is a fast track to bad mental health.”

Lastly, Pippa’s strategies included getting coaches to schedule in psychological space/mental freedom from coaching no matter how jam packed their schedule.

Psychological freedom was certainly on offer following the panel discussion, as delegates made their way to their selected ‘time for you’ sessions’, curated especially to extend the well-being theme to everyone in attendance. One such session, MindfullySTRONG, was particularly cathartic for filtering through the excitement and acquisition of new knowledge from the day.

Lead by Hallam Barbell’s Dave Hembrough, MindfullySTRONG is incorporated as part of the club’s weightlifting programme and helps participants train physically and get back in touch with themselves to feel fully connected with their present moment.

The meditative element – that Dave lead delegates through – aims to help people become more self-aware, feel less stressed and be more in control of thoughts and feelings. Hembrough himself has found the concept particularly rewarding, especially after a difficult period in his own life, where he said that ‘mindfulness became really useful’.

Settling into our chairs and closing our eyelids, we were instructed to ‘be mindful’ of our breath and the thoughts entering and leaving our minds as we focused on the rise and fall of our abdomen. Once we were brought back into consciousness there was certainly a lifting of worries and a more acute sense of reality.  

Dave said the simplest way for coaches to access something that can alleviate the pressures of their day-to-day lives is to “recognise that everyone has mental health, and we can have positive or negative mental health.

"I would encourage coaches to look at the use of physical activity and sport for [the improvement] of their physical and mental well-being in a way that might differ in how they used it growing up or in a competitive arena. The mindful use of physical activity and sport – whether that’s structural or informal – can help people to feel well, fit and healthy; recovering and recuperating mentally as well as physically."

Packing more penetrating insight and advice into his 40-minute keynote presentation on maximising potential than many coaching books can claim to deliver was Tony Strudwick – one of the UK’s leading figures in sport science and head of performance at the Football Association of Wales.

Recruited by Sir Alex Ferguson as head of sports science at Manchester United in 2007, he enjoyed 11 years working for the Red Devils and was head of performance before taking up his current role with the Welsh FA, having also worked with the England national team at the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

His keynote made for an inspiring start to the day, giving delegates an intriguing glimpse into what it takes to be a successful coach in the world of high performance sport and spelled out the optimal conditions needed to produce world-class players and athletes.

“It is about giving the player 100 different experiences rather than focusing on the end product of getting them into the first team,” said Tony, who went on to stress the need to create a relational coaching environment where culture and context take precedence over content.

In coaching, content might be king or queen, but context is God, he said. You have to understand that what might work for Manchester United might not work for Derby County. Coaching is complex and each context is very different.

He discussed how building quality coach-athlete relationships can ‘out-trump the technical and tactical'.

Tony champions a holistic, ecological approach to talent development, where the environment must consistently offer a high level of support in tandem with a high level of challenge, shifting the emphasis away from the individual athlete to the wider talent environment.

Coaches must operate this type of highly supportive learning environment if they are to build the ‘perfect talent storm’, as he put it, like Manchester United enjoyed with the ‘Class of 92’.

It was a whistle stop journey covering all the theories and belief systems Tony holds dear, notably his love of creating ‘performance playgrounds’, while he spent time discussing generational differences and the need for coaches to adapt and embrace the modern world.

Some key characteristics of the iGeneration are that they get bored quickly, expect instant results and are highly confident. “There is no point bemoaning the digital revolution. It is what it is,” he said. “We have to embrace it and have to evolve and adapt to the people you are working with.”

Commenting on Tony’s keynote was UK Coaching’s Head of Insight and Learning Beth Thompson, who said that “Tony’s opening keynote speech was inspirational in terms of where [coaching] needs to be moving as a sector.”

And whilst he was talking specifically about high-quality talent environments in football, Beth said the message of adopting and applying truly person-centred approaches to coaching across the whole sector was loud and clear.

On the day itself, she said, “We are in an amazing space; in an amazing venue, with an amazing view and I think just being in a great environment is conducive to a great learning experience.

The point of today is that all of our research has to be applied to coaching. We don’t want our research to sit on a shelf and not be read. We want people to go away from today, taking key messages or pointers that they can start applying into practice tomorrow.

Research that certainly won’t be left on the shelf is the joint longitudinal project between UK Coaching and the Albion Foundation otherwise known as CoPs on Camera: Setting Up and Evaluating a Community of Practice for Sport Coaches.

Three Communities of Practice (CoP) were set up in different football settings (PE and school sport, player development centres and a post-16 football academy) to measure the impact they had on the groups of coaches involved.

CoPs can provide passionate likeminded coaches with the opportunity to interact, discuss and share ideas with each other, problem solve and support each other through their shared sense of mission.

Programme leads Mark Scott and Dr Lisa Whitaker of UK Coaching, working in tandem with Coach Development Officer at The Albion Foundation Chris Foreman, wanted to examine the extent to which this mutual engagement approach to learning and personal development can make you a better all-round coach – determining the impact it has on your behaviour, attitudes and ultimately your coaching practice.

The 12-month programme, which will finish in September, involves repeated observations of the 40 coaches working in the sports development team at the Albion Foundation – the charity of West Bromwich Albion Football Club. This includes tracking, monitoring and analysing their progress as the CoP evolves.

“Recently, a growing number of coaches have become more autonomous, engaging in deepened conversations, by meeting up in Starbucks on Wednesdays,” said Mark.

The interim findings are positive, with coaches in each of the three CoPs reporting that the project had had an influence on their coaching by:

  • deepening their knowledge and understanding of their particular areas of interest
  • helping them take on different points of view and put them into practice
  • giving them more opportunities to reflect
  • discussing their vulnerabilities
  • and helping them develop through being challenged and supported.

Some coaches have begun to observe each other’s sessions. “Their coaching relationship has spiralled through their interaction in the CoP,” said Mark.

Early findings support the idea that mutual engagement combined with a shared mission can lead to more efficient learning. Just as coaches are told player engagement underpins learning, so too, it would appear, does coach engagement underpin learning.

In Technology Enhanced Coach Education and Development: Why Nothing Works Everywhere for Everyone, Liam McCarthy and Tom Hounsell wanted their session to spark a wider conversation on the topic of technology and the role it plays in the development of coaches and the coaching workforce.

Liam (Senior Lecturer in Physical Education, Sport and Youth Development at St Mary’s University, Twickenham) and Tom (Lecturer in Physical and Sport Education at St Mary’s and Academy Coach at Fulham) said their main message was very much ‘hold your horses…’ when it comes to thinking of technology as a magic bullet.

“It is suggested in academic literature that ‘all is not well’ when it comes to providing ‘authentic’ coach education – and formal coach education particularly,” said Liam.

For example, many of the tens of thousands of students enrolled on courses that involve some element of coach education (through universities, County Sports Partnerships, governing bodies or charities), report that their coach education had little actual impact on their coaching practice.

For one 12-week module, 40 students from St Mary’s and 40 from the University of Central Lancashire engaged with each other through an online community of practice, set up using WordPress. The group collaborative blogs allowed students to ask for solutions to problems, bringing coaches together who were hundreds of miles apart so they could talk about things important to them. Technology was the driver in helping coaches benefit from ‘authentic’ distance learning to supplement their face-to-face learning, while delivering value for money and being easily accessible.

The Coach Logic collaborative video analysis software tool was also utilised for the research, with coaches’ weekly sessions recorded and posted on the platform.

We wanted to create debate and see what would happen next from an informal learning perspective, said Tom. We looked at the analytics: ‘What did they look at? How long did they engage? How frequently? Who were they collaborating with and who were their critical friends that they were having discussions with around their practice?’

Here are some of the key barriers to engagement they encountered:

  • There was a problem getting students online in the first place. Some of the feedback included: ‘How do I know what to do, when to blog and what to blog about?’
  • A saturated eco-system for students: Another website, another login, another password!
  • An unwillingness to put yourself ‘out there’ online and offer up an opinion in a coach development sense for fear it might be traced and used at a later date.
  • An unwillingness to learn a new platform: The process of uploading, sharing and viewing videos on Coach Logic was deemed ‘problematic, confusing and time-consuming’ in feedback.
  • Students didn’t like watching themselves back.

In summary, while there is some innovative and useful technology out there that can enhance coach education programmes and practice, Liam and Tom’s research suggests it is far from being the grand solution to everything.

Their advice:

  1. Consider your assumptions more carefully as nothing works everywhere for everyone.
  2. People do like to engage, but digital is not always their platform of choice.
  3. It is vital, with this in mind, to carefully scaffold the introduction of new technology for learners.