I’m an ex-athlete of very modest achievement. I got hooked age 10 on the Isle of Man, when our next door neighbour decided she was going to revive the dying athletics club which went from about 8 of us to around 150 in a couple of years. Pictures of Sebastian Coe and Mary Decker who were my favourites of the time decorated my bedroom wall.
Over the years I tried my hand at most track and field events bar the throws and pole vault, but my heart has always been with endurance. I ran 65 second 400 hurdles and earned Full Blues at Oxford University in the same year for the unique combination of 400H and cross country.
Without realising it at the time, I probably got into coaching quite young. Prior to university I’d spent 18 months on the remote (3 days by boat being the quickest route there) island of St Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean.
My father, who had a Coaching Assistant qualification, was asked to help the St Helena team get ready for the Inter-Island Games. He had never coached any of the more technical events and so I ended up putting my 5 star award scheme knowledge to use by helping him on the more technical aspects – like high jump basics and sprint starts.
From there, I went down the formal coach education route, taking my first qualification quite young in my early 20s. It was mainly out of selfish reasons to try and help myself become a better athlete and so I took a sprints and hurdles qualification under the old system.
Now I’m a level 4 coach, although I firmly believe the qualification really is just the starting point and the majority of the learning happens outside of the formal education, through attending workshops, talking with other coaches, practice and reflection and the athletes I work with.
I got properly into coaching through a series of happy accidents, initially when I ended up coaching whilst teaching art in an independent school.
I suppose my first success story was a 6th form girl who took up running aged 16 and finished 6th at ESAA Senior Girls XC at Cheltenham two years later. I remember how emotional I was and how much joy I got from seeing her run so well, but also seeing her grow as a person through the confidence her running had given her. It was a far greater buzz than I’d experienced as an athlete.
My coaching philosophy is very simple. It’s based on helping the more performance focused individuals be the best they can be and enjoy a life-long love of the sport and all that it brings.
It doesn’t matter what their potential is, just so long as they are willing to commit to training and competing. It’s an athlete-centred approach. I coach the athlete to the events where I believe they have the best potential and/or the event they are most motivated to succeed at.
I used to see myself as purely a middle distance coach, but realised that to be athlete-centred you need to coach the person first and then the event, otherwise it can be a bit like trying to fit round pegs into square holes.
In terms of female coaching, things are changing – if slowly. At a recent South West Endurance Coaches conference, over 40% of the attendees were female.
When I started coaching I was quite slow at coming forward and asking for help, but I think the coaching environment has changed greatly in recent years, and programmes like the England Athletics Local and National Coach Mentoring Programmes bring coaches into contact with other coaches and creates a more sharing enviornment.
My advice now to female coaches would be don’t be shy, get in the huddle and mingle with other coaches.
I think many of the barriers that face coaches aren’t specific to women, but perhaps just affect more women, like balancing work and families and time. I also think some barriers can be self-imposed.
One of the biggest barriers for me personally was probably worrying that I was doing it all wrong and that there was some sort of magic answer to good coaching. Once I worked out that good coaches are always learning and making mistakes, then it freed me up a bit to be braver.
It’s a bit of a generalisation I know, but I think women in particular can worry too much about being the finished article before we have barely begun. Perhaps perfectionist traits, fear of judgement and criticism can be what holds us back from developing.
There are lots of women out there doing a great job in coaching but they are a minority at the moment. Raising awareness of their achievements to create more female role models for women interested in coaching would help. Also involving more women in tutoring and delivering of coaching workshops should be a priority.
I enjoy coaching both genders and feel I can be equally effective working with male or female athletes. I think younger women in their teens and early-twenties are under enormous pressure outside of sport to be perfect at everything and that can add some additional coaching challenges at times.
There’s also the added complication of challenges regarding the female athlete triad – a syndrome in which eating disorders (or low energy availability), amenorrhoea/oligomenorrhoea, and decreased bone mineral density – which is a concern for coaches and athletes alike.
It’s the individual I am interested in coaching, regardless of gender. I like working with all the different personalities and characters brought together by the simple sport of running and their mutual recognition of the hard work and discipline it takes to achieve in running.
I think my coaching has changed quite a lot over the years. When I first started there was a lot less volume and a lot of higher intensity work. Over the years I’ve developed what I believe to be a better balance of longer endurance work and speed work.
Good running mechanics have always been important to me and perhaps this was cemented early as my initial coach education was in sprints and hurdles.
We nearly always include drills and movement pattern work before the running sessions and I do an indoor session for physical conditioning where we do a whole load of non-running stuff, like multi-jumps, medicine ball work, squat and lunge patterns, etc.
I’d say coaching has its ups and downs like anything, but if you love the sport and enjoy working with people it’s a lot of fun. In a sense you get to be inspired and even entertained everyday by the individuals you get the chance to work with.
The litmus test for me is on the one or two occasions a year, usually when it’s freezing cold, wet and miserable and I’ve had a long hard day, that I drag myself out to the club half hoping no one will be there so I can go home again.
And then they all turn up, and there is that club camaraderie and banter that gets us all through the evening and I come home feeling completely different, inspired and motivated.
Interview by Hannah Viner
Image from Andrew Peat
This article originally appeared in the sixth edition of Left Spike from December 2016