The annual Hooked coaching conference comes to Kings Hospital this weekend with a series of fascinating coaches presenting with the focus on “developing young players with talent”.
Among the marquee names taking part are Graham Shaw – fresh from World Cup silver in London last month – Belgian high performance director Adam Commens and Richard Bailey, a leading expert on coaching and coach education, along with former Irish captain Sarah Kelleher.
The former Cork Harlequin will be discussing how to create an environment for players to express themselves, drawing on her experiences of working in the English pathway system for the past number of years.
Kelleher led Ireland at the 1994 World Cup on home turf and had many successful years with Slough at the top of the English club game indoors and outdoors.
As her playing career wound down, the natural progression into coaching took hold but it was “a life-changing” course in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) in 2005 that has helped motivate and guide her way of thinking.
NLP looks to explore a connection between neurological processes, language and behavioural patterns and that these can be changed to achieve specific goals.
For Kelleher, it worked well for her in business as a strategic brand consultant and she soon sought new ways of implementing the theories for sport.
“I was intrigued about how you can take that into the world of sport, how can you make an environment to help people be better and understand your job as a coach, facilitating them to be the best.
“It’s a practical approach to understanding yourself and others. It’s about finding approaches to be your best and create environments to excellence.
“From a coaching model perspective, so much of this has come from Tim Gallwey and “The Inner Game of Tennis”. A lot of life coaching dates back to that and resonated with me. That was inspirational.
“He talks about people having what they need inside them; your job as a coach is to influence that. It’s not about telling; it’s about creating an environment of self-discovery where people find the skills they have and to help them find solutions.
“That intrigued me and created a curiousity as to how you make that environment. It now fits with game-based, constraint-led coaching models but he was ahead of the game back in the 70s.
“It gave me the tools to progress to my goals, visualisation of being able to see and touch my goals. There was real pragmatic tools to be who you are and see what you want.”
On the coaching front, she has developed her approach with London clubs like Spencer, Richmond and Wimbledon and has now been part of the English system for a number of years.
She started off with regional teams and then worked her way up to leading a Futures Cup side – akin to Ireland’s interpros – before becoming a centrally contracted coach.
Following stints as Under-18 assistant coach and heading up the Under-16s, she is now in her fifth year as head coach of the Engliand Under-18s. She has recently taken on a co-coach role with Hampstead & Westminster’s first team alongside Olympic legend Kate Richardson-Walsh.
All the while, she has put together what she calls a “flourishing” model of coaching, a holistic one “which is not just about what we learn but working with what makes people happy, very much like a character-based thinking.
“Top sports people now have to operate on so many different levels – psychology, health, wellness, strategy, self-confidence.
“A flourishing model can set them up for life, whether they go on to play hockey or not. It’s a way of thinking that, whatever age you are in life, in real succsessful teams, it goes way beyond the player to the person.”
Recently, Hockey Ireland hosted a level 2 course with pictures posted on social media of a group primarily of male participants. It was something that backed up Kelleher’s perception from England that there are plenty of female coaches but few push on to high performance level.
To this end, she hopes she can be part of changing that situation and encouraging more to push for the upper levels of the ladder.
“Getting to speak at a conference in Ireland is a great opporutnity that I am excited about, being able to stand up as a role model is something I take as quite important.
“The more female role models in these positions will open up more opportunities and more belief systems for women to make that choice.
“I’ve been coached by a lot of female coaches, the difference is the number of female coaches as soon as you get to high performance. I think there should be more! As the world is changing and there is a greater recognition of creating environments where people can flourish and be themselves.”
“It is really important it is deliberately thought about and talent is identified, people are encouraged and developed. It does need frameworks and strategies to push forward. It is a legacy that has to be overcome.”
Key to those frameworks – as in business – is finding and accommodating different ways for people to flourish.
“At Hampstead & Westminster, we have two female coaches at a high level which you don’t see very often. For females to succeed, they also often need more diversity of working structures. In many cases, there is still some more family responsibilities – we have to think about ways of being more flexible.”
Looking back on her World Cup experience, she says that while some of the players’ talk of sacrifices rang true, it was a world away in most senses from the 1994 vintage. She was in situ for the first week of the competition in London to see first hand the heroics against USA and India and could draw direct comparisons.
“I only found an article around our World Cup build-up and it said how we had some really good results as we prepared.
“Some of us took some time out to live in Belfast but, to be honest, it was nothing like what the girls did this time. Some of us did it; it was maybe three weeks and we worked in a local pub.
“It wasn’t the same level of commitment to take you to the next level! It was good for the time but that was the time.
“The game has moved on so much. I love the game but it is so much more exciting now with the rule changes, pitches, how the tournaments are structured. Playing a World Cup in Dublin was amazing with big crowds and atmosphere.
“For the Irish girls to have that experience but then have such amazing results, it’s a dream beyond dreams.”
And would she be tempted back to Ireland if the right role available? “Absolutely! I am doing this because I love coaching. I didn’t set out with any ambitious goals – and sometimes you can ‘over-goal yourself – but the more I have progressed, the more I have desire to continue because I love it and want to get better!”
** Places at Hooked are limited and tickets are on sale now for €85 including lunch and refreshments. They can be purchased here: https://store.hockey.ie/product/?8235_hookedConference2018.html