Vicky Joel – UK Coaching Week Blog
I am a coach of a winter sport. I am quite happy to turn out on the cold, dark, often wet nights to train with other like-minded people who are there for several reasons but one (quite often) is for the right to be selected to play for a team at the weekend.
This rationale had already been challenged and national governing bodies of sport had designed more informal versions of their sport that clubs have been delivering for several years. The pathway that is encouraged is always back to the formal teams. And then came the pandemic.
The cancellation of the 2020 – 21 season was a certainty. The feelings of some of the individuals I worked with were varied and strong in equal measure. Some were quickly switched to, ‘right, that’s it. No more sport, no more matches, no more training, have a good Christmas (spoken in September)’. Others would keep checking the announcements in the hope that something would happen to allow us back out to train and play.
Coaching has always been a role and to a degree a responsibility for the people you coach and not just the delivery of sessions or pointing and shouting from the side of a pitch. The pandemic examined this, and it is this that I want to talk to you about.
You can probably never know exactly what goes on in most people in your teams’ lives. You can take them on face value, how they present, how they interact, how they perform.
Return to play was met with some nervousness and a lot of excitement. Caution and distancing mixed with reverting back to normal on pitch behaviour and closeness of proximity.
It became apparent that one of the players was struggling. They had a good support system around them, and they would appear to sessions on an ad hoc basis and be available for matches equally as randomly. Was it nervousness of the return to play and the pandemic that made them physically and emotionally distant from the rest of the group or was it something else?
I tried everything, I tried friendly, I tried curious, I tried joking, I tried engaging in a bigger group and on a 1 to 1. Everything was awkward (to me) and equally as uncomfortable for them. I had a real-life situation, in the middle of a pitch where a player was struggling and I had a larger group of players who were so happy to be back together and playing again, the contrast was stark.
Then, another player, who began to struggle emotionally and even the endorphins of exercise and training could not stop them from coming to an abrupt stop both at training and at matches in an upsetting way.
Two players, both who had changed in terms of character and indeed their health and me, a coach of a who is desperate to play well and win games.
So here is what I learned. Talking openly in a group about wellbeing (men’s and women’s separately and specifically if needed) and about mental health is great. We must create environments that players and participants feel comfortable to attend.
The team and the individuals within it will have their views about a teammate who has low mood, who gets upset, who does not respond to a shout from a teammate or to a joke in the changing rooms as they would expect. Generally, people are nice, and they are kind. In the middle of a league match there are certain messages delivered in certain ways that are not helpful when someone is feeling fragile, and that is a dynamic, real-life challenge that I think more and more of us as coaches will find ourselves dealing with.
Did I deal with these two individuals correctly in each scenario? Definitely not. Through trial and trying to understand reactions and by reaching out to the individuals support system, we found a way to communicate and to retain them in the team.
I felt that this experience was significant in my coaching career for the main reasons; 1. The role and benefit of sport and physical activity on people’s mental and physical wellbeing became really apparent. Sport created the environment and the opportunity to interact socially and to engage in tactics and one on one competition that provided a sense of purpose and accomplishment. 2. The realisation that there are lots of us who will suffer with our mental health and that as coaches, we need to see our participants and realise that by encouraging people to talk and by trying to reduce the stigma that has been associated with mental health, we [the coach] need to be equipped to deal with it in our sessions, at our matches and as part of the environment and culture we create with our participants.
Vicky Joel – Director at Think Active