The Final Whistle
After nearly 17 years I have finally decided to hang up my whistle as a coach at the end of this season. There are multiple reasons – which I will touch on in this blog – but in truth, the passion that drove me for as long as it has is just not there anymore. I would say in fact for the last half of this season I probably have not done the team I coach justice as I have been so out of love with it. When you lose that spark, it becomes very hard to reignite. I am not saying never again, but for now no more.
I have had a ball coaching; I have loved it. I have been lucky enough to coach some great players and even greater people. I have had some success and some failure, but none of that matters as much as seeing the player who goes on to achieve the potential you thought that they could. The sense of belonging I see in players who come in, new to the game. Most important of all, watching some of the young players I have coached grow into really nice people is far more rewarding to me than any accolades they may ever achieve in sport.
I will never lay claim to being the best coach, I have tried to make the game enjoyable and different from prescriptive coaching styles, I have tried to be fair. I have tried my best to empower players to make mistakes without fear, so they can learn from them as part of the coaching process. I am certain I didn’t always get it right, and certainly not every player will have liked my approach or style. That is something you have to accept as a coach.
I have two important lessons from involvement in coaching grassroots sport #1: You have to put what is right for the majority 1st and suffer the consequences of the individual’s annoyance at these decisions. #2 You can’t fix everything, so find the biggest problem and try your best!
I am pleased I am calling it a day at Bletchley Rugby Club as it is the one place where I have always felt valued and respected as a coach in my own right. It has been one of the most enjoyable coaching periods of my time. Coaching a team of really nice humans. This was a team I coached in the past; that asked me to help out for a few sessions, and here I am 2 seasons later. This is a group of players and volunteers who have had to really battle to survive. Some players moved on and all manner of vultures circled the team waiting to pick at its bones. They have had ex-players set up a team a couple of miles away; contacting oppositions of the teams they were to play and telling them Bletchley had folded. County coaches actively tried to poach players, despite fielding two sides at their own club. These situations were what motivated me to stay involved for as long as I did; to stick two fingers up to those people who wanted the team to fail.
The team knuckled down and got on with the job. The first season we won one game conceded over 600 points and got relegated: I have never enjoyed a season more. As mad as that sounds, over my coaching career I have coached unbeaten seasons, I have coached relegation seasons and yet this one was a group really digging in and trying their best, in a league that was far too tough for where they were at. We put enjoyment at the centre of all that we did, we made sure every session was fun, every game we set small targets and they just embraced the challenge and the reality of the situation. I would say, maybe this season I lost some of that original spirit in an attempt to improve the way we played.
Bletchley came at the right time for me: the club I was coaching at before, I don’t feel ever really took my coaching seriously, or I feel, valued my thoughts on where the club was going. In many ways my desire to coach was always motivated for many years by a dream to be the head coach at that rugby club. The club I had been part of for 20+ years. I applied for the role and set out a 3-year plan, laying out the challenges that were coming to the club and what I felt we needed to do. 3 people applied I didn’t get past the 1st round. 2 coaches less qualified than me did. One dropped out as it was too far, and the one the club choose didn’t make it to the start of the season. I was told it wasn’t personal, it was business, just like the mafia when they kill someone off. It may not have been personal to the decision makers, but it was to me: deeply personal. Everything I laid out in my interview about the challenges the club was going to face this season have come to pass.
I think what my experiences have taught me have been that in grassroots coaching you are not in control of very much really. You can be in control of trying to make rugby as enjoyable and welcoming as possible. You have to develop a thick skin, which isn’t something I am particularly good at. You have to accept criticism from people less qualified and less experienced than you and your pathway is often completely out of your control.
In my opinion, grassroots coaching isn’t about winning things, that is a by-product of getting the little things right. It’s about creating a place that people can come to escape, to spend time with their friends and be part of something that supports them as people. Teach and inspire people to love the game, to love their clubs and let that be the only measure for success.
Personally, I’ve just completed a mentoring course through the RFU for mentoring new coaches. I’m hoping that I can find some use for that. I’m going to write my book, I’m going to watch rugby and I’m going to be a fan of the game. The challenges facing rugby at grassroots are multiple, and we need to go outside the box in the need to find new ways to engage people. I will always love the game and always be inspired by the people who play it. It’s been a privilege to be involved.
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