Jenny Coady

What made you the coach you are?
It’s busy in the head of a coach. How does a busy coach decide which thing to do FIRST…. out of the many ideas and options they have?

It can be overwhelming juggling the many demands of coaching while maintaining a life outside sport.

Prioritisation is the antidote to this overwhelm, but a lot of the coaches we work with at MVMT wonder HOW to do prioritisation “right”.

So here’s one simple rule to bake into your coaching approach:

Make the most courageous decision possible.

It works because almost every coach (almost all the time) knows deep down what the RIGHT thing to do is.

Coaches know what the right choice is for the people they coach, but they don’t always make the right decision.

When you prioritise the most courageous decision possible, big changes happen. Ordering and executing on the basis of what’s RIGHT (i.e. putting people first), not what a competitive environment is influencing you to do (placing winning-first), will transform your coaching and enable you to transform the teams you coach. Doing the opposite will eventually lead to stress and burnout.

Putting people first and rejecting win-at-all-costs is intuitively the right thing to do. But, it’s easier said than done.

This week, we wanted to talk to a coach who’s made tough decisions. We found Jenny Coady, (twitter, linkedin) a highly successful club basketball coach and former Ireland national team coach who chose to leave a wining-first environment to start from the bottom and then went on to become a Performance Coach for West Ham professional women’s football team.

We asked her:

What made you the coach you are?

Jenny’s answer

Endless decisions to be honest. To start coaching in the first place, I was fifteen, young only playing the game a couple of years myself. When I’m coaching, I bring all my previous decisions with me in the form of a toolkit. Some I’m happy about and some we will just call ‘lessons learned’.

Who I am as a coach comes from a lot of exposure to different environments and people in and out of my sport. Seeing how the game was played and coached in Asia, North America and all over Europe gave me a chance to dive into this wonderful sport with a whole new layer of questions about why they do what they do and we do what we do? To help me along the curious path I shared a lot, tried to grow a quality network of critical friends, sought feedback and remained as humble as possible.
“At one point early on in my coaching, I made a choice to be brave, to be comfortable being uncomfortable.”

I played for a number of years in the most successful basketball club in the country. High standards and expectations went hand and hand and were very clear from day one. So I as a new young coach embraced those with my new shiny coaching toolkit on my back. When I took up coaching, I loved every minute of it, I started to ask different questions than I did as an athlete and took up a number of referee qualifications and went to watch all different types of coaching to support this insatiable need to know more about the world of coaching. A big part of this was about getting the best of me and the people in front of me. In my first few years we had success (as in the winning kind), I loved it but something was missing and I remember facing the club committee after a few years with a couple of requests/suggestions for the club that weren’t about the winning kind and more the person and development kind. They didn’t have that on their agenda at the time and so I decided to look outside the competitive bubble and ask, who else needs support? What else is possible outside of a performance-first environment?

I left and went to a local small school where sport was played but not with a performance lens, it was very much about enjoyment and people development. We started at a development level with 6 girls and grew from D league to winning the A league with 12 teams in the school but winning was never the focus. We focused on nourishing relationships, creating an enjoyable space to spend a couple of hours after school, the players understanding themselves, their behaviour and how to be competitive over the first couple of years there. I soon saw teachers and other sports coaches in the school coming to sit in and watch a session. Some teachers came to just observe what thriving for some pupils looked like outside the classroom.

Another big decision from that same environment was when we qualified for the World High School Championships and we had to make a decision to fundraise ten thousand pounds in eight months. Some of these girls had never travelled, the school and local community wasn’t very wealthy and these girls had never really worked together on anything outside the gym. So we had a meeting with the school and the players and they presented their case and what they would do to make this happen. There they were day in and day out for eight months coming together, school, staff, parents and the community to embrace this challenge that people said was impossible to fund this incredible trip. This tournament in France was the final competition for those girls, one that transcended sport and reached into the community and to date some of those players are coaching, some are still playing and some have grown to live the values we once shared on the hardwood in the school hall.

I was still growing as a coach and wanted to reach what I thought was the pinnacle of my coaching career, representing Ireland. Not all my international playing career was a positive experience so I really thought I would embrace this with all my energy, time and a growing toolkit. There were some enjoyable moments and the technical/tactical element was a nice challenge but eventually I had to reevaluate my desire to support ‘the people first approach’ and be in an environment that best suited my identity and values. Transitioning out of international basketball changed the way I think about myself, it was a very tough decision but one I needed to make. It is something I think I’d like to revisit some day both personally and professionally.

Now, I’ve switched sports from basketball to football and give back via a coach developer role.

When I look back, I started out coaching as I was coached as a player and what was expected of me inside a really competitive club environment. At a critical moment I made a decision to change who I seek validation from, instead of seeking validation from basically everybody. I chose to shift towards my own internal orientation and direction. I revaluated my measure of success and shaped my own path with some great mentors along the way.

That led to a change in behaviour and how I coached. I broadened my network. I started exploring new ways of coaching.

I lifted the ‘win-first lens’ and saw sport in a new way.

3 Takeaways

1. ‘Why’ is more important than ‘what’
Win-first coaching environments can lead coaches to focus their attention on the things that create the quickest results. The technical/tactical content of your sport are ‘what’ you coach – don’t let them distract you from ‘why’ you coach.
2. Close the plan-do-review loop

Coaches are so busy with the ‘doing’ they often don’t make time to review what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. Finding quick and easy ways to review the ‘doing’ will bring insights and ideas that enable better planning for the next session or game.

3. Learn from every action, act on every learning
New coaches just starting out wonder what the “right” action is. Meanwhile, veteran coaches just ACT….. and then they learn from every action they take. They let the players teach them what to do by talking less and observing more. Then they take those observations and turn them into actions. And repeat.

Reflection Questions

  1. Rank these three priorities – winning games, developing players or retaining players in your club/programme. Why ?
  2. What proportion of your coaching time is spent reflecting on our coaching versus actually doing coaching?
  3. What’s holding you back from thinking more about why you coach?

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