Sarah Wagstaff

Who are you helping players become?
If it were easy to be a real difference maker then every other coach would find it easy as well.

Which would make it really difficult to do important coaching, coaching that stands out, coaching that players (and their parents) would go out of their way to find.

When challenges arise during your coaching, it might be a good thing. Because those challenges may dissuade all the coaches who aren’t as dedicated as you are. It pays to seek out the hard parts of coaching.

This week, we interviewed Sarah Wagstaff, a coach who’s weathered the highs and lows of two extreme seasons in a row to become a difference maker.

Sarah is the Cardiff Archers NBL Division 1 Head Coach, Lead Basketball Coach at Cardiff Met University and PhD student in Sports Coaching at Cardiff Metropolitan University. (twitter)

We asked her:

Who are you helping players become?

Sarah’s answer
Where I’m from, university wasn’t a common pathway for the people around me. I’ve been around people who haven’t contributed to their community and I know what that looks like.

So for me, it’s simple – I help players become contributing members of their community.

That starts with treating everyone fairly, regardless of their status and power.

I was a cheeky kid at school. My PE teacher and English teacher had opposite views on me. Reflecting back I realise that as coaches we have the advantage of being able to connect with young people via the game. I use that advantage to invest in the people I coach.

Helping people become contributors is connected closely to my coaching philosophy and approach. I value communication and asking questions – I want the players to be decision makers and thinkers, not just compliant with the coach.

I try to achieve my aim of helping players become contributors through our style of play too. Our style looks simple – a loose structure with decision making within it – but actually there’s a lot of teaching focused on equipping people to play with freedom within that structure.

Three seasons ago we didn’t win a single game, then a year later we won the league. Now in year 3 I’ve experienced both and I’m able to be true to myself and our style of play. My style has definitely changed over that time. Instead of telling them what to do and being a cheerleader on the sideline, I’m now focused on creating an environment where people feel safe and enjoy themselves.

By ‘safe’ I mean an environment where they feel comfortable being uncomfortable, they know I care and they build relationships with each other. A place where everyone feels they belong. That allows them to be on the edge of failure which is where they grow.

But the groundwork has to be done first. Once they feel safe initially then I have scope to challenge them to grow.

That’s how we got through a hard year of zero wins but also how we stayed grounded when we won our league.

3 Takeaways

1. ‘What I coach’ should support ‘why I coach’

A style of play is not simply a tactical choice. It’s a moral choice too. For coaches who want to empower players and create transferable skills, a highly structured do-what-I-say approach to tactical situations doesn’t fit. Alignment between coaching values and coaching tactics creates consistency and trust.

Start with ‘why I coach’, not ‘what I coach’.

2. You don’t get to see where the ripples end

As coaches, we don’t get to see where the impact of our work ends. It could take decades to understand the impact we have on people. And those people still may never fully understand how their coach helped them. But that shouldn’t stop us putting in the emotional labour of placing the needs of the people we coach above all else.

3. Can your team environment survive losing?
Winning may smooth over a lot of tensions but as soon as the inevitable dip arrives, a ‘win at all costs’ environment will be exposed and tensions turn into conflict which turns into demotivation and drop out. That’s why valuing player retention alongside development and winning, requires coaches to create a positive experience for the people taking part.

Reflection Questions

  1. What’s the worst thing that has happened to you as a coach and what positives come out of the situation?
  2. If you experienced a long losing streak, how would it feel to show up at practice every day?
  3. Can you list 3 new ways you could have fun with players at your next session, while still achieving your coaching goals?

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