At first glance, there seems little to connect Irish third-level academics with our sporting success on the international stage. Coaches are coaches, academics are academics, and while the two cross paths here and there, they’re usually like ships passing in the night.
But a new Masters degree at the University of Limerick, the first of its kind, is looking to change that. The idea behind the MSc in Applied Sports Coaching is to cross-fertilise knowledge between the two realms, to weave various strands of sporting expertise together with the goal of making Irish coaching — and Irish sport — stronger than ever.
Ambitious, yes — but vision without execution is hallucination.
Developed by Giles Warrington and Tom Comyns, and set to be delivered by Phil Kearney and Ian Sherwin, it’s a two-year, part-time programme that’s drawing applicants from across the spectrum. Capped at 20 places for its first year, there are already successful applicants from rugby, GAA, athletics, gymnastics, and tennis.
‘So what?’, you might say — aren’t coaching courses running all over the country? Yes, but none as diverse as this.
“This is the first course that’s really applied on sports coaching,” says Tom Comyns, a retired sprinter who lectures in human movement science at UL.
“A lot of other courses have a little bit of coaching but lots of sports science. This is [about studying] coaching philosophy, coaching skills, coaching behaviours in order to increase the level of coaching in Ireland.”
The need for such a post-graduate programme was identified in research by David Passmore at DCU, with Warrington doing much of the early running, working with Sport Ireland and various national governing bodies to get input and approval.
Warrington and Comyns then designed a programme that would fit the coaching development plan for Ireland.
“We want to move coaches away from being sport specific and get that cross-fertilisation, getting experienced coaches in a room and see how they do things differently,” says Phil Kearney, course director.
“It’s not for people starting their coaching journey, it’s for very experienced coaches. They’ve already got coaching experience and are up-skilling for the next level.”
But that doesn’t mean they’re only targeting elite-level coaches. Far from it.
Indeed, if there’s one theme emerging from those working at the coalface of Irish coaching, it’s that expertise needs to be developed at every level.
“We’re looking to develop master coaches,” says Kearney. “It might be a master children’s coach, development coach, academy coach, or professional coach.
“It’s a different skillset, and you have to understand the challenges across those.
“We want people from across the development spectrum. A professional coach will work better by having a better understanding of the development coach underneath them. You have to appreciate their role and just because you’re a successful inter-county or international coach, that doesn’t mean you have the skillset to coach children.”
“Take your local club, your local school, and it’s likely the coach with the best expertise is working at the highest age category. It’s understandable, but the flip side is that those working with younger age groups are often lacking an understanding of correct coaching principles — how to develop fundamentals that will keep an athlete in the sport and also provide the platform for a senior career.
“There’s this idea that when you start coaching you work with kids, then as you get more experienced you move up towards the elite,” says Comyns. “But if we have exceptionally experienced coaches working with young people in that area, it’s going to have a huge impact on skills development and ultimately on performance.”
Comyns sees the full spectrum on UL’s pitches, courts and tracks — across all ages. Recently he rejoiced as he watched an underage soccer team start their training session with 20 minutes of fundamental skills and body-weight movement exercises.
“It’s fantastic, but that may be a rarity,” he says. “If we can target those coaches who are at developmental level we could have a big impact. The development of motor skill is the key thing.”
There are three central tenets to the new course: self-analysis, peer-analysis, and interaction with research.
The idea is not so much to teach the principles of effective coaching and let the graduates take that into the world, but to use their coaching as the starting point: to study it, debate it with peers and then hold it up against the evidence and research to improve it.
“It’s about getting a really good group of individuals together,” says Kearney.
“There’s a potential to generate Irish coaching research which would be world-leading.
“We know a lot about what good coaching looks like but we need to learn more about supporting good coaches, to maintain a healthy coaching workforce because coaches give so much to their athletes and generally don’t take care of themselves as well — that’s really important.”