Sarah Kelleher: ‘There are inherent biases in place which need to be challenged’

After a decorated playing career Cork native Sarah Kelleher has carved out quite a reputation in the world of hockey coaching and business consultancy. Yet for all the plaudits and praise she has gained for her innovative approaches, the former Irish international has been overlooked for a number of high profile roles. "The top jobs," she says "invariably go to a man"

Sarah Kelleher: ‘There are inherent biases in place which need to be challenged’

After a decorated playing career, Cork native Sarah Kelleher has carved out quite a reputation in the world of hockey coaching and business consultancy. Yet for all the plaudits and praise she has gained for her innovative approaches, the former Irish international has been overlooked for a number of high profile roles. The top jobs, she says, invariably go to a man

While Sarah Kelleher is too eloquent and mannerly to resort to profanity over our lengthy conversation, central to her coaching is an appreciation that shit happens.

Last month when the England U18 team she coaches played a series of matches against her native Ireland in Lilleshall, all kinds of curveballs, were thrown at her players, with her often being the one rolling them up and flinging them.

On the eve of the first game, she and her coaches didn’t attend the pre-match meeting; even the team physio didn’t know they were going be a no-show.

Imagine that: some players about to play their first-ever game for their country and there was no coach there to tell them what to do.

So, instead, players had to take the initiative and step into that vacuum and go through what way they were going to play. When they did see Kelleher and her assistant coaches again, they were informed that again the coaches wouldn’t be initiating any instructions, they’d merely answer any questions the players came up with themselves.

For another game, the players had to swap sticks with one another, like making a snooker player play in a tournament with a cue that he’d never even held before. In one half of another game, they all played out of position, like Mo Salah going to left full and Andy Robertson playing upfront.

At one point when the sides were tied 2-2, Kelleher put it to the players about whether they should take off their goalkeeper. The players said yeah. So Kelleher gave them the green light. Okay, so how could that work? Okay, so let’s see how that goes.

What might seem a little wacky to you is based on cold logic, practicality and science.

“We wanted to bring chaos to the players, so that when chaos and challenges do come their way in a major competition, they are able to deal with them. Last year in the Six Nations, we went to play Holland in the morning and when we got there the pitch was covered in glass. The game had to be moved from 10am to 7pm. But because we had practised from calm to chaos beforehand, they were able to manage their day and perform that evening.”

This is Kelleher’s sixth year as head coach of the England U18s and in the three European championships during that time they have never failed to emerge without a medal, albeit, it has been a bronze every medal. To medal again this August in Russia, and preferably with a silver or gold, the players need to be ready for challenging moments.

A business consultant with her own agency called Flourish, Kelleher has a keen interest in psychology (the name of her business was inspired by similarly-named books by Maureen Gaffney and Martin Seligman) and how it can help her clients and her U18 players.

“If you look at the habits of high performers, something that regularly comes up is their belief in routine and how different rituals can prime you for performance. But if you then become a slave to them and something changes, then you can’t function because routine has become an inhibitor rather than an enhancer.

“I took a Yale course and if you look at their Woop model and the research behind it, it shows that if you desire a certain outcome but have not visualised the possible obstacles, only everything going positively and smoothly, well then you’re going to be less successful.”

But as well as studies, Kelleher’s coaching is rooted in something far more holistic, even love. That was probably the biggest buzz for her of that Lilleshall camp and that series of games against Ireland. When each player at the end was asked for one word to sum up the week, ‘love’ and ‘joy’ were the most recurring. Love of the game. Love of playing with flow, love of overcoming challenges together. All the shit thrown at them wouldn’t have worked if it wasn’t first coming from a place of caring and psychological safety.

“These players have been on a journey together since September and over that time they’ve come to know they’re in a safe place. What you want to be able to do is create environments where people can feel like playing to their strengths and can express themselves and be open. And that does not mean you can’t challenge people. That’s the misperception people can make. If you can create the right positive environment, then you can challenge in a much stronger way because you can look them in the eye and they know that you value them and they’re not being personally attacked. When there’s a trust there, you can do it in a way that they’re bigger for it, not lesser for it.”

She looks back now on her own U18 playing days with huge fondness: a shy Cork girl from Harlequins getting the train up to Dublin and then coming out of her shell mixing and playing with the girls from everywhere else and going over to Germany.

To this day she can still taste the food that they ate, see the craic they had and feel the buzz of being voted team player of the trip. So much of that positive life-long memory she now attributes to the environment the coaches created.

But then she can remember the 1994 senior World Cup. At 24 she was team captain and Ireland were hosting the tournament. A key playoff match against England went to penalties. Kelleher was first up. She missed. Ireland subsequently lost the shootout, sending them into a 11th-12th playoff against Russia, the lowest pairing in the entire tournament. That night in the team meeting as the players sat in their chairs, the team coach turned around to Kelleher and basically said the team lost because of her. How do you think that made her feel? Bigger or lesser for it? As it turned out, both.

“I remember even then thinking, ‘There has to be another way.’ Even in my playing days I was thinking about how to create optimum environments. At that time we would not have had a culture recognising that everyone was giving their best instead of knocking them.

“But it’s funny, we still talk about our scars and how even in the worst moments, we have the opportunity to build each other up and be our best selves and go on to be stronger for it.

“And it was in that tournament, in that playoff game against Russia, that I found my voice. It was an 8am game, instead of the place being packed like it was for all our earlier games, it wasn’t even half-full, but I can still remember standing in the huddle with the girls, maybe using a bit of choice language, and I knew that no matter what, we were going to find a way to win.

“And I remember we were on a short corner, the ball came to me and I put the ball in the back of the net. And it wasn’t technique or skill that scored that goal. It was just pure desire.”

Kelleher would continue to play with Ireland until she was 29, despite commuting from London where she was working and playing with English champions Slough for much of that time. She’d then focus more on her work in the publishing business and then life coaching where she’d develop an interest in neuro-linguistic-programming. Enthused and informed by some of its insights, it led her to want to try some of them out in coaching hockey.

Looking back now, she laughs self-depreciatingly at how overt and “clunky” she was in her delivery and translation of its principles to club players, but in time she’d find the right mix and that it freed up and empowered athletes.

As a player she had read some of the work of Tim Gallwey, and found the inner game of hockey worked much like the inner game of golf and tennis: that performance was basically potential minus interference. If you could make quieten Self One, that doubting, judgemental internal voice she likes to term our ‘gremlins’, then the better you’d play and more you’d enjoy your sport.

Creatiivity is at the heart of her coaching; in fact two years ago, she went to Denmark to undergo a Legoland facilitation course, so now some of her team’s camps will involve putting a story and video together through using Lego and some music. She tasks her players with identifying their favourite international player and a move of theirs that they can work on themselves; then the video clip goes up on the group, and then the players design how they can practise and eventually nail such skills, just as she in her first year in college used to ape some of the moves she’d watch Sean Kerly and John Shaw pull off at Seoul ’88.

Sometimes she’ll get the girls to identify the signature strengths of their own teammates. And of themselves.

Because how often do they recognise and appreciate that? Recently she’s been reading the Rachel Simmons book, Enough As She Is to further help in her coaching, because central to it is the notion they’re people more than they are players.

“Some people need more support to see what’s getting in their way. Because if you look at young people today, especially females, there’s a lot of societal issues that are creating social anxiety and confidence issues from there being so many perfectionist models out there. So we need to help young people develop skills, not just to help them as hockey players, but as people.”

Sometimes Kelleher herself can be subject to some self-doubt on account of her gender. Too often just being herself hasn’t been enough. For all her excellent work with the England U18s, for all the success she’s now had at senior adult level coaching Hempstead (along with Rio gold-winning captain Kate Richardson-Walsh) to promotion to the Premiership, for as much as she’s in such demand as a speaker on the coaching and leadership circuit, she still finds herself hitting a glass ceiling when it comes to coaching jobs in her sport.

As a still passionate supporter of Irish hockey — she and her family were subjected to a lot of baffled looks on a boat in Croatia as they excitedly watched on their phone as Gillian Pinder scored against Spain at the 2018 World Cup — she applied for the vacancy created by Graham Shaw taking the job in New Zealand. Kelleher was interviewed but ultimately it went to Sean Dancer. She also went for the Scottish job. No joy there either. In another job within the GB system there wasn’t even an interview for her or anyone else. She’d have liked at least that.

She’s been told for other positions that she hasn’t enough experience beyond U18. When she went for an U21 job, it went to a man. The top jobs invariably go to a man.

“Often as an individual you can feel, ‘Is it me?’ But then you hear from other female coaches and other voices and it’s not. We need more stories, more voices.

“For one role I went for with GB hockey, we were told there were no interviews because they knew enough about the candidates. But I would have an issue with that. There needs to be a process, robust processes.

One of her projects now is helping UK Sport with their female coaching strategy to encourage more women to take up coaching, but it’s just one of many balls she has in the air.

She takes our call while she’s over in Saudi Arabia in her role as a strategy consultant; indeed she’s just on her way to a talk at the British Embassy on some of the overdue changes happening in Saudi; last year women were finally allowed to drive there.

And while balancing family life, she will continue to coach, using song, Lego, video, imagination, love, to create more players for her adopted country and more importantly, memories for them all.

“If you look at your own journey, what you take from it goes so far beyond those white lines of that hockey pitch. You learn so much about yourself as a person and your ability to work with others and to deal with ups and downs. And I strongly believe that it makes you a better person, a better parent from the life skills you learn. So I look to design environments that recognise that, so we can be the best we can be as players and as people. A key part of our journey is creating experiences that we’ll all have for the rest of our lives. Last month for instance we gave the girls half an hour to come up with something creative. And in that half-hour they wrote and sang a fantastic song. Only we know that song but we will always remember it. How it came about. What it was about.

“[In 2018] we were playing Germany for the bronze game. The night before the game, one of our co-captains started vomiting and was ruled out. Then just before the game another one of our star players started vomiting into a bucket. At halftime we were 1-0 down. Everything that could go wrong was going wrong. But the girl came back and scored two cracking, flowing goals, and I remember just watching it, thinking, ‘This is magic. We will always have this.’

And that will always stand to those players, whether they go on to play for England and GB, or they just go on in their lives to be doctors or whatever. Those experiences absolutely shape and stand to us. And they’re very enjoyable! There’s just a lot of joy connecting with a team and playing great hockey and being gritty together. Even when it’s tough, there’s joy there.”

Sarah Kelleher will be speaking at Movement and Skill Acquisition Ireland’s sports coaching conference in Cork IT on April 24-25.

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