Lockdown lessons: Coaching guru Gary Keegan on the challenges of returning to sport

“I hope coaches have used that time to reflect, to think what they value most when they step in front of players of an evening."
Lockdown lessons: Coaching guru Gary Keegan on the challenges of returning to sport
High performance coach Gary Keegan. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

After the calm, the storm?

Sports are clicking gingerly back into gear all over, with a flurry of events now speckling calendars everywhere.

Gary Keegan is hoping coaches and managers have used the enforced lay-off well. 

The renowned high-performance coach has improved Irish boxing, Leinster rugby and All-Ireland champions in Gaelic football and hurling, but reflection, not action, is his message for the big restart.

“Keeping it in the context of this pandemic, and what that has meant for all aspects of society, if we focus on sport then we see coaches have been dragged up into the helicopter-like everybody else.

“Younger players won’t have experienced that, and they’ll be grounded by what they feel is most important now, but coaches have had a chance to reflect on what their coaching means, on the impact they're having on the teams and players they work with.

“I hope they’ve used that time to reflect, to think about what they’re focused on, about what they value most when they step in front of players of an evening.” 

What does that look like in detail? Keegan’s consultancy, Uppercut, works with businesses and sports teams alike, and the questions are similar for managers and coaches: “How self-organised am I? What’s the quality of my session plan? What’s the quality of my communication? What am I trying to achieve with them?

“If coaches have used this time to reflect, then their approach may evolve as a result.

“They might think ‘how am I going to find these players when they come back? I’m going to find them somewhat different to how I left them - and I’m also going to find myself somewhat different’.

“That’s a big question. There’s value in your session plan, but you can’t just get right back into it, to kick it off and run with it.” 

That’s as true of the youngsters seeing their friends again at training as it is of elite athletes.

“What I think parents have realised in this time is just how important sport is in a child’s motivation.

“Young people have struggled with their motivation because they’ve missed that social connection - their motivation has probably been driven significantly by the expectations of the peer group, training with the friends and having fun with them, more so, maybe, than winning and losing.

“Speaking to parents I’ve heard them say they can’t get Johnny or Mary out of the house or off a device - ‘we’ve a goal set up in the back garden and they won’t go out and kick a ball’, that kind of thing.

“And these aren’t the kids at the back of the group either but talented, disciplined kids. The pandemic has had a big effect on them.

“The question for a coach, then, is how to use that - how do I sit down with my team and discuss what the experience was, allowing them to share their experiences, to share what they miss, what they value?

“There are benefits to the athlete, to team cohesion - and to many parents, who may value sports more than they did before this all began.

“But again, I’d hope coaches will slow down and not run into this, run at the elements of fitness and games as we’ve always done. Some of that may still be effective, but how do you get to the next level - how do you deepen your coaching?

“Communicating with awareness is the most powerful thing to be on the receiving end of. A coach has to inquire, and to allow the team to be curious.” 

All of this points at a nebulous idea - the culture of a team or organisation, what that is and how it works. 

Keegan points to the ideal in all team sports, where there’s an exchange between management and team rather than one side dictating to the other.

“There’s no greater value than what you can take from the group, but the coach doesn’t bring all the value to the group - he or she brings some of it, but the biggest value he or she brings is in unearthing what brings the team closer together.

“That sense of purpose, the reason for standards, the reasons why we look to do things the way we do. With that players can begin to understand what a commitment looks like at an early age.

“The coach needs a degree of control over the session and the structure, but he or she also needs to empower players to take responsibility and to be curious about what they’re experiencing. That’s huge because it’s a learning culture, an empowerment culture - it says to players, ‘we value your opinion, your experience, your curiosity’.

“From my experience as a coach it’s not just about developing the boxer or athlete or player, but developing the person within the player. Then the things they learn every week at training are things they bring back to the community.

“Coaching doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You have to know your environment, you need to know your context.

“This isn’t just a competition context or a season context either, and that’s something I worry about - coaches going in with that narrow lens, rather than leveraging this period in terms of growth and greater access to the group’s potential.” Accessing that group potential means the coach needs to expose him- or herself, of course.

“If you’re a coach, then ask yourself what might these players be experiencing - ‘how can I bring them closer, how can I unearth lessons I wouldn’t have gotten normally?’ 

“When players see that as an expectation of the coach, ‘here are our standards and here’s why we expect those standards’, then there’s a clear sense of purpose.

“We talk about that at senior levels, with mature athletes, and younger coaches may not feel it’s as important. It may be harder to land with younger kids, but knowing the power of the peer group is very important, so with kids removed from that peer group during the lockdown, that makes their situation harder.

“Senior sportspeople have also experienced that, obviously, but I think younger kids have really suffered and may need to learn more about what drives motivation, about what discipline looks like.

“And that discipline is helpful in getting us through difficult sessions - when we’re self-accountable, when nobody else is looking - because we’re always trying to support the team around us, even when they’re not around us.” 

It’s no surprise that ‘vulnerability’ is a term Keegan uses of “the best coaches, the best leaders,” because it’s what enables them to take different views on board: “They’re the ones who are modifying the principles which guide their focus.

“That sense of vulnerability - they want to access new learning, to talk to new people, to take a view that’s different to their own and they’re not afraid of that.

“They’re much more open, they’re curious about where they can find that new growth, where they can close that gap they’ve discovered.

“Some coaches are more fixed. They’re fearful of exploring their limits and that holds them back.

“The coaches who are open and looking for ideas beyond their own boundaries, who are lifelong learners who realise there’s no end, no ‘there’ that you reach, the coaches who realise there’s always an opportunity to learn and grow - those are the coaches it’s best to be involved with.

“They’re willing to share their vulnerabilities. They’ll say, ‘we don’t have an answer to that right now but I can assure you we’ll find one because we always have’. Those are the coaches we all flourish under.

“But there’s not enough of them. I don’t know why that is, why we miss that in how we develop coaches.

“We shouldn’t develop coaches who believe all the learning takes place in a GAA environment or a soccer environment or whatever environment - that’s not where all the learning is, and other contexts need to be looked at.

“Coaches need a wide variety of reading and listening, not just to focus on the sports side - look at other elements of performance, how people learn in that space, and how that might apply in your own context.” 

Utilising experiences from this particular context is key, he adds.

“We all know at a deep level we’re social animals but the pandemic has maybe heightened our hunger for social connection. A lot of us have had a lot of information bleeding into our space through social media and so on, but I think when we recognise how important the community, the team, the group are to our mental health and progression, then we potentially look at our organisations very differently - or we lose the opportunity to leverage the lessons we could learn from this period.” 

Lessons, learning, opportunities. Gary Keegan to the core.

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