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Key to coaching is balance and having empathy for your athletes

By The Hockey Paper

Danny Kerry, the England and GB women’s coach, believes that working with female athletes sees them “taking things to heart” over their male colleagues in the sporting environment.

His comments came last week as UK Sport revealed new initiatives to improve athlete welfare following a ‘Culture Health Check’ report.

The report revealed that nearly a third of British athletes under the UK Sport umbrella had experienced “unacceptable behaviour” in their world-class programmes across Olympic and Paralympic sports.

Kerry, currently preparing for the Vitality women’s World Cup this summer, said that he had to change his ethos after the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Following a review, the then squad revealed that they took umbrage over the tactics employed by Kerry, now an Olympic-winning coach.

Kerry told reporters: “It’s not very PC to say this but in my experience there are differences between working with large groups of elite male and elite female athletes. There are different challenges to working with male and female athletes.

“Women can sometimes take things to heart. Men can be like that too but generally they have the ability to depersonalise it.

“Some coaches can unwittingly crush athletes with criticism through a lack of experience in dealing with people in stressful environments. That is something I’m extremely mindful of and I’m still getting wrong.”

UK Sport will now increase its investment to the tune of £1 million towards Tokyo 2020 cycle, to generate an increase in its capacity to support its members.

In the aftermath of several high-profile stories in swimming and cycling where athletes spoke out against coaches, Kerry spoke exclusively to The Hockey Paper late last year on the potential problem he and his colleagues face.

Great Britain coach Danny Kerry gets his ideas across during a morning training session

We can now publish Kerry’s thoughts for the first time and they offer a fascinating insight into how he deals with selection criteria and how athletes have dealt with the issue.

Athletes can ‘lash out’

“It is such a nuanced and interesting area, for the head coach in particular.

Assistant coaches can be super positive and not be seen to be a part of that selection equation. If you are an athlete under pressure, you are going to lean towards someone who tells you nice things.

Ultimately, in order for you to win, you are going to have some straight conversations. I think you are not doing your job if you didn’t have that. The skill is doing it in the right way and over a period of time.

I have been through three Olympic selections, the last two have been a lot of immediate, emotional responses. In hindsight, athletes realise where I stood. That it’s black and white and I am proud of that.

It can be a bloody difficult position as head coach. Athletes who haven’t received the information they have wanted can lash out. Equally, coaches can get it wrong. It is a nuanced skill to do well.

The balance is having empathy for your athletes and understanding the significance of what you are discussing with them and at the same time not sugar coating the message so the message doesn’t go in.

At the other end of the spectrum, you are brutally hard with messages and you are breaking people and not being cogniscent of their needs and feelings and therefore performance doesn’t work then either.

In some way you have to find a fine line between the two. That’s why it is a fascinating area.”

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