DUBLIN, IRELAND - Throughout my time working in football, I always thought that as a sport we cared about the wrong statistic when it came to coaching. Back in 2007 when I first started working full time in coach education the published number stood at around 19,000 qualified coaches in Ireland. By the time I moved on in 2012, it numbered at over 30,000. It is probably closer to 40,000 these days if not more, given the range of courses now available and the number of people still actively taking them. For a country of our size, the numbers at face value are very impressive. The Irish elite coaching numbers scale well when compared with many top nations in terms of coaches per player ratios. I don’t have them to hand but it’s much better than many of our celtic cousins for example – largely down to population size, number of players and the amount of coaches we produce in Ireland.
One should always approach published coaching numbers in any sport with some caution though. Few NGB’s do real insightful research on this, mostly because it’s difficult, time consuming and costly. The key word that really validates any coaching numbers is ‘active’. Since April 2014, I’m one of the statistics that isn’t really relevant.
I’m a UEFA qualified coach that regularly gets included in Ireland’s impressive qualified coaching statistics but I haven’t set foot on a coaching field in a meaningful manner in almost a year now. And I’m not alone. I’m friends with a number of similar coaches holding elite level licences that are no longer working in the game. We are numbers on a spreadsheet but we no longer influence the development of the game – a co-relationship often heralded as the roadmap to football success in this country i.e. more qualified coaches = more quality players. If only it was that simple.
The reality is something very different. In business we talk openly about churn rates of users or customers while in coaching we often turn a blind eye and pretend a natural churn doesn’t exist. It’s a myopic view on development that doesn’t address one of the biggest problems. How can we keep our most qualified coaches active in the game?
As I mentioned earlier, I left my last coaching role in April 2014 when the FAI Women’s National League season finished. My club, Shamrock Rovers, decided to disband the Women’s Team much to our disappointment at the time. It was a tough break at the end of a really hard season of work where we battled through a lot of legacy issues, recruited new players and finally looked like being on the right track with impressive performances in our last four games of the season. I still believe that this Shamrock Rovers team would have been a much better team coming into year two of our rebuilding but it wasn’t to be. That’s football though and I certainly don’t hold any ill feeling over that. It was what it was.
Probably more surprising though was that I hardly heard from anyone involved within the game itself once the news broke of Rovers demise (close associates aside). Nobody from the league itself got in touch despite keeping a team involved and competitive when it might have been easier to let it fall and no calls from other WNL clubs about my own future except for one. Even more worrying though, not one single phone call about any of the 20 odd players we had on our books at Rovers (many of whom have now left football for good sadly). Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t exactly expecting a litany of calls but personally, as a UEFA licensed coach, having coached at international level and won the National League itself only a year previously, I was surprised that the Women’s Football Community that’s usually so keen to promote their sport and grow would be happy to let experienced people leave the game or at the very least not look to engage even if just to assess potential player opportunities.
As it turns out for me, a new work role meant I had less time to devote to coaching anyway but the situation I found myself in, is one that’s mirrored around the country for many people. Good coaches with good qualifications leave the game each year. Most are never spoken to and asked why they are walking away. Surely there’s learning in that for future generations? There must be opportunities for redeployment and to keep people involved.
The chances are that even with my work commitments, had someone called me and asked me to coach one night a week or visit a club to look at players, I would have done it. The call never came, I got caught up with work and I became another statistic. This is too often the reality behind qualified coach numbers.
I’d hazard a guess that over 90% of coaches who leave the game only come back into it due to someone they know such as a fellow coach who asks them to get involved some place else. I might even be ambitious in saying that 10% are identified as being important to retain in the game by an NGB, League or Scouting Network. Is this good enough if we want to improve our football standing as a nation? There has to be something more. I’ve written extensively before about the need for a creation of a coaching excellence and retention programme that focuses on the building of ‘actual’ houses and not just on thousands of foundations. We’re on course for coaching ghost towns if we continue on the same old path.
Mad as it sounds, as a 35 year old coach, I’ve got potentially 30 years of coaching still left in me. 30 years! Where will football be in 30 years and why wouldn’t we look to retain and develop coaches with experience. I am keen to stress that this is not just about me though. I’m using myself purely as an example here. If I, holding some good roles as I did be deemed not worth keeping in the game then what about the thousands of others with even more unrecognised potential than I have. We’re scouting players but not coaches and as a result we’re only doing half the job.
We must keep smart, intelligent and open minded coaches in the game. Replacing the churn does not solve problems. It certainly keeps the coffers full and the numbers high but it doesn’t facilitate real tangible change. We need a full and comprehensive review of ‘active’ coaches and we need a robust and effective coach talent identification programme. These things cost money. They’ll probably lose money. But isn’t it worth it? I think so.
In closing, I want to make one appeal to everyone out there to help the future of football in Ireland. It’s far too easy to blame an NGB or a network of development officers focused on income generation or leagues/clubs obsessed with winning. Change must always start within one self. My request to everyone who loves football is to make sure we keep our good coaches in the game. Make sure they know their worth and encourage them back into the fold. Invite them down to help with a session, scout an opposition team or just to be a fresh pair of eyes or a different voice on a wet Tuesday evening. We can’t afford to lose coaches so easily, particularly highly qualified ones and particularly in women’s football. Don’t let them walk away without a fight. There were times last season when I almost walked away from football during tough moments in a difficult season. I’ll always be grateful to the likes of Stephen Craig, Sean Byrne and Pat Trehy for talking me down off the ledge and seeing the value in what we do. Coaches matter.
Until things change, we’ll always have to rely on coaching friends to pull us back into the game and keep us involved. Coaching circles are some of the most daunting, ego fuelled and insecure places in the world. For the good of the game, that must change too. There’s a bigger picture. Let’s be renowned for what Irish coaches do on the pitch and not what we look like on a spreadsheet in comparison to others.
Three words – encourage, develop and value. Three more words – I’ll be back.