by Graham Shaw.
I was wholly unprepared for life after hockey.
When the game goes you can lose your identity overnight. I certainly did. You are no longer the international hockey player walking into a room. It immediately goes away. Somebody else assumes that role. You see yourself ten years ago.
Suddenly, you’re past it. That’s jarring.
‘What will I do now?’
I struggled with this, badly. I don’t mind admitting that it took me a number of months to get over that.
Paul Revington, the Ireland men’s hockey coach, put me back on track. Revs really helped me fill the post retirement void. He knew I was a coach, so did I, but not being a player anymore left me shook. Emotionally out of control. Life in a suit, doing business deals, weighed me down. It went against who I was.
But Revs had an idea…
“Is professional hockey coaching even possible in Ireland?” I asked him.
This is a huge part of how I see my role now – players must find the work, sport, life balance because it makes them better players.
Fate intervened. Driving home from Revs’ house in Wicklow that night my uncle called to mention the director of hockey position in Rathdown girls’ secondary school.
I had missed the interview date. Thankfully, they hired me anyway. Three weeks later I walked into the school. It was a risky decision, but Revs also got me involved with the Ireland under-21s and it eventually led to assistant coach to Darren Smith with the senior women’s squad in 2013.
”That was the start of a journey into professional coaching that led to the World Cup final but we’re not stopping there. This journey is far from over.
Same goes for my coaching education.
From the public’s perspective Ireland reaching the World Cup final happened over night. Instant success. Let me tell you how much of a struggle we went through.
Olympic qualification woes have been a constant for Irish women’s hockey but missing out on Rio 2016 was horrific. There’s no other word for losing that penalty shootout against China.
Honestly, it felt like a death. After Rio qualification passed us by we still had to meet up with a new head coach – yours truly – but the group hadn’t recovered.
The devastation lingered for eight months. You don’t earn 13 penalty corners in a match against the fifth ranked side in the world without doing a lot of things right. That only made it worse. We deserved it. We had earned it. We had to watch it unfold without us.
I understand now how that can break some groups. How teams never come back from such an experience. It nearly had us.
As we did not qualify, and the men’s team did make it to Rio, the system dictates that all our support staff were released. All that remained was my assistant Arlene Boyles.
Execution in those final moments against China cost us. Shootouts – we all know now – can go either way but we should have won the game in normal time.
For all the joy of beating India and Spain this summer, we previously felt the absolute desolation that comes from it going the other way.
I needed to energise the group. That began with a plan, to give them a future, to let them aim towards the World Cup in London.
Slowly, there were signs of life, but the misery had a bit of time to run.
The Olympics happening without us was bad enough, but we also returned to the scene of the crime. We went back to Valencia – where we’d lost to China – for a training camp that forced people to relive the experience. This was risky management. We debriefed the game. Went through it in detail, took as much as we could from it. People got very upset.
When we are in this situation again, what will we do differently?
That helped the players, I think, it definitely helped me. There was a grieving process but afterwards we could rebuild, little by little, towards London.
Now we have other lasting memories. Of Deirdre, Anna, Katie, Hannah and, of course, the heroics of Ayeisha McFerran.
Each and every experience – highs and lows – shape you.
We never spoke about reaching the World Cup final, but I know the players believed all our opponents were beatable.
I certainly believed when Deirdre Duke rounded the US keeper to score in the opening match. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck when she spread her arms in celebration.
Ah, we are here, everything is possible now.
Other moments will never leave me: Anna O’Flanagan’s raw passion after the goal that beat India 1-0 to send us into the quarter-final. The passion in Katie Mullan’s face when she jumped, the drive in her body.
We prepared to a level that continually filled me with confidence. The girl’s knowledge in team meetings used to shock the staff.
Before the quarter-final Hannah Matthews – who isn’t shy but not one of the most vocal members of the group – calmly listed off every potential weakness in the Indian team and how we can expose them and what we must do to create chances.
A clear, concise message.
“We are ready,” Hannah ended matter of factly, “we are going to beat them.”
Ali Meeke in that shootout almost gave me a bloody heart attack. To even attempt what she did in the biggest game of our lives was outrageous. Touch, touch, touch, through the keeper’s legs, tips in off the post. I skipped a beat for that one.
Emotional control is an essential tool when managing your national team at a World Cup.
In any sport.
The sports psychologist, Gary Longwell, did a lot of work with me before the tournament so I’d be able to efficiently manage 40-plus people in a high-pressure environment.
It’s about knowing your players.
This is a set of skills I’m constantly seeking to develop. We never stopped the process throughout last summer’s adventure. Gary would set aside an hour every day to make sure I was in control of my thoughts, so I was able to present information to the players the way a leader should.
The team also benefit from Gary’s experience as a psychologist and previously as an Ireland rugby international.
When delivering messages, be it individually or debriefing post-match, it’s so important to help the players to avoid making the same mistakes.
We also looked at communication during games. What’s essential in the heat of the moment is the coach’s body language. I don’t want to create pressure for my players. I want to be a calming influence.
Again, it’s about clear, concise messaging.
At the same time, I want to bring my own passion. They can’t be sensing flatness on the side-line as that might bleed onto the field.
This was never a problem during my playing days. It’s a little embarrassing to look back, but I was extremely driven, wanting to win all the time and not coping so well when it was evident that was not going to be the case.
Making Roy Keane my role model hardly helped to douse these flames.
I see players struggling with the same demons. It’s interesting to talk it out, these inevitably become really interesting conversations as this type of athlete is the ultimate competitor, so it becomes about channelling their desire to benefit the team.
The result can lead to a powerful performance, from both player and manager.
That, for me, is what coaching is all about.
Knowing your players. I’m only really learning the importance of this. It can only be achieved in their company and by being able to relate to them.
This is my full-time job now, and it didn’t come easy. I’ve never had a different attitude to coaching women, as opposed to men, but my first professional coaching position came in Rathdown.
Day one, I was faced by forty 13-year-old girls. Okay, I quickly realised, I can’t be using the same approach to training the men in Glenanne. I needed to be softer. More empathy was needed simply because they were young, not necessarily females, so the harder edge I’d bring to the lads I’d be training later that evening had to change.
After a while both styles meshed into one way of coaching – I even became softer with the men. It was working.
At this time, around 2010, my way of coaching began to find its own personality. Previously, I’d mimic the best traits of coaches I gravitated towards. And that’s fine. But you must find your own way to survive, to turn it into a profession.
There isn’t a massive difference between managing men and women. Different personalities are going to come along, and therein lies the challenge; there is no set way to coach any group. It changes from team to team. From person to person.
Know your players.
What’s important, I feel, is understanding them as people. The better you do that the stronger the communication channels tend to become.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve made mistakes. I had to curtail the aggression that marked me out as a player, but also as a man. That comes with growing older, you can’t keep bristling or fighting everyone all the time. My kids, Jack and Ellie also changed my perspective on life.
Our daughter came along just as I began in Rathdown. Funny that.
I was always a coach. Ask anyone who played with me. The challenge was to instantly figure out how the opposition was setting up. A tactical mindset came naturally in the middle of the park.
I played a lot of sport growing up and had a few trials over at Oxford United, but my parents guided me towards the Leaving Cert before leaving home. That solved the football versus hockey debate as I was playing with grown men in hockey from age 15. It was also my community, my social circle, and I was established in underage representative teams. Football, really, never stood a chance.
I do have regrets about not turning fully professional sooner in hockey. It was a Catch 22 situation – I was playing so many sports, quite seriously, that studying was way down the list of priorities, so I missed the points needed to go straight into university, eventually doing a diploma in Sports Management at UCD. After two years I went over to Antwerp for a season but panicked and came back to Ireland to do a degree in Jordanstown for two years.
Ironically enough, I didn’t build a career back in Ireland. Hockey dominated my twenties but at least I was constantly coaching (including the women’s team for that season in Belgium).
I always say to the girls, “With expectation comes opportunity.” We are in the public consciousness. I think this team will embrace that as we enter into the qualification process for Tokyo. We’ve always intended to create a lasting legacy. We want to set up Ireland as contenders at every major tournament but equally remember the lessons from the Rio 2016 campaign.
I want to take this team to the Olympic Games, but we need to be really creative in how we set up a semi-professional structure and that starts with a base. We need a training facility. At the moment I am trying to rent pitches off schools and clubs so we, the Ireland women’s hockey squad that just reached the World Cup final, can continue to train.
That’s not right.
You need a base to build anything. I’m not talking about a fully professional environment, I’m talking about the basic needs for any elite national team. A new field by 2019 to combine with the players already having access to the gym facilities at the national campus in Abbotstown looks promising.
We need a national training facility with the support of Sport Ireland.
And we need it now.
What more do we have to do?
The Sports Chronicle brings you stories from the world of sport by the players, the coaches and the unsung heroes, all in their own words.
For more on Ireland’s Women’s World Cup journey read Nicci Daly’s Hockey In The Fast Lane here
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