AGC #021 - Growth is uncomfortable

A short story about failing a coaching qualification

Today, I’m going to share a story about a big failure in my coaching career, and the main lesson I learned from it.

I hope it can prompt some self-reflection from other coaches reading this!

For reasons I won't bore you with, two years passed between me doing Hockey Ireland's Level 2 coaching qualification and being assessed for it.

This gave me a dangerous cocktail of having more coaching experience, confidence, and expectation of success, but without having had any of it put to the test.

To put it in the terminology of the famous Dunning-Kruger Effect, I was at the peak of Mount Stupid, where I didn't know what I didn't know.

We had a handful of tasks to complete: produce a “principles of play” document and six sample session plans, then coach an observed session and be interviewed afterward.

The course had espoused the play-practice-play approach, and I ran a small-to-big progressive session that began with the dryest 1 v 1 exercise of all time, which wasn't a good start.

It was all downhill from there, as my assessor's feedback noted:

Next up, the interview.

Coaches I knew had passed the course claimed this was a short formality, and that it wouldn't take longer than a quarter of an hour.

The following 75 minutes were hard going.

My principles of play and session plan documents didn't stand up to scrutiny.

I also recall being asked to draw an outletting structure on a coaching board (which I expected) then being asked how I would press against it (which I didn't) and completely bottling it.

Needless to say, I failed the assessment.

It didn't take long for a persecution complex to develop.

I told myself I'd been unfairly held to higher standards than other coaches I considered myself at the same level at, who had sailed through.

Sure, the session wasn't my best, but I was coaching every day - surely I wasn't bad at it?

I aired my grievances to the powers that be.

They said the tutor's meticulousness would make me a better coach in the long run.

Simplification of principles of play and better links between theory and practice would benefit my players.

Spending time as an assistant to a higher-level coach, or working with elite-level players, would challenge and sharpen me.

The peak of Mount Stupid was well in the rearview mirror; I was now tumbling towards the Valley of Despair.

I re-read these emails ahead of writing this, and it's striking to me how much I agree with their responses now, even though at the time I complained to my inner circle about the injustice of it all.

Some of it must have sunk in, though.

I waited six months to do the reassessment; it was far from perfect - I was still riddled with nerves - but I passed:

Looking back on it, the assessor had correctly deduced I was coaching in a comfort zone.

As one of the few coaches in the area working professionally and the owner of a successful camp company, I assumed that doing a lot of coaching meant I was good at it.

It was a huge part of my identity, and I didn't like being challenged on it.

The reality was that I was coaching too many teams to make ends meet and lazily recycling substandard sessions, without considering the group's needs, or even thinking to ask them.

My sessions didn't even connect to my principles of play, let alone to an overall (non-existent) plan for the team's development that season.

An excellent coach educator I know likes to say that if you don't back at what you were doing a couple of years ago and cringe, you're not improving.

The sessions are better these days, but they still have a lot of room for improvement.

Knowing they always will - and that growth is uncomfortable - was the real learning in this experience.