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Life as a head coach: Occasionally fraught but always immensely fulfilling

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Kate Offord Manchester Triathlon Club

It has been two years since Kate Offord featured in our article ‘Tri-umphant transition: Making the step up from assistant coach to head coach’. We caught up with Kate for a progress report. It turns out, this has been a highly eventful period in Manchester Triathlon Club’s 30-year history. Here, Kate reflects on the valuable lessons learnt during her time at the top, which has included a multitude of highs, tempered by a few tense lows. 

In the feature we will also explore:

  • The importance of thought leadership, strategic planning and succession planning.
  • Why Kate, pictured above, feels the proverb ‘what doesn’t break you makes you stronger’ is ‘100% accurate’.
  • How, by reducing the number of hours hands-on coaching, a head coach can actually have more interaction and involvement with club members.
  • How learning to delegate to someone with a particular skill-set or area of expertise is a skill in itself – though a difficult habit to get into.
  • It is a coach’s responsibility to be on the look-out for signs of burnout in their athletes. But who is looking out for burnout in the coach? 

Do you remember Seven Up! Not the fizzy drink, the ground-breaking TV documentary series that, since its first instalment in 1964, returns to our screens every seven years to update us on the developing life stories of the same group of participants we have followed since their seventh birthdays. 

In each seven-year snapshot, the milestone moments of the intervening years are revealed – every trial, tribulation and celebration – with the consequences of each life-changing decision laid bare. 

Well, I couldn’t help but think of Seven Up! (or 56 Up! as it had evolved into in 2012) when I was reunited with ConnectedCoaches Community Champion Kate Offord for the first time in two years recently. 

In November 2015 Kate was in the process of making the transition from assistant coach to head coach at Manchester Triathlon Club, the largest triathlon club in the North West, with nearly 500 members and 19 coaches. 

Had the transition gone well? Had it been a steep learning curve? What had she learned about herself and the role in those two years? What leadership skills had she honed on her journey and what advice could she relay to those coaches keen to embark on a parallel path up their own club leadership ladder. 

The good news or the bad news? 

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first – buoyed by the knowledge that the distress the club endured during a particularly harrowing event in the summer has ultimately had positive repercussions. 

A career adventure that had started with a bang for Kate was, very nearly, a case of boom and bust, after Manchester Tri became the victims of an e-mail phishing scam that wiped out the club’s savings. 

In the worst possible timing, they also lost one of their main venues during the same period, which was shutting down for refurbishments for 12 months.

In a footnote under the article of two years’ ago, Kate commented that the main challenges of a head coach are often the elements that are ‘less directly sports related’. She could never have anticipated the full extent to which those words would be borne out. 

The club were on the brink, staring at the prospect of going out of existence, with no money to pay the venues. 

Kate and the club committee had to rely on a lot of goodwill from the network of organisations they have links with. The plight emphasised to Kate the importance of building and maintaining good relationships at every level and how good communication and people skills are as essential as the more traditional skills coaches are expected to have in their locker. 

‘These adversities have really shown me how important it is to build strong relationships,’ she says. 

‘All our venues were fantastic but it could easily have gone the other way if at some time we had offended them in any way or if we had got complacent over our relationships with the organisations we deal with. Fortunately, they like us and wanted us to survive. 

‘We are not their main club, we are not mainstream. At leisure centres it is the swimming club which takes precedence, at the track it is the athletics club, so it was amazing how much they looked after us. Trafford Leisure basically gave us the venue without knowing if and when we could pay them.’

Kate Offord Manchester Triathlon Club

Kate, pictured centre, top row, has grown the club's junior section at a rapid rate

Stronger for the experience 

The club’s ordeal has been an object lesson too in that astute psychological proverb, what doesn’t break you makes you stronger. 

The fabric of the club, and the moral fibre of all those associated with the club, has been severely tested by the experience but significantly fortified because of it. 

Those pulling the strings, meanwhile, have learnt key skills that can only be embedded through challenging personal experience. 

By pulling together (through artful negotiation and some phenomenal fundraising efforts), they have not only shown their mettle, they have forged new strengths, individually and collectively. 

‘The bottom line is we are not going to get any of the money back but we have changed some of the fundamental ways the club is set up to protect it from happening again,’ says Kate. 

‘So on a positive, the club has come through this by pulling together and working as a team.’ 

Falling foul of the scam was a major hiccup in an otherwise incredible 12 months, in which Manchester Tri enjoyed their best year ever in terms of athlete performance and club recognition. 

They were named Triathlon England North West Club of the Year – for the first time in nine years – won the Event of the Year accolade, and Kate was honoured with Children's Coach of the Year to complete a terrific hat-trick. 

‘We were so pleased because over the last few years we’ve launched loads of initiatives aimed at engaging people in triathlon and making the sport accessible to all different groups.’ 

Make a success of succession planning 

The issue of strategic planning and thought leadership was always high on Kate’s list of priorities when she took over the head coach role. 

Denise Brosseau, of the Thought Leadership Lab, defines thought leaders as ‘the informed opinion leaders and the go-to people in their field of expertise. They are trusted sources who move and inspire people with innovative ideas; turn ideas into reality, and know and show how to replicate their success.’ 

This could have been the citation accompanying Kate’s Children’s Coach of the Year award, for it seems to describe her down to a tee. 

The strategic planning sessions she has led on have borne fruit. The bumper harvest of new or improved developments include: 

  • Running a number of aquathlons, women’s only days and disability days and a successful club open triathlon.
  • A weekly club run led by members (which the club hopes to extend to two or three in the summer months).
  • Reinvigorating Sunday bike rides.
  • New workshops and Introduction to Triathlon Days – working closely with Tri England – including GO TRI events.
  • Delivering more than 1000 club sessions in 2017.
  • Setting up a Tri Community Activators course (similar to a Run Leader qualification), allowing members to lead club runs.

Kate has been instrumental in expanding the junior section of the club from 35 children to 80, with around 50 children aged seven to 11 now turning up every Wednesday at the running track. 

She has also mentored new junior coaches and is the process of changing the junior swim plan so that there is more of a focus on general aquatic skills, rather than just front crawl. 

In total, she has mentored six new coaches this year towards their Level 1 and 2 qualifications, adding: ‘I have placed a big focus on succession planning in terms of mentoring new coaches and coach development, and I have organised several CPD days for coaches. I have also spent time discussing with them what they want their role to develop into. 

‘I will try to meet regularly, or at least speak on the phone, to the 19 coaches we have to see what they want to get out of their coaching for the next couple of years, and to iron out any development problems.’ 

In addition to the above, the club has also evolved its annual training plan. 

‘We have streamlined a lot of the language we use as coaches. This is complex as we have three disciplines to cover, but we are all using the same Rate of Perceived Effort scale now and we have communicated the scale to our members via videos on the Facebook group.’ 

Talking of Facebook groups, the club’s social media platform of choice is going from strength to strength, 

High on her ‘to-do list’ when Kate took over was the desire to build a real sense of community in the club.

‘We had an old forum that nobody really used any more,’ she explains. ‘So we built a Facebook page group, which is the best vehicle for what we need. It felt like it was just me posting in the first few months but now it looks after itself. Everybody in the club uses it as a platform to talk about their events and congratulate each other and celebrate all the positive stuff that people do.’ 

Kate Offord Manchester Triathlon Club

Twenty winks or twenty laps?  Onesies night for the junior members of Manchester Triathlon Club. Definitely one for the Facebook page photo album

Avoiding and managing overload 

As another famous saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. 

The role of club head coach carries numerous layers of responsibility and accountability, and inevitably therefore, additional layers of stress. 

Ultimately, the buck stops with the head coach in terms of the general health and wellbeing of the club and the welfare of its individual members. That can be a huge weight to shoulder and can have a detrimental impact on your own personal well-being.

‘I thought I was going to give myself a nervous breakdown at one point because I was working all day and then coaching all night,’ says Kate.

‘Someone said to me, you can’t be strategic and operational. They were right. So I do less coaching for the club now. I do Wednesday night track (seniors and juniors), and Saturday early evening juniors. Then I dip in and out of the other sessions, like Friday night gym and swim, so that I can still be involved. 

‘It’s funny but, by coaching less I can actually be a lot more involved. 

‘I was worried I wouldn’t be visible enough but I would say I am more visible than I thought I would be and still manage to engage with people. It is important to remain approachable and tell people they can always communicate through e-mail if they don’t get to speak to you in person.’

The issue of athlete burnout is a common topic of debate. There is plenty of information available on the internet and through governing body literature, workshops and courses advising on the dangers and the tell-tale signs.

But what about coach burn-out? Our conversation to this point shows clearly that this should also be high on the industry agenda.

I pose the question to Kate: It is a coach’s responsibility to be on the look-out for signs of burnout in their athletes, but who is looking out for the coach? 

She says that it is an increasingly common theme in those who are self-employed and working full-time in coaching and coach education.  

‘The people who do what I do, it’s not a conventional 9-5 job. You are kind of always working and it can be easy to burn out if you don’t switch off. You probably spend a couple of years learning that the hard way and then wise up to it.

‘The problem is you get empowered by the inspiring athletes you are surrounded by.’

Kate Offord Manchester Triathlon Club

Being head coach ‘a massive privilege’ 

Kate admits that when she first stepped up into the hot-seat she was determined to prove to people she could do the job. 

When she looks back now, she realises that everyone at the club already knew she could do it. 

‘I really didn’t need to say yes to everything. I have learnt to sometimes delegate to someone who has that particular skill set or area of knowledge. I guess, the more experienced you are the less you have to feel you have to prove yourself. By taking a step back and getting other people involved you do things better.’ 

As well as her involvement with Manchester Tri, Kate also has her own private coaching business, Smiling Tri Coach, and is assistant head coach of Altrincham Swimming Club, looking after the Development Squad. 

It is a hectic schedule, which demands working unsociable hours, but she wouldn’t change it for the world. 

‘I would recommend the role to anyone keen to step up. One of the things I’ve learned this year is that people really want to be part of something and are inspired by others doing the same thing. 

‘People identify passionately with Manchester Triathlon Club and that’s an amazing thing to be at the forefront of. It really is great to be a part of something that makes people feel good about themselves, and as a head coach you can play a key role in facilitating that. 

‘It’s not so much being in charge that is appealing, it’s the fact that you can enable all that to happen. And that is a massive privilege.’

Any questions for Kate? You can leave them in the comments box below.

This blog is also available as a podcast on a number of platforms including Itunes. Listen here.

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