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The dream team: Love and marriage – a winning partnership

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Laura and Danny Massaro

Laura and Danny Massaro are all smiles after her success at the 2013 Women's World Open in Penang, Malaysia

Danny Massaro is the husband and coach of world No 1 squash player Laura Massaro. When it comes to courting success, theirs really has been a marriage made in heaven. Much more than a fascinating guide to coaching your significant other, Danny’s story features an abundance of transferable skills that will help every category of coach squash the opposition.

Danny Massaro has encountered magnificent highs and crashing lows, the intensity of which other coaches can never experience. 

He is part of an exclusive club of elite level coaches who, in every triumph and failure, is hit by a unique double whammy of emotions. 

Danny coaches his wife – world number one and 2013 world champion Laura Massaro. 

Eating, sleeping and breathing the sport in synchrony evokes a combination of sentiments and gut reactions that only other husband and wife teams can hope to replicate. 

If Laura suffers a painful defeat, Danny suffers on two fronts. 

As her coach, he may feel some degree of responsibility or frustration, merged with obvious disappointment. 

As her husband, these debilitating sensations are magnified, while a cluster of other emotions, like empathy and compassion, exacerbate his mood as his system is hijacked by hormones. Love hurts all right. 

It’s not all wallowing, of course. More often than not, Danny has basked in the golden glow of victory. 

He admits his life can be an emotional roller coaster: ‘I think it’s the pressure of loving someone. When you love someone, whether it’s your wife or your kids, I think there is an instinct there that you want to help.

‘In those times, when you see someone you love gutted and down, and you know they have worked so hard and sacrificed so much, then it’s quite hard to detach yourself.

‘It’s difficult to go all-in and then not admit that you are gutted.’

The emotions felt by the coach and the spouse come under the public spotlight every year in the players’ box at Wimbledon, where relatives and coaching staff bond together in a tight-knit family. 

It is easy to tell them apart. The subtle differences in emotions coursing through their veins are revealed in their facial expressions. Amelie Mauresmo and Kim Sears are both pumped up when Andy Murray is battling on court, but the devotion in Kim’s eyes and her nervous quirks as she fights and fails to keep her passions in check are a clear indication of marital status.

‘It will never work!’

Danny admits that his decision to coach Laura was frowned upon by many in the squash world in the early stages of their partnership. 

Merging their personal and professional life could have a detrimental effect on Laura’s career, people assumed. Would she find it difficult to relax and break free of the competitive mindset if they were under each other’s feet nearly every hour of every day? If there were heated disagreements, would it affect her performance on court? How could it possibly work? Extremely well, as it happens. 

‘Yes it was frowned upon and, yes, at the start of our journey, at times, things went a little bit wrong,’ says Danny. ‘I thought I knew what I was talking about more than I actually did. It was the pressure of love.

'You want to try to help the people you love; you don’t want them to suffer. So it becomes a bit of a help illusion. You think you are helping them but you’re not. You are giving too much or you are too invested.

‘I think I got a bit over-involved, particularly at competitions. There were people quite rightly questioning the husband-wife coaching relationship, saying, “I couldn’t listen to my husband” and “It will be too intense”.’

Realisation dawned on Danny after Laura crashed out of the world championships at the second-round stage in Egypt in 2010. It proved to be a tipping point. 

Danny admitted in his typically unpretentious manner that he had ‘really cocked it up’. 

‘I was arguing and shouting and she was crying. The next day I was working with another player and asked him if he thought I was being a bit over the top. He said “Definitely”. It was a massive reality check and I have never been like that since.

I learned there are better ways of doing it. You can show more recognition and less attention, you can have little simple conversations about what they expect of you and what you expect of them.’

If marriage has its ups and down, then so does working with your significant other, but through a process of self-awareness and a collective commitment to finding a workable philosophy, Danny and Laura quickly turned things around. 

‘Stepping back and working through it has given me a really good sense of satisfaction,’ adds Danny.

‘Going through all that, from being overly supportive and having a negative effect, then not having much of an effect, to finally having a massive positive effect that culminated in Laura winning the world championship and rising to number one in the world – it was a great feeling to know we nailed it.

'It shows there is a way through if you work at things and are prepared to learn and reflect on yourself and change your behaviour a little bit.

‘That sums up my own coaching philosophy and it has made me have empathy when I see parents and kids struggling. So what I now do in my other coaching is include parents a lot more, talk to them and have conversations with them, try to include the family and work as a whole team.’

It was those same parents who encouraged Danny to write a book containing tips for mums and dads wanting to help their children safely negotiate the hurdles that grass-roots sport can throw in their path (plenty more about the heart-warming messages and advice in ‘The Winning Parent’ in a planned future article).

Danny 2

Master of all trades 

Danny doubles up as Laura’s psychologist, having also forged a successful career as a lecturer teaching Sports Coaching and Performance Psychology at the University of Central Lancashire. 

It is another string to his bow to add to his coaching expertise and playing credentials – he will compete in the national championships this month, hoping to go one better than last year when he was beaten in the over-40s final. 

Laura may have a strong team around her, comprising technical and strength and conditioning coaches, psychologists and nutritionists, but Danny has a foot in each of these camps, as well as acting as her chief mentor. 

And his specialism in sports psychology certainly played a valuable role when it came to transforming his coaching approach during those early tribulations and helping build a bridge over troubled waters. It continues to be a huge part of the operation today. 

‘We now have a routine on match days where I take myself away,’ explains Danny. ‘It was causing her a bit of pressure, me being there in the run-up to a match. 

‘There’s a flip side to me helping her so much: she feels a pressure to help me back by winning. That’s not a negative pressure but it’s a pressure nonetheless.’ 

To solve this, Danny suggested they compile a simple role clarification list, to consist of three things they wanted from each other. 

Laura said she would like Danny to have a good holiday whenever they travelled abroad, to be her ball-feeder and to help her between games. 

Danny, meanwhile, wanted Laura to try her hardest in every match, move on quickly after every match, regardless of the result, and to just say thank you when she felt she had been helped on court. 

‘That alleviated the pressure she was feeling,’ he says. ‘Now, before and after matches, I have really learned how to create space between us.’ 

Breathing space 

His typical match-day routine will start with him and Laura having a hit on court before he heads off to play his own match. In the afternoon he will go for a walk, play some golf or maybe do some writing. 

Their paths converge again in the run-up to the game, but they will have had four or five hours during the day immersed in their own personal routines. 

There are other dos and don’ts Danny has incorporated into the process, like avoiding coffee and practising mindfulness. 

‘I will listen to my Headspace app and go for a walk and think of the bigger picture,’ he adds. ‘I am careful to get my body posture right as I believe you reveal your thoughts a lot through your body language. 

‘It is also important to keep reminding yourself of your core values. I tell myself that she’s the player, it’s her career, I’m assisting her, and that I trust her that she’ll work out a way to win if she’s struggling.’ 

Danny chuckles when I ask him if being joined in holy matrimony gives Laura free rein to sound off at him as a way of letting off steam. 

He offers an enigmatic explanation for why this works so well. 

‘She can and she does. I liken my role to that of Columbo,’ he begins. For those born post-1980, Columbo was a TV detective whose style of solving murders was to lull suspects into a false sense of security by way of his distracted demeanour. 

‘You have to act a little bit daft,’ adds Danny. ‘You know the score really and have a main point to make but you leave it behind the scenes and let her mouth off. There’s no point in really talking at this point, let her get it out of her system. I’ll play it dopey like Columbo to start with but will get my point across eventually. 

‘You find parents want to get to the bottom of a defeat straight away, laying blame and demanding a quick fix, but it’s about having the skill and understanding in a relationship to pick your moments.’ 

Danny 3

Roars of delight on and off the court, as Danny jumps out of his seat after a crucial point

Love and hugs 

It is said that good communication is critical to a healthy marriage; ditto in coach-athlete relationships. 

‘It’s important to have an open line of communication,’ Danny agrees. ‘I see my job as keeping the communication flowing.’ 

That often means acting as mediator and being a calming presence to help smooth things over when tensions flare. 

A husband figure certainly helps during those times. Having someone you trust implicitly, with a shared understanding and a deep emotional connection, defuses situations and maintains harmony in the camp.

There have been several other high-profile husband and wife teams in recent years: Liz and Peter McColgan, Paula and Gary Radcliffe and, currently, 800-metre runner Jenny Meadows and husband Trevor Painter.

Danny hasn’t felt the need to research these comparable coaching relationships. He is his own man with his own ideas.

Asked if he can sum up the secret of their success, he states: ‘I always look at it simply, that, like in any relationship, it’s so important just to get on with each other.

‘I try to keep it normal. That’s what family and friends are great for. They can help bring sportsmen and women back down to earth, so they don’t get up their own backsides.

‘My coaching style is about being human and a lot about the heart – learning more about relationships and love. You filter in your incisive technical parts but it’s those who can deal with relationships the best that make the most progress.’

And, when all is said and done, there are two things Danny can give Laura an endless supply of that no other professional coach can: love and hugs. 

‘Knowing Laura, she just wants to know she’s loved,’ adds Danny.

‘A lot of the top players are like that when you break it down. When they have loads of success and then lose, they think, “Will they still love me?” That’s their deep fear. You need to get round them quickly and put your arm round them and empathise. Let them know you love them, even if, at the time, they say they don’t want to listen to you. 

‘As a husband, I can do that.’

Danny's Top Tips

  1. If you have a close personal and/or professional relationship, it is important to give each other space in the build-up to matches.
  2. Every coach and athlete must find a match-day relaxation routine that works for them.
  3. Reflect regularly on your core values, and always think of the bigger picture – never dwell on defeats.
  4. A coach’s body language can betray their thoughts.
  5. Keep an open line of communication.
  6. The unconditional love of family and friends can help to keep athletes’ feet on the ground.

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Comments (2)

   
CWCreative
A nicer guy you could not wish to meet. Great piece and a good showcase for the wonderful game of squash.
02/02/16
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robertkmaaye
Congrats to Danny who along with David Pearson was recently named the Elite Coach of the Year at the 2016 Polar Squash Workforce Awards. You can find out more about the award winners here http://www.englandsquashandracketball.com/polar-coaching-volunteer-awards
20/04/16
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by