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How Marieanne Spacey made the transition from player to coach and helped the Lionesses roar back to inspire a nation | Welcome and General | ConnectedCoaches

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My coaching journey: How Marieanne Spacey helped the Lionesses roar back to inspire a nation

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Lionesses 1

Bronze medallists: The Lionesses celebrate beating Germany to claim third place in the 2015 World Cup in Canada

At the Open University’s annual Sport and Fitness Conference, Marieanne Spacey MBE gave fellow coaches the benefit of her experience on making the transition from player to coach. She charted the ups and the downs on her long and winding road to becoming an international coach – and as competent for her country in the dugout as she was on the pitch.

  • Marieanne Spacey is assistant coach of the England senior women’s football team.
  • She has learnt the importance of building a strong coach-coach relationship, which, she believes, certainly at elite level, is as important as forging high quality coach-athlete relationships.
  • While technical instruction is obviously a key component in any coaching environment, so are the personal touch and softer coaching skills.
  • Marieanne gives tips on utilising these softer skills to build togetherness – a prerequisite of every thriving team.

‘We went to that World Cup with the belief that we could win it but a bigger belief that we were going to inspire a nation. We are going to do our family proud, our nation proud, all the volunteer coaches and all the kids who play in the park every Saturday and Sunday proud.

‘That was our overriding goal, to inspire them to raise the level of their performances and the profile of women’s football to heights it has never been before.’

The words of Marieanne Spacey, whose name is sewn into the fabric of women’s football in England. Flag bearer, figurehead, Hall of Fame inductee, and to many observers the outstanding player of her generation, who scored 28 goals in 91 appearances during a 17-year international career.

She has lived and breathed the heart-pounding agony and ecstasy that is ingrained in high-level sport, and never more so than in the summer of 2015 in Canada, when the Lionesses sailed into the World Cup semi-finals on a wave of national euphoria.

Only to suffer heartbreak in the cruellest of fashions when Laura Bassett conceded a freak injury-time own goal against Japan to wreck their hopes of emulating England’s heroes of 1966.

Marieanne was in the dugout that day, as assistant to head coach Mark Sampson.

The team were united in their anguish, mentally overwrought after watching their hopes of glory disintegrate in a split second when the ball skewed off the right boot of Bassett’s outstretched leg as she attempted to intercept a cross, and looped agonisingly into the top corner of the England net, with the unkind assistance of the woodwork.

A distraught Marieanne and Mark could not afford to waste time wallowing; they had a third-place play-off to prepare for against old foes Germany and, for the sake of the team and the nation, had to channel their haywire feelings.

How on earth could they pick up their emotionally drained players? They had to execute a plan that called on all their years’ experience as a coach. But rather than a tactical game-plan to beat the Germans, Marieanne's own point of focus was her players’ mindsets.

In order to understand the emotions that flooded her mind and drove her actions over the next 48 hours, we must first turn the clock back several years.

As Marieanne explained to delegates at the Open University’s annual Sport and Fitness Conference in Milton Keynes: ‘You don’t get parachuted into that role without having a back story.’

And her back story is worth telling.

Kicking off a career in coaching

Arsenal FA Cup

Wemb-glee! Marieanne is an FA Cup winner with Arsenal ladies

Marieanne admits she had a one-track mind during her playing days. Coaching was never on her radar.

‘Between 18 and retiring at 36, with a four-year break in between to have my daughter, I was so intent on being an international footballer that I didn’t give much thought to what I wanted to do in the future. Coaching wasn’t part of my thinking,’ she said.

‘So much so that when I went on to my first coaching course in 1998, I failed it. I didn’t learn anything because my mindset was still very much on being a player.’

The coaching course was an all-women’s FA preliminary coaching award held at Lilleshall.

She recalled jumping in the car outside Elland Road after playing Northern Ireland in an international fixture, and arriving at Lilleshall a few hours later for her first taste of life on the other side of the whitewash. It would prove to be an acquired taste.

It was only at the age of 35, when she was playing for Arsenal and approaching the end of her playing career, that she first began contemplating becoming a coach.

Her plans were put on the backburner when Fulham offered her a professional contract.

‘I had spent all these years combining working with playing football so felt I had earned the right to play professional football for a year.’

Misfortune struck when she ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament in pre-season – the catalyst to a train of events that saw her interest in coaching begin to snowball, albeit slowly at first.

She made use of the time when she was doing rehab work to observe games through a different lens, learning to emotionally detach herself from on-field events.

When Fulham cut the funding for the women’s team, which became semi-professional, the Norwegian head coach returned to his homeland and they offered Marieanne the job.

‘Did I enjoy it? No. Why? Because I still didn’t understand what coaching was. The transition from player to coach was something I was not prepared for. Why? Because they don’t teach you those things on courses, of how you must think completely differently about other people as a coach than as player.’

Confidence shot and redundant

Coaching

New starter: Marieanne in her first coaching role at Fulham, in conversation with her assistant. 'Do you think we look like we know what we are doing,' she joked. 'Because we didn't'

Marieanne is matter of fact about what she learnt most in her first year as a coach: that the game is a lot easier to play than it is to analyse.

‘I learnt a lot about myself. From being high on confidence and football arrogance, suddenly, because I wasn’t enjoying it as a coach, my confidence and self-belief really dropped. I was having an internal struggle, that this should be easy. The expectation was that I should be able to make that transition, when actually I hadn’t learnt how to do this.’

But as the saying goes, to enjoy the good times, you have to endure the bad times. And, at this fledgling point of her coaching career, there were still plenty of those lurking around the corner.

‘Nobody had helped me or guided me,’ she added. ‘I had had a mentoring opportunity but it was not somebody I connected with.

‘So to summarise the early days, it was a real struggle. I lacked belief and confidence and I questioned whether I really wanted to coach. And then, just as I started to get my own players in, and build a younger squad with my philosophy, and start to enjoy it, Fulham went from semi-pro to amateur, before completely cutting the programme, so I was made redundant.’

Marieanne realised she still had plenty to learn, in particular how to better understand her players’ mindsets, and understand and control her own emotions. Only then could she hope to get the best out of herself and her performers.

Nobody can accuse her of taking the easy option.

She moved out of her London comfort zone, away from family and friends, and took on a  development role for women and girls’ football in Worcestershire, where her goal was to learn ‘how to facilitate, how to teach’.

‘It was a massive life decision but one which, on reflection, was probably the best decision I ever made.’

Making her Mark with England

Her coach development continued when she joined the FA Skills Programme, working with 5–11 year olds within schools and clubs and setting up skills centres.

It was a job, she said, that made her fall in love with coaching.

‘And with the idea that, if I can engage with a five year old, whether they pick the ball up, kick it or throw it towards something, then I am doing something powerful. I was doing something that made them feel good, and it helped to make me feel good.’

A role in regional coach development within the West Midlands followed, before, two years later, in 2013, having attained the level of knowledge she had worked so hard to acquire, she decided to apply for the position of assistant coach with the England women’s team.

‘I met Mark (Sampson) for the first time in a coffee shop in Cheltenham. His first question to me was, “What can I expect from you in this role?” I said, “Forget the pitch, forget the ball, it is the people that matter.

'You have the tactical experience, but my value is, as an ex-international player who has been there and got the T-shirt, I am prepared to put myself on the line to support and help the other players get better."’

The pair clicked immediately. It was to be the beginning of a dynamic double act, reinforcing her conviction that a high quality coach-coach relationship is key to success in a technical team set-up.

Mum’s the word

A big advantage Marieanne has over Mark is that, as a female, her maternal instinct allows her to connect with the Lionesses on a deeper emotional level.

She is their confidante – a shoulder to lean on; someone players can come to for a heart-to-heart or to seek some personal advice on an issue they might be uncomfortable discussing with a male member of staff.

This is in keeping with the team mantra of cultivating ‘togetherness’, allied to a philosophy promoting player ownership and encouraging two-way conversations. Players embrace the opportunity to take a share in their learning and are comfortable in speaking their minds as they know the whole management team ‘have their back’ and their best interests at heart, and welcome the input.

‘Holistically for the players I will say to them, “Let’s have a chat. We can have a technical chat or we can have a mum chat. Which one is right for you at this moment? And if it’s a mum chat, it goes no further, and if you need to offload, you can do.”’

Of course, Marieanne is aware there are boundaries that must not be overstepped. You cannot get too close. You are not their mother or father, and you cannot be their best friend, but she feels it is important each player has their own go-to member of the coaching staff they can sound off to, or confide in.

And how does Marieanne know she has earned the trust and respect of the players?

‘As anyone involved with elite sport will tell you, the medical room is the hive of angst,’ she explained. ‘Now, after three years in the role, I can sit in the medical room and the players will share things with me as there is an openness and honesty and they know things will not go any further than that room.’

Regarding coach-player relationships, then, it is the work that goes on off the pitch, as much as the work that goes on on the pitch, that is vital to the process of building togetherness.

‘That has been our big mantra throughout and will continue to be as we build up to the European Championships in August.’

Frustration to jubilation as tears turn to cheers

We have rewound the clock, fast-forwarded to the present, but now I ask you to dial back to July 2015 as we return to the World Cup in Canada.

‘The circumstances in which we lost that semi-final were heart-breaking. For Laura Bassett, for the team, for the staff,’ said Marieanne, addressing a rapt audience in Milton Keynes.

‘We had a meeting the next day, and we said, “How are we going to pick the players up?” because they were absolutely devastated.’

Having traced Marieanne’s steps on her coach development journey – tracking the evolution of her coaching ethos as she gradually honed her levels of emotional intelligence and self-awareness, through good times and bad – you now have the necessary insight to predict what happened next.

‘We said, “We don’t change our behaviours because of disappointment. We remain consistent. We still believe we are going to inspire a nation, and we go out and beat the Germans because that is what we deserve to do. We believe in you, we trust you, and we know you are going to give everything you can to reach that goal of inspiring a nation.”

‘To then beat Germany 1-0, on a penalty: absolutely amazing.’

The wounds of the semi-final defeat may take years to heal, but the bulldog spirit needed to bounce back and beat Germany, when the eyes of the world were upon them, was a vindication of their philosophy of teamwork and togetherness, alongside a common sense of purpose and collective ownership – from which they never swerved.

For Marieanne, it was a personal triumph, underlining how resilience, and a strong work ethic built on the back of years of endeavour and thirst for knowledge, can reap rich rewards.

She has played a few blinders for England in her time, but her and the rest of the coaching team's performance in the minutes, hours and days after that morale-crushing defeat to Japan was just as instrumental to the final result – even if it wasn’t played out in front of the cameras.

Forging tight-knit relationships with the players allowed the equally tight-knit coaching unit to pick up the broken pieces of their shattered confidence, drag them back from the abyss and inspire one of the great sporting comebacks.

The jubilation on the faces of the Lionesses as they paraded those bronze medals around their necks was shared by the millions watching back home. In total, 11.9 million had watched England at some stage during the tournament, and nearly 1.5 million had tuned in for the win over Germany.

Evidence enough that they had not only inspired a nation but had also inspired the next generation, taking, as Marieanne said, ‘the profile of women’s football to heights it has never seen before’.

‘I’m a great believer that every coach’s journey is going to be an individual journey,’ said Marianne after sharing her personal reflections.

So how is your journey shaping up? And what have you learned on the way? We would love to hear your story.

Next Steps

Sports Coach UK’s Reach campaign is aimed at attracting more women into coaching. Find out more about the campaign on the Reach website or follow their Twitter site @Reachcoaches.

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Comments (1)

   
CatherineBaker

Excellent. Resonates on so many levels with key themes we see in coaching, especially female coaches. Confidence, knowing your strengths, emotional intelligence, understanding that it is a learning journey, and that the people and behavioural aspects are key. And of course the transition from player to coach! Great insight.

26/04/17
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