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Dreams do come true: A story of pleasure, pain and perseverance

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Wendy Russell

UP STICKS: Wendy Russell in coaching mode at Brighton & Hove Hockey Club

  • Dare to dream: it can help you overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.
  • ‘Never give up on anyone or anything’ is a motto that can serve you well in life.
  • Be imaginative: take ideas from other sports to see how they can cross over into your sport.
  • Seeing a smile light up the face of a player after they have learnt a new skill is the best feeling in the world. 

We all moan from time to time about having rotten luck. I used to work with someone who would quote Mario Balotelli on a daily basis: ‘Why always me?’ he would whimper, as if some higher power had singled him out for personal torture. 

It may have been because the caps lock had indeed locked on his keyboard (it felt as if he was swearing in capital letters, I can tell you), or maybe his walk into the office had taken an extra 30 seconds after someone had had the audacity to park in his favourite space. 

Trivial stuff, but then some people are adept at making a drama out of a non-crisis. If you are one of those ‘glass half empty’ types, please read on – it might help put things into perspective. 

For Wendy Russell, bad luck really did come in threes when she was only knee high to a grasshopper. Not a woe, woe and thrice woe whinge of an eternal pessimist, but three debilitating blows that rained down faster than a Floyd Mayweather combination. 

Down but not out 

I nearly missed it. I asked about how she had got into sport, and she told me she started playing football at primary school when she was 11 and was advised she would make a great hockey goalkeeper. 

‘But then I got run over by a car, had some time out, then got told I had arthritis in my hip, and the doctors told me I wasn’t allowed to play sport again.’ 

Hold on, hold on. Rewind a little. What’s this about an accident? You say you were diagnosed with arthritis at 11? And what’s that about being urged to quit sport before you’d even struck a ball in anger? 

Wendy – a Level 2 hockey coach and Level 1 basketball, trampolining, rugby and football coach – is the senior coach at Brighton & Hove Hockey Club, where she is their Junior Development Officer and Director of Coaches, and works for Active Sussex (the county sports partnership) as Coach Support Officer, helping mentor coaches. She is also the ambassador for Project 500, a scheme aimed at getting more women involved in coaching. 

If that’s not enough coaching for one person, she is a full-time PE teacher at Steyning Grammar School, and also coaches at Sussex University. 

Clearly, then, she did not take her doctors’ advice to steer clear of sport. 

Even before she could explain in more detail exactly what happened to her when she was 11, I was starting to understand why she had written on her ConnectedCoaches profile: ‘Never give up on anyone or anything.’ It had become her life’s motto after her early trials and tribulations. 

‘So basically, I was going to the shop, and a car came out of nowhere,’ she begins again. ‘I only remember being hit, I don’t remember what happened afterwards. The car was going about 60 miles per hour and took my legs out from underneath me. Not particularly fantastic but luckily it wasn’t a full-on impact. Only the front corner of the car nicked me, and the back wheel went over my ankles, doing some damage to my ligaments and tendons. 

‘They said because I was so young and I was still growing, and because my joints were still quite supple, it did less damage than if I had been older.’

 No sooner had she returned to full fitness than she began noticing some soreness in her hips. Back to the doctors. 

‘I wouldn’t be able to move sometimes. I’d get into a certain position, like sitting cross-legged, and I would get stuck. I had some X-rays taken of my hips, and the doctors recommended I didn’t take part in any form of sport.

‘Even at that age, I wanted to be a PE teacher so that was gutting to hear.’ 

At this stage, the diagnosis was snapping hip syndrome, and Wendy faced the prospect of an operation that could leave her unable to walk for six months. 

She adds: ‘Basically, the tendons in my hips were too tight, and they asked me if I wanted to have the operation. The other option was physiotherapy, which is the one I went for.

'It turned out it was arthritis, and the problems kind of petered out when I stopped playing sport, but I thought my dream of becoming a PE teacher was well and truly over.’

Through the pain barrier 

Wendy didn’t play any more sport during her early teenage years, and it looked like the recommendation of the medical professionals had won the day.

But proving people wrong is Wendy’s speciality, and throughout her hiatus, she would regularly rekindle memories of matches and remember the fun she had in her PE lessons at primary school with her favourite teacher, Mrs Chisholm.

‘Mrs Chisholm was a brilliant teacher,’ says Wendy, ‘So I had a very good experience at a young age, which spurred me on to want to become a PE teacher. Then at secondary school, I had another really good PE teacher in Mrs Boby. 

‘I think that grassroots coaches and teachers are the most important people when it comes to fostering and inspiring people to want to get involved in sport, and keep a smile on their faces when taking part. 

‘I was contemplating what other careers I might want to get into but I didn’t feel anywhere near as passionate about them compared to being a PE teacher, and it was still in the back of my mind. 

‘When I got to choose my A levels, I chose PE and joined my local hockey team. I knew that this is what I wanted to do, to inspire other people to enjoy sport as much as I do and show people that there is a sport for everyone regardless of your ability. 

‘I thought, “You know what? I’ll put up with the arthritis. I might not be walking by the time I’m 60, but I’m going to do it.” 

It wasn’t long before Wendy began combining her love of playing with her ambition to help others. Her club didn’t have a junior section so she took on the responsibility of creating one, passing her Level 2 hockey qualification in the process as she set out to bolster both the club’s and her own personal development. 

It’s fair to say she hasn’t looked back since. 

Feel good factor

‘I took a year out after my A levels before university and did some coaching qualifications and liaised with the local school to develop my club’s junior section. 

‘I love learning and taking ideas to see how they can cross over into other sports – taking a rugby drill, for example, and seeing how that would fit for hockey.

‘I enjoy it, the whole social element of watching other people learn, and having that competitive edge too. It outweighs the pain.

‘Sometimes, when I’m in a lot of pain, I think to myself, “Why don’t you play an indoor sport with not as much running around instead?” But then I’ll go out and get involved again, and I’ll be fine.’

On her ConnectedCoaches profile, she writes: ‘Whenever I see someone develop a new skill or confidence, the smile that lights up their face! This inspires me. Helping them believe in themselves.’ 

There is no cure for Wendy’s arthritis. She can only manage it through regular physio and sports massages, steroid injections in her hips and by making sure she doesn’t overdo things – while at the same time doing enough to keep her joints supple. 

Pioneering scheme 

Wendy took over the junior development of Brighton & Hove Hockey Club three years ago and has helped swell their ranks from 120 juniors to more than 300. 

Her efforts have been recognised by making the shortlist in the Community Coach category at the Sunday Times and Sky Sports Women of the Year Awards (SWOTY), to broadcast live on Sky Sports 1 and Sky 1 on Friday, November 6. 

Bearing in mind her dedication and extensive coaching experience at county level, clubs and at every tier of the education system, what is her coaching ambition? 

‘I’d like to coach a national league side eventually and push my deaf hockey club into other clubs within the country so we can have, for example, deaf teams in Sussex, Hampshire, London and beyond playing against each other.’

Hold on. Rewind again. What’s this about a deaf hockey club? Wendy is so modest about her achievements that the fact she recently started the country’s first deaf hockey club has so far gone unmentioned. And to think I was wrapping up our interview and could have missed this nugget of information.

‘I’ve just started a deaf hockey club, for children who are deaf or hard of hearing, and it’s the only one in England,’ she explains.

‘There is no other provision for them in England to play hockey. So if you are deaf, you have to play in a normal club. 

‘They find interacting with people who can hear difficult so the idea is to give them that confidence and self-esteem before they move into hearing clubs. There are no other deaf-only sports clubs in Sussex other than football or cricket.’ 

This in itself is a wonderful achievement, but there is more. 

‘There is no sign language for hockey. If I needed to communicate with them, I would have to think about other ways of doing so. It was difficult. There is no sign language, for example, for hockey stick or dribbling so what I had to do was create 40 new sign language signs that are now being used across the country. I’m really proud of that.’ 

Pioneer, workhorse, motivator, altruistic and driven coach – she is a former winner of the Sussex Coach of the Year and runner-up in the Brighton & Hove City Coach of the Year awards – Wendy Russell is a role model for women sports coaches in this country and an inspiration to those wanting to either begin a career or further their career in the industry. 

This week, sports coach UK launched its Reach campaign aimed at attracting more women into sports coaching. Read more empowering tales from women like Wendy on the Reach website or follow their Twitter site @Reachcoaches.

Wendy's top tips

  1. Learn from other sports – people have rarely played one sport in their lives, so ask what drills, ideas and terminology you can take to support the one you are delivering.
  2. Never rest – always review and learn. A love for learning is a love for growing and developing as a coach.
  3. Pass on knowledge with energy and enthusiasm. It is infectious.
  4. There is a sport for everyone – you just have to find it.
  5. Listen to your group/athletes/players. They will ‘tell’ you so much, from aspects they enjoy to things that might not have worked for them. They are not all the same.
  6. Embrace failure as much as success. This will help your athletes learn and improve.
  7. Practice has to be fun and engaging, not only for the players but you as a coach. In my sport, standing week in week out on a cold and normally wet evening, you have to think about what makes them come back
  8. Create and foster an environment for everyone – a love for being active and an eagerness to learn – so each person can fulfil their potential.

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