Monday, 26 March 2012

Coaching insights overlooking the Olympic Park

Hi all,

Friday was a great day...although it didn't start all that well with a 5am start to catch a train into London it got a heck of a lot better. Not only did I get to spend the day listening to one of England's most successful coaches but I did it overlooking the site of the 2012 Olympic Park! Coffee and pastries followed by intimate insights into the mind of a great coach all delivered against a backdrop evoking thoughts of elite sporting achievement...what's not to like?

The coach was Mark Lane, head coach of the England Women's Cricket Team (the world's number 1 team no less!) and you are unlikely to find a more engaging, honest and straight forward individual that also happens to be at the top of his field. You could forgive Mark for having a swagger or a certain arrogance that comes from being the best in the world, but nothing could be further from the truth. The very fact that he was prepared to be up early in the morning and be so willing to give his time to help other coaches to develop themselves gives you a real sense of what he is all about, and those of us in the audience were highly appreciative.

The session was a 'Talent Coaches Breakfast Club' a sportscoachUK initiative enthusiastically organised by Pro-Active East London, a sub-regional sports partnership that has really taken the development of coaches of talented athletes seriously (big thanks to Laura Pierce for doing all the organising). The format of the session was a shortish talk of about an hour covering Mark's development journey as a coach and some of the key aspects of his work with the England Women's cricket team followed by a Q & A session which was led by me asking questions in an interview style (more Parkinson than Paxman) and the coaches pitching in with their own.

Here are some of the highlights:

The Journey so far...

Mark's journey as a coach is not typical for an international coach, he played minor county and county 2nd XI cricket and then began coaching part time once he retired alongside his job as a builder. He was offered a job running one of the new indoor cricket schools that were popping up throughout the UK (where he started working with players like Claire Taylor on a one to one basis!)before being offered a chance to be the assistant coach of the Kenyan national team (important lessons learnt about dealing with different types of people with different agendas here!). When he returned to the UK he started working as a community coach on the ECBs 'Chance to Shine' programme (49% increase in the number of girls playing Cricket as a result of this programme - Mark was very proud to tell us) before receiving a phone call from the England management out of the blue asking if he could step in for another coach and be with the team in Australia in 3 days time. As Mark tells it "There I was with my balls and bibs and cones in a school and 3 days later I was at the SCG with the girls for the Ashes - it was literally from playground to test arena" (the ECB motto).

Coaching Philosophy

Creating the performance environment is central to Mark's philosophy of coaching. He wants to develop  culture within the team based on the following principles:

  • Open and Honest 
  • Challenge each other to be better
  • Accountability 
  • Know your role
  • Enjoy what we do 
  • Trust
(A good book on this subject is 'The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team' by Patrick Lencioni. Thanks to Craig Keegan the England Under 21s Women's Hockey Coach for recommending it for me). 

Knowing the player and individualising coaching

Mark pointed out that a big part of his development as a coach was to improve his ability to relate to people and understand what makes them tick. A lot of the development provided by the ECB has focussed on this area and personality profiling and management techniques are fairly central to their development programme. Mark has worked extensively on his communication style and his ability to get through to players with different personality types.

An example of this was when Mark asked Claire Taylor what she wanted to do during practice and he said that she really wanted to read her book. He told her that is that was the way she could best prepare then she could do so. "It raised eyebrows at the time and there were a few funny looks but now we have trust and openness and shared values so now we can have optional training sessions and no-one bats an eyelid" Mark points out.

One of the major techniques used in this process is a review that is also used by the men's team coaches ("it's great being able to share ideas with Andy Flower"). This review process is based around 4 questions:

  • What have you learned? 
  • What went well?
  • Areas for improvement
  • What ifs

Being a sports psychologist

"I am the best sports psychologist these girls can have" Mark says, "and my sports psych often tells me that". Mark outlines that much of his work is about preparing players for the emotional and mental demands of performing at the highest level under pressure. There is still room for the psychologist to work with players on areas of personal development but when it comes to preparation to play that is entirely his domain, as he outlines "my psych is great but he can be a bit fluffy for me, I am all about the here and now and I like it to be real world".

To illustrate this Mark wants to make sure that the players are mentally tough and uses a variety of techniques to help build the correct mindset, they include:

  • Getting the players to sing in front of each other. This was done as a way to create trust and openness but also as a way to show the players how to cope with being out of their comfort zone. 
  • Consequence training - making as many sessions as possible have a consequence. One example was the '5 point net session' where players can stay in the nets as long as they haven't got 5 points (1 for the ball beating the bat, 3 for getting out, 1 for not showing enough intent).
  • Playing against male players or playing with male players in men's teams. 
Continuous improvement

Mark explained that he wants the players to examine their performances and continuously improve, he explained that in the past they had 2 or 3 key players and the rest would rely on them. He challenged the girls on this and told them that they needed to step up. One admitted that she had never scored a 50 for England and so he asked her what she was doing playing for England. The same girl has now scored multiple hundreds and is the best finisher in the world.  

Mark has also made sure the times when the team has not been successful have been opportunities to learn. After one unsuccessful series they agreed that that needed to be tougher, and to be able to take criticism from one another. This can only be done when the culture is right and still requires work and careful management. 

Consistency = belief = confidence 

One of the ways in which Mark can evaluate the programme is by measuring the confidence levels of teh team. The work put in by the players has brought about good performances on a regular basis, which has imbued the players with faith in their abilities. "We now have a healthy arrogance", he suggests. I asked if he measures the women's programme against the men's programme or there is a quiet rivalry. I flicker of a smile comes across his lips but the answer is more straightforward than I had hoped, "the men have had great success and so have we....their world is different to ours but I like to think that we can stand on our own two feet". 

Preparation and taking chances

In sport we prepare ourselves for the contest and then we go out there and try and take our chance. This is a perfect metaphor for Mark's career to date... work hard and become as good as you can be at whatever level you are working at. If you get a chance, be prepared to drop everything and go for it...and give it your all. 

The quotes in this post are not exact verbatim transcripts of Mark's words as I couldn't scribble that fast. Instead I am  paraphrasing Mark's words to give a flavour of  how he thinks. 

More information on future talent breakfast sessions will be available at 

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