Coaching & the Value of Analysis - Cian O’Neill, CIT & Cork GAA
Next up on our Coaching Insight Series is a really enjoyable and insightful interview with Cian O'Neill, Head of Sport at CIT and Senior Football Coach with Cork GAA about the principles of coaching, the evolving role of the athlete in the development process and the value of statistics and video analysis for both coach and performer.
What is coaching and its key principles?
Coaching - it’s such a broad term when you look at the vast areas of responsibilities that a coach has, working with either an individual athlete, a group of athletes or a team. Essentially I would see coaching as:
“...doing everything you can in your power along with your support team to facilitate the growth, the development, the progression of your athlete or your teams to reach their potential.”
That can come from a variety of different perspectives: from the in-situ coaching side of things - its your ability to understand what it is you're doing, to understand your role as a coach, to challenge the players - to provoke them into learning.
"To encourage them to become learners themselves, agents of change on the field or the court making them effective decision makers. Making them good team players and good communicators."
But away from the training side of things I would like to think as a coach your responsibility extends to working with your athletes to become better human beings, better people - good athletes on the pitch and good humans off the pitch.
To encourage them to foster greater relationships - not just with the coaching and management team but also with the players. I do think coaching and being an athlete has the capability of developing character - things like self-awareness, behaviour such as empathy, integrity, I think that’s a really important part of the coach-athlete relationship.
Also from a personal perspective, to develop inherent traits such as self efficacy, confidence, self esteem. I would take a lot of this thought process from the work of Jean Côté and Wade Gilbert - where they specifically discuss the four C’s of Coaching (Competence, Confidence, Character and Connectedness). I think it sums up the coach-athlete relationship and process quite nicely, and within each of those C’s you can delve deeper in terms of what that means. That’s what I meant when I said Coaching was a very broad term and very broad responsibilities. But central is the human aspect, you as the coach and you as a person and those as players and people as well.
Is the role of the athlete changing in the development process?
I've been coaching a long time now, from my earliest days where I was in second year in secondary school coaching the first year basketball team to the last fifteen years at intercounty level and I can honestly say that:
"...there is a significant development in the athlete which in turn encourages the coaches to develop their coaching process. I feel, athletes in the last decade have become more demanding and rightly so, in terms of how they are being challenged, how they are provoked to improve. The coaching environment cannot just be about growth learning anymore, fundamental skills development and a little bit of tactical awareness and then you go and play a match and hopefully we can perform. I think that connectedness within the process of integrated coaching is something that is coming more to the fore across all sports."
I think what has happened, to really bring that out of players is - firstly, the level of improvement in third level sport. Where you can athletes from all over the country coming from different teams or having worked with different coaches all sitting in a room either on a college team of on an academic programme sharing stories and ideas of how they have experienced coaching and coaching processes and then they go back to their team and they’re sharing that information with their coaches, managers and fellow players.
I think that has been a really positive thing, in terms of how coaching has had to develop, but - secondly, I also think the role of technology has had a very specific positive impact. Whereby players are more educated (in the liberal sense), but they’re reading whether it’s online or journal articles or just newspaper articles about what a Premier league team is doing or what a New Zealand Rugby club is doing in terms of their coaching processes.
"I really think that players are more educated about high performance and how to develop their game but also how coaching can develop. I don’t think that’s a bad thing - I think coaches as much as players need to be open to learning, to development, to progression in their knowledge, to progression in their implementation of the coaching plan."
I think these are the two critical development points that have brought the coaching process and the demands of athletes to the level that they are at today.
How important is analysis in the coaching process?
"I think analysis is critically important. I have always used it as a very strong support to what you might call your own coaching eye."
It has come a long way from fundamental pen and paper notational analysis to the high powered technological systems that are in place today like Performa Sports and what it can do to support not just coaches but also support players.
I guess that brings me back to the point of the educated athlete. What I find now and in my experience is that some of the best athletes and best players that I’ve worked with, and I’ve been very fortunate to work with over the years are also the most reflective athletes. So they don’t just want to train or play a match and park it there and move on to the next micro cycle of training and hope that they can repeat that performance, they’re constantly looking back at their own performance, at their team’s performance - just looking for those critical edges.
"That’s where analysis can come in, it can give you that critical edge in terms of reflection - on a past performance or also preparation for perspective performance, whether that’s viewing your own performance through the lens of video analysis or maybe breaking down the plays, the skill sets and tactical ploys of the opposition."
I don’t think it should ever replace or take the place of that coaching eye - that manager’s eye, that selection team’s eye, but I do think it is an important support system. When you combine the two together they can be very powerful allies.
What value do you place on reflection for both coach and athlete?
My primary degree was in physical education and in all teacher education programmes the process of reflection is a really critical part of developing your pedagogical process. Pedagogy extends to coaching, it’s not just for teaching so we were taught very early in our programme the importance of reviewing your classes, identifying those critical aspects that went well - try to develop, replicate and improve them but also reflect on those areas that didn’t work as well and how you can improve the next time - so not just the what, but the why as well.
I think when it comes to coaching, whether it’s at a sub-elite or elite level that process is as equally important, if not more so.
"If you just continue to work session to session, match to match without any deep reflection you’re never going to see those critical areas of potential improvement that can take you to the next level."
Sometimes this can be something as simple as writing down your thoughts, in my experience - after a session, so really what are the things that I did well in that session and what are those 'one to three areas' that I can improve upon. Or as you graduate up the ladder in terms of the use of technology actually having that reflective system in place - whether it’s video analysis, whether it’s statistical analysis - where you can use that objective data to look at or reflect upon what happened in a given session or a match but also viewing your subjective thoughts and just seeing where they merge and is one informing the other and vice versa.
So I do think there is a very strong role for that, video analysis has really come to the fore in elite sport and even drifting down to sub elite sport and I think that that's important. Whereby you can actually view what has happened at that moment in time, but also what led to that point, so say if it’s a particular score or incident in a match and then what happened after that - I think that's really important.
"But when you can bring statistics to stand alongside video I think that’s quite a powerful tool to have in addition to your coaching eye or your player’s eye as well."
I really see a strong place for it in the game and as the technology develops and improves I think that level of contribution to the coaching process or the playing process is improving as well.
What’s been the key change in the coaching process?
"The one key thing that I’ve noticed in recent times - is the real appetite and desire for players to look for video analysis. Either from their own personal perspective or from their unit perspective such as attacking play, defensive play, restarts, set pieces, or on a third level - from a holistic team perspective."
In the past that would have been very much coach and manager driven - in terms of this is what happened, this is why it happened and this is how we improve. What I’m seeing more and more now, are actual players requesting and in some cases demanding footage so that they can start to self analyse.
To be self critical of themselves -
"...whereby they bring the solutions as opposed to relying on a coach or a manager, or management team to give them solutions and I think once you have an athlete or a team of players who are very able to problem solve in real time because of their own individual preparations as opposed to being just fed information - I think that’s when you’re really in a healthy place."
Every match meanders in so many ways - you go up 2, you down 6, you play against 14 men, you might be down to 13 men yourself - no real training or coaching - just one directional from a coach to a player will prepare you to deal with that. It's how you have managed that in your own mind, in your own preparations and how you communicate as a team of players and problem solve at pitch level. Not at coach or management level, that I think is the essence between good teams and great teams - in terms of how they cope with adversity.
The role of technology in that regard of course is critical because if you have a platform whereby players aren’t necessarily sitting in a meeting room for 40-50mins running through tape, that they can actually be at home or be on a team bus and they have it on their mobile or tablet that’s a really strength of it, especially the way society has gone.