How has Covid-19 affected your work as Performance Pathway Manager & Coach?

Wes Blair is the Performance and Pathway Manager and Coach at Wasps Netball Club, U.K. We recently had a chat with Wes about all things Netball, coaching and the fact that Netball is one of the rare sports which is female dominated.

To read our full interview with Wes, CLICK HERE

Below, we spoke with Wes about how her role was affected by the various lockdown’s caused by the Pandemic over the last 12 months and how she managed to adapt throughout

How has COVID affected the pathways of the girls coming in and moving up through the club and do you think it will have a lasting effect all the way up to senior level over the next couple of years?

Some of the conversations that I’ve had with coaching staff, players themselves, everyone is completely different. I think on the whole, going from the player perspective, a lot of them have tried to just maintain their fitness levels really, so it’s had a massive knock on effect in terms of doing actual ball skills.

Because sometimes it’s difficult to do that, not everybody can get outside and find a wall and things like that. So, they have tried to maintain their fitness levels. A lot of them have been very creative in terms of what they’re doing. A lot of them have thought “Oh, I don’t really like running generally…”, but they’ve made themselves do it and thought “Actually I’m quite good at this.”, or it’s been a nice release just to get out of the house.

Don’t get me wrong I’ve had to cajole a few into just doing an S&C session, but I’ve been really mindful that they have to opt in or opt out. And some of them have chosen to do that, more so from the younger age, as opposed to the under 21’s. Some have opted to not join in every week but I have kept in touch with them just to check in with them, how they’re doing, what they’re doing and just generally having a chat about anything other than netball really.

The difficulty is, they see the training as a means to an end. So, if they don’t see that they’re gonna be back on court training or training for a competition, some will and have switched off. And it’s trying to bring them back in. For instance, this evening I’m doing a wellbeing session with the under 21’s, bit of a presentation, bit of a chance for them to chat to each other in small groups and see where they are mentally.

Because I think some of them probably don’t realise that they’re struggling and they need a bit more support. So, I’m gonna do that this evening and see how they get on, but I suppose the biggest problem, or not problem but challenge, is we have 9 academy hubs. So, like from under 17 age group, and they’ve not been able to get them up and running.

They were due to start in October, then we pushed back to November and we were all set to go November, and then we went back into lockdown. So, we’ve not been able to get those up and running, so from that perspective it’s been really difficult so some of the girls that we’ve selected have been engaged in what we’re putting on, and some haven’t. So, it’s a case of how and if we get those back on board when we’re able to get back to training.

Because let’s say, we have about 200 girls that we would’ve been coaching on a week by week basis. Competition would’ve started this month actually, on Saturday, for them as well.  It’s an inter-hub league that we do, so obviously none of that’s been able to get up and running. Long term, I hope it doesn’t have a long term effect, I hope they do come out of it, the other side. We always say that children are resilient but there’s a breaking point I think, and I think we have to be prepared as a coach, to be able to pick up the pieces, so to speak.

And I’ve always said this from a coaching perspective, and I started a masters in coaching and mentoring, that no matter, sometimes we just have to ignore the netballing and make sure that they are mentally sound. Because no amount of coaching, if they’re not there mentally and physically, it’s not going to make a difference. And I think from a coaching perspective, we’re gonna have to do a lot of that once we get back.

I did a three day mental health first aid course, this was before lockdown actually, and I’ve done like a refresher online with UK coaching. But I think that is something that we, and this is the royal we, have to have a look at for our coaches, to be able to deliver a really good performance programme going forward, particularly for the younger ones that are in school, struggling with school, sitting in front of a screen 24/7.

So, I hope it’s not a long term thing. I don’t think we’re gonna come out of this and immediately everything be OK, it’s gonna be a longer process. We’re potentially supposed to be starting an under 19 and under 21 competition, for all the different franchises. Now obviously that’s been put back, and again, I don’t think we can just come out, go back on court training and hit competition.

Whilst we think we are ready physically, because we’ve all been working out and doing our S&C session, I think its bigger than that. And I hope that England netball recognise that it’s bigger than that, that we can’t just go into competition 6 weeks down the line, just because we are physically fit, well who’s checking whether we are mentally fit. And that’s coaches as well not just the players. That’s my personal opinion but –  

I don’t think it’s going to be normal for a very long time. I think we’re still gonna be very cautious in terms of how we deliver our coaching sessions, even when we’re given the all clear. I think we’ll still be very cautious and things that we had to put in place, we’ve always had to do risk assessments but it’s always something that’s sat in the background, we will be more on top of those.

You know, the hand sanitising, the balls, if we think about it there’s all those sorts of things that you took for granted, are still going to be playing on our minds, especially from a coaching point of view. We can’t just maneuver a person into position where you want them, cause that’s the easy thing to do, it’s like “Well how do I get you to do this?” – going to start drawing pictures and all different sorts of things to actually explain what I need to do because the easiest thing is just to go hand on the back, shove you over there, sort of thing. So, it’s gonna be different, its gonna be a challenge.

Like I say, just from a mental point of view, we have to be ready and we have to be prepared, you know whether it’s Wasps franchise or whatever franchise the coaches work with. Don’t get me wrong I think the support is there and we have the other franchise coaches, but I think we just need to embed that before we start even thinking about getting these girls back on court for competition, like I say that’s my personal opinion. 

Is there anything that you, whether careers wise or personal wise, have been able to do, or achieve, or get involved with that you wouldn’t otherwise have been able to have done, because of time or because you’ve been stuck at home? Is there something positive that’s come out of all this?

I think from my point of view, people say to me “Why don’t you do one to one sessions when we could, or small groups?”, and I think from my point of view we’re normally coaching 5/6 days a week, competitions at weekends. It was a real chance for me to just take some time and recalibrate and just sit.

People kept asking me why I didn’t do a one to one, actually I didn’t want to, I just didn’t want to. And it was a really good time for me just to see what I wanted to do with my coaching going forward. And then it came to a point where actually I felt OK, I was ready to go back to club training and sort that out, which was really good and I started doing just a small group of girls.

Because again, whilst they wanted me to go back to club training quite a big club, it was like 6 teams. With lots of new restrictions in place, it’s like, well actually, I need to feel confident in myself to be able to do this on a smaller scale before going back to doing whole club sessions and needing that.

I was able to do that and actually voice my opinion that I’m not going to go back into doing a whole head session just because we can, when I haven’t done anything for 3/4 months. So that was really good.  I did mental health first aid, I did my First Aid and Safeguarding, I did something else, which escapes me – and one of the good things is we just kept in touch with some of my close coach friends as well, then we just shared ideas and different things that we’ve been working on.

Like, it might’ve been videos that we watched of other coaches, inspirational stuff as well. I suppose one good thing that’s come out of this, I’ve been able to attend Superleague training sessions over the last few weeks. That’s been really good to get involved with a Superleague. And I suppose normally we’d all train on the same nights. So 19’s, 21’s and seniors, but with the 19’s, 21’s not training, iCovid has given me the opportunity to actually go into the Superleague training sessions, and not just be a spare part, have some input and work with a group.

So that’s been really good in terms of my own confidence I suppose. In terms of actually being able to coach at that level. The players respond to you as well, so that’s been really good and really appreciative of that so I can actually then take some of that back to the under 21’s and under 19’s once we get going, so that’s been really good and positive. So, it hasn’t all been doom and gloom, it’s lots of things to think about, like I say, and I just generally take things one day at a time.

I’ll make sure I check in with the other coaches and we have our friends in lockdown groups, so the coaches that I work with, under 17, under 15, under 19 coach, and yeah just make sure that we do check in. Because you can get caught up in your own world and we can have a little netball party and watch the netball at the weekend. You know, just little things like that, that you probably wouldn’t have done it at any other time. So, it does make you appreciate what’s out there and the support that’s around as well, so that’s definitely been a positive.