In 2004, the rural primary school attended by Linda Nicholson’s daughters put out a plea for volunteers. They needed help with fundraising, art classes, cake baking for events, and netball. As a former age-group international athlete, a Masters World Championships finalist and an experienced club and university netballer, Linda opted for a whistle instead of an apron; and so her love of coaching began.
Since then, Linda has had undeniable success coaching in both athletics and netball; she currently coaches an elite group of eight 11-24-year-old athletes almost all of whom are full internationalists, age-group internationalists, and/or Scottish championship medallists. Amongst her successes she coached her own daughter between the ages of 12 and 22, taking her to within 6cm of qualifying for the long jump at the Commonwealth Games in 2014. She coached Stephen Mackenzie, who lived 350 miles away, from a promising 16-year-old long jumper to a European junior finalist at age 17. This, despite the severe challenges of remote coaching a technical event. Over the same period, another of her charges Ellie O’Hara was re-writing the Scottish U17 triple jump records indoors and out, and at only 16 gained her Scotland full international vest. Linda won the Scottish Athletics Development Coach of the Year in 2019 and has since been selected as the only Scottish non-employee to be on the UK Athletics jumps advisory group as a long and triple jump expert.
Linda’s coaching skills are clear to see, but it is maybe her ability to spot a ‘gap in the market’ which is most impressive and where Female Coaching Network followers can take inspiration.
After coaching the aforementioned primary school netball team to success, Linda was saddened to learn that no high schools in her area had netball on their curriculum. With two daughters heavily involved in the sport and a primary school squad of talented players who faced having to give up at a young age, Linda considered setting up her own club. However, she faced widescale opposition; many people ‘advised’ her that such a plan could never succeed in a rural area with no funding, few facilities, and no pathways or competition structure. Against this background, Linda had to start from scratch; in 2006, Peebles Netball was born and in Linda’s own words, soon “grew arms and legs”! Starting with one team, she expanded the club to thirteen junior and eight adult squads before going on to set up club and regional junior and adult leagues, various age group squads at a regional level and coaching and umpiring mentoring schemes.
Peebles Netball was a force to be reckoned with. Rewarded by the governing body in many different seasons with awards including club of the year, school of the year and coach of the year, they won every school and club championship in Scotland over the years with Linda at the helm. Peebles also laid the foundations for netballers who went on to become part of the Scottish team at the Commonwealth Games and World Championships. In one particular U21 international game, half of the Scottish players had come through Linda’s rural netball club. Her founding of Peebles Netball, and her drive, determination and organisation across netball within Scotland earned her the British Empire Medal.
But why set up one successful club from scratch, when you can set up two? After her younger daughter’s PE teacher highlighted her athletic talent and suggested that Linda might like to seek some extra-curricular coaching for her, Linda once again noticed a gap in local resources; there was no junior athletics club in her area. However, there was a senior club so, alongside her husband, Linda took it upon herself to set up a junior arm to ensure her daughter and her friends could train and compete. This junior club – Moorfoot Juniors – was set up in 2006 at a similar time to Peebles Netball and, like Peebles Netball, is still functioning to this day.
Not only did local athletics and netballing talent benefit from Linda’s desire to provide organised training and competition, but it also profited from her skilful coaching – and she borrowed many tips from each sport to enhance the other.
A key coaching element which Linda transferred from netball to athletics was the ability to identify a ‘chain of events’ when looking at technical issues. Linda explains that in netball, a goal shooter not catching the ball cleanly could originate from a goal keeper at the other end of the court not passing the ball quickly enough, and all subsequent throws in the chain being a little mis-timed or off-balance. This ability to trace back the origins of a fault was something Linda transferred from netball coaching to jumps coaching; in long jumping, a poor technique on landing is often the result of a badly-timed take-off, which is inevitably the result of a problem on the runway.
Linda adapted her coaching skills going the other way, too. From athletics to netball she took a sound knowledge of how to develop and work with a progressive training programme, ensuring all players knew what was being worked on, how the skill would be developed, and how this would be applied in a full game. She was also able to transfer some of the plyometric jumping elements and sprint acceleration drills from jumps coaching to netball, and even completed some joint sessions where her netballers and jumpers came together to train.
While there are obvious synergies in some of the coaching techniques, Linda does feel there are notable differences in the way that netball and athletics are run in the UK, and feels netball could teach track and field a thing or two.
Linda explains that in netball it is commonplace to find parents taking to the court for informal training sessions with their children; but that it would be unusual to find a sprints, jumps or throws session for parents attending athletics club nights as spectators. With many parents getting their offspring in to athletics after having a childhood interest themselves, many would have been sprinters, hurdlers, jumpers or throwers. As Linda explains, “not all adults like to jog!” so she has – unsurprisingly, given her skill for spotting a gap in the market! – done what she can to rectify this. Over the years, Linda has coached many parents who simply wanted to experience the feeling of sprinting on a track again, which she has found to be a great way to hook them in to further supporting the sport by coaching, or officiating.
However, it seems that Linda’s desire and aptitude for making athletics a sport loved by the whole family is a rarity. So if the sport as a whole does not follow Linda’s example to get parents more involved, what else can be done to try and encourage more people – particularly women – in to athletics coaching? Linda thinks it is all down to exposure to female coaches across various media and at practical events like coaching days – where she has historically often been the only female present. As Linda says, “you have to see it to believe it”, and while it continues to be unusual to see women coaching, others will not believe it is possible for them.
And this exposure needs to start from the top. Linda says that there needs to be a wide-scale change in the systemic discrimination against women in track and field coaching. Gender equity (as opposed to gender equality) should be a priority, and loopholes should not be used to sway governing body recruitment in the favour of male colleagues. Without women in governing body policy-making roles, the sport is unlikely to change, and will continue to look largely unappealing to women contemplating coaching. Women have to be in coaching positions – elite and grassroots – in order for them to be promoted in marketing and to inspire others to follow in their footsteps. Ultimately the sport cannot give exposure to female coaches if it doesn’t have any. Much like Linda’s technical coaching, this is a chain of events – and currently it seems like the very first link in that chain is broken.
However, those interested in the plight of female coaches in the UK should take inspiration from Linda’s story. From simply identifying gaps in local resources, Linda has forged an impressive and successful coaching pathway, benefitting countless young netballers and athletes along the way. Her story shows that there are opportunities for female coaches to take the bull by the horns. Take the lead; establish something of your own – and show others how it can be done!
Author: Becki Hall
Becki Hall is a life-long sports fan; from a very young age, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, the answer was always “Sally Gunnell”! Becki has competed in track and field since the age of 11, with regional and national success as a junior athlete. She qualified as a personal trainer in 2016 and an athletics coach in 2019 after developing a love of sports coaching through working as a multi-sports assistant on school holiday camps during her teenage years.
Becki is passionate about encouraging female participation in sport and exercise – within athletics and beyond – at both an athlete and coach level.
Becki works full-time as a marketing communications manager in the defence and aerospace industry, and has a particular interest in copywriting and content marketing.
In her very little spare time Becki still trains 5-6 times a week, with sessions covering throwing, sprinting, weightlifting and even a rare cameo over the hurdles when her body allows. Sadly, she never did grow up to be Sally Gunnell, however.
When she is not competing or training at the weekend, she is usually found stood in the cold watching her partner play football or bemoaning her ever-failing fantasy football team.