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West Coast league coach embraces new way

24 November 2014

To describe a footy coach these days as 'old school' is generally not to pay them a compliment, particularly so in a contact sport such as rugby league. But the West Coast has a league coaches' coach who still fondly clasps a piece of the old school mantra to his chest as he adapts to new ways of inspiring players and training coaches.

By John Spavin

Paddy Byrne likes winning but he says coaches need to work on behalf of their team, not just shoulder-charge their way through the psyche of their young players in order to a win at all costs.

40-years ago, when coaches still laid down the law, Paddy recalls with fondness his part as a player in the West Coast premier competition when his team, Marist, took out the rugby league club premiership.

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The club recently celebrated its 90th jubilee and the win was an undimmed, glorious memory for many who attended. It was fought under the old coaches' rules too and that didn't diminish the remembered pleasure at the experience.

But, says Paddy, there's more to the game these days than that.

Paddy is Coaching Development Officer for the league-playing towns of the Coast. It's a position made possible by joint contributions from New Zealand Rugby League, Sport NZ, Sport Canterbury West Coast and the West Coast Rugby League.

On his appointment three years ago, he recalls that one of his "higher up the ladder men" made a matter-of-fact statement to him to the effect that the old school style that Paddy had grown up with was out.

"I was prepared to come around but at the same time I think there's still of value in 'keep it simple, stupid'," he says.

He still believes that telling a player to 'harden up' has its place. "I've said that plenty of times and they're still friends of mine."

He's not suggesting going back to the way he was coached: "I learned at the end of a boot up the backside."

These days he says, "we've met halfway, I think it would be fair to say."

Paddy works for up to 30 weeks a year at his league-coaching job. He deals mainly with junior grades as the twin lures of the Christchurch rebuild and the mines of Australia draw the older Coasters away.

He says the modern coaching philosophy is more of a collective effort to build and bind a team. He likes the greater variety in training and coaching rather than rote learning. But, he says he still sees a lot of drills done for drilling's sake, little more than a warm-up.

He sees those drills because he gets out and about amongst the teams that range geographically from Reefton to Hokitika, rather than standing in front of an audience with a PowerPoint presentation, which is how he says he could have conducted his work. It may even have been expected that that was what he'd do but instead he attends training, games and sees the teams and their coaches at work.

He appraises his coaches on whether they demonstrate that they're coaching for the players. He says it's unreasonable for coaches to be concerned at chalking up wins to enhance their reputations. "Nothing wrong with wanting to win," he says, "but I think good coaches are more concerned about what they're doing for the player."

That's where Paddy says his attitude to coaching has evolved from his early days and it's what he's looking for in his coaching charges. Many of the local league teams are young and play for the enjoyment and to participate, rather than a result.

No longer do the ungainly ones get stuck on the wing, far away from the action where they can't drop the ball or trip over. He says he likes coaches who motivate those players by rotating them through the important and busy positions: "How can I help that boy; doesn't matter if we lose but it will help his confidence."

The modern theory, often derided by those of earlier generations, that competing is what matters and that there need not be winners is something Paddy understands and has mixed emotions about. Regardless he's moved on a long way from the competitive era when he was playing.

Often, he says, it's the parents on the sidelines who look for the win but the kids, particularly the younger ones, just enjoy the play.

"Winning's important and wanting to win certainly makes a difference if you plan to go on a wee bit, but I think at a certain age group it's about having a bit of fun. You've got to get the happy medium," he says but he does sound just a little wistful recalling the hard old days.

Having recently attended the Marist jubilee, Paddy says he experienced those days' attitudes himself but the camaraderie and respect for each other, coaches included, has lasted the years. He says regardless of training methods, true leaders win respect.

So in coaches, he looks for those people who possess the ability to build a better person, to win players' respect rather than just training them for a few games of footy. He believes an effective coach will have a good influence on players, well beyond their playing days because they concentrate on the person, not the score line.

"You will become a better person if you have a coach with that expectation. There's no doubt about that," he says, "people must learn values instead of just football and that [the jubilee] has reiterated that for me."

Paddy refereed league on the Coast for 10 years after his playing days ended, in the eighties, and then started coaching. His current work around the Coast lasts about two-thirds of the year and during the rest, he's involved in water safety instruction and touch football.

He says he's one of those people who love what he does. He likes it so much he'll even stay inside some days and fire up the PowerPoint if it helps to ignite the coaches.

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