Born to Coach: An Interview with Karl Stagno
Coaching was not something that had crossed Dr Karl Stagno’s mind while he was a player in Gibraltar; even during his early years at college in England he was a player through and through. When he started his Doctorate in Exercise Physiology at Kingston University, London, however, the chance to make some money as a hockey coach while studying was an attractive proposition.
What probably wasn’t on his radar at that point was that he would become a hugely successful coach with three of the top teams in the English Hockey League and take up position as Director of Hockey at one of the most successful hockey schools in England, namely Whitgift School in Surrey.
Now head coach at Wimbledon Hockey Club, after successful playing and coaching spells at top English League clubs Surbiton and East Grinstead, it is obvious Karl is in a career perfectly suited to his blend of logic, science and an innate desire to achieve excellence within those he coaches.
“I was always someone who thought a lot about the game,’ says Karl as he reflects on his transformation from would-be academic to hockey coach. “In my game, I would think about how I could improve; from a team perspective, I would think of ways to win a game, what tactics to use. It sort of started from there.”
While still studying for his doctorate, Karl took over the colt’s section at Surbiton Hockey Club. During this time he was under the mentorship of former Great Britain women’s coach Jon Royce.
Jon was already making his mark on the junior section at the Surrey club. Most club junior sections at that point ran junior coaching on a Sunday morning with very little structure. It was a case of turn up, get a bit of coaching depending on which coaches were available and then play a game. In 2001 Jon introduced a template which saw junior coaching sessions at Surbiton being run with a syllabus and a focus on developing a high level of basic skills. The structure, attention to detail and outcome resonated with the newly-recruited coach.
“I started to put far more attention to detail into the coaching plans and how it was delivered. This style of coaching was more akin to a teaching lesson plan. It was all about the basics and getting them right. Jon was focused on improving the technical side of the game.”
After finishing his PhD, Karl realised that coaching hockey rather than pursuing a career in exercise physiology was his calling and so he joined Royal Grammar School in Guildford, where he became Director of Hockey. From coaching the basic skills and techniques, he was able to widen and develop his coaching to incorporate tactics, team preparation, how to develop a team over the season, and how to develop players from 12 to 18 and beyond.
In addition, Karl was able to encourage the older pupils to join the local club where he could then continue with their development within the club senior structure. More than a decade ago, he moved to Whitgift School, an independent day school in Surrey and it is no coincidence that many of today’s Great Britain players are also connected to the three clubs where Karl has coached. There are currently seven Whitgift pupils or former pupils playing at Wimbledon, four at Surbiton, four at East Grinstead and four currently representing Great Britain.
Developed over time, Karl’s coaching philosophy is a mixture of traditional focus on skills and tactics and a thorough embrace of the new wave of thinking that looks at the culture and behaviours exhibited by players on and off the pitch. What he can’t broker at all is the style of coaching where the players are asked to find solutions and the coach refrains from giving much, if any, in-put.
“There’s nothing wrong with this in essence, but I feel lots of coaches get carried away with new and fangled ways! A coach’s role is to influence change and support the players, there’s an accountability to do this, there’s a focus on results through the correct process. Too many hide under the premise of ‘the boys are finding their own way’! I believe that you have to seduce them to play the way you want and believe, educate them as to why, when and how. At the end of the day the coaches hardest job is to win in the short term whilst developing the players and the team for the future.”
For Karl, there has to be accountability in coaching. There is a depth and complexity of principles within the coaching programme at both Wimbledon and Whitgift, but put simply, he says, it is a case of telling the players what you want them to do, then giving them the skills to attain that goal.
“Walk them through the moves, drill them on what to do when the opposition does something. Later on, say to them, okay, I have given you three keys to three different locks. On the pitch, identify what lock is in front of you, which key do you use. That is the clever bit. I will have given the players the skills and the reasons behind a tactic, now they have to put that into operation.
“For me, you do have to ask the questions that promote thinking and understanding, but give the answers as well. We all know there is no right or wrong answer and there are different solutions to a problem. But if one player is doing one thing and no-one else knows what he is doing then that doesn’t work for the team.”
Karl gives the example of a press. “If one guy is doing his own thing in a press and everyone else is working to a set structure, then there will be a gap and the press won’t work. That one guy might have a very good reason and, on another day, in a different situation that would work. But on this occasion, we have got a strategy that the whole team must work too.”
This is where Coach Logic has allowed Karl’s coaching to reach new levels. At both Whitgift and Wimbledon, he is constricted by time. Players coming to training on a Tuesday night are often rushing from work in central London to get to the south London ground and will not have time or inclination to sit and watch an hour’s worth of video clips. Likewise, at school, Karl only has limited time with each age group. If that time was spent clipping action or watching videos, then the players would be short on physical training time.
“Coach Logic is such a good tool for maximising the amount of time I can spend communicating with the players,” says the former international hockey player. “Some players use it more regularly than others. We set it up at Wimbledon just now and already I am chatting to players about situations in play. They can be sitting at home on their sofas chatting to me about the clip I have sent.
“The learning is multiplied because we all have access to the game all the time. I want to teach the players how to play – not to just stop the ball and hit it, but how to play the game tactically as well as technically. Coach Logic is brilliant for that. It allows us to discuss things, to reinforce good behaviours and to highlight and eliminate negatives. It is a brilliant way to open a dialogue and create greater game understanding.”
Karl will play short clips just prior to a training session and once a month he might have a longer video session with the whole team but, for this time-starved coach, the beauty of the Coach Logic system is the peripheral learning that can take place.
“There may be players in the group who are shy and will prefer to watch videos and watch the messages flying back and forth rather than actively engaging in the discussion. There may also be players whose game understanding is not so good – by giving them the chance to watch clips over and over, plus reading all the messages, will help them become better players too.”
And it is the idea that a coach is there to help players of whatever age or ability to achieve the highest level they can that sits at the heart of Karl’s coaching. It is the same at Whitgift and at Wimbledon, although he struggles to get everyone to accept that.
“Hockey at Whitgift is not about winning titles. People think it must be, but they are wrong,” he says. “Our aim is for a player at 24 or 25 years of age to still be enjoying hockey. If a former pupil asks me for advice as an adult player, that is great. You know they are still playing, they are still enjoying it and they are still looking to improve and thrive. That is the way you know your programme is good.”
Getting that attitude right is something that starts in school and continues through into adult life. It is a part of coaching that Karl ranks as the most important. For him, getting the values right, developing good people who are selfless, promoting humility and good work ethics are all things that start at school. Tied into this is the understanding that in life it is about working hard but also about understanding that even if you work hard, you still might not win.
“The manner in which we win or lose is more important than whether we win. Winning is not all about success. For me, the question is: “Did we try to be as good as we possibly could be. If the answer is ‘yes’, then that is a success. We focus on ‘running the race’ not on ‘winning it’. The rest takes care of itself.”
As someone who has seen countless hockey players pass through his coaching programmes, Karl knows that no group of players will ever be the same. And there is no recipe for success. He divides his players loosely into what he calls red circles and blue squares. The red circles are the risk takers and the flair players; the blue squares are the workers and those who follow structure. Using the red circles and blue circles, he explains how he tries to get his teams – at all levels – to operate.
“We want teams to play in a ruthless, machine-like way without thwarting the passion and the flair that some players have. You want to develop the structure of the team and develop an understanding of what is required in a repeated manner but you still want players to be able to express themselves.
“Within a team, the red circles are the risk takers and if you had a team full of red circles, you would get chaos. The blue squares are the solid members of the team but you will never win a match with a moment of magic if all your players are blue squares. The trick is to get a blend of the two and make the players understand when they need to be more blue square or more red circle.”
But blue or red player, Karl’s underlying belief is that all players must have the highest level of basic skills and a strong understanding of tactics. And then it is about valuing the ball.
“We play to get possession of the ball and then value that possession. The players must be comfortable on the ball. As coaches we need to give them all the skills to hold possession and make good choices wherever they are on the pitch.”
Whether it is the 13 year old picking up a stick for the first time or a seasoned international, Karl’s approach remains the same. “It is all about making sure they are enjoying the game. That way you will make hockey their sport for life.”