Danny Kerry – an interview with the Gold Medal winning Coach
Coaches are forever on the search for what Dave Brailsford, Team Sky’s general manager called, “the marginal gains.” The tiny things that added together make for a better performance. In the case of a team sport such as hockey, these “one per cents” could be an individual thing or something the entire team works on. It might mean higher levels of fitness so the players can keep working at a greater intensity throughout the game; it might be a better goal opportunity conversion rate; it could be an improved tactical awareness provided by better technology. In the case of the Great Britain hockey team at the Rio Olympics, it was all of those things and much more besides.
An observant spectator during the Rio Olympics may have seen Danny Kerry take a deep inhale and then very slowly let the air back out in one long breath. “It’s the simplest and most effective way I know of keeping calm,” explains the Great Britain women’s hockey coach. “A lot of people said I looked quite calm during the games but, if I’m honest, I can often take a catastrophic approach and see a loss way before we have actually lost a game. That is an element of my coaching I am working on.”
One of the most admirable things about the gold medal-winning Great Britain women’s head coach is his ability and willingness to keep learning. For most coaches, the aim is to keep improving the players, for Kerry, that can’t happen unless he keeps pushing himself to new levels as well.
Danny Kerry, who has been the women’s head coach for three Olympic cycles, has just been catapulted into a position as one of the best known and highly respected international coaches, and not just in the world of hockey. According to England rugby coach Eddie Jones, other sports could learn a lot from Kerry: “If you look on face value at the talent in that team [Great Britain] compared to the Holland team, it’s probably not as great, so Kerry’s ability to create such a dynamic and hard-working team is fascinating.”
So fascinated was Jones by the work done by Danny Kerry with his squad that the Australian invited Kerry to talk to him and his coaching staff at the RFU headquarters in Twickenham. The initial discussion went well, with the promise of some combined work between the two bodies in the future. “I must admit I felt on this occasion that the coaches plugged me in and downloaded me,” said Kerry with a wry smile, “but I think there are all sorts of benefits to working with other sports, there is just so much that we can share and learn from each other.”
To understand just why Eddie Jones and his colleagues are so interested in what Kerry has achieved, it is necessary to fill in some of the back story. Kerry took over as head coach to the Great Britain side in 2005, after they had spectacularly failed to qualify for the Athens Olympics in 2004. The next few years were difficult at times for the players and coaches as the squad sought to rebuild its confidence and world standing. A sixth place finish at the Beijing Olympics was an improvement on what had gone before but it was clear that there was a huge amount of work still to do. It was at this point that Kerry made a pledge to change the way he coached and interacted with his players.
Looking back, Kerry is honest when he talks about his own personal development. “Up to and during the Beijing Olympics I had this mindset that I couldn’t let my emotions show. I had to internalise everything and that eventually led to a difficult relationship with some of my players.”
Kerry set about changing things. He had always been a coach who thought deeply about the coaching process, now he had to apply those levels of reflection to his own performance. “I just did a lot of thinking about how I had worked, and how I could work better. I did do a lot of reading, but probably more importantly I was willing to adapt and evolve how I coached.”
The result of this period of self reflection was astonishing. Kerry managed to transform himself from a coach who could be remote, and often difficult to communicate with, to a coach who was not afraid to let his emotions show.
It is a process that saw an immediate improvement in his relationship with the players. Speaking before the Olympics, captain Kate Richardson- Walsh, who has been part of the Great Britain and England set-up since 1999, said: “There has been a lot of change since 2008. Danny will always spend a lot of time thinking how can everything be better and that includes himself. How he coaches a training session, how he plans the session, how this is communicated with players and how he can best leverage on the strengths of the group.”
While the ability to reinvent himself as a coach has won Kerry plaudits, it is his practical session planning that has made Jones sit up and take note. One of the key things about the Great Britain women’s team is their ability to make logical decisions under enormous pressure. It is not something that has happened by accident as Kerry explains: “We create situations that the players may face in the game itself and then we pile the pressure on so that the players get used to making decisions in tough circumstances.
“The ‘posh’ word for it is to create multiple ‘affordances’ to practice the situation you want. What this means is that the more times you put the player in a situation, you create greater capacity for the athlete to problem solve that situation in real time.”
In other words, much of the Great Britain hockey team’s training time is spent working on games-based play. This is at the other end of the spectrum from the isolated technical practices that so many coaches insist on putting their teams and players through. “We don’t use isolated drills because they are simply not relevant to the game situation,” says Kerry. “So many coaches, in all sports, use isolated skills in their coaching because it is what they experienced themselves as players.”
It is not a new idea. Rod Thorpe, a former lecturer at Loughborough University developed his Teaching Games for Understanding theory back in the 1980s after witnessing games based learning among school children in New Zealand. The premise was simple: the best way to learn how to read the game and make good decisions was to play the game and develop an ability to read the cues offered by the outside environment.
Kerry, a former student of Thorpe’s, believes it is the best way of coaching a team sport. “Team sports create chaotic and contextually random situations. That is what we try to both mirror and really amplify. For example, a sample session might include the instruction, ‘you can only pass forwards or you must keep the ball in the left-hand channel’, it is about creating an overly chaotic environment so it becomes second nature to work within it and make decisions.”
Was this how Great Britain managed to overcome a team that spent much of the match putting them under pressure? “The Dutch were certainly on top for much of the first half [of the 2016 Olympic final]. We had to soak up the pressure but that is what I am talking about; we didn’t crack under the pressure because, as a squad, we have been putting ourselves under that sort of pressure every time we train.
“We know for example that globally, and particularly in the case of Australia and Netherlands, the teams play with a high zonal press. We train to cope with that and to recognise the cues that might affect our decision-making.”
Kerry’s theory is simple. He wants to give the players a broader and better base of decision-making capacity under pressure. The advantage of this approach was outlined by goalkeeper Maddie Hinch when she explained how she so regularly gets the better of her opponents when a match goes to penalty shuffles. “I watch video after video of the attacking players in these scenarios. I know that under pressure a player will revert to type. If they usually go to the right, in the pressured situation of an Olympic final they are likely to go right. If I use my movements to increase the pressure on them, then I can be even more certain of how they will react.”
The other piece of coaching technique that Jones and his team are likely to consider is ‘Thinking Thursday.’ This was the day that Kerry earmarked for putting his players under extreme pressure. Based on military principles, the idea is to put the players under enormous physical and mental stress and then challenge them to solve problems. Exhausted, stressed and pressured, the players still had to make the right decision. Now, with gold medals hanging around their necks, the players joke about it, but it is one of the main factors they are wearing those medals.
With the Autumn internationals just around the corner, Eddie Jones is determined to take all he can from the successful Olympic coaches such as Danny Kerry. Hockey is just one of a number of sports he is targeting: “We’ve been working really hard on how we can coach better because we didn’t coach well enough on tour. We need to coach better so our coaching staff has been working very hard investigating other sports. We have to stand up and recognise that we can learn a lot from other sports.”
It is an approach that Kerry fully endorses.