When Coaching is in the DNA – an interview with James Culnane
European hockey is blessed at the moment with a number of innovative, progressive coaches who see behaviour, culture and a supportive learning environment as important a measure of a team’s success as the number of trophies in the cabinet.
James Culnane is one such coach. He is among a number of talented coaches who are now part of the European Hockey Federation’s (EHF) Top Coach Programme (TCP), a three-tier pathway that seeks to encourage coaches to consider their coaching philosophy and develop their own ability to lead and manage teams.
The TCP covers a wide range of topics, including high performance programming, live match analysis, tactical decision making, lifestyle modules and a host of other related areas. For Culnane, such a course is the perfect progression as he moves up the ladder toward elite coach status.
Coaching is part of Culnane’s DNA. He started coaching at a school as soon as he left university and through that coaching position became involved with the county development programme and a club side’s third team. Just two years later and he was coaching at national league level and was working as a full-time hockey coach in a boarding school.
These positions all acted as a springboard to his current role as Head of Hockey at Surbiton High School as well as assistant coach to Surbiton men’s team – one of the most successful clubs in the English National League. He is also part of the England Hockey coaching staff, working with the U18 boys national squad.
While that sounds like a smooth pathway to the top, it was actually far from easy. Much of Culnane’s early coaching was carried out for free, building up his CV, before he was able to turn a passion into a salaried career. Looking back, Culnane says he is pleased that he ignored the words of a member of a school management team who said he would never make a career from hockey coaching.
Culnane’s approach to coaching is to remain open-minded to any learning opportunity. He says: “I believe a coach’s fundamental responsibility is to keep learning. In my opinion, the best way to do that is to try and work with the best and most aspirational players that you can.
“I remember reading an article about the coaching apprenticeships that the likes of [Jose] Mourinho and [Mauricio]Pochettino undertook and I realised that, for me to add the most value for young players, I need to be involved at the top, on a regular basis.”
“I’ve been very fortunate to work with some great coaches. Most recently I have been working with Mark Pearn at Surbiton HC. He has taught me to the value of honest working relationships with the athletes. Within the England age group setup, I have been working with Jody Paul. He has taught me to create an environment that can balance enjoyment with a work ethic that strives for improvement.”
“A huge part of my learning has been to see really good juniors like Zach Wallace transition from junior to men’s hockey and then on to represent Great Britain. It has also been great to watch a variety of more senior players deal with selection and de-selection along the way. These experiences shape how you deal with people when the same situation rears its head for me.”
For Culnane, building relationships is key to getting the most from the athletes. Understanding what motivates a player is crucial but, also, the players have to believe the coach is on their side. That is something, he says, that can only happen with time. It can never be forced.
The coach is also very happy to see his younger players ‘fail’. “Some of my fondest memories as a coach have been when a young player does something that the opposition or parents haven’t even seen or don’t expect at that age. I think the suggests we have quite an experimental and ‘fail first’ culture at school,” he says.
“The pupils always seem to want to learn the more technically demanding skills and don’t mind getting it wrong. I’d like to think that’s because the environment around them teaches them to enjoy the game and take calculated risks, which is I suppose how I would describe my style.”
When it comes to working with elite players, Culnane takes a more reserved and collaborative approach. Question and answer sessions with athletes figure heavily and he seeks input from all the coaching team when charting the best way forward.
And Culnane is continually tapping into other coaches’ for inspiration. “I went to a Q&A with Max Caldas,” he says. “Max has the philosophy of ‘best idea wins’ and I really like that. I would say that is the style I am working towards, while trying to uphold the standards required for the contextual level.”
When he started as a coach, like most beginner coaches, Culnane called on his own experiences as a player. Luckily he was guided by an impressive line-up of coaches, including Gregg Clark, Greg Nicol, Brett Garrard and Karl Stagno, and so had a great grounding in coaching.
Nowadays, as he develops his own style, Culnane says he is seeking to find a balance between competitive decision-making games and technical learning.
To facilitate this, he will use small sided games – the quirkier the better – and a whole-part-whole model of learning.
“This is my preferred way of highlighting the understanding to why a technique / tactical solution is useful,” says Culnane. “I think it’s more realistic than the more lineal approach and allows you to adapt the path of the session as it develops.”
For Culnane, the coaching “sweet spot” is to meet individual need in a group setting. “As a coach I like to really challenge what is right for the individual and how that marries up with team/programme goals. I think this also helps me come across as more convincing to the athletes. If they feel their needs are being met they are more likely to embrace the collective goal.”
But, he adds, being the facilitator for player development also means striking a fine balance between supporting the athlete and allowing them to development their own independence and self-sufficiency.
Among his many coaching skills, Culnane is a skilled analyst. It is an area of expertise he feels every coach should consider developing for the benefit of the teams they work with. “A few years ago I set out to teach myself to be an analyst as a tool to help me add value to programmes. It has opened doors for me.
“We use an online portal every week and it is the athletes who drive the engagement. In reality, just like being out on the pitch, the process should be open enough for the athletes to get what they need from it. Some of our guys will sit and watch the whole game, some watch their own clips and some watch key team moments. I don’t think this is a level of engagement you would get with a team meeting.”
Culnane is an ambitious coach who is already living much of his ‘dream’. “From a personal stand point, the opportunity to travel and see hockey from different cultures and meet new people has been amazing. Any chance to combine them in the hockey equivalent of a ‘bus man’s holiday’ always interests me.
“I would love to go to a junior world event or something like that. I would also really like to get involved with the EHF / International Hockey Federation (FIH) development programmes and work with some developing nations.”
One stepping stone along the way has been Culnane’s participation in the EHF TCP. It has been a “therapeutic process”, he says, adding: “On the TCP, we all want to hear from each other because the backgrounds are so diverse. Everyone on the programme is in it for the right reasons and they want to learn. Everyone also has nuggets of gold from their own experiences which just means we can all learn from each other.
“The TCP mentors have this great way of selling the culture that ‘different is ok’ but there are generic coaching ideals that we can all improve on. My mentor has really helped me back my knowledge and develop a confidence to be able to speak with conviction. The TCP opened doors for me as well. Through contacts made on the course, I ended up working with the Irish U16 national team which sparked my motivation to apply for the England role.”
For more information on the EHF coaching programmes, click here: https://eurohockey.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/EHF-Education-Coaching.pdf