Women in Coaching: Emer Howard
August 01, 2020
A recent survey by Basketball Ireland of female coaches in Ireland found that there were many up and coming young coaches who wanted to hear more from experienced female coaches in Ireland.
Over the coming weeks – and as part of our ‘Dream Big’ #SheGotGame women in sport campaign - we will be featuring a host of female coaches who are currently (or have recently been) coaching here in Ireland, to learn about their background, their coaching careers and any tips and tricks they have for new coaches.
This week’s feature is on Emer Howard.
Check out our Q&A with Emer below.
Current coaching position:
Drogheda Wolves U15 boys and U18 girls.
Can you talk us through your playing background?
I was 10ish when I started shooting around at my sister’s games and out the back garden on a homemade basket that my dad fixed to a chimney. I joined Tolka Rovers when I was 13 where I found my life-long friends and the sport that has given me everything. We took some serious scalps in the U15 Dublin league, a fact that I’m not proud of and would never allow a team to do.
My first representational basketball was on the brilliant Jimmy Clarke’s Dublin U15 team. Playing with the enemy for the first time was thrilling, with players like the original Blount legends June & Andie, Niamh D’arcy and others.
Our school league was in the non-mainstream league so I couldn’t go for Irish Trials until the following year when the late Tom Collins pushed my school to change leagues. I owe Tom so much.
I made the U17 National Team for my first stint at international representational basketball under the guidance of Gerry Fitzpatrick and Roger Kelleher.
By the age of 16 I was playing in today’s equivalent of the Superleague, U17 club, school, D1 Dublin (back when Superleague players could play both!) and the U17 & U19 National Teams. That was when I got the call up to the Senior Women’s squad which was being coached by Liam Hartigan. I was only 16 and I can still remember the upper-cut elbow I got to the jaw as a welcome from a guard who I think was trying to put me in my place. I also picked up the Basketball Ireland Player of the Year in 1991 from my U17 year which was an amazing achievement.
That was an amazing year. I remember in January we won the school’s All Ireland Final in the Neptune Stadium, coached by Joey Boylan and Larry O’Reilly. And then we bailed into the car so that my parents could drive like a bat out of hell to Tralee for a Superleague game. My coach wasn’t too happy when I was late, but we went two for two that day and I slept the whole way home covered in ice packs. My parents drove us everywhere and made it all possible, loving the game as much as I did.
Our school went to the International Student Games in Izmir along with St.Vincent’s boys who had also won the All Ireland. Joey and Larry coached both teams, and we were all pals as neighbouring clubs. That was some experience.
That summer our Tolka team went to the states on the first of two trips to play against some serious high school talent, thanks to our coach Celine and her tireless work on our behalf. I think we came home undefeated, tanned, and probably with American twangs and a love of old school hip hop like Eazy-E and Sir Mix-A-Lot’s Baby Got Back.
From then on it was pretty much the same. My life was basketball. My injuries were mounting, but the memories and opportunities were too.
I was recruited by Fordham University when I was 16. The coach (who was subsequently fired before I even set foot on campus) was very convincing and I was impatient, and without knowing the process I signed the National Letter of Intent. Two weeks later I had a call from the Head Coach of UNC (University of North Carolina), offering me a recruitment visit. Knowing no better, I accepted—this was Michael Jordan’s old University after all! A week later, UNC phoned back to say that I couldn’t visit as I had signed the NLI to attend Fordham. This is perhaps my biggest regret. Not knowing. Being impatient. Settling for what was my third offer out of feeling lucky. But the internet didn’t exist like it does today and knowledge wasn’t as accessible as it now is.
The States was amazing. I captained our team for two of my four years and got to play in the NCAA tournament against the then number 2 ranked Penn State. And during the summer I got to come home, coach in camp, and play in European Championships.
After college I needed a break. I didn’t enjoy the player experience in my final year--I had had enough. I played College basketball with Jordanstown while I did my masters and won Varsities and the League with a great bunch of girls. And National League with Deirdre Brennan under the lovely Barney Ball.
I then moved back to Dublin for a year and won the National Cup with Tolka Rovers in a packed Arena, beating Wildcats in a closely fought game.
After that I went to the UK to play professionally with Thames Valley Tigers for a few years, and then on to Spelthorne Acers. But injury and work called, and I took a break for a few years before returning to play on a less competitive level in a local league with a great club & team called Aztec Storm.
I moved back to Ireland with my husband about seven years ago, and I now play yearly with the Wildrovers masters team… with my old pals who I love dearly.
And I might return to play this year in the North East league, if the body permits.
How did you get involved in coaching?
I went to school in St Mary’s Holy Faith Convent Glasnevin. Our Tolka Rovers club team (which was really strong at the time) was our school team, so we did well in school’s competitions. One of our two PE teachers—Ms Smith, asked me to coach the cadet team when I was in sixth year, and that’s where my coaching began. I also started coaching in camps in sixth year and during my college summer holidays – brilliant camps like the Vincent’s Camp with Joey Boylan, Wildcats camp with Gerry Fitzpatrick, Cobh with Roger Kelleher, Tipp with Martin Hehir, Gormanstown with John O’Connor. Camps are brilliant fun to attend as a player and are maybe even more fun as a coach-you really get a chance to get to know the kids and have fun with them as they learn without any of the pressures of competition.
What kind of teams have you coached over the years?
I’ve been coaching U14 boys with Drogheda Wolves for the last few seasons—I love this age group because the players are really starting to find their feet and you can really have an impact. Having said that, the Club has decided to keep the team together as they move up an age group, so they’re stuck with me for a while--we have some unfinished business thanks to Covid-19. I’ll also be coaching Drogheda Wolves U18 girls for the first time. Our ambition is to go National League in a few years so we need to start that process now. Before Drogheda Wolves I coached U16/17 girls in Tolka Rovers. I loved it because it was my home club and it was a way of paying back a little.
Internationally, I was assistant coach to my sister Maeve Coleman on the Irish U20 Women’s team a few years ago. It was a great experience because we had a bunch of girls who were not only lovely, but who were willing to put the work in in preparation for what we all knew was going to be a big challenge.
Who would you say was a role model for you as a coach and why?
Someone said to me recently that I’ve probably had my fair share of crap coaches.I can honestly say that I’ve been really, really lucky to have never had a bad coach! In fact, I will probably even go so far as to say that all of the coaches I’ve had fall somewhere between really good to excellent on the coaching scale. And they’ve all been role models in one way or another, influencing my approach with regards to how to be or sometimes how not to be as a coach.
My first coach was Celine Byrne in Tolka Rovers. I was 13 playing in the Dublin U15 league. She was obsessed and it was contagious. We all ate, slept and drank basketball. It was a different time and we were fortunate enough to have our own gym on Griffith Avenue, but Celine was way ahead of her time in many respects. I don’t know where she learned all that she knew or where she got her ideas because the internet didn’t exist back then (sorry Celine). She was so creative, driven (sometimes too much so!), and competitive. In many ways she was the springboard for my entire career in sport and beyond, because through basketball I have gained nearly everything I have now. Thanks Celine.
I was very lucky to have been coached by the late Brani Bazany (Slovakia) when I played for Thames Valley Tigers. It was a great lesson for me as a now coach. Brani was very tough, very loud and very much in your face. I could see after the fact that his intensity came from his passion for the game and what he knew you had in you. But when you’re young you don’t rationalise these things… you just feel. You feel the intensity, you feel the frustration, you feel the anger. Maybe some people thrive under intense verbal challenge and pressure (I have yet to see it!), but it has been well documented that the creative centre in your brain shrinks when under pressure like that.
And basketball is a creative game. Having said that, Brani was a really genuine and lovely man, kind and funny off the court, and an incredible coach--his sessions were far tougher than any game I’ve ever played.
And most recently and perhaps most profoundly, Liam Sheedy, All-Ireland winning coach with Tipperary Hurling. I was talking to Liam in a work capacity and I asked him how they managed to get back to All-Ireland winning form in the short period of time since he took over; I wanted to know his secret to success. His answer: I make sure they're living up to their potential and having fun doing it. Need I say more!?
What is the most important thing for you when coaching younger/teenage boys and girls?
Four things that are all interlinked. One: To remember that coaching young people is an absolute privilege. Both they and their parents are letting you into their lives to be what will hopefully be a positive influence, and that’s a responsibility that we should remember every time we walk into the gym. How we act, how we look, how we speak… it all has an impact. Be aware of that and that you’re dealing with mouldable clay. And repay the privilege by being interested, by caring and by being creative in your planning around ‘what’ you want to teach and then ‘how’ you’re going to teach it. And challenge them!
Which leads to the second thing: stretch your players. Kids love to grow and learn. They love to be challenged to be more able than they are. Because they usually are more able than they realise. Don’t let them get bored. Make it interesting. Push them. Both boys & girls--don’t treat them differently! Give them a lot to think about and to work on… pick drills that are stacked with different skills (e.g. dribble hand offs + different types of layups like eurosteps off a gather step, extension layups, etc. + fade for shot after handing off, rather than working on one specific thing like just shooting). Stacked drills feature heavily in my session planning to maximise on time with the team.
Three: make sure you enjoy it. Do whatever it takes to make sure you enjoy it because you deserve to for giving your time. And if you enjoy it, chances are your players will enjoy it too.
Four: Remember that your impact is lasting. 38% of our impact on our players comes through our tone of voice: our inflections; other noises we might make (like a sigh). And 55% comes from non-verbals: it comes from our body language; our facial expressions; our energy. This is really important to remember because players always remember how coaches made them feel. It can make a player quit and walk away from the game forever. So mind your body language and your tone. Try to stay calm and in control of yourself. And during games, try to be like Cabin Crewe… they always look grand regardless of what’s going on because they know that passengers always look to them first when something doesn’t seem as it should.
So if you’ve had a bad day, leave it outside the gym. Or as someone once told a recently-promoted colleague: always leave your junk at the door. We have absolutely no right as coaches to be anything other than catalytic to our players’ development. We should never, ever take a bad day out on our team.
Have you any tips you'd like to share on keeping girls engaged in sport - particularly at the 14-18 year old age group?
Take stock of what they want from basketball as individuals and as a collective, and mould a culture around that. If you do that, chances are you’ll have a culture that they want to be part… that they’ll be drawn to it. Then put in the time to help that culture flourish so that they feel more emotional reward being with the team than being elsewhere. For example, a competitive team that is hell-bent on winning will thrive in a performance-oriented culture with a vision and goals. Co-create that vision with them to give them ownership. And then make a plan from it. In other words, don’t expect them to automatically want what you want for the team or for the season…coaching is about them, not you. Be player centric.
Do you have a favourite drill you use for younger players to keep them engaged in the training session and if so, what is it?
One of my favourites is “Two on Two Frenzy” -- it forces the players to continuously think, to work on lots of things as once like defense, communication, transition, transition defense, etc.. And because it’s highly competitive they love it, which is great when you need a change of energy/pace.
Split everyone into two teams (bibs are helpful because players can be so programmed by drills like continuous 3 v 3 or 3v2v1 that they take a while to remember that they’re playing as a team!).
Team 1: Set up on one end of the court with two players in the key on defense, waiting to pick up the opposition up once cross half-way. The rest of their team-mates are at either sideline at the free-throw line extended position on the same end of the court.
Team 2: Set up on the opposite end of the court with two players at the three-point line with a ball, waiting to attack the defense at the opposite end. Their team-mates wait at either sideline at the free throw line extended.
The rotation is really important to remember: when players come onto the court, they play transition offense first, then transition defense, then off (to rejoin the line on either sideline).
Put ten minutes on the clock and on the whistle, team 2 attacks team 1 aiming to score quickly (fast break mentality).
As soon as team 1 gains possession (after a score, steal, turnover or rebound), they outlet the ball to the player on the nearest sideline. The player who receives the pass fast breaks with the player from the opposite sideline, trying to score while the defense (team 2) is getting back. (Make sure the outlets don’t cheat forward!)
Play for time (10 mins or whatever you have), or to a score.
To keep it intense, I sometimes put a limit on the number of passes/dribbles if a team is either too slow in attack or over-dribbles by habit, decreasing the number of each allowed as you move up the age groups. You can also put in specific criteria that you are working on, like pick & rolls, etc.
Any tips you would like to give to young coaches who are starting out?
Remember that absolutely nobody knows everything and that no one style or approach is the right one—everybody is learning and everybody started somewhere. There is no right way and wrong way. You will make mistakes and change your style as you go and as you learn… we all do. Be open to that. And remember, you are volunteering your most precious resource—your time—to help others develop, learn and enjoy the game of basketball, and for that reason alone you’re already a winner.
When you first stepped up to National League/International level, were you nervous about the step up and how did you deal with that if so?
It was my first experience of coaching on an international stage, and that meant going in at the assistant coach level which is 100% right. As a first-timer I was nervous because there were so many unknowns--it’s impossible to know what to expect when you’re starting out and what is expected of you. The key is to understand your coach’s expectations of you, to know your role, and to bring all that you can to that. Someone very wise once told me in relation to a new job that I felt was beyond me: ‘aim to be useful.’ Because if you aim to be useful, chances are you’ll get stuck in and will become so much more than that. Being useful gives you a foothold.
What would you say to other female coaches who are considering moving up a level in their coaching careers?
Do it. The uncomfortable, “I’m not good enough/qualified enough” imposter syndrome phase will pass quickly… it always does. Don’t let it deprive you of an experience of a lifetime. Learn on the job. Get yourself an assistant coach--teaching & mentoring can be a brilliant way of giving you confidence. And lastly, if you want to do it, chances are you’re a decent person for giving up your time so you’re already 80% qualified. (And if self-doubt is holding you back, read 'Presence' by Amy Cuddy and power pose your way to whatever sideline it is that you’re aiming for.)
How do you measure the success of a training session?
I always work to a session plan so I know I’ll get the nuts and bolts done. So success for me is measured by a combination of player satisfaction: if they’re chatting and smiling at the end; if they’re mentally & physically tired; if they appreciate it.
How do you measure success in broader terms?
I’m a development-oriented coach so success to me is about making progress in the right direction. Our team is performance oriented (rather than recreational), so I’m always monitoring the players to make sure they’re moving in the right direction towards their individual goals (which are normally a few years out, like playing in the States or for Ireland). We usually discuss and agree three things that they need to develop to round themselves out as players so that we can monitor progress together. It’s important to make them accountable for their own development. (I find that watching U16 and U18A Euros (which are free to view on the FIBA website) & US College Basketball raises the bar in terms of the skills gaps that we have to fill). And the same goes for the team. I usually have a list of what I want to put over time in to help them develop as a collective. Every few months I focus on one or two specifics that we need to work on, and I monitor our progress session by session and over time to make sure we are improving on things like our on-court communication or decision making. Once I’m comfortable that it’s becoming a useable habit (that is by now built-in to our drills and play), we move on to the next skill on the list.
How important do you think it is for coaches to keep learning and developing regardless of level of experience?
It’s more than important; it’s imperative. The game is changing so much. If you’re coaching the style of the game that you played three or four or more years ago, chances are you’re teaching an out of date version of the game. You need to watch the game and how it’s played now and find and learn the skills and the drills to filter that to your team. And be ready to demonstrate. I mentioned already that I watch FIBA U16/18 A and US college games to see what gaps we need to fill. Then I find drills to fill the gaps and I learn how to do them so that I can demonstrate. It’s a see it, be it thing I suppose. So if you’re not learning, chances are you’re fixed in your ways and that’s limiting to you, your enjoyment of coaching, and the players’ experience. If you’re not convinced, read Carol Dweck’s 'Growth Mindset'. It proves that intelligence (knowledge and the application of it) can be developed, that who you are today is not all that you could be.
Have you noticed many changes in Ireland in coaching over the years? If so, what?
There is more confidence, which is great. And it’s definitely less insular and more open than it used to be. I feel we’re on an upwards curve and the sooner the better we’re all in it together because as the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats.
What changes would you like to see in basketball coaching in Ireland in the future?
I think that the biggest change will come once we secure funding for a Technical Director, someone who will set a unifying culture of coaching in Ireland and a philosophy that will unite the entire country of coaches behind one vision. It needs to be someone with unquestionable coaching credentials who is entirely player-centric and acutely aware of the player experience. I’d love to see someone like Alan Keane or one of the National coaches from Eastern Europe or Spain getting that gig, a coache who is performing at a higher level than us and whose CV, philosophy and agenda is unquestionable.
What is the most valuable lesson you have learned as a player?
To get out of your comfort zone to focus on your weaknesses as much as if not more than you focus on your strengths. When I went to the States I didn’t play a huge amount my first year, and the Media Guide at the end said I needed to improve my defense. I hadn’t even realised that I wasn’t a great defender—nobody told me, so it was a bit of a punch in the stomach. I took stock and came back three months later (to a new coaching staff) as the defensive stopper on our team, charged with shutting down the opponents biggest threat, and I did it by improving my foot speed, strength and endurance (to play both ends equally as hard, which took time!). And perhaps most importantly, my mindset. I decided that I was going to be the best defender on the team, and I worked at becoming just that.
What is the most valuable lesson you have learned as a coach?
As Liam Sheedy said: make sure your players are living up to their potential, and having fun doing it (is key to that).
If I can I’d love to take this opportunity to thank every single one of the many coaches I’ve had over the years, for the time and effort they put in and the opportunities their time has afforded me as a person through this sport that we’re so lucky to be part of. I will be eternally grateful. And a special thanks to my college team-mate, best pal and now brilliant coach, Rachelle Racht Hopsicker who gave me a huge helping hand around session planning and drills when I started taking my coaching seriously around seven years ago. I owe you buddy!