Women in Coaching: Delma Mulligan
August 08, 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 Delma Mulligan, Senior Coach at Blackwater Steelers Club Monaghan.
Check out our Q&A with Delma below.
Current coaching position:
Senior Coach at Blackwater Steelers Club Monaghan
Can you talk us through your playing background?
I started playing basketball with a local community games team called Donagh, Monaghan in 1980. It was the only competitive competition in the area at the time. At school level I played with St. Louis Secondary School in Monaghan town and I also got selected to the U17 Irish ladies Development squad but never made the final 12. Following secondary school, I played in the North East Ladies League with Dundalk Tivoli and Dundalk Windmill warriors, winning both the league and cup during this time. With having to move to London and Australia in the late 1980’s and 90’s for work, I played a stint of both local and national league in London and local league in Sydney. Wherever I went in the world I always joined a basketball team as I just wanted to play the game. I even did some street scrimmaging with local players in the Bronx New York when I lived there during a period. In 2009 having returned to Monaghan, I joined the local ladies team Muckno Lakers, where I picked up 5 consecutive league and cup titles.
How did you get involved in coaching?
In June 2007, the Blackwater Steelers basketball club was formed by a group of local people in my home village. In the Summer of 2009, I got involved in coaching underage teams at this club; simultaneously along with returning to play after having children. So, I am coaching 11 years now.
What kind of teams have you coached over the years?
I have coached mainly underage girls’ teams from U12-U18 and I was also involved in the junior academy. My daughters Ellen, Amy and Alex have played from academy up to U18 within the club and my son Paddy is with the U14 boys. I find it does help to manage family sporting activities when you coach a sibling on a team, in that we tend to be going in the same direction to games and training.
Although I’m sure they would tell you many a story where I can organise other kids better than them with times, venues, drinks, food and water and I often forget about them!
My first team was a U13 boys’ team and we competed in Athlone, for the community games finals. From there I moved over to coaching girls. My involvement in coaching just evolved from here which allowed me to have double success in both BNI league and cup at both U13 & U14 girls for the years 2012-13, 2013-2014 and again in 2014/2015. Each summer we still managed to get to the Community games finals in Athlone too. In 2016/2017 we won our first All-Ireland club title with the U16 girls in the B division. A special achievement with great memories. In 2013 I got involved in coaching with the St Louis Secondary school and had a stab at some all-Ireland school quarter/semi-finals.
Who would you say was a role model for you as a coach and why?
Firstly, the coaches of the club were always there to help guide me, to trash out ideas and to listen to my concerns. However, my main role model over this past 10 years would be Deirdre Brennan from Ulster Elks/Ulster University. Deirdre’s commitment and dedication to coaching basketball is admirable. I played basketball with Deirdre as a kid and my daughter Alex has been playing with Ulster Elks for a few years now. Deirdre always stressed the importance of getting some of the basic skills right at an early age. Basketball is a very technical game therefore attaining a good skill level takes time. I have really learnt from Deirdre – understanding how skills at underage will evolve over the various age groups. We talk about coaching a lot, both the technical skills and the process dimension. What I have admired most about Deirdre is her honestly in relation to coaching the game. I have been up against her team in many games and finals; sometimes winning and sometimes losing, but she will always give me the truth about what decisions I could have made to help me be a better coach when in certain situations. It’s all for the development of the players and coaches in Ireland.
What is the most important thing for you when coaching younger/teenage boys and girls?
Encouragement at all age groups is the key- recognising each individual player’s key strengths and how best to use these key strengths within the team. Players will thrive and learn in a happy environment. As a coach you need to tell them what their individual strengths are. Don’t assume they know. They all love being told what they are good at and what potential they have, but also make them aware of what they need to work on. They need to know their values and they need to feel that they are contributing to the team. Encouragement and praise first and then work on the weaknesses. I always try to tell the young players that if they keep working on their skills, they will eventually reap the success and achievement that comes with it. It might not be at an international level but could be at a regional school level. You have to keep in mind, to some this is just as rewarding and most memorable.
Have you any tips you'd like to share on keeping girls engaged in sport - particularly at the 14-18 year old age group?
Girls approaching the age of 14/15 are experiencing a social life, sleep overs, discos along with school and state exams. They may be dual players. It’s important that they are encouraged and shown through another female role model that they can do it all. Everything in moderation. They need to learn the importance of time management and maybe parents need to support and encourage them more here. They need sport as an outlet, to take them away from the stress of the books and exams, which in turn will benefit the latter mentioned.
Many girls in our area are dual players – they also love football. Many of our best players would also be county footballers. In the past I have liaised with county managers to try and avoid training time and game clashes so that the girls have the option to do both.
My experience especially with girls is that you need your sessions well planned out in advance. Drills need to flow from one to the other, and it needs to be then translated into the game situation. No hanging about as girls love to chat and are easily distracted if they are allowed time too. Keep them moving and working hard and once they have done this at a session, then allow them to have a chat and have a giggle. They enjoy a fun environment, and many at local level play solely because of this aspect.
Girls tend to need lots of encouragement more so than boys. Boys seem to watch You Tube and the NBA more and so they believe they already have the technical skills at age 12 and it can be a case of harnessing them in. Girls don’t tend to watch you tube and so aren’t exposed to it as much (however this is changing) Girls must see that they can combine all the experiences of their new life challenges at age 14 onwards while still playing sport.
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?
For the young age group 12-14, I play a lot of 1v1, 2v2 3v3. Our access to training sessions are limited due to hall availability so its important that each player gets to have a ball in their hands as much as possible during the session. Demonstrating a skill in a drill and then getting them to bring this skill into a game situation can be so difficult and not easy. It is like they don’t often see the connection between a skill learnt in a drill to translating it into a game context. Thus that’s why I like game play in smaller groups.
In each of my drills I also like to bring in a competitive edge to them, so for example as a team they must make 10 layups in a row and if one player misses its back to zero. No player wants to be the one that misses. Thus, they don’t be long practising to get the fundamentals of a layup right. Give them 2 points for making a great box out, or a rebound and so on. Really try to highlight the importance of the basics and making them aware that it’s not all about the player who makes the basket. It’s also about all the other things that were done by the other four players on the court at that time that allowed that one player to be able to make the basket; A quick heads up pass, a hard cut, a off the ball screen etc
Any tips you would like to give to young coaches who are starting out?
Firstly, find a level that you are comfortable with. Then with time and experience you will see your coaching skills develop and your confidence grow.
Secondly, keep it simple especially at the U12 - U14 age group. Do not overload them with too much plays or information at once. Coach what is in front of you. You may have all the technical know-how or a reaction for each situation they are faced with on the court, but at the end of the day if your players aren’t strong on the basics skills then that other stuff isn’t worth spending time on. Get the fundamental skills right first and the plays and winning will follow later.
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?
As a player in 1982 I was selected for U17 National ladies development team. I was young and so nervous as a player coming from the North East to Kerry to train at the time. I was a great athlete – loved running, was fast and was very physical but some of my fundamentals were poor and that would have let me down. Unfortunately I lacked exposure at the time to technical coaches in my area and YouTube wasn’t heard of! In London I played the National League equivalent but it was short lived as I had to move to New York after one season.
What would you say to other female coaches who are considering moving up a level in their coaching careers?
Go for it, take on the challenge because you can only become a better coach by being in the depth of it. There is so much information online now that you have access to, loads of help and advice.
Go watch as many games as you can to see teams and coaches in action. I have been lucky to have had three daughters involved in International squads in some form and Alex is currently playing with Ulster Elks at National league level, so even from watching her games and training sessions with Pat and Deirdre, I am constantly learning. Being exposed to and learning from the more experienced is key. Don’t be afraid to ask them for their advice. We all love this game and are happy to share our thoughts to help the improvement of the game here in Ireland.
How do you measure the success of a training session?
I usually plan out my session and I usually know what outcomes I need to achieve during a session
If it works, I’m happy but if it doesn’t there’s always a reason why it didn’t so I need to re-evaluate and plan it in for the next session.
How do you measure success in broader terms?
You must be realistic in your expectations of your team each year. I’m involved in a small club with limited access to players and hall facilities, and basketball may not be their No.1 sport. So, with every team you need to manage your expectations of that team for that season. Set a realistic goal at the beginning of the season and then try and achieve that. A goal could be where the team could be placed in a league at the end of a season or improving from one season to another or with player development – did you and the player achieve the goals set?
Often a goal achieved could be that moment when a player executes a new skill in a game, and you go ‘whoa did you just see what you did?’. I get great personal satisfaction as a coach when I watch players grow and learn new skills. I love watching the player be so proud of themselves for having gained something new with a newfound confidence.
How important do you think it is for coaches to keep learning and developing regardless of level of experience?
Its very important, as we are dealing with individuals and moreover individuals in a team setting. We will never get to a point where we can say we know it all. Learning and development is a continuous process in an ever-changing environment. It’s important that we as coaches look for better ways and approaches to coaching humans. You may think you know the game inside out but because you are dealing with different mentalities, the game is always played and managed differently, and this can be a challenge.
Have you noticed many changes in Ireland in coaching over the years? If so, what?
Yes, I think coaching in Ireland has changed for the better over the last number of years.
There has been a wider availability of coaching courses all around the country targeting newbie coaches to the more experienced coach, who may just want to keep up with the changing basketball world (in terms of new rules, new styles of play etc). In addition, there are more online forums, places coaches can collaborate or discuss as well as organise challenge games for their teams.
Also technology has been of great benefit; videos of skills as well as offences and defences can be sent to players in advance of trainings so players have some knowledge of what you are trying to introduce before they arrive to training. This is particularly useful when you have limited training slots and time.
Moreover, game analysis is huge now at the high level. You very rarely see National League teams go into games without having some sort of analysis done on their opposition. This has pushed players and coaches to step up and improve on an ongoing basis.
Furthermore, the fact that players nowadays can encounter numerous coaches throughout even the one season, is of huge benefit. Each coach has their own values, strengths, and weaknesses. One player may have a club coach, a school coach, a regional academy coach and in exceptional cases an international coach. All these coaches bring something different, whether it be a skill, an offence, a drill, means of recovery, how to maintain composure etc. Having all this exposure to different coaches can but only help an individual in their basketball career.
What is the most valuable lesson you have learned as a player?
Enjoy every moment of your playing time. The memories that you create from playing this game can be wonderful and its only when you are older that you really appreciate them more.
What is the most valuable lesson you have learned as a coach?
There are many but I think managing your expectations of what is realistic to achieve with your team is a key one. You can only coach what you have in front of you. A lot depends on the player in how much they want to learn and give to the team. I coach in a small club. We may not get the same numbers or same commitment to the game as some of the bigger city clubs get from their players. So you need to be realistic in what you can achieve with the team. If you achieve what is doable then you are not disappointed and if you achieve above this then it's sweet success.
Likewise, players have to also manage their expectations for that season too. You have to guide and help them be realistic in setting goals.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Dr. Shane Martin of Moodwatchers states that everyone must find something in their life that you love and enjoy, and that time just flows. We become absorbed by the task at hand and in flow our awareness of time evaporates. Basketball has always been my physiological flow.