Focus on Women in Coaching: Ruth O'Connell
September 12, 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 Ruth O’Connell from Malahide Basketball Club.
Check out our Q&A with Ruth below.
Current coaching position?
U17 Girls Assistant Coach/Manager & U11 Girls Coach/Co-Ordinator for Malahide Basketball Club
Can you talk us through your playing background?
I took part in a Mini Basketball workshop in Primary School aged 11 and loved it. Basketball was taking off in my hometown of Tuam and we had access to outdoor courts, so I spent a lot of my summer holidays hanging out there. The first team I played with was a local Community Games team coached by John Moran. I also played with my school, Mercy Tuam and in college with Galway IT. I attended two fantastic Dungarvan camps in the 80’s and found basketball heaven when I moved to Dublin to work in 1985. Coming from Galway which had one ladies league to Dublin which had five women’s basketball divisions to choose from, was amazing. I played for Haroldites Basketball Club who competed in the first division and also played in the National League for one year. I then went travelling for a few years in ’88 to Australia and the USA. After that I went to the UK to train as a nurse and while there played with a local team in Harrow for 5 years before coming back to Dublin in ’96. I’ve played on and off since then culminating in a junior cup win with Malahide in 2017.
How did you get involved in coaching?
My first coaching experience was courtesy of Raheny Shamrocks Athletic Club as two of my kids were members and they were looking for volunteers. I had loved running under the tutelage of my granddad in my younger days and have very fond memories of the summer Community Games meets in our locality and county. It was challenging at times from a crowd control perspective but also wonderful to see the kids revel in the joy of moving and developing their co-ordination, speed and agility. I started coaching basketball in 2015 when my daughter Aoife was on the U12 Malahide team and their coach had to opt out for work commitments.
What kind of teams have you coached over the years?
I’ve always coached girls. In Malahide I had the current U17 team from U12 and have assisted with them for the past few seasons. I’ve coached a Community Games team, various underage tournament teams and thanks to Jim Walsh was a joint coach for the U13 Dublin girls’ team in 2017. I’ve recently taken on the U11 girls’ group with Aoife and 3 parents.
Who would you say was a role model for you as a coach and why?
I think I have only ever had one female coach, Ger O’Neill, when I played with Haroldites and that was a great experience. She was tough but fair and had high standards. She managed to challenge you in a way that made you believe you could do it, so you did. I really enjoyed the clinics run by the female MAAC coaches from the states a few years back. They were so knowledgeable and polished in their delivery and very open to helping out if you wanted to get in contact. I was blown away by a practical session given by Erin Bracken which was as smooth and well presented as the American coaches. Two other coaches I really admire are Casey Tryon and Maeve Coleman. I think they are so knowledgeable and assured and both emphasise the importance of teamwork over individual stars, working and being there for each other on and off court and nailing down the basics of the game.
What is the most important thing for you when coaching younger/teenage boys and girls?
Instilling a love of the game is the most important thing for me. Once they love it and enjoy playing it everything else falls into place. They will be self-motivating when it comes to training to improve and will seek out knowledge of the game naturally themselves. I like to connect with the players I coach and get to know what it is they are looking for from the sport and what motivates them.
Have you any tips you'd like to share on keeping girls engaged in sport - particularly at the 14-18 year old age group?
I think it’s important to develop a sense of ‘team’, a unit that will work for and be loyal to each other. Training and tough times are easier to handle when you feel you are all working together and supporting each other. Trips away and social gatherings away from the court are as valuable as training sessions to achieve this. Emphasising the process involved in sport as well as achievement is key…you sometimes learn more from the tough matches you lose than the easy ones you win. Identify and praise all the valuable life skills they are acquiring through being in sport and part of a team.
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?
Without a doubt any older girls I have coached love the 11-man fast break drill. It is competitive and rewarding of hard work and especially good when my club colleague Averil Moore’s penalties are applied for continuous rebounds by one player! During training I love to play defense on layup drills and shooting drills when least expected to add a bit of game-like pressure! All teams love a competition so any relay shooting or lay-up drills that pit teams against one another are good for that.
Any tips you would like to give to young coaches who are starting out?
It’s a great time to get involved in coaching and it is so rewarding you won’t regret it. Covid-19 lockdown brought about the unexpected silver lining of shared knowledge and experience online and to my mind has made the basketball world a lot smaller and more accessible. The 20x20 campaign is pushing female sport to the fore and hopefully will encourage and facilitate more female coaches as well as the players. We ran a 20x20 training day in Malahide in January 2020 with the help of five fantastic players, Jade Daly, Hannah Thornton, Edel Thornton, Katie Kilbride and Aine McDonnell. They ran skill stations for U13-U15 girls with our U18’s and U17’s assisting and finished off the day with some very intensely played (and coached) games! The older girls were inspired by the experience and this season we have over 10 of them coaching and assisting with underage teams.
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?
I’ve never coached at this level but it is something I would like to do in the future. I have really enjoyed the individual stories and journeys this series has shared and feel it has highlighted the wealth of female coaching talent that is in the country. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make the first female coaches seminar due to match commitments but once our current restrictions ease I hope we will see similar initiatives planned.
What would you say to other female coaches who are considering moving up a level in their coaching careers?
It is a great time to get involved despite the current restrictions, and a great time to progress as Covid-19 has opened up the online Basketball community in a really valuable way. The webinars at the start of lockdown were brilliant, both informative and thought-provoking and I found the female contributors to be very inspirational and well worth following up on. The previous contributors to this series have really highlighted for me the wealth of female talent we have in Ireland and I have no doubt that were anyone to reach out for advice or guidance to any one of them it would be warmly received.
How do you measure the success of a training session?
For me I always find it rewarding if I manage to stick to the pre-training plan and if the session flows. Happy, but tired faces at the end is always a bonus but the real successful outcome is when the training drills are transferred into games. The effective transfer to games of skills and drills you have worked on and talked about in training, is gold for a coach.
How do you measure success in broader terms?
I love our annual club awards night. You get to see players who have come into the club as kids develop over the years into responsible and rounded young adults. While basketball is a team sport it also has a lot of life lessons to offer the individual player. The coaches influence can either positively promote those or contribute to the formation of negative ones. I feel privileged to get to work with young people in a sport I love and want all the benefits I got from it for them.
How important do you think it is for coaches to keep learning and developing regardless of level of experience?
It is very important to stay current and also be open to new ideas to keep your coaching fresh. There is a wealth of experience and resources out there even though it can be hard to fit in the time to peruse it all. Rend Sports ran a great coaching clinic for Basketball Ireland a while back and I felt a lot of the coaches would have loved to chat and compare notes informally after the sessions. Facilitating coaches getting together like this might be a more enjoyable way of learning and developing once we get back to normal!
Have you noticed many changes in Ireland in coaching over the years? If so, what?
I feel basketball in Ireland is experiencing a resurgence similar to the 80’s when the arrival of American players fuelled the Irish love affair with the game. When I began it was just one of the older players helping out with a team but now each team needs a coach and a manager to plan training sessions, co-ordinate training and matches, keep up to date on licensing and courses, find referees etc, etc. While the majority of coaches at underage are still mainly volunteers there can be high expectations of them from players and parents and the resources needed are only beginning to become available.
What changes would you like to see in basketball coaching in Ireland in the future?
I would like to see more female coaches at the top level and believe that highlighting awareness of the quality we have in the country through series such as this will go some way to achieving that by inspiring others. I think support in the way of access to courses and peer support groups is being initiated and that once our current health crisis becomes manageable we will see the rewards of those.
What is the most valuable lesson you have learned as a player?
Basketball is a team game. You are not just responsible for your own game on court. If you are the best on the court you should be supporting your team mates in both practical and psychological ways. Lead by example, give good passes, praise good passes/play, teach them how, verbally support and encourage your teammates. If you’re not the best player on the team aspire to be the best player you can be for the team. Work hard and listen at training, play good defense, actively ‘watch’ the game, verbally support the five on court.
What is the most valuable lesson you have learned as a coach?
How much harder it is to coach than to play! Motivating and guiding 10-12 (or more) people with varying abilities, attitude, engagement and vision is a huge challenge but the feeling and sense of achievement when it all comes together…priceless.