Kiwi pushing less stress for success strategy

Last updated 05:00 05/01/2014

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A former Canterbury basketball rep who helped mastermind Great Britain's re-emergence as a sporting power at the Olympic Games is now driving an Australian Institute of Sport initiative aimed at improving the physical and mental wellbeing of professional coaches.

Timaru-born Darlene Harrison, who returned to the Australian capital Canberra after seven years as the head of coaching at UK Sport, is hoping the new Podium Coach programme will enable highly stressed mentors to avoid the scenario Chris Anderson encountered while watching the Kangaroos play Great Britain at Wigan in 2001.

Anderson suffered a heart attack during the third and final test after initially ignoring chest pains that set in after 20 minutes.

The then-49-year-old spent a week in hospital in the north of England before flying home, where he was told by doctors he was "a walking time bomb".

Anderson recovered, but the pressures associated with high-profile coaching appointments was again evident in November when Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak passed out during the halftime break in a NFL game against Indianapolis.

Denver Broncos head coach John Fox also needed heart surgery after collapsing on a golf course last month. He returned to his post but Kubiak's torment was ended last month when a 2-11 record ensured his demise.

Closer to home, former Wallabies coach Eddie Jones couldn't take charge of Japan in their historic test against the All Blacks in Tokyo late last year when he was admitted to hospital following a stroke.

When Anderson, who now concentrates on golf, was at the Melbourne Storm he said he occasionally suffered blackouts on the way to training though never consulted the team doctor - a classic blokey response to potentially serious medical issues.

Podium Coach, which starts in March and caters for an original intake of 15, aims to modify those ingrained attitudes as part of a year-long programme themed on making the coach a "resilient, adaptive leader".

"It doesn't focus on technical content for coaches excellent in their sport; we're looking to focus on coaching skills not technical knowledge," Harrison explained.

"There are a lot of issues around coaches' stress: anxiety, weight, general health . . ."

So a key goal is to underscore the importance of coaches looking after themselves as well as their players.

"We're doing this whole piece on resilience, their health and wellbeing from a whole range of angles that covers off the physical, emotional and mental areas."

Anderson, who has called for the NRL to introduce half-yearly medical testing for all coaching staff, presented as the typical male before his near-death experience.

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To Harrison, Anderson was an example of a mentor who was too focused on his team's wellbeing.

"If you look at the statistics around men's health generally, they're not as good in that space as [women]. There's a lot of denial about it," said Harrison, who worries when cameras pan into a coaching box during a game.

Craig Bellamy and Geoff Toovey are two of the NRL's most animated coaches; Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer is also notoriously excitable on game day.

"You can see the blood pressure," said Harrison, who left New Zealand to study a bachelor of science in elite sports coaching from the University of Canberra.

However, the likes of Bellamy still get a pass mark.

"You look at someone like Craig and you can see how he manages his stress; he still trains a lot, he's in good shape. You can see why people like that manage."

The Podium Coach programme spans a year and features a series of three-day residential labs in which the participants do project work and are assessed.

"We're doing a whole lot of diagnostics with coaches. We're helping them build their awareness around what are the key trigger points and how they react, how they think of other strategies to manage that when they know that's going to happen," said Harrison, who joined the institute in 2009.

"I guess the work we're trying to do is helping sport understand that coaches should be treated as talent, just the same as athletes are.

"They're a pretty rare breed, we don't have that many of them and we should look after them better and we should recognise them for the talent that they are, just like we do athletes."

The inaugural intake was still being finalised but Harrison had been encouraged by interest from the major football codes in Australia, and hopeful the message would be absorbed by men who expect their players to run through brick walls.

"We have some really good coaches in Australia that with dedicated support and development could really have long and successful careers," she said, adding: "We need them to be good for the rest of the system to be good."

Meanwhile, she saw merit in coaches undergoing compulsory medical assessments, with one reservation.

"It's something that maybe sports should consider when they look at employing and paying coaches millions of dollars.

"In the corporate sector it's very normal that you'd have a medical before taking on a large, high-profile corporate role.

"Where my caution is, you wouldn't want it being used as a means for de-selecting coaches."

Ideally, coaches would realise they needed a checkup without it being stipulated. After all, they all have access to team doctors.

"It's a very simple thing to do. High cholesterol or high blood pressure is a very simple thing to manage."

- Sunday News

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