Lisa Fallon: It’s time for Irish sport to treat the coaching profession as professional

No one would ask a doctor or an electrician to work for free or for expenses.

It really is about time that we had a professional coaching industry in Ireland for high-performance coaches and managers who work with our top athletes and players.

A coaching industry that catered for the difference between high-performance coaching and the hugely important role of the volunteer coach.

So much great work goes into the developmental pathways of our elite athletes and players, but if we do not invest in serious pathways to develop, mentor and pay the coaches, managers and staff who work with the country’s top performing athletes, then we are facing into a massive void as the global high-performance metrics continue to accelerate in competition.

Ireland has thrived on the incredibly valuable currency of coaches/managers who give their time voluntarily in sport.


However, acknowledging elite or high-performance level sports coaching as a profession, has been neglected and a lot more needs to be done.

To prepare players and athletes to compete at the highest levels, the people around them need qualifications, expertise and experience.

For example, no one would ask a doctor, pilot, accountant, solicitor or electrician to work for free or for expenses.

Take football for example, coaching qualifications are expensive and take years to achieve. Going from a Uefa C licence to a Uefa Pro licence takes an average of six to eight years and costs in the region of €20,000, not including the expense of taking time off work to do the huge volumes of course work required to complete and pass these courses.

Then in addition to all that, you need experience and continuous professional development at a ferocious rate to sustain the pace of high-performance sport globally, let alone lead in it, be ahead of the pack, or an innovator who sets the pace.

Sonia O’Sullivan’s column last week also touched on this subject and it resonated with me that this void is something that really needs to be a focal point in this country.

Ireland’s needs a sports industry for professional coaches and technical personnel that work with our elite athletes.

It’s a ruthless industry where the smallest margins can define success, so every detail counts, every day. It’s the six days of the week that matter when it comes to getting the work done that facilitates the performance on the seventh.

It’s the 364 days of the year that determine what a defining performance looks like on the 365th.

When I look at the industry in England and an organisation like the League Managers’ Association (LMA), or the Professional Coaches’ Association, these are great examples of what could be done in Ireland.

A coaches’ association that provided support, mentorship, development pathways and opportunities for our best coaches to visit other countries and organisations to see how we can improve as an industry.

But also, to support coaches as individuals and people from a health and wellbeing point of view. Elite sport is stressful, and it puts a real toll on the body and mind. At the LMA annual awards in London on Tuesday night, Dr Sally Harris won the Special Recognition Award.

Harris conducts the annual health checks of the managers in the LMA membership, and she has literally saved lives. Football management is a stressful business that bears huge pressure and often, at the highest level, every move you make is under the analysis and scrutiny and judgment of millions.

The ferocious intensity of the job inevitably leads to health challenges and where managers and coaches focus so much on looking after the condition and wellbeing of their players and athletes, their own health can be neglected.

Professional football in Ireland is still very much in its growth phase and realistically, there are not enough full-time, professional coaching positions available in this country to sustain a football only coaching association.

However, when you look across our other sports, could there be a space for a high-performance coaches’ association or programme that could bring together the top coaches and managers in this country as a network?

A programme where there was clear space for collaboration, sharing of information and experiences, seminars and workshops for professional development but also wellness support for personnel who absorb a lot of pressure and are the safety net for their players and athletes.

Where is the safety net for the coaches and managers?

There could also be space for mentorship programmes, I know from personal experience how much I value the mentors assigned to me by the LMA. People you can pick up the phone to as a sounding board, for advice, for ideas. To challenge your thought-processes, worries and ideas.

Programmes could be set up also to develop high-potential coaches and expose developing coaches to high-performance environments where they can absorb, learn and gain experiences that will help them change from one tier of the sport to the next level.

There are some brilliant initiatives around the country, but they can be siloed.

We must start to recognise high-performance coaching as a professional industry in industry across all elite level sport and move away from it being classed as a privileged opportunity for coaches and performance experts to give their experience, knowledge, work and time for nothing, or next to nothing.

Think of what has been achieved without a professional coaching industry. But it’s no longer enough. The standards required to win in high-performance sport only go in one direction. That applies to coaches as much as it does for athletes and players and you can’t have one without the other.

It’s time for Irish sport to treat the coaching profession as professional.