Sheffield Eagles are at the forefront of a new initiative designed to boost the skills and abilities of amateur rugby league coaches.
The new programme, which consists mainly of a year-long series of monthly seminars focusing on different aspects of coaching the sport, is designed with boosting participation numbers in the region, and helping South Yorkshire to produce a conveyor belt of playing and coaching talent.
Eagles and Scotland hooker Andrew Henderson has played a major part in developing the programme, which also boasts the involvement of Sheffield head coach Mark Aston and community managers Darren Higgins and Adam Hughes.
“I’ve been playing here for over 11 years,” said Henderson.
“And no disrespect to anyone, but the quality of coaching at youth level and in the community game is not what it should be.
“That’s probably because of a lack of support from the governing body, and a lack of support from professional clubs.
“So we came together and thought, ‘What can we do about this? How can we take this further? How can we hep these guys be better at what they do?’
“It’s all about giving kids the opportunities that they deserve. And if they don’t go on into the professional game, then they can be the best they can in the community game.
“It started with us wondering how can we improve our own coaches in our own professional environment.
“We thought we’ve got to provide more resources to help them. So we came up with the DVD, which is based on our skills matrix, which outlines at each level what the core and fundamental skills are that should be coached in each age group.
“The skills DVD shows that visually, and we also composed a coaching handbook.”
The programme also has the backing of South Yorkshire Sport, a body which has made rugby league one of its ‘priority sports’ in the region.
“There’s a lot of people put a lot of work into this,” said Mark Aston.
“It’s there to aid and help coaches.”
The programme has been designed with amateur players in mind as well. There is a desire to see more players given a pathway and avenue for their enthusiasm.
Both the Eagles and South Yorkshire Sport maintain that they have a ‘duty of care’ to ensure that players improve and have somewhere where they can play the game to an appropriate level.
Too often, it is felt, young players are lost to the code in places like Sheffield or Rotherham because of inadequate coaching and a lack of opportunities to play the game, especially in a region where soccer is so deeply engrained in the local culture.
It is hoped that the programme will give confidence to new coaches and improve more experienced ones. The hope is that by increasing the numbers of skilled coaches, more clubs will be formed.
That, in turn, will attract more players to the code and lead to more competitive local leagues, which will then mean more and better players for the professional clubs in the area.
“In the last 13 years we’ve spent a lot of time and resources a lot of work in the community and schools to boost participation,” Aston added.
“Now what we need to do is to raise the standards of that participation with the coaching, using the support that we can provide and that South Yorkshire Sport can provide.
“Many of the players coming through out system already have not maybe had the quality of coaching they needed at a younger age.
“Corey Hanson, for example, played in a Grand Final a couple of years ago, and has come through the local system within the Hillsborough Hawks and elsewhere.
“So the players are there. What we need to do now is raise the standard of coaching. This is the next piece of the jigsaw for us.
“We want to be in Super League. Now we need to coach the coaches who coach the kids.”
Nothing quite like this has ever been done before, and those involved stress that practical experience of coaches will help them to evaluate what has worked and what has not as they look to take it forward.
Crucially, the staff at the Eagles are also keen to state that their reasons for being involved in such a concept are for the good of the wider game. There is no jealous need here to conceal what they are doing in case rivals take something from it.
“It’s about bouncing ideas,” Aston added.
“It’s about having your own philosophy but also picking up on other people’s ideas.
“We want to work a bit more closely with the community clubs.
“Andy Henderson’s in there because he’s a good talker and communicator and a quality coach.
“We want to help mentor the coaches. It’s about raising the standards.
“I started coaching in the amateur game, at the Hillsborough Hawks, and had a lovely time there. Then I moved into the professional ranks, and I’m now working at international level.
“So there is a coaching pathway and it’s important to us.”
The game’s local stakeholders seem to be taking a real interest in its development in South Yorkshire, and laying a platform from which the game can really build.
“Hopefully we can work this together, the partnership and relationship between the professional and amateur ranks,” Aston continued.
“When we get to Super League, the most crucial thing for us is that we’ve got kids coming through the system.
“That’s what this programme is about for me: raising the standards, coaching the coaches, and helping them to coach the kids.
“There’s a kid out there who’s dreaming at the moment. We’ve all had dreams about what we want to achieve in rugby and coaching, and that’s what we’ve got to do for the kids. It’s all about them.”