Sean is the Strength & Conditioning Coach for Eton College, Windsor. Working in fitness & coaching since 1993, Sean moved to schools and youth coaching in the noughties. The current focus of his role is the development of a Health & Wellbeing programme for the boys that will help underpin performance both in the classroom and on the sports field.
1)What has led you into youth sport?
As I grew up, my sporting influences didn’t match the usual football, rugby, cricket or athletics choices. Instead my father raced sidecars and later enduro bikes, so I found myself riding off-road motorbikes from the age of 5. However, before I had a chance to consider motocross, my father shifted from motorbikes to racing yachts, so at the age of 9 I was bought a small sailing dinghy and the motorbike was sold (damn!). Over the next 5 years I spent every weekend and most school holidays racing at open meetings and championships all over the country and often across Europe. It was the physicality of racing in high winds that I enjoyed the most. Technical and tactical elements were key, but in 30+ mile per hour winds, it was the fittest, strongest and most determined sailors that would prevail. I had a good level of success in the sport, but when I was ready for a change of boat class at 15, was the first time I stared to look at what school sport had to offer. My school was a hockey and rowing school (once again not the mainstream choices), so I got stuck into rowing. My claim to fame was that James Cracknell and I raced together at Henley back in 1989, so apparently I must have been good!!! Or maybe not! At 5’8” tall, I was better at the training than I was on the ergo or water and I found a new home in the gym lifting weights.
When I was 18, my father was killed whilst racing in heavy seas and I kind of hit a block. I had wanted to apply to Loughborough University to study sports science, but my father had wanted me to consider engineering. I had a half-hearted attempt at mechanical engineering at Brunel, but ended up quitting and taking a job in a gym anyway (minus the degree I had hoped for). This was 1993. By 1995 the concept of personal training was growing in the UK and with that, exercise programming took on a much more interesting slant. Over the coming years, I studied extensively through the NASM and other vocational training providers and trained a wide range of clients. It was the diversity that kept me interested, and at one stage I even had two clients with leg amputations, one of which was a very good sportsman and would bring 3 legs with him each session.
It was through my own kids that I got a taste for youth sports. Amy and Tom both participated in an after-school athletics group held at their primary school. The school were crying out for support, so I volunteered my time and would run a group warm-up and then manage an activity on a carousel. This led to my kids training with a local athletics club, where once again I offered to help. I discovered an energy and passion from the kids that was often lacking when coaching adults, and that was me hooked. The easiest next step was to use my networks, so I popped into my old school (Kingston Grammar) and offered to assist with the rowers and hockey players training sessions. This was by far the easiest foot in the door, especially when my old PE teacher was still in charge a full 20 years after I had left. It was literally “Hello Sean. It would be great to have you assist” (thank you Mr Royce). None of these roles were paid, but the enthusiasm of the kids was just reward and the experience across the age groups and disciplines was invaluable.
2) What has been your biggest influence in your practice in youth sport?
At the same time that I started at Kingston Grammar, I enrolled in the S&C MSc programme at St Marys University. I was over the moon to be accepted to study at this level when I didn’t have an undergraduate degree. This would be a steep learning curve, but an incredibly rewarding opportunity to broaden my understanding of S&C and coaching. It didn’t disappoint either. My mum was so proud to finally see me graduate from university at the age of 44!
The other biggest influencer in my practice as a coach has been to see the bigger picture of the challenges that face the kids that we support. There are so many demands on their time and areas where they must spread their focus. When I moved to Hampton School in 2011, I coached S&C sessions at lunchtimes and after school, taught PE across 5 year groups, taught maths up to GCSE (don’t ask how that one came about!), coached rowing 5 days per week, managed a tutor group of 25 boys, and looked after lost property for the entire school (a big job with 1500 forgetful boys!). And still I didn’t have the diversity of challenge that some of the boys were managing. As much as we can become blinkered by training, competition and results, it is the participation and enjoyment of their sport that are more important than the results. Winning stuff is just a bonus.
3) What is your particular area of interest?
Teaching the boys to appreciate the benefits of good movement. Now at Eton College (the last 3 years), we open the gym space to all age groups simultaneously. That means I may have a 13 year old first timer, seeing an 18 year old boy throw some weight overhead. Or is often the case, a first time 18 year old seeing a well practiced 14 year old squat or snatch his own bodyweight. This has caused me to throw the idea of a fixed training continuum to one side and embrace a more interactive process to keep the challenge alive for boys at the different stages of their training journey. The questions I ask of the boys are “Does it look strong? – could he endure it for longer, load it up more, or speed it up successfully?”, “Who is winning; the boy or gravity?” and “Is it the best use of your training time today?” hoping that each of these questions might provoke thought and ownership of the training process.
4) How do you think this particular area applies to youth athletes?
At Eton, the boys change sport each Half (that is a “Term” in Eton language). During Michaelmas it is football and rugby, during Lent it is field game (an Eton only traditional game) or hockey, and the Summer, cricket, athletics, tennis or rowing. It is only boys in their GCSE year or above who may have chosen to row all three Halves. What this means in S&C terms is that we are pretty much providing a year-round underpinning of general physical preparation (GPP). Over their time at the school, we are trying to help the boys understand a little more about what part of their sports preparation can be improved in the gym, and to learn how to balance this up with their fitness and sports skill development too. The biggest growing area for us at the moment is the development of health and wellbeing education. The captive audience of a boarding school does not offer the tight controls on sleep, nutrition and other distractions that one might imagine. But it does offer a broad opportunity to share the message about positive habits in these areas.
5) What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?
Less a piece of advice, but more a sense of self-realisation after experiencing conflict and dispute in the workplace. As an individual, we are all biased by our own beliefs, but there are always other perspectives, some of which may be equal or more appropriate and insightful than our own. So it is important to take the time early on to understand how an organisation has reached its current structure and build alliances and shared vision before suggesting evolution or change. When I started my current role, I found myself head to head in a dispute that ended up being mediated by legal representatives and other outside professionals, as the strong wills and opposed views had reached crisis point. For me this left its mark and it has taken me a long time to recover. For a while I hid and willed the days and weeks to pass. I even found myself anxious at the start of each new term about the prospect of returning. It has taken me a long time to rebuild my own confidence and to feel able to network and build alliances with the wider team of school staff following my experiences. I would not wish this on anyone else.
6) What advice would you give to coaches working with youth athletes?
Get to know your athletes and what makes them tick. In a day school environment like Hampton, I was guilty of coaching to the group, as there seemed little time to get to know them as individuals. Now I spend the time to know all of their names and learn something about their current challenges and goals, whether that be physical or a part of their broader life. Coaching is much more rewarding if you see how your little part may influence an athlete either within their sport or other life habits. I have an intern from St Marys working with me at the moment (Sophie) and she told me that her brother (who I had previously coached at KGS) had become a personal trainer because of me! Sh*t! That wasn’t my intention or best advice!
7) Can you recommend any particular resources for youth sport coaches?
Your network is your best possible resource. The sporting friends and coaches who I trained with in my own youth (many now coaching in great places & opened multiple doors for me). The tutors and students from St Marys. The coaches, presenters and suppliers who I have spoken with at conferences. The coaches and educators that I have messaged for advice. The network of coaches that are doing a similar role as me in other schools. This list goes on; but it these connections that assist your thought processes and reflections on how to improve your practice. I’m forever learning and barely scratching the surface.
8) Where can people find out more about you and your work? (Social media links, websites etc.)
The only reason I maintain a Facebook account is to access the “Youth Strength & Conditioning Coaches” group (thanks Rob!) and I may flick onto Twitter whilst on the toilet, but I try to keep social media at arms length. I have noticed that time spent on my phone does not leave me in a better place (This could open up a whole other conversation about youth coaching, as I am also having a growing number of referrals to the gym from our psychological services team at the school). However I am happy to receive emails, speak on the phone and host visitors at Eton College. I will also be up for a beer at the UKSCA Conference in June, and am yet to book a ticket, but will join the guys at Child to Champion with James Baker and crowd in July.
Thanks to Sean for giving us his time and expertise!
Are you a grassroots youth sport coach or PE teacher who wants to improve the athleticism of your athletes?? Check out our Fundamental series athletic development programs here.