The UK Coaching Awards are widely viewed as one of the most prestigious within the coaching community. Held virtually on Thursday 3rd December, this year’s event “recognised the contribution coaches made in transforming lives in communities nationwide” – particularly in view of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rugby Union coach Tom Bowen-Hall collected the Children and Young People’s Coach of the Year, and not long after the ceremony we caught up with him for a chat about all things coaching, what makes him tick and loads more.

KUDOS: Firstly, congratulations on your award! The UK Coaching organisation does really great work with their workshops and efforts to inspire a new generation of coaches, so it must have been a hell of an honour to have been nominated, never mind winning?

Tom Bowen-Hall: Thank you! UK Coaching are doing amazing things for coaches in this country so to be nominated for the award in what has been a difficult year came as a nice surprise. Being nominated acted as validation for the work that I’m doing and showed that I was respected and cared for by the company I work for.

Making the final three was again a great honour again and winning the award was the icing on the cake. Even as the awards ceremony was taking place I was adamant it would go to one of the other two finalists so to see Lewis Moody’s face pop up on screen and announce me as the winner was a genuine shock. I’m waiting for the noise complaints from my neighbours after my partner and I shouted the house down! It’s been a massive privilege to be recognised as the UK Coaching Children and Young People’s Coach of the Year.

We bet it has! So how and why did you get into coaching?

I’ve always been into sports, playing rugby, football, cricket, golf and a range of other sports from a young age. That passion for sport and the development opportunities it offers a person has never left me and drove me towards coaching. I first started coaching the rugby sevens team I was a part of whilst at Aberystwyth University. I had no idea what I was doing but we seemed to have fun and did pretty well for ourselves. I then helped a women’s rugby team full of players who had never picked up a rugby ball in their lives. Looking back on my coaching at the time always makes me cringe, but, it did push me towards pursuing coaching as a career and I enrolled in a Masters degree in Sports Coaching at the University of Gloucestershire after graduating from Aberystwyth Uni.

This degree led to me getting my first full time coaching role delivering multi-sports to local schools whilst also coaching for the Bristol Bears academy, as well as my local rugby club’s age grade teams on the side. With a bit of experience under my belt I was offered a role within Mad Dog Sport as an Assistant Rugby Coach in Melksham Oak Community School. Over the past four years I have worked my way up through the company and now sit as the Director of Rugby overseeing the coaching delivery and standards of our three sites as well as Head of Rugby at Melksham Oak.

What coaches in rugby or indeed any other sport have you looked up to and been influenced by?

Too many to mention here! There are so many coaches doing great work both in and out of rugby. Small conversations can often lead to big changes within your coaching so all those coaches I’ve had discussions with, observed and listened to have helped me massively. Dusty Miller has been an amazing mentor to me over the past couple of years, challenging my thinking and practice whilst also providing affirmation of my coaching. Richard Cheetham has also been amazing with opening up his environment, sharing his knowledge and providing new ideas. The coaches that I work with have all helped with my development and pushed me to get better as a coach. From the elite game, I have spent a lot of time recently looking into the workings of Scott Wisemantel, Scott Robertson, Pat Lam, Eddie Jones and Wayne Smith.

Around eight million people take part in grassroots sport every weekend, and they all have coaches investing in them, inspiring them and supporting them. A wise person once said ‘a good coach can change a game – a great coach can change a life’, and that’s something we very much believe in.  Is that sort of approach something you take into your coaching?

I couldn’t agree more; I believe that all coaches should operate on a person centred approach. Within my programme, the boys may spend two to four hours on pitch per week which leaves a huge amount of time off pitch where they are not rugby players but normal young men trying to develop as a person. Whilst what I deliver on-pitch is important, it is arguably more important that I help these people off-pitch to become a better person.

Very nicely put – we wholeheartedly agree. So you’re Centre Manager at Bristol Bears Pathway Academy – what does that role entail?

I’ve been coaching with Bristol Bears for over four years now but this is a new role for me this year and it has been a baptism of fire with the lockdowns causing chaos. Bristol Bears have eight ‘Aspire’ centres (DPP in old money) which feeds into the ‘Excel’ programme and then the U18s Academy later in their development. I manage one of those Aspire centres that runs out of Marlwood School in north Bristol. There is a lot of admin involved in the role; making sure that all the players are in attendance, tracking unavailability, being on top of any issues that come up and reporting on development to the Head of Academy at Bristol Bears. I also oversee the other four coaches that work with me at the centre and am in charge of what will be coached although I look to share this responsibility with the other coaches to help with their development. Bristol Bears have a framework that I will follow but for the most part it is up to us as a centre to decide what is going to be coached and how best to deliver it. Despite the difficulties of Covid, this season has been good fun so far and I’m looking forward to seeing all the boys again after Christmas.

UK Coaching said you deliver “inclusive sessions that are fun and challenging, developing players as students and people” – how do you put that into practice and what sort of ethos lies behind your coaching methods?

We have quite a range of abilities within our sessions so it’s important that I make sure the training accommodates all players. My planning will be include working out how each individual is going to be challenged and stretched in the session to boost their development. Part of my coaching philosophy would be based around fun and enjoyment; without this, players will lose interest and fall out of love with sport. If you can find the right balance between development, hard work and fun then you are on to a winning session. I find a mixture of games based training and blocked practice when needed works well to hit these three areas. I rarely discuss rugby with players post session as I’ve found it’s a time they are quite open and honest about other areas of their lives that they may need help with and offers me a chance to help them as people. ‘Better people make better players’ – so put time in to helping them develop as people within your sessions.

That’s a terrific ethos. Getting into coaching is a great way to not only make a positive difference to people’s lives, we reckon it’s great for your own personal development too. How would you say coaching has positively impacted your life?

Coaching has made me more aware of how I interact with people, their needs and wants and how I can build better relationships with that person. Coaching has given me a range of tools to help me self reflect and work out where I want to be both professionally and personally and develop a plan for how I might get there. Mainly, coaching makes me happy and I love doing it which puts me in a great mood and (hopefully) makes me a nicer person to be around.

With a CV as impressive as yours, and now an award under your belt, what are your ambitions in coaching?

I’ve got a passion for both development and performance and I love working with people who want to push themselves to their maximum. I would love to work within the performance space, helping individuals and teams to achieve their potential. I spend most of my spare time looking at attacking plans, strike moves, structures and skills work so I would love to be in an environment where I could put these into practice.

And finally, what would you say to anyone thinking about getting into coaching and what advice would you give them?

You wont regret it! Learn from as many people as you can, be open to suggestions and advice from everyone, no matter their station. Get yourself a mentor who can challenge you and reflect as often as possible. Ask your players for feedback and work to understand their needs and wants. Most importantly, have fun!

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Great advice! Thanks so much to Tom for taking the time to give us such an insightful and inspirational interview. We very much share Tom’s view of coaching and how it goes way above and beyond just the sporting element. It’s always worth remembering  ‘a good coach can change a game – a great coach can change a life’. It’s clear Tom is a great coach, and positively impacting the lives of all those he works with. Congratulations to Tom from all of us Kudos.

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