Deirdre Elmhirst: Taking the jump from parent to coach

Whilst Deirdre Elmhirst has enjoyed athletics for many years (she competed in high jump at school), her coaching journey only really began in 1999. After a year of sitting on the side-lines watching her 9-year-old son, she decided to get more involved.

Deirdre started by helping with the U13s at her club Worcester AC. She worked her way through the coaching ranks and eventually specialised as a high jump coach. She has now coached several national age-group champions and a British senior champion in high jump. She has taken an athlete from his first steps in high jumping to represent GB & NI at European U18, U20 and U23 championships and his first senior vest at the European Indoor Championships.

There are many reasons to be inspired by Deirdre and her coaching journey from parent to coach. We caught up with Deirdre to learn more about her time as a coach:

What she enjoys most about coaching

Deirdre says that one of the best things about coaching is getting to know and work with different athletes.

“I like that every athlete is different, and I enjoy working with each one to figure out how best to help them achieve their potential by maximising their strengths and abilities.”

All athletes go through challenging patches in their athletics careers and getting the opportunity to go to as many competitions with them as possible is hugely rewarding.

"You learn so much from watching and supporting an athlete during competition, and it often helps inform your future training sessions."

Being able to see how an athlete jumps in competition allows you to address not only technical issues but also mental skills. Drawing on her background as a medical writer, Deirdre can take the complex technical concepts of high jump and give an athlete a few simple cues to focus on in the middle of their competition to enable them to make slight technical adjustments at their next attempt. Deirdre also enjoys meeting other coaches at competitions and events, so they can share knowledge and experiences. She also enjoys working with mentors and mentoring other coaches herself.

“But the greatest joy is seeing those PB jump moments and seeing the happiness and huge smile on the athlete’s face. That is the biggest reward for a coach.”

Dierdre Elmhirst coaching masters athlete Andi

How the role of the coach has changed over the years

“I’ve been a voluntary coach for 22 years and it has been hard to fit coaching in around a working life and bringing up a family.”

But things are changing. Current club models are likely to change and younger coaches coming through now want to make a career out of it and be paid for coaching.

The tools and equipment we have are also changing. It’s not always the hi-tech expensive technology that make the biggest difference. Small things such as a phone with a high-quality camera allows for instant feedback. Several phone apps are also available for speed and jump testing to collect data on athletes and assess their progression over time.

Everyday stresses have changed over the last few years and Deirdre sees this in the athletes she coaches. Social media, peer pressure and exam stress are just some of the modern-age life factors that coaches are now having to factor into training.

“I find I spend more time now than I used to talking about putting things into perspective and doing relaxation techniques with the athletes”.

How to balance work and coaching

With her two sons now grown up and the fact that she no longer has to fit full-time work into the equation, Deirdre says it’s the understanding from her husband and the ability to run her part-time business from home that gives her more time to devote to coaching.

“Life is a balancing act and sometimes you have to do less in some areas to give more to the things that you want to do. Living five minutes away from the track doesn’t hurt either!”

“You have to be organised with your time and know when to say no.”

Dierdre Elmhirst coaching during competition

The athletes she coaches, the Youth Talent Programme (YTP) and other programmes that she is a part of

Deirdre introduces high jump to U13s and U15s at her club and has a squad of 12-15 committed athletes aged from 14 years-old upwards to seniors and Masters athletes. Many of this group are talented youth and junior athletes developing their skills and technique. Deirdre also mentors her assistant coach and does sessions with athletes from other clubs due to a lack of high jump specific coaches in the area. She spends a lot of planning individual training programmes and delivers some sessions over Zoom with her athletes that live further away.

In addition to coaching at her club, Deirdre is a high jump coach on the England Athletics Youth Talent Programme (YTP) and is on the England Team Staff Training Programme.

Deirdre's experience as an England Athletics Talent Programme high jump coach

“I think it’s a very interesting programme and gives younger athletes a good opportunity to see what it takes to develop to be a successful senior athlete.”

Being a coach on the YTP, Deirdre delivers three event specific days per year and enjoys working with the personal coaches of athletes on the programme both at and between these sessions.

“The fantastic thing is when the personal coach comes along with their athlete and we work together to help progress the athlete. I really enjoy the relationships you can develop with the athlete-coach pair. It’s very generous of the coaches to share their athlete with you, so we can work together and decide the best way forward.”

“Any of my athletes on the YTP get to see me in a different capacity and have the opportunity to spend more time with me in a different setting.”

For athletes on the programme, they get to work with other promising athletes and cover all aspects of athlete and everyday life to help their careers be successful in the future. This covers areas such as nutrition, psychology, time management, social media, university applications, and the importance of anti-doping and being a clean athlete.

Dierdre Elmhirst with athlete after competition

What she says to get the most out of her athletes

“One of the most impactful things I ever said to an athlete was in the warm-up area at his first national championship as an U17. I said ‘just go out there and be yourself’. He’d never been to a national championship before and because of this advice he was empowered to be himself, was more relaxed and won the championship!”

“I try to encourage all my athletes to be natural and express their personality in the competition arena. If they can do this, they are likely to be more relaxed and a relaxed athlete will jump high.”

Great listening skills makes a great coach.

“It’s so easy to do all the telling, but I try to give the athletes I coach the opportunity to speak first.”

“Even then, it’s about knowing and understanding each athlete and trying to use their language when speaking back to them, so things aren’t getting lost in translation.”

Deirdre not only believes in developing good posture and movement skills, but also the need for athletes to gain a good understanding of their training, the technical aspects of high jumping and their progression.

“If all this is in place, then I have done a large part of my role as a coach.”

How coaching differs from boys to girls

“I don’t really like to generalise, as every athlete is a unique individual, so I try to coach the person in front of me and adapt my coaching style accordingly.”

“Having said that, girls tend to want to know why they are doing something and to see what it looks like. Girls will also tend to express more emotion. As a coach you must be patient, reassuring and give them something positive to focus on. Boys are often more inclined to give something a go, even if they may not get it right first time.”

Having a squad of mixed sexes and ages, Deirdre sees the support and interaction throughout her squad, and how important this is for the togetherness of a training group. However, when it comes to being organised, the girls are leaps ahead of their male counterparts!

“I have to spend more time reminding the boys to book into competitions and sort out their training diaries, than I do the girls.”

What makes a great coach

There are so many qualities to being a great coach, but Deirdre considers the following rank highly.

“Really good technical knowledge that can be put across to the athlete in a simple and understandable way using as few words as possible.”

“You need to be curious, with a passion for learning and have the humility to admit when you don’t know something and find somebody who does know the answer to follow it up.”

“You need to have patience, empathy, emotional intelligence, and a high work ethic. You must be organised, consistent, motivational, and able to put the athlete first, reigning your ego in, as well as being someone the athlete can trust and open up to.”

Dierdre Elmhirst with athletes during the county championships

How to overcome doubt or adversity to gain the resolve to carry on?

Injuries are unfortunately a part of sport and can test the resolve of athletes and coaches. However, these occasions can also show coaches they have the knowledge and creativity to adapt training as well as having the strength of character needed to help their athletes on the road to recovery.  Deirdre gave an example of one of her athletes who suffered from whiplash following a car accident, and how their training had to be adapted during the recovery period. She also talked about supporting another athlete following surgery for a ruptured tendon.

“This was a stressful period for me, but I went to every physio appointment with the athlete and designed and delivered every aspect of their subsequent recovery.”

“I enjoyed the challenge of being creative and having the freedom to do things differently and working with such a dedicated athlete was awe-inspiring. I had several people in my network who supported me and gave me advice. Dealing with injury is a major part of being a coach.”

Deirdre's advice to aspiring coaches

“I would say strive to be the best coach you can be without being too hard on yourself; give yourself time to develop.”

“Keep learning and work with as many different coaches as you can to gain experience and practice your craft. Reflect and learn from your mistakes. Look and listen to your athletes and know when to take the pressure off them.”

“Make sure you and your athletes know the rules of the event and know how to work politely and effectively with the officials.”

“Let the athlete give you feedback first and encourage them to become self-reliant, because you can’t always be there at a competition.”

“Find a good mentor and build a network of support.”

“There are no secret formulas and short cuts to success. Focus on the fundamentals. The need to do’s, not the nice to do’s.”

Advice to women looking to get into coaching

“Go for it! Women make excellent coaches! Find a way to make it work for you around your work and other life commitments. Modern families can share the responsibilities of home life.”

Deirdre spoke about how having an understanding partner throughout her time as a coach has been enormously helpful. Deirdre’s advice is to be “confident in your abilities and remember that you have the capacity to learn and improve” reiterating “the first step is the hardest, but the rewards of being a coach are just fantastic”.

Deirdre was part of the UK Coaching Women into High Performance Programme, which included women from a range of sports and she was left “blown away by the passion, drive, energy and values of these female coaches and how supportive they were and continue to be”. Despite no longer being on the programme, Deirdre shared that the women she met continue to support each other in a variety of ways, and she has found having conversations with female coaches from other sports to bounce ideas off has opened her mind to other solutions.

“Develop a support network and use it to find solutions to problems together.”

Deirdre Elmhirst presents during a Commonwealth Games Camp

The Commonwealth Games and its legacy

Being only 30 miles from Birmingham, Deirdre had already seen the new stadium and had tickets for several days at the Commonwealth Games.

“I am very excited to be on the England Athletics team coach programme.”

Deirdre had the opportunity to spend 2 days at the England CWG holding camp, watching athletes go through their pre-competition preparation and talking to team staff, which was a fantastic learning opportunity.

There is also excitement and anticipation at hopefully an influx of new athletes being inspired to join and try out high jump and other disciplines following the Commonwealth Games.

“There was an influx of new members and volunteers at my athletics club following London 2012, so we’d better be ready!”

“I’m hoping people can see that coaches and officials are such an essential part of athletics and there’s a growing need for younger people to come into coaching and officiating and hopefully a home games inspires that interest.”