Three gymnastics coaches from Wales were among 25 lockdown coaching heroes who were recognised and celebrated at the UK Coaching Hero Awards ceremony in Leeds yesterday (October 6th).
Melissa Anderson (Valleys Gymnastics Academy), Newport's Alyson Marks (Evolve Gymnastics Academy) and Lauren Hardaker (Bangor Gymnastics Club) were all crowned winners at the UK Coaching Hero Awards.
The coaches, who were voted by the public for their innovations and achievements to keep people moving during the coronavirus lockdowns, each received a memento from UK Coaching’s Royal Patron, HRH The Princess Royal to mark the considerable difference they made to people’s mental and physical well-being.
From 500 public nominations, a long list of 75 coaches from 65 different places around the UK and representing nearly 40 sports and activities were chosen for public vote. During UK Coaching Week 2021, the British public voted for their favourite coach and over 65,000 votes were cast in the ballot.
Melissa, who is the managing director and head coach at VGA, ran a range of Zoom sessions whilst all gym facilities were closed due to the pandemic.
And, in a time where mental health mattered more than ever, she did everything she could to support her gymnasts, including group and individual sessions with a sports psychologist. Championing her “progress not perfection” and “it’s my journey” ethos, she has ensured gymnasts of all levels were recognised for improvements and hard work with certificates and prizes.
She said: “For me, this award is testament to the whole team at VGA.
“I am so lucky to have a fabulous team of staff and volunteers working alongside me, each bringing something very unique to the team.
“I am exceptionally proud of the resilience the team has shown through the last 18 months – continually doing their best for the children and young people with whom they work.
“I am a very proud leader!”
She continued: “I never coach for the accolades; I respect my role as a guardian for our sport and, if I can have a positive impact on the children and young people I work with, then that is reward enough.
“I would also hope that it would inspire other coaches to work hard, develop themselves and aim to be successful at the level they coach.
“As I have matured, I have learned that coaching can impart many benefits – beyond sport for sports sake – within the right environment.
“If I can inspire young people to reach higher and reach their full potential, in any aspect of their lives, or understand their role within the community, then I am satisfied that I am having a positive impact.”
Even with the challenges of working remotely, Melissa has forged positives, and continued to use sport as a way to change the lives of so many young people.
She reflected: “The pandemic has meant that we have all had to be exceptionally flexible and find resilience we never knew we had. One of my gymnasts asked me if I ever felt stressed – I answered 'yes, but my job is to help you guys feel comfortable and confident and support you as best I can.’
“That is the role I recognised was needed through the pandemic.
“As a child I experienced many personal and family challenges, and this helped me to understand the role that coaches and others play in supporting others.
“My sport and my coaches were hugely important to me. Sporting provision and coaching needs to be person-centred, helping others to follow their own journey and helping them to develop personal skills and attributes.
“This is what drives me as a coach. At all levels, invested and committed coaches can have a huge impact on the lives of others.”
Meanwhile adapting immediately to the impossible challenge of the pandemic, Alyson began an online gymnastics coaching programme, and also provided regular fun activities such as bingo, fancy dress, family quizzes, themed sessions and daily challenges.
In order to keep mental health and morale stable throughout a testing time, Alyson even went to the trouble of delivering prizes to her members’ doors. Holding her group together through a strong sense of community, she also ensured family involvement was encouraged - bringing mums and dads into sessions with her gymnasts.
She said: “The pandemic was of course a really tricky time, but I knew that more than ever, we had to work to ensure the wellbeing of our members.
“We wanted to make things as fun and as inclusive as possible, so we devised interactive tasks and fun games for everyone. At what was a really difficult period, the coaching seemed to be a reason for people to get up in the morning – as much as young members would want to stay in bed!
“Coaching really is something that defines me, it feels almost genetically programmed into my DNA.
“I’ve always been aware of the potential impact coaching can have, and it’s a big responsibility.
“What you say has a direct impact on the young person you’re working with, but as well as a responsibility it is a true privilege to do what I love.
“To be recognised for it is amazing, I do spend hours with my coaching team planning, looking beyond and often self-reflecting on how I can be better.
“The bigger picture is far more important to me. We all know the benefits sport can have which isn’t restricted to skill development or physical fitness.
“There are emotional and social benefits which are hugely important. For me, coaching well and giving people and opportunity to participate is a vehicle for young people to develop essential life skills.
“Persistence, leadership, communication – these are vitally important and setting an example as a coach can help produce these qualities.
“I love working with people and I always knew I wanted to bring that into sport, so I’m truly delighted to be given this award. It just shows how important coaches can be to their local community.”
Focusing on supporting young people through the pandemic, Lauren put on Zoom classes for children aged 4-7, creating fun games that incorporated fundamental movement skills.
Passionate about ensuring children have the best possible experience in gymnastics, she went above and beyond via remote classes to give a much needed sense of normality for children who may have struggled to process the sudden and anxiety-inducing change of national lockdowns.
She said: “I am very grateful and proud that my coaching work has been recognised. I believe it is so important to treat each child as an individual regardless of age, ability, gender, and try to make gymnastics fun!
“The pandemic has been difficult as you need to be in close contact when teaching new skills. Whilst the gym was closed, I did zoom sessions 5-6 times a week trying to keep gymnasts engaged and doing something that they enjoy, even just to take their minds off everything that was happening in the world.
“For children, everything changed so fast without much explanation, their normal routine of going to school, then coming to gymnastics and seeing their friends quickly stopped. I wanted my coaching to support them through this difficult time.
“It is really important to be committed as you create relationships and build trust between you and the gymnasts which is important as they spend a lot of their childhoods in the gym. I have seen how gymnastics helps young children’s mental health and gives them something to look forward to every week.
“I love how my passion for coaching and helping others puts a smile on young children’s faces, especially through how hard Covid has been.
“I was a gymnast from a very young age and competed all through my childhood. I loved the sport and was committed to training many hours a week. I then had a knee injury and started to volunteer to coach sessions, and this has progressed over the years.
“I am so grateful to win this award, and appreciate the feedback and support from the gymnasts and their parents, so just wanted to say thank you! It has been a very diverse, challenging and rewarding journey – and I’m excited to continue!”