Blue sky thinking paves way to Canadian success

June 17, 2023

Blue sky thinking paves way to Canadian success

He is the person with the longest commute in world hockey but, despite the hours spent flying back and forth across the Atlantic, Danny Kerry is very happy with his lot.

Kerry, who enjoyed a hugely successful coaching journey with the Great Britain and England men’s and women’s squads, including Olympic gold in 2016 and Coach of the Year award in the same year, is the new Head Coach to Canada women. It’s a very different challenge but one the coach is relishing. 

When we spoke, Kerry had just flown back from Canada and was suffering jet-lag. However, his face brightened as he started to talk about his initial two camps with the squad.

‘The athletes in Canada are resource poor but it makes them really resourceful. They have jobs, so the reality is that we cannot run a full-time program at the moment. The best solution has been for them to keep their jobs and remain living where they are but then we all get together for two-week training courses. The camps are intense but the athletes are so invested in the process that they work so very hard.’

The challenge facing Field Hockey Canada and their coach is to get to a point where they qualify for world level events. Kerry acknowledges the team is resource poor; an extreme contrast with the well-funded GB program. However, this in itself brings advantages that the British coach had not anticipated: ‘I had a few opportunities [when considering his next career move] and I chose to come to Canada because the athletes have ‘skin in the game’. That for me was one of the most important attributes. I didn’t want to be in a world where the athletes are entitled. 


‘It was that quality that struck me when I first visited Canada. You can do so much with players that are resourceful and resilient. That is when you see the qualities they have as human beings. When you are working on a well-resourced program, you don’t tap into peoples’ qualities so much; instead, you tend to tap into things you can buy. You solve everything with finance. This way of doing things, by tapping into human qualities, is far more enjoyable.’

There is also the question of gaining international experience. Canadian field hockey players do not get many chances to compete against other nations. There had been plans for a series of test matches against Korea in August but these will now not take place. The squad may have the chance to travel and play in the UK this summer, meaning they could have matches against England, Ireland and some of the close European neighbors. This is the task that Kerry had set himself once the jet lag had worn off.

For the future, Kerry and the High-Performance Director Emma Bray are trying to put some long-term plans in place. This would involve hosting travelling national teams and setting up their own itinerary of international matches. For a financially challenged team such as Canada women, this involves doing as much with their resources as possible. And as Kerry says with the wisdom of a Jedi Knight: 'You can’t eat an elephant all at once.’

The dual challenge facing any sports coach is to decide whether the priority is the next match and the next competition or whether it is a longer view. For Kerry the two options do not need to be mutually exclusive.

‘It is possible to do both,’ he says. ‘It is important not to dismiss the current players. They have a limited time as international players and you have to make sure you give them the chance to compete in the tournaments that are coming up now. It is also important to set out your vision to the athletes and again, the senior players can play a big part here. They have been invested in it for such a long time, players such as Natalie Sourisseau and Karli Johansen have been around a long time and have a lot to offer.’

As the athletes are now learning how to work with their new coach, so the coach is continuing to expand his knowledge. For a start, the working pattern which sees coach and athletes in an intense two-week camp, followed by two weeks of ‘normal’ life, gives Kerry something that was not always available when he was part of a full-time fully funded program.

‘I now have time to reflect and think. I have always been very strategic but now I have the headspace to think around what do we need to do and how are we going to do it. The gaps between camps are really important too. The camps are tough but after a two-week break, the athletes are super keen to get back.’

Of course, this system has its disadvantages. Kerry refers to a ‘forgetting curve’, in which some of the learnings drop off quite quickly. However, the freshness and focused nature of the camps creates excitement and hunger among the athletes.

It is taking this positive approach – focusing on what’s strong, not what’s wrong – that is creating the unmistakable excitement Kerry has for the new role.

’Of course, over time, I hope that we can spend more time together training, but at the moment I am leveraging this energy and work ethic that I see at the camps. We work hard for two weeks, then we break, then we come back stronger for the next set of intensive training days. There is no point moaning about the system, we work with what we have.’

The news has recently broken that Kerry is about to be joined by another British coach. Olympic gold medalist and Great Britain’s most capped player Kate Richardson-Walsh was captain when Kerry guided Great Britain to Olympic gold in 2016. Since then, Richardson-Walsh has been gaining coaching experience with top English club team Hampstead and Westminster. 

Kerry is delighted with the appointment, not least because he says Richardson-Walsh will be able to cover his ‘blind spots’. ‘I can get so involved in the process that I sometimes forget about the athletes and how they are feeling,’ he says. 

‘Kate has a deep empathy with the athletes. She is someone who can talk about resilience and making the most of what you have got from a point of real authenticity. I can talk about it as a coach but Kate has done it as an athlete and to a point that few other athletes have reached.

‘On a day-to-day level, Kate will work on our deep defense and marking skills and she will also work on the culture of a high performance athlete and leadership.’

When Kerry reflects on his own coaching journey, he is very forthright. ‘I am a much better coach now than I was in 2016. I am always looking for the chance to learn and improve and the past seven years have offered that. 

‘I have always been very involved and curious about skill acquisition, devising coaching programs and optimizing learning situations. I have also done a lot of work with Tim Pitt, a sports psychologist, while working with the GB and England men’s team. Recently, I have done some continued professional development work on psychometric profiling and, most importantly, I have had some time to consolidate things and get some head space.’

All of which has set Kerry up nicely for this new challenge. As someone who was in the spotlight that a government funded Olympic sport inevitably casts, he is now discovering new ways of doing things.

‘What is really refreshing is that when you have so little resource, you spend time focusing on what matters most. On the GB program there was a huge staff and I used to spent far too much time discussing their needs when I should have been spending time with the athlete group. At the Canadian camp, it really is just me, so I can devote myself to the athletes.’

Does this mean one of the world’s most successful hockey coaches puts his own cones and bibs out ahead of practice sessions? 

‘I always put my own cones out, I am very particular about how my cones are laid out,’ he says with a smile that just about masks the jet lag. 

And that sums up Canada’s new Head Coach: highly strategic, hugely focused and with an attention to detail that extends right down to the placement of the practice cones. There is little doubt that if Canada women start to rise up the rankings, much of the success can be attributed to the thinking time offered by the nine-hour flight from Vancouver to London.

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