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At the age of three, Joanne Love could swim 25 metres freestyle. Both of her parents were extremely competitive and had always been involved in sport, so it was only natural that their kids continued down that same competitive path. Joanne and her sister selected swimming and their brother went into other sports. “It’s something that we both loved and kept doing and I competed up to national level and just always loved the sport,” Joanne says.

Joanne ventured to university but found that she didn’t like what she was studying, instead turning to swimming coaching rather than continuing down an academic pathway. “It was really interesting because throughout my career I was one of the very few females in the industry, so I had to overcome all of those hurdles, but it basically evolved,” she says.

“When I first started coaching I was having a lot of success. Being on the elite stage in Victoria meant that I was one of only a few women,” she says. “At times I would walk onto the pool deck and I’d be the only woman among 40 men, so at that time it was almost like a boys’ club. There was no conversation, and it was up to me to break those barriers down. It was all men all the time, so it was a case of needing the confidence to go and start a conversation and it wasn’t always easy,” she admits. What Joanne learned over the years was not to make statements, but to ask questions, finding that by asking questions the men would interact with her. She broke those barriers down, and today is the President of the Victorian Coaches Association. “I’ve gone from being the only female, to running it, and a lot of
it is just confidence and having the confidence to believe that you are just as good as them. A lot of women, when surrounded by a lot of men, feel like the odd one out and back off or disappear altogether.”

Joanne’s career in coaching evolved and flourished and she was selected as a coach for the 2008 Beijing Paralympic team. Returning from Beijing, she met a point in her career where she was prompted to make a major life decision. One of her longest serving athletes, who she describes as being as technically brilliant as Ian Thorpe or Michael Phelps, was suffering from serious anxiety and performance issues. Joanne was at a loss as to what to do. “I felt that I was lacking here, that I didn’t have the skills to help this athlete and that prompted me to go back to university during my early 40s.”

So Joanne commenced a business and psychology degree, which also happened to be at the same time as her daughter was studying. “It was actually very interesting because she basically said, Mum, younger people don’t want to hear about your experiences. So for me, very outspoken as a coach, I had to learn the skills to keep my mouth shut and be respectful of the younger generation,” she says.
Going back to university to complete her degree part-time (which took her 6 years) was a humbling experience for Joanne, as she had to re-learn the skills she hadn’t used for a long time. She made note that this experience highlighted many skills that she felt she didn’t have, and changed her thinking. If she couldn’t help one of her athletes in a specific way, then she could learn the skills needed to help them in the best way she could.

“Up until that point, it was what probably 70 percent of the population are thinking now – that they don’t need to continue learning. I think that was a great insight that now I’ve come to know. I sit and read every night, books about different things, so my whole attitude towards ‘I think I know it all’ is now ‘I don’t know anything’. Anything that I can learn now I’m eager to grasp and take hold of,” she said.

“Being open to new experiences is very important and I don’t think that most of the population does that – they’re frightened. They don’t believe they can and I just think well, what have you got to lose? Just try it and give it a go. It doesn’t matter whether you fail – you can always try again.”

“It was really interesting because throughout my career I was one of the very few females in the industry, so I had to overcome all of those hurdles, but it basically evolved.”

Listening is really important for a coach, she explains – often we want to give an answer before we’ve heard what the other person is talking about. Some people just feel more compelled to give a solution to something rather than listening. “Being open to new experiences is very important and I don’t think that most of the population does that – they’re frightened. They don’t believe they can and I just think well, what have you got to lose? Just try it and give it a go. It doesn’t matter whether you fail – you can always try again,” she says. The ‘I know best’ attitude holds a lot of coaches back, explains Joanne. Sometimes coaches – and indeed people – might not be prepared to hear anybody else’s side because they might feel insecure, but athletes have changed, younger generations have changed.

The way we could treat people in the past is totally different to the way that we should be treating these younger generations now. She suggests that we need to be treating the younger generations with more empathy and that the old-school ways just don’t work. “We need to be responsive to that. We need to treat people more holistically, so it’s about the whole wellbeing of an athlete, the whole wellbeing of a younger person. It’s not just what we want out of them, not just pushing and trying to get that performance, but looking at what’s happening in the future. I think that’s really being brought to a head now with athletes who are finishing their careers – they don’t have anywhere else to go. There’s no job for them in the future. They’ve just had this one career and there’s nothing else for them. I think holistically, we’ve got to provide something that makes a whole person and their wellbeing to be the best that they can be.”

Differing values can cause conflict and challenges between athlete, coach and key stakeholders. Parents may want one thing and the coach may want something entirely different, explains Joanne. “I think our greatest problem is a lack of communication, so we need a lot more of that. Unfortunately, many sporting organisations are driven by the bottom dollar, and their government funding is based on their elite performances, so many coaches push their athletes too hard and fast. A lot of grassroots organisations aren’t given the financial aid that they should be given, so everybody, coaches in particular, are assessed based on their performances and we see that in the AFL all the time – there might be a great coach, but if they’re not getting the results, they’re shoved over quickly. They’re not given the benefit of time. There are many different variables and sometimes I think that the whole picture is not looked at. We’re quick to judge, which is unfortunate.”

The behaviour of coaches can also negatively affect an athlete’s performance. One athlete in England who was about to be selected for the Olympic team was concerned that her coach was upsetting her during competition and holding back her opportunities. Joanne was asked to work with this coach and discovered that the coach lacked confidence, which in turn directly affected the athlete’s performance. Joanne set to work with the coach in both a group and an individual situation to help the coach overcome confidence issues. “At the time we started, this athlete was throwing 58 metres and within 12 months was throwing 63 metres which greatly improved this athlete’s ranking to the top six in the world.”

“Just those little differences can make big differences. I’ve now become the coach’s coach, working with other coaches to help them improve their performances.Just the little differences that can be made are phenomenal for athletes. It’s just how we optimise our feedback. We don’t need to talk negatively, we can do it through positive reinforcement. If we can handle the bigger situations, such as confidence, our athletes are going to succeed.”

Leadership within any environment, says Joanne, is about continual education so that we don’t stall and don’t fixate on one way. Collaboration and working across disciplines is imperative to building your repertoire. “If you’ve got the mindset that you don’t know anything, you’re open to new learning, to new experiences. You’re able to see from other people’s point of view and this makes you more receptive to others’ feelings,” says Joanne.

“As a leader it is important that we aren’t quick to judge others without knowing the full story,” says Joanne. Many young people are quick to complain or make judgement about others, without assessing the situation from an outsider’s perspective. If we can teach others to analyse why decisions are made, they won’t be so quick to judge. By fostering improved relationships and building collaborations, we will be more conscious of our attitudes and in doing so, will improve our awareness of social injustices. This can only benefit society in the long-run.