University of Stirling serves as an incubator for the next generation of athletic coaches

13 mins read

Greg Atkinson doesn’t remember the first time he actually stepped onto an American football field for his first day with the Clansmen –  a moment that occurred over six years ago – but he certainly remembers suiting up for his initial practice. The gear, and the helmet in particular, felt uncomfortable at first, and the older guys on the team had warned him this might be the case.

“You … feel like you can’t get this off again, and that you live in this helmet, and I was just like, ‘Ah, sh*t,’” Atkinson said. “Your ears are killing you, and you’re ripping it off, and then you just get used to it.”

The helmet, however, was just one issue on a long list of things that Atkinson would have to get used to when it came to the sport of American football. The Edinburgh native needed to learn the plays, the rules, and the formality of operating within what he calls the “professionalised” structure of the Clansman.

He grew up playing “regular” football, but embraced the chance to try a new sport at university, and he leaned on his teammates to help him become a student of the game. Four years after that first day in the locker room when he struggled with his helmet, Atkinson concluded his Clansman playing career having sufficiently mastered the ins and outs of the American sport, all while earning his undergraduate degree in sports science.

Atkinson wasn’t finished, though.

Now, as a masters student at the University of Stirling and an alumnus of the undergraduate sports studies program, Atkinson has continued to build on his interest in American football, this time as a coach – and an award-winning coach to boot – of the team. He started coaching with the Clansman during his first year as a postgrad, and he has slowly taken on more responsibility with the team and gained the confidence necessary to lead the special teams. Atkinson’s journey, while uniquely his own, fits in with a pattern seen across Stirling of athletes who take to the classroom to gain new skills that they can apply to coaching the next generation of future sports stars.

Greg Atkinson (right) poses with his “Coach of the Year” Award at the Clansman Award Ceremony. Credit: Katie Stepek

As a leading institution in sports coaching and sports studies, Stirling trains individuals like Atkinson to excel in coaching roles across sports ranging from American football to rugby to triathlon to everything in between. It is this versatility that makes the program special, according to sports studies lecturer Dr. Andrew Kirkland.

“On our program, we are encouraging coaches to become reflective- analysing and evaluating their own practices, seeing if they are the right practices and using academic literature to inform how they think about these things,” Kirkland said.

“We’ve given them the potential to be leading coaches in whatever sport they do. We’ve helped develop coaches to the next intellectual level that gives them the tool to help the people they coach.”

Kirkland works within the MSc Performance Coaching program, a course designed to help those individuals who are already practicing coaches a chance to learn from experts about how to become a more mindful and critically thinking coach. Kirkland said the program typically graduates about 30 students a year, but students hoping to improve their coaching education aren’t limited just to this cohort, or just this masters program. Atkinson, for instance, isn’t a member of this particular program, but he’s been able to learn from the sport science curriculum as a MPhil student studying sleep loss and apply the theoretical lessons to his practice as a coach on the field and in the weight room.

Students, however, can begin their coaching education as undergrads, like Atkinson did, as part of the sports studies bachelor’s degree program, a group that Kirkland also assists with. Kirkland works as a supervisor for undergraduate students, and he serves as part of the larger sports social science research at Stirling, which brings together lecturers across a wide range of fields within sport, including but not limited to gender studies, kinesiology and nutrition. On May 23, Kirkland and his colleagues participated in a research seminar in Pathfoot that showed off some of the work produced by faculty within the sports social science research division; the diverse range of programs and expertise offered with the Stirling sports studies and sports sciences programs helps makes the opportunities for future coaches, or even just those wanted to learn about sport, so beneficial.

Stirling brands itself as the University of Sporting Excellence, and Kirkland’s work, and his mentorship of students interested in sports careers, helps maintain Stirling’s sporting reputation.

“We’re opening coaches’ eyes to things they haven’t learned about before, [and] I’ve got quite a lot of autonomy in what I teach. I don’t have someone telling me this is how to do it,” Kirkland said.

“I don’t feel constrained by convention, I don’t have to skirt around various issues. That autonomy allows me to focus on subjects that might be differentiated factors, [and] I’m able to take a holistic perspective.”

Florie McLeish, an elite triathlete, recent graduate of sports studies at Stirling and current swim coach, credits Kirkland for helping her find an undergraduate dissertation project that inspired her to learn more about coaching and challenged her pre-existing ideas about the nature of coaching philosophy. McLeish served as one of the many undergraduate students that Kirkland advised in 2018, and while McLeish said she never took a formal course with Kirkland, she appreciated his willingness to help her think in new critical ways about an interest they both share: coaching.

“He really did help me find something that he knew I was interested in, and even when he first proposed the idea to me I was like ‘I’m not sure that’s really what I want to do,’ and then when I did it, I was like ‘he must have seen something in me that made me want to go down that route and explore it,’” McLeish said.

For her dissertation, McLeish interviewed 12 coaches – six amateur and six elite – to help unpack the diversity within coaching philosophies and reach conclusions about how some coaches create more impactful relationship with their athletes. While she noted that some of her participants didn’t love the interview process and hesitated to reveal honest answers, McLeish said the project gave her a “clearer picture” of the diversity within sports coaching philosophies

“For me, and from my personal experience, I think [coaching is about] just making it enjoyable for everyone, being an open coach and really seeing an athlete as a bigger person than an athlete,” McLeish said. “Just…make it fun and see every athlete as an individual rather than an athlete.”

McLeish is currently putting her coaching skills to the test with a developmental swim program in Edinburgh, where she helps customers find the right swim program for them and works behind the scenes to keep the swim school organised. She also works with other coaches to make sure they are “following Swim Easy’s correct procedure, making sure the children are learning and having fun and that the parents are happy with the service.”

When she first found out she had earned the job, McLeish said she was shocked, and she still has a hard time believing that’s she actually coaching the next generation of swimmers- a full-circle experience for her having been coached as a top-level athlete herself growing up.

“To be able to do it as a career, you never expect to be able to do it until it’s actually the day that you get it. Even now I’m still like “am I actually doing that? Is that actually what I managed to do?” McLeish said.

Educated under the faculty at Stirling, McLeish has achieved her goals. Her formal schooling is complete, her dissertation is done, and she’s well on her way to becoming a highly regarded coach.

Back at Stirling, however, another coach is still prepping for his chance at the big leagues. He’s inspired by academia, driven by his love for the game and powered by a good night’s sleep.

Greg Atkinson has coached the Clansman for the last two years, earning Coach of the Year honors for his efforts. Credit: Jimmy Thomson

Sitting in the sports centre cafe sipping on a cup of coffee, this coach, Atkinson, enthusiastically talked about his current research on sleep deprivation that he’s completing as part of his MPhil. He’s working on a project about the effect on sleep and resistance training, and though he jokes that finding participants is difficult – “most people when they find out they have to be sleep deprived for like two days, they’re like ah, I’m busy,” he laughs – Atkinson’s work speaks to his larger goals about using academics to ground himself in more effective coaching strategies. He hopes to work for the NFL one day, guiding professional athletes in their own personal development, but for now, he still working towards another Stirling degree, a degree that he believes demonstrates his passion, his knowledge and a representation of his six-year journey developing into an elite coach.

When he earns this next degree, he will join the growing list of Stirling students who leave this campus ready to take on the coaching industry with skills, passion and strength.


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