College soccer legend BILLY GAZONAS tells DAVE CLARKE how he went from unwanted player to NCAA title-winning captain and gives top tips to youngsters MORE
‘I left my comfort zone – and I am better for it’
Like many, I started coaching just as a volunteer.
I will never forgot the words from my FA Level 1 course tutor: “You are not looking to get into coaching as a career are you? You just want to make your own sons better”!
I was working as a London black cab driver on long hours, and, to be honest, I hated it. I had been suffering from excruciating back and neck pain for years, which forced me to give up playing at 35.
Coaching was really my ‘out’ and my pain seemed to be better while I was moving around.
I was finally diagnosed in 2011 with an autoimmune condition called Axial SpA (Ankylosing Spondylitis), a form of chronic arthritis. My flare up was so bad at one point that I had to take seven months off work.
During that time, my wife went from part-time to full-time employment and I was looking to get out of the cab trade.
A chance Twitter conversation led me to an interview with Leyton Orient FC’s community arm – I say ‘interview’, it was more just a chat about football for over an hour.
My first session was with children with behavioural problems. I was also covering Physical Education in primary schools and pupil-referral units, delivering classroom based health programmes and mentoring children in class.
This experience, for me, was crucial for my coaching. My qualifications – Uefa B, FA youth award and Futsal Level 2 – all help, but when I look back, this is where I really learned to coach.
Volunteering with my sons at Buckhurst Hill FC under-15s, and being reasonably successful with them on and off the pitch, led me to more paid coaching work.
I now run six after-school clubs, coach in Leyton Orient FC’s development centre and have sessions with girls and boys from under-4s to adults – two of those still as a volunteer.
Recently, I worked on the Coping Through Football programme for Orient, which is up there with any coaching work I have ever done and a truly humbling experience, particularly for an Orient fan of almost 50 years.
My condition is stable. I inject myself once a month and, touch wood, there have been no flare-ups since I have been taking my medication.
“if you really want to learn how to coach, go and work in a community section…”
I often ask myself: would I still be pain-free if I was still punting that cab around London? I think I know the answer.
Sometimes, strange twists in life can lead you down an unsuspected path. Twitter can be an awful place sometimes but it has also been the starting point for my coaching journey. This column, too, came about via a direct message on Twitter.
I had lots of time on my hands during the Covid lockdowns, so it was the perfect opportunity to reflect on where to go next. I definitely want to go down the Uefa A licence route, so I am currently looking to shadow experienced coaches working in the 11-a-side game.
Outside of football, also as a volunteer, I have taken on the role as a patient representative for an NHS trust, working with Professor Hasan Tahir, a fantastic man who diagnosed me after 10 years of pain. I just want to give something back.
For me, it has been an unusual journey back to coaching. But I would say, if you really want to learn how to coach, go and work in a community section.
Step out of your comfort zone. I did, and I definitely feel I am a better coach for it.
• For more information on Stuart’s condition, visit nass.co.uk