Ask the Expert: Katie Richards (British Gymnastics)

Katie is a former Senior Sport Psychology & Coaching Science Lecturer at St Mary’s University, and has been a leading figure within the GBR gymnastics scene for several years, offering sport psychology support to a number of clubs and coaches. Additionally she works for British Gymnastics, as the Coach Education Development Manager, as well as finding time to coach and tutor on a regular basis. 

1)What has led you into youth sport?

I started gymnastics when I was 6 years old, and it’s very common for gymnasts to begin coaching alongside their training. I was  fortunate to be in very supportive environments in my late-teens; at first in a gymnastics club in Maidenhead (Phoenix Gymnastics Club), Berkshire where I was first offered the opportunity to pursue my Assistant Coach qualification, and later in another club in Reading (Bulmershe Gymnastics Club), Berkshire who assisted my to gain my Senior Club coach qualification.

Now, it astounds me to think I have been coaching for 20 years! So it feels like I have always been involved in youth sport; across both the recreational and elite strands. there is no place I’d rather be. In my early twenties I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to be National Coach for the Great Britain Development Squad consisting of young talented children aged 8-10 years. I thrived in this environment; being able to apply all my passion, experience and knowledge of sport science (especially sport psychology) into my coaching to support, inspire and develop this group of fantastic children. I am in no doubt the supportive environments that I was in during those first 10 years of my coaching career are the reasons I am still so heavily involved in youth sport today.

2) What has been your biggest influence in your practice in youth sport? 

My appreciation for the complexities of learning (skill acquisition) and the empathy (sport psychology) to be a learner! It is so easy to forget what it is like to be young, and to learn new things. We are terrible at judging our learning, and often get learning and performance success in training confused as the same thing when they aren’t. Just because you do something in training, and get better through repetition, that doesn’t mean you’ve learnt anything.

The only way to know this is to look for change over time. We get so frustrated when we aren’t as good as we were last session, and coaches can get frustrated too, but learning is so complex with many factors that impact it – it’s a bumpy road. It’s not a linear path where you just keep getting better over time. My ability to understand, and come to terms with this has really influence the way I coach and practice. It keeps me rational, balanced and calm, which is important in the youth sport environment.  I spend a lot of time thinking about the learning strategies I am going to use at different stages of the athlete journey, and I always ensure I keep it varied and challenging.

Optimal challenge is key for me. It keeps learners engaged, and therefore increases the chance of learning. I work on the 70/30 rule. 70% of any ‘set’ or repetitions should be classed as successful and at least 30% of the repetitions should be unsuccessful (obviously safe, but nonetheless unsuccessful). This might sound a bit maverick, but when people are learning a 70% success rate suggests the task is challenging. If they are cracking out 100% success on everything I set them, then they aren’t being challenged – the cognitive engagement is low and I am missing out on opportunities to stretch them. However, underpinning all of what I do when working with youth athletes as mentioned is empathy. Empathy to be a young person in today’s world, and empathy to be a learner (especially when your coach has set a task where you can only ever get 70% right!!).

3) What is your particular area of interest?

All things skill acquisition, and in Sport Psychology terms Attentional Control and Mindfulness.

4) How do you think this particular area applies to youth athletes? 

Most youth athletes spend most of their time in a learning state – be that learning technical skills, or learning to perform skills and dual-process things such as strategies of play, so skill acquisition is critical to understand. For me Attentional control is key because the ability to work out what is relevant and what is not, and be able to develop the cognitive skills required to focus on these and not get distracted by the many other things they could think of, is important for both learning and performance – at any level, not just youth.

5) What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?

“Never, ever reign in your passion Katie Richards!” It has now become my mantra

6) What advice would you give to coaches working with youth athletes?

Embrace the process and journey you are on together, and recognise the impact of what you do’ right now’ to the person they (the athlete) will become one day. Remember, a coach is a vehicle for a long distance journey. 

7) Can you recommend any particular resources for youth sport coaches?

Yes, UK Coaching do some absolutely fantastic resources for youth sport coaches – get over there and explore.

8) Where can people find out more about you and your work?

Follow me on Facebook: ‘Katie Richards Performance & Coaching Scientist‘ and Twitter: @ktrichards_ses or drop me an email and make a connection at katie_richards@hotmail.com

Thanks to Katie for giving us her valuable time and insight!

Are you a grassroots youth sport coach or PE teacher who wants to improve the athleticism of your athletes?? Check out our Fundamental series athletic development programs here.

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4 thoughts on “Ask the Expert: Katie Richards (British Gymnastics)

  1. Anyone get bamboozled by their own parents and assistant coach who openly states “I don’t know a lot about soccer but…. we need some else? ” This was at the spring parent meeting. Signed – Head coach U13 girls soccer with E license.

    1. Hi Jon,
      Thanks for the comment! Yes it’s often a challenge to work in situations like this! The best we can do is educate on the “Why” behind what we are doing in the hope that our rationale makes sense to them!

  2. Excellent piece! Katie is an inspiring speaker and I would thoroughly recommend following her on social media. She makes me think and question, so I don’t stay stuck in a rutt.

    1. Thanks for comment Dot! Katie was a lecturer of mine many moons ago at university! She’s a great source of information!

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