Pat Duffy: the UK’s head coach

While covering the Scottish Sports Development Conference The Leisure Review took the chance to catch up with keynote speaker Dr Pat Duffy, group chief executive of Sports Coach UK, and pick up on some of his themes in the context of the wider sport and leisure sector.

Pat Duffy
Pat Duffy: chief exec, Sports Coach UK

You’re an Irishman heading up a UK agency. Can you tell us about the journey that brought you to your current role?

By background and by training I am an athlete, coach and physical educator. I was a middle distance runner myself at national level, although I didn’t do much by way of international performances. When I retired from being a runner I became a coach, like you do, and as a coach I primarily coached at my place of employment, the then National College of Physical Education at Limerick. Prior to going there I was a physical education teacher. Towards the back end of the eighties there was a lot of discussion about the need for a national coaching and training centre and, as I was also president of the Physical Education Association, I got drawn into those discussions. Eventually we set up the National Training and Coaching Centre at the University of Limerick and I became its first head of coach education, which I did for three years. When the first director, John Kirwan, went back to the States I took that role, so I was Director of the National Training and Coaching Centre for the Republic of Ireland. In that role was responsible for setting up the coach education system that worked with 36 governing bodies, including providing sports science and medical support. I did that job for ten years, during which we had very good relationships with what was firstly the National Coaching Foundation and then Sports Coach UK, so when the vacancy became available at SCUK it was made known to me and I explored it. The more I explored it the more interested I became and thankfully two years ago I took up my present position.

Our readership runs the gamut of the leisure profession and may not be completely au fait with the coaching side of the industry. Could you give us a snapshot of where we are with coaching in the UK today and where we may be going?.

I think its fair to say that in the last ten to fifteen years there has been a quickening pace towards what we would call the professionalisation of coaching, where coaching has begun to be seen as a key part of delivering on sports’ objectives. And there is a very strong desire to ensure that that is underpinned by training, qualifications and indeed professional support for coaching. In 2002 the government published a Coaching Task Force report which basically said, ‘look, we need a UK coaching certificate; we also need community sports coaches there on the ground’. There are three thousand of them out there now. It said, ‘we need a coach development officer network to support those people and we need research and development to underpin it all.’ All of that was ongoing when I came so basically what we have done over the last two years is ask very hard questions of our partners, notably: what do we want to achieve in coaching over the next ten years, particularly using 2012 as a target and as a platform? We are now at the point where we have agreed across all of the governing bodies, the home countries’ sports councils and UK Sport the UK Coaching Framework, which says: ‘we are looking to have skilled coaches working with children, players and athletes in all stages of their development and [a framework] which is number one in the world by 2016.’  So broadly that’s where we are at in terms of the agenda right now: working towards the world’s leading coaching system by 2016.

We’re in Scotland today and it seems that the Scottish sports system and the English are almost diverging. Is the coaching system genuinely UK-wide?

Firstly, yes, there are issues in developing a UK system which has a devolved structure and we have to understand and respect that. But the UK Coaching Framework is a UK-wide initiative. It has been signed up to by 36 UK-wide governing bodies – not just the England part, not just the Scotland part – and all of these governing bodies have gone to UK level; they have got board resolutions at UK level, and indeed at home country level if required, to say: ‘this is a UK element.’ Also it has been signed up to by four home countries’ sports councils and indeed we now have a steering group which not only involves the sports councils but also the government officials from each of the four countries. So it definitely is a UK initiative. And the last thing I would say on this is that sometimes we make too much of trying to have people the same. The fact that it’s UK-wide actually should mean that we respect and reflect the differences that this implies. For me at this conference over the last two days we have seen the strength and the passion within Scottish sport and our job is to ask: how do we support that and how do we enhance it? And the same is true right throughout the UK. In my experience as an Irishman coming to England – our headquarters is in Leeds – I have seen that the nine regions of England actually have some genuine differences of approach. So it’s not about all being the same: it’s all about having a common objective and certain ways that we wish to do things to achieve the common objective. The question for me is: what works best in the different sports, in the different countries and the different regions to do the job on the ground?

Earlier you used the word ‘professionalisation’. The Leisure Review is written for professionals in the sport and leisure industry. How healthy do you think that wider profession is? Are you confident that if you lead coaching into that profession that you would be making the right move?

There are a couple of aspects to that. I think firstly coaching needs to be really clear what it is and what it can contribute. But it cannot do that in isolation. I think that the development of a profession in coaching is a bit of a misnomer. For me coaching is part of a wider sector which involves sport and physical activity. Just as we would talk about the ‘medical profession’ or the ‘education profession’, so I believe that coaching is part of that broader church of professionals that make up the ‘sport and physical activity profession’. So my absolute challenge to colleagues in coaching is, let’s be really clear about what we are about, be as good as we possibly can at doing that but then seek to interact with and intersect with other professionals in that broader sport and physical activity domain.

Can we talk about the issue of ‘profile’ for coaches and coaching? Given that you are the ‘head coach’ for the whole of the UK, how do you view the situation with Sir Clive Woodward and the BOA and its clear conflict with UK Sport’s programmes?

Well, I think that in terms of engagement of people in the system it is crucial that we find increasingly effective ways of engaging and re-engaging people who have huge bodies of expertise. So that with the Clive Woodwards of this world it is vital that we use their expertise. If we simply try to reinvent the wheel all the time and, dare I say it and I’m not the person to talk about it, wheel in people from other countries to develop the system, THAT is not going to work. We really have to use the expertise that is available to us, so for me Clive Woodward’s assistance has been very welcome and, certainly from the discussions I have had with him and the discussions I have had with UK Sport, it is clear that there has been a much greater coming together and understanding of where his expertise is going to fit in with Mission 2012 and I very strongly welcome that. My bottom line on ‘profile’ is that we don’t really have room for what we call in Ireland ‘a solo run’. That is where someone goes off and does their own thing; the expression comes from the Gaelic Games. Of course we want people to be innovative, of course we want them to bring their own talents to bear, but as part of the development of a system. One of the attitudes we have to have is, bury the ego a little bit and work together as part of the team.

Are you still coaching?

Unfortunately not. These two years are the first two years in 25 that I haven’t coached either middle distance running or basketball. My schedule at the moment means I can’t coach. It’s funny you should ask the question just now because after the initial really hectic period in the job I said to my wife about two weeks ago: “I need to do some coaching”

Far be it from me to give you advice but, yes you should!


As part of your conference session you spoke a lot about the need to have a strategy in place but that it needs to be delivered and resourced locally.

Yes. Don’t get me wrong: I think the strategy stuff that we are doing is vital. I absolutely love the job I have been asked to do but you know at the end of the day world-leading coaching systems don’t come from strategies; they are not ‘top down’. What this is about is living, breathing, eating coaching from the grass roots up. The measure of success for a world-leading coaching system is that more children, players and athletes have the coaches that they need, right there; that those coaches are respected within the context that they work and that those coaches have career structures if they so wish. Volunteers might well say, “I’m just doing this for fun” but those volunteers need to be valued, they need to be supported so that they can continue what they are doing. That for me is the measure of success. The strategic stuff: what’s that about? Well, it’s about the UK making a statement that sport is important, that coaching is important and if we want a world-leading sporting system then we need to make sure we have the coaching system to drive it forward.



© Copyright of all material on this site is retained by The Leisure Review or the individual contributors where stated. Contact The Leisure Review for details.

an independent view for the leisure industry








about us

contact us