Wendy Russell started playing football at primary school when she was 11 and was told she would make a great goalkeeper in hockey. ‘But then I got run over by a car, had some time out, then got told I had arthritis in my hip, and the doctors told me I wasn’t allowed to play sport again.’
‘Even at that age, I wanted to be a PE teacher so that was a little bit gutting to hear.’
Wendy is now a Level 2 hockey coach and Level 1 basketball, trampolining, rugby and football coach – is the senior coach at Brighton & Hove Hockey Club, where she is their Junior Development Officer and Director of Coaches, and works for Active Sussex (the county sports partnership) as Coach Support Officer, helping mentor coaches. She is also the ambassador for Project 500, a scheme aimed at getting more women involved in coaching.
If that’s not enough coaching for one person, she is a full-time PE teacher at Steyning Grammar School, and also coaches at Sussex University.
She has written on her ConnectedCoaches profile: ‘Never give up on anyone or anything.’ Has become her life’s motto.
Through the pain barrier
Wendy didn’t play any more sport during her early teenage years, and it looked like the recommendation of the medical professionals had won the day. But proving people wrong is Wendy’s speciality, and throughout her hiatus, she would regularly rekindle memories of matches and remember the fun she had in her PE lessons at primary school with her favourite teacher, Mrs Chisholm.
‘Mrs Chisholm was a brilliant teacher,’ says Wendy, ‘So I had a very good experience at a young age, which spurred me on to want to become a PE teacher. Then at secondary school, I had another really good PE teacher in Mrs Boby.
‘I think that grassroots coaches and teachers are the most important people when it comes to fostering and inspiring people to want to get involved in sport, and keep a smile on their faces when taking part.
‘I was contemplating what other careers I might want to get into but I didn’t feel anywhere near as passionate about them compared to being a PE teacher, and it was still in the back of my mind.
‘When I got to choose my A levels, I chose PE and joined my local hockey team. I knew that this is what I wanted to do, to inspire other people to enjoy sport as much as I do and show people that there is a sport for everyone regardless of your ability.
‘I thought, “You know what? I’ll put up with the arthritis. I might not be walking by the time I’m 60, but I’m going to do it.”
It wasn’t long before Wendy began combining her love of playing with her ambition to help others. Her club didn’t have a junior section so she took on the responsibility of creating one, passing her Level 2 hockey qualification in the process as she set out to bolster both the club’s and her own personal development.
It’s fair to say she hasn’t looked back since. I took a year out after my A levels before university and did some coaching qualifications and liaised with the local school to develop my club’s junior section.’
‘I love learning and taking ideas to see how they can cross over into other sports – taking a rugby drill, for example, and seeing how that would fit for hockey. I enjoy it, the whole social element of watching other people learn, and having that competitive edge too. It outweighs the pain.’
‘Sometimes, when I’m in a lot of pain, I think to myself, “Why don’t you play an indoor sport with not as much running around instead?” But then I’ll go out and get involved again, and I’ll be fine. Whenever I see someone develop a new skill or confidence, the smile that lights up their face! This inspires me. Helping them believe in themselves.’
There is no cure for Wendy’s arthritis. She can only manage it through regular physio and sports massages, steroid injections in her hips and by making sure she doesn’t overdo things – while at the same time doing enough to keep her joints supple.
Wendy took over the junior development of Brighton & Hove Hockey Club three years ago and has helped swell their ranks from 120 juniors to more than 300. Bearing in mind her dedication and extensive coaching experience at county level, clubs and at every tier of the education system, what is her coaching ambition?
‘I’d like to coach a national league side eventually and push my deaf hockey club into other clubs within the country so we can have, for example, deaf teams in Sussex, Hampshire, London and beyond playing against each other.’
‘I’ve just started a deaf hockey club, for children who are deaf or hard of hearing, and it’s the only one in England,’ she explains. ‘There is no other provision for them in England to play hockey. So if you are deaf, you have to play in a local club which may not cater for deaf people. Some deaf people find interacting with people who can hear difficult so the idea is to give them that confidence and self-esteem before they move into hearing clubs. There are no other deaf-only sports clubs in Sussex other than football or cricket.’
This in itself is a wonderful achievement, but there is more.
‘There is no sign language for hockey. If I needed to communicate with them, I would have to think about other ways of doing so. It was difficult. There is no sign, for example, for hockey stick or dribbling so what I ended up doing was creating 40 new sign language signs that are now being used across the country. I’m really proud of that.’
Pioneer, workhorse, motivator, altruistic and driven coach – she is a former winner of the Sussex Coach of the Year and runner-up in the Brighton & Hove City Coach of the Year awards. Wendy is now, rightly so, a finalist for the UK Coaching Awards being held in Manchester in December.
Wendy Russell is a role model for women sports coaches in this country and an inspiration to those wanting to either begin a career or further their career in the industry.