Football coach proving a point

originally published in The Star, July 9, 2014

In her two years at the helm of the Coastal Spirit women’s premier team, Alana Gunn has had plenty she could brag about.

She took charge of the team halfway through the 2012 season, when the coach at the time, Gareth Turnbull, was handed the Mainland Pride job.

It was a move they had already planned for the following year, and she says it came as a natural progression.

The 2012 season was a happy one for Coastal; they won the league while going unbeaten, they won the local Reta Fitzpatrick cup, and made it to the semi-finals of the national knockout competition.

Last year, they won the league again, but were knocked out of the local cup in the semi-finals.

They didn’t mind too much, though, as they went one better in the national event, beating Auckland’s Glenfield Rovers in the final, at Christchurch’s own English Park.

Gunn points to that day as the highlight of her coaching tenure, but is also quick to give all the credit to her players, with whom she thinks the bragging rights really belong.

“I don’t see that as my achievement, I see that as the girls’ achievement,” she says.

“It’s something they’ve been working for longer than I’ve been their coach.”

This year, Gunn and Coastal’s goal is to prove that win wasn’t a fluke.

While they currently sit second in the Mainland women’s premier league, they have two games in hand on leaders Cashmere Technical, who they are only one point behind.

While games against Tech and Universities are fiercely contested, many of Coastal fixtures are ones they are expected to win big.

Keeping her players motivated is one of Gunn’s biggest challenges.

“Every time a team plays us, it’s their final.”

She says that being aware of what a defeat would mean to the other team is often enough, but there are also other things they do to try and keep themselves engaged.

Sometimes, they bring other aspects of the game into focus, asking themselves how many times they can achieve certain goals, such as turning the opposition’s defenders, or winning a certain number of attacking corners.

“If you bring in those other challenges, it helps challenge them every week, so they don’t get dry,” says Gunn.

She also has to challenge herself.

She says she’s been told lately that she needs to work on how she communicates with the team.

“I’m very calm and I don’t often yell and I don’t tell them off and there’s times where I potentially could kick them up the ass a bit.”

She says her approach to coaching during games depends on whom they are playing.

Coastal Spirit defender Laura Merrin (right)

Against the weaker sides, she likes her players to solve any problems that crop up themselves, with a bit of help from her at half-time if need be.

But in cutthroat games, she’s willing to take a more direct approaching.

“Saying to them this is what’s going well, this is what isn’t,” she says.

Gunn is eager to take advantage of the professional development opportunities that are available to her.

She currently has a senior level two coaching award, and wants to sit the level three award the next time it’s offered.

Once she has that, more opportunities will be open to her, especially overseas.

One day, she would like to be involved in a New Zealand age-group international environment, but she knows it’s still a while off.

“I’m definitely not there yet, but it’s something I’m working towards it.”

Her dream is that one day coaching will be her job.

“If I could be in a full-time coaching role and not have to work, that’d be pretty epic,” she says.

She might not be a full-time coach yet, but she certainly acts like one.

When her team arrives at Avon Park for training one Thursday, they are greeted by an array of cones.

After the players complete their warm-up, Gunn runs through the rules for the game they’re about to play.

She’s split the field into number of different zones, and placed restrictions on where players are allowed to go, and what they are allowed to do.

It’s complex, but Gunn’s got it so well-organised, her players are able to pick it up quickly.

Gunn says she needs to be organised, otherwise she incurs the wrath of her team

“If you’re not prepared, they’ll call you out on it. They’re quick to jump in.”

The team gets the game underway, slowly upping the pace as they become familiar with the rules.

One passage of play ends with the ball being played into the box, but no one’s there to get on the end of it.

Gunn pulls them up to make a point — it’s the exact scenario where they need to improve.

“Against Forrest Hill we might only get two or three chances,” she yells.

Forrest Hill is Forrest Hill Milford, a club from Auckland’s North Shore, who Coastal have been drawn against in the semi-finals of the national knockout cup.

They are widely considered to be the best women’s club team in the country, with a number of age-group internationals coming together this year to form the basis of their squad.

Gunn says the game is going to be a huge challenge, but Coastal will be going in confident.

Coastal’s squad isn’t too bad itself; it includes current Football Ferns Meikayla Moore and Annalie Longo, as well as several others who have represented New Zealand at age-group level in the past.

“I guess the advantage we have is we’ve been a team for a lot longer than they have,” says Gunn.

“The girls want it really bad.”

The game is scheduled for July 20, and between this training and then, Coastal only have two more games.

Both of them are against Parklands United, an extremely young side, new to the premier league this year, and who are unlikely to resemble anything close to Forrest Hill.

If Coastal are to keep their cup defence intact, it will be because of the work they put in on nights like this, with Gunn leading the way.