Pulling The Flag

PTF Interview Series: Andrew Gambrill

We’d intended this to be an exclusive but a technical issue delayed our interview, so that a friendly rival managed to get their own out before us (what’s that about a free market economy?!). Anyhow, Andrew and ourselves share a passion: getting more women into sport. In this case, flag football. Here’s our interview in full!

The 2017 series of interviews kicks off with GB Women’s coach, Andrew Gambrill.

Hi Andrew! Let’s start with you. Give us a summary of your involvement in American football so far, leading to your appointment as GB women’s coach.

Andrew in action!

I’ll try and keep it brief! I played for Leicester Eagles from the mid 90s, mainly 9 on 9 semi contact until around 2010, when I played for Coventry Jets in the BAFA league. I was head coach of the academies at both of the teams. During this time I won 2 cadet titles, 3 junior and 3 youth. I was the Offensive Co-ordinator for GB juniors for 5 years, including 2003 when we won the European Championships. I also won a number titles playing for Leicester but I was very much an average player on a team of superstars.

Can you give us a brief summary of the past 12 months for the ladies?

It’s been a difficult year, as we didn’t qualify for the World Championships, and there was no money available for any friendlies. So, we took the opportunity to really work with the wider squad and establish some form of continuity.

How do you feel the women’s game has grown since your involvement and to what extent do you feel you’ve played a role?

Well, when I first came into the sport there were no women playing. That struck me as fundamentally wrong at the time. I introduced girls to the sport when I was with Leicester Eagles and women when I joined the Jets. But it was apparent that to have a real impact I would have to a have a national role.

I started to support other clubs like Warwick University, to set up women’s teams, then when I retired from playing, I decided to make it a goal to have flag football available for all women in the UK.

It’s difficult for me to have a perspective on my own impact, but I recognise I have been involved in most of key developments. Equally I need to recognise the input of people like Jim Messenger, Phil Gaydon and Pete Evans and that is only the tip of the iceberg.

Why do you feel the women’s game is growing at such a rapid rate?

Because women like playing sport and flag is a brilliant sport. Up until recently the opportunity wasn’t there. I know that’s a very simplistic overview, but that really is it.

The Midlands is a hotbed for female players but the north is practically barren by comparison! How can Northern teams even the odds a little and what advice would you give to a predominantly men’s club wanting to start a women’s club alongside them, or indeed a women’s club wanting to start up on their own?

There’s a number of stories out there with a straightforward blueprint to follow. I think it’s a case of, “if you build it, they will come.” For most community sides, there appears to have been a catalyst, an individual who has really driven things early on to get the team known and once that has been established teams have tended to grow through friendship groups. We at BAFA do try our best to support teams with advice and encouragement. I note that Manchester Crows are trying to start a team, so let’s hope they can make a go of it.

Writer’s note: Anyone interested in what the Crows Ladies are up to should check out their site here.

Mixed gender sports aren’t common, but the mixed division of ultimate frisbee is extremely popular. (Image courtesy of Get Horizontal and Graham Bailey)

I’ personally have played fully mixed sports before with set gender ratios on the field. Do you think we’ll ever see a flag division/tournament like that?

That feels so far down the road, it’s hard for me to envisage. It might be an interesting concept in the short term, for a one off tournament. There would have to be an appetite for it, but there’s still so much work to be done on developing the women’s calendar. I think a real key, for now is to focus on developing the game fundamentally and having a full coordinated seasons programme.

 

What are the hardest parts of coaching an elite level (national) team?

I guess the main contrast with a club side is not having the weekly practices, but you won’t hear me complaining. I’m in an extremely privileged position and having the time of my life. Any difficulties I encounter are balanced by the fact I get to work with some incredible players and coaches.

What are the hardest bits of coaching a women’s team as opposed to a men’s team, if any? How is it different?

It’s different but not harder. My personal experience is that a lot of the females I have worked with are really keen to understand the bigger picture of any particular task. They like to understand the role their route has in the concept of a play or want to know how a particular drill is going to help them improve a skill and how they can implement it into a game

Talk me through the trial process. What are you and the other coaches looking for in a potential GB player?

Well, firstly the trial is only a small part of the assessment and selection process. My coaches and I attend every BAFA Flag Football game day, so by the trials, I have seen most of the players half a dozen times.

The trials, like when we have the Black Widows, lets us see how a player performs outside of their own team. Not to put too fine a point on it, but finding the gifted player is easy. The key pieces of information we have to weigh up are, ensuring the player is able to handle the stresses and strains of living within a close group for a week at a high pressure tournament.

There’s also a lot of responsibility at the international level to be able to think strategically and problem solve on the fly, in conjunction with the coach. Finally, there is an expectation at international level to take your fitness seriously, it’s one thing to play a day of Opal Series against teams of varying standards, but at a GB tournament you’re going head to head with the best in Europe over 4 days. There is a chasm of difference in the level of fitness needed just to get through that, let alone succeed.

 

Do you have a set playbook and try to find players that suit it? Or do you pick the best players and build a playbook around them?

Definitely the latter, however at this level, I expect players to be able to adapt on the fly. The playbook is evolving every game and the way Play A develops v Austria may be an entirely different change against Denmark

Where would you like to see the women’s game ten years from now?

I would like it to be on a par with the men’s game. Similar participation levels bot in number of teams and number of payers and definitely the spread throughout the UK

And how could it get to that stage?

I think we just need to continue in the current vein, but be prepared to adapt as we expand. I have always tried to recognise when I needed to delegate roles. Each year as things have grown, I have made sure we don’t have a “Single point of failure.” So now we have Jade running Opal Series, Simon, the development programme and Charyle has taken the lead on the Black Widows and so on.

Which ‘up and coming’ ladies should we watch out for over the next few years?

Lucy Peaty (right) discovering flag football back in 2014. (Image courtesy of Yorkshire Evening Post)

I guess you have to look at the current GB squad and see the younger players on the team, Cheryl Harley, Grace Conway, Abi Snelson, Lucy Peaty  & Rachael Carnduff, but I guess if they’re on the squad of 24, they’re no longer up and coming. So my really bold prediction for the future is Ellie Carvell and Keiana Lister from the Leicester Huntsmen. You heard it here first.

And which ‘established/more experienced’ ladies should we be keeping an eye on?

Do you know, that list is just huge now and that is such a luxury for me. There are some terrific players that didn’t make the final squad. Added to that, I would be happy to take any of the current squad to the EFFC, however the IFAF will only allow us 12 plus 3 reserves

Finally, if you were to give one piece of advice to any aspiring GB women, what would it be?

If you’re a receiver, learn to shotgun snap. That way, you will open up your availability to two more squad spaces. (we will always take two centres) Blitzer is still an area in the UK game that is developing and there isn’t the depth there that there is at any other position, barring QB. For QBs, develop a sound technique early on. It’s easy to favour an “effective”, natural throwing style early on, however as you develop you will hit a ceiling of development, where your technique limits your ability to throw an efficient deep football without giving it unnecessary air time for the safeties to pick off.

The biggest piece of advice though, is to get into a gym and work hard.

Thanks for your time, Andrew! Best of luck with the ladies going into the 2017 season and beyond.

To follow Coach Gamrill, you can find him on Twitter.

 

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