James Ford admits he looks back at his formative coaching days and cringes.
They started in his early 20s at Wakefield College and progressed through the junior ranks at York before he was appointed head coach of the Knights five and a half years ago.
Now, he is rated as one of the brightest young coaches in the British game, having led York to promotion and a third place Championship finish and earning a place on England Academy’s staff as they beat Australia last year.
Learning from experience
Central to his development has been a constant willingness to learn and evolve, which he says is linked to the teaching career he only left behind last year when becoming full-time at the Knights.
“I probably thought I was an outstanding coach at Wakefield College, but if I listened back now I think I’d cringe at some of the things I said,” Ford explains.
“That’s part of everyone’s journey – you have to make mistakes and be brave enough to look back and learn from them.
“I thought that coaching was all about the detail and design of what you were doing, rather than being someone the players could touch base with and build relationships with.
“Embarrassingly I thought it was very much about me – what I knew and what I could do, and that showing any kind of vulnerability was weakness. In fact I’ve learnt that it’s a very powerful tool.
“It’s a slow process to move away from that and I’m not standing here now saying that I’m Wayne Bennett, but I do feel that I’ve improved from those college days.
“There’s still a long way to go though.”
Ford believes his days as a lecturer have helped shape his approach as a coach.
“I learned a lot from the teaching observation process and see a lot of similarities between teaching and coaching, and the feedback you receive,” he says.
“I was involved in teaching for twelve years and you’re always looking to improve how you deliver things.
“No teacher wants their class to just go in and listen to you blabbing on about what you know. It’s all about what you can get the students to do.
“That can be transferred into coaching, which I’ve reflected on a lot and I believe massively in that.
“The planning that goes into teaching a class is another similarity – the attention to detail in what you deliver is incredibly similar.”
As a player, Ford was a talented centre who had spells at Featherstone, Sheffield, Castleford and Widnes, before finishing his career at the Knights.
“First and foremost I just really enjoy Rugby League – I’m a very passionate Rugby League person.
“I loved my time as a player and before that I was a Rugby League supporter, and I still am.
“I wanted to stay in the game in some role, and I was working as a lecturer.
“I enjoyed that and particularly trying to help people fulfil their potential, so stepping into coaching seemed pretty natural for me.
“I was very fortunate to be offered the opportunity to coach the under-18s and then under-20s at York, and then work as assistant to Gary Thornton.
“I really enjoyed it and the main drive for me was to help the players improve to fulfil their individual potential while improving the team.
“As a player, I think I would have been quite a difficult person to coach, but I’m not sure I got that much support in helping me in the areas I needed to improve.
“I was always interested in the technical and tactical side of the game.
“I used to reflect on how things happened at clubs and how things were delivered, and probably got a bit frustrated at times that I didn’t have much help as a person or player.
“So from a very young age I was really interested in coaching.
“I was always into playing football management games growing up and even into my early 20s.
“It sounds ridiculous, but I do feel like they had some benefit.”
Ford picks out two coaches who he feels have most shaped his development.
“You take stuff from every coach that’s coached you, and there’s been good and not so good influences in terms of practice,” he said.
“There are two coaches that spring to mind for me and one of them was Mick Bamford, who was a junior coach at Wakefield College.
“He had the ability to build relationships with players and always put things into context, and he is very core-skill focused.
“But more than that, rather than telling me I was coming at things the wrong way – which looking back, I was – he would question me in a few areas and hope that I stumbled across the answer.
“It was quite a skilful approach but it was probably wasted a bit on a 24-year-old James Ford.
“Then there was Mick Cook, who was my assistant coach for the under-20s at York.
“It was almost the perfect apprenticeship for me because Mick was very experienced and had worked at Leeds Rhinos under Tony Smith.
“When I saw how he did things and thought about things, breaking sessions down and analysing performances, it became a really good learning curve for me.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Mick.”
Ford succeeded Thornton in late 2014 and life as a professional coach began in tumultuous circumstances, with the Knights’ very existence threatened by significant financial difficulties.
“When I was coaching that 2015 York side it was incredibly hard at times; there was a lot going on in the background at the club,” Ford remembers.
“But what I remember about it was enjoying it and building some really good relationships.
“The club has been on a great journey.
“The new stadium is around the corner, the ownership of the club is good with a clear, sensible plan.
“Sometimes you appreciate the opportunity to experience some of the other stuff, and back then (in 2015) we had nowhere to train a lot of the time and continuous disruption.
“It makes you appreciate what you’ve got now and I think it does make you a better coach and a stronger person.
“Now, if the 3G pitch is frozen then it’s disappointing, but the context is we might have gone six weeks without a proper session in the 2015 pre-season because we had nowhere to train.
“It helps you look at things differently.”
Young and unproven
Takeovers at any professional sporting club often lead to a change in coach, and Ford admits that could have happened to him, despite his promising start.
“I was a young, unproven coach and it was a definite possibility,” he concedes.
“But I’m a big believer in focusing on the things you can control, and I couldn’t control to much of a degree what Jon Flatman wanted to do at the time in terms of who was the coach.
“I focused on what I could do best as a coach to help the team move forward, and luckily for me we built a good relationship and he wanted me to carry on.”
The ultimate result of that was last season’s outstanding third place finish in the club’s first season back in the second tier, and a Championship Coach of the Year award for Ford.
He was extensively linked with the Hull KR job following Tim Sheens’ departure last year, and although he remained at the Knights, he continues to be seen very much as a potential Super League coach of the future.
But the start to 2020 was less straightforward, with Ford’s side losing its opening four league matches.
How he deals with the response to that will provide the next chapter in his coaching education.
“When you do reasonably well, expectations change,” Ford explains.
“People expect a certain level of performance from us now, and when we fall short of that they aren’t shy in letting me know.
“That’s fine – it happens in all sport and the key for a coach is not to get too influenced by either side of it.
“Whether people are patting you on the back for a win, or not on the back for a loss, you’re trying to keep doing the things you believe in.
“You can win games when you do things that aren’t so pretty and you don’t want to repeat, and vice versa.
“You have to give supporters and sponsors time, because they drive the sport, but at the same time you can’t let what they say change your philosophies or let them impact the decisions you’ve made.
“You need a good support team around you that you trust, and you need to be able not to react to criticism.
“I left a pretty secure job in lecturing to come into the turbulent waters of coaching, knowing full well what I was getting into and wanting to do it.
“At times I’ve probably been too emotional, and if we’re talking about mistakes then personally I was blowing up far too often.
“In hindsight now looking back that certainly wasn’t helpful the vast majority of times, because it shuts players down and reduces their ability to learn.
“One of my favourite sayings is that you don’t know what you don’t know.
“Back in 2015 I thought coaching was all about the tactical side of the game and what you did on the training field, and I’m smiling now just thinking about it.
“They are important, along with your work ethic, attention to detail and planning.
“But relationships with players is much higher up my priority list now than it initially was.
“Who knows how things will change again? But my mindset is to be the best coach I can possibly be and if I stumble across things that will help me achieve that aim then I’ll be delighted.”