Young Coach of the Year Laura Vernon - a guiding light for our kids
Question: “What is the greatest kick you get out of coaching?”
Answer: “Seeing the kids’ faces whenever they get one of the skills right” - Belfast's 2019 Young Coach of the Year Laura Vernon (17)
LAST Monday morning a schoolteacher had to make between 40 and 50 phone calls to parents to find out why their child was absent from school.
Apparently a lot of schools in different parts of Belfast are afflicted by chronic absenteeism the day after Mother’s Day.
The now epic celebration of mothers has become too much for some parents to get their child or children to school the following day.
It’s the way of the world.
My father was a plumber, laid pipes all his life, and my mother a legal secretary.
They worked hard and made a decent job of their four children.
Mumps, chicken pox and jaundice aside, I can safely say that I never missed a day of school.
A soccer coach I know very well was forced to disband his underage team because too many of his players were indulging in recreational drugs.
Last week, the PSNI posted a video on social media of a play park in Glencairn, north Belfast, in flames.
Youths decided it would be a good idea to set alight the rubber surface of the kids’ park.
Maybe they felt so disenfranchised by modern-day society that their protest was to burn public facilities.
Sometimes you despair for the future. You despair for your kids’ futures…
Every Saturday morning at Solitude, Cliftonville FC’s ground, my five-year-old daughter Rosa and her team-mates gather in a huddle at the end of their small-sided soccer match.
Win, lose or draw, they put their hands in the middle and on Laura Vernon’s cue, they shout: “ST MALACHY’S!”
To watch the girls engage in this little post-match ritual is a beautiful thing.
The kids adore Laura. They adore her because she lets them play.
She doesn't rant and rave at the kids, there is no stomping of the feet on the sideline. Her coaching technique is discreet and almost invisible to the naked eye.
Laura is just 17-year-old and she displays a calmness beyond her years.
“That’s the club’s ethos and Laura has it right down to a tee,” says St Malachy’s OB FC chairman and Laura’s uncle, Gary Vernon.
“She lets the kids play. She allows them to decide for themselves and then she quietly talks to the girls at the breaks.”
Not only does Laura devote several nights – and days – a week to the kids of St Malachy’s, she’s heavily involved with local GAA club Ardoyne Kickhams where she's head coach of the U6 and U8 squads.
She assists at U12, U14 and U16 level and is described as the “most valuable asset” in the club’s underage structures.
She’s also a handy Gaelic footballer, when she’s not damaging ligaments and hobbling around in a moon boot.
In fact, the only time she missed a training session was when her Granny Daisy passed away a few weeks ago.
For people like Laura, there aren’t enough hours in the day.
At a recent Belfast City awards bash, she picked up the Young Coach of the Year gong.
There wasn't a more deserving recipient of such a prestigious accolade.
MC for the event and BBC journalist Joel Taggart asked Laura on stage what the future held for her, she said: "I'm doing my PE 'A' Level and I want to move on and work in disability sports and do work with them."
Spontaneous applause rang out in the City Hall.
Since becoming involved in coaching, she has undertaken courses in the IFA Grassroots scheme, she has obtained her IFA Level One coaching qualification as well as completing First Aid, Child Protection training and Autism and Sports Coaching with Disability NI.
Two years ago she went to America for a month and worked with schoolchildren with special needs, many of whom had sensory issues.
More recently, she completed a disability course in gymnastics, coaching kids between 6 and 12, some of whom without limbs.
"It was seeing the smiles on their faces and seeing how much they wanted to participate in sports,” Laura explained.
"I have always wanted to work with kids with disabilities because I feel they were the outcasts, that nobody wanted to do anything with them because they weren't going to be the top sports players."
Sometimes when you look around parts of this city, you see communities self-harming, you see the vandalism, the burnt-out rubber surfaces of our kids’ play parks and how drugs have seeped into young people’s lives, not to mention the empty school tables and chairs the day after Mother’s Day.
And then you see young people like Laura Vernon, and indeed all her dedicated coaching teams at St Malachy’s OB FC and Ardoyne Kickhams, and it restores your faith in the infinite possibilities of community and the importance of sport.
At 17, she is already a leader, an influencer – just a kid herself inspiring our kids every time she gathers them around her on a Tuesday night and Saturday morning, nurturing the very best in them.
When it was announced she’d won the Young Coach of the Year award at that fancy do in the City Hall a couple of weeks ago, the club’s WhatsApp groups went into meltdown.
Laura is a special individual who will succeed in anything she chooses to do in life.
Of course, supportive parents is key in all of this - as well as having your own personal taxi service, courtesy of her Granny Rosie.
Everybody has their part to play.
St Malachy’s OB FC and Ardoyne Kickhams are playing theirs and deserve immense credit for putting young people like Laura in leadership roles.
Maybe as a community we’re not doing enough of that.