As the curtain comes down on a captivating Premier League season, it seems an appropriate moment as any for coaches to reflect upon their season; the successes, the challenges, the processes and the lessons learnt. En route to a fixture last week a colleague and I found ourselves discussing such things from a coaching perspective despite the cricket season being in its infancy. I had a topic all lined up for this month’s post but on the back of our conversation I wanted to share some of its content with you. The most interesting question he asked me was what I perceived to be my five most important traits, or characteristics that coaches need to be successful? I’ll admit I had to give this some considerable thought, for coaching is far too complex and ambiguous a phenomenon to be reduced to a mere five attributes – nonetheless I eventually offered the following qualities that, from my experience, should underpin good coaching practice across the sporting landscape.
1) THE KNOWLEDGE BASE
There used to be a time when the coach was perceived as a fountain of knowledge; an omniscient figure whose job it was to have the answers to every problem, both small and great. Indeed, there remain some coaches out there who naively believe that they are exactly this, and interact with their players and staff from a pedestal that reeks of power and arrogance. Hopefully in most cultures that perception is distant memory; for the modern day coach needs to understand, and be comfortable with the fact that one cannot know everything there is to one’s field.
Most certainly it is a coach’s duty to acquire a sound and comprehensive underpinning of the game, encompassing technical and tactical elements in a meticulous effort to facilitate effective performance. The best coaches however, understand that they are as much a learner in the process as their players are – they will not attempt to protect their reputation if they don’t have a concrete solution to a problem; instead they will utilise their resources (players, physiotherapists, support staff, psychologists etc), and actively pursue an appropriate course forward. Adopting this open and active approach to learning not only stands the coach in good stead for future development, and the acquisition of further knowledge, but it conveys to their players that it’s ok to perform at a high level and yet still not be perfect. Ultimately it is promoting a lifelong desire to learn.
With regard to the debate of past playing experience and top level coaching, if Matthew Syed’s recent ‘Coaching as an Art’ article in The Times doesn’t already illustrate, the skills one needs to be a successful coach at the elite end of the spectrum require intense study, and an acquisition of behaviours that are not simply transferrable from a successful playing background. The likes of Alan Shearer and Tony Adams provide notable examples in support of this with neither experiencing much, if any success at the top level despite being outstanding players. Mike Hesson (New Zealand Cricket Head Coach) and Andre Villas-Boas (Chelsea, Porta & Tottenham) on the other hand, with no professional playing credentials whatsoever provide weight to the argument that coaching in itself is a discipline that is not so easily acquired.
2) THE PEOPLE’S PERSON
2016 has seen some terrible sporting tragedies with Matthew Hobden, Tom Allin and James Taylor among them. If there’s one thing that these stories have reaffirmed from a coaching perspective, it is that the relationships you build are the foundation of everything. Having seemingly known both Tom and Matt relatively well on a personal level, it was with more than a touch of sadness that really, upon hearing accounts by loved ones, I didn’t know them half as well as I should have done.
People say that man management is one of the hardest, yet most important attributes a coach can have, and its inclusion in my top five signifies that. Not only is it about getting the best of your players by instilling confidence and trust in them, it is about learning to know them as people. It’s about understanding the ways in which they operate – their motivations, their inhibitions, their philosophies. Yes, there are times when you might have to say what needs to be said, even if it isn’t particularly nice to hear at the time; and you should be wary of making decisions based on pleasing people, or to be liked. That said forming good relationships enables you as a coach to empathise with your players, convey your decisions in a straightforward and honest manner with respect, motivation and mutual understanding very much intact.
3) THE PHILOSOPHER
We all have a coaching philosophy, an idea of how things should be done, how players should be developed and the most appropriate means and processes for this to happen. Indeed, some of us have a clearer idea of our philosophy than others and waste little time in looking to implement it. The hard bit is being smart enough to know how and when to make it happen. It is difficult for example, to enter a new environment and immediately stamp your philosophy on all aspects. Often one has to slowly implement it over time, with a clear idea of what needs prioritising.
You might favour a player-centred approach for instance, but expecting this to just fall into place and happen immediately might be unrealistic, and could be construed by players as you simply passing the baton over to them. Recognising that you need to lay the foundations to this first is vitally important; only then once they’ve seen how you operate can they begin to display the values and characteristics that you’ve demonstrated. The philosopher inside you as the coach needs to be pragmatic and understand that philosophies can be slow-burners before they take full shape.
4) THE VISIONARY
Whilst we all want those instant results, the wins that in some small way are tangible proof that our coaching is working, a large part of coaching is about considering the bigger picture – the future. Whilst we should take great care and attention to detail in preparing our players and teams for the numerous oppositions they will shortly be facing off against, we should always keep in mind decisions that will be of benefit six months, one year, or three years down the line. It might be exposing a young player to more games to accelerate their development, or releasing a player that has reached their peak and in a year’s time will be of significantly less value than what they are now.
There might be some decisions that are difficult to make, and that on the surface may surprise onlookers, but the best coaches are constantly planning, constantly evaluating and constantly building for a bigger, better, more polished finish to what they have. Preparation is paramount in just about every industry to maximise performance. If you are not a coaching visionary, then prepare at some point, for you and your players to come up short.
5) THE REFLECTOR
My final attribute is one which so often gets overlooked by coaches – the ability to reflect. Why is it so important? Because without it you will never advance further than where you currently are. You will never learn from your successes or indeed your mistakes; instead you will be clutching at straws, repeatedly making the same mistakes time after time, obtaining success by chance rather than through your coaching abilities.
The very best people in any industry are able to be self-critical; they leave no stone upturned in their quest to be better and as a result rarely make the same mistake twice. If they do you can almost guarantee that the lesson will have been learnt by then. What’s more is their attitude to failure – they embrace failure as an opportunity to develop and improve. So many times we see people covering their tracks to hide their errors, burying the chance to ever improve and learn. Be an active reflector and welcome the chance to learn how to get better!
Matthew Syed Article