I’m the coach! Don’t question me!

I thought I knew the difference between what good coaching was and what it wasn’t when I first began coaching by accident six years ago. I knew it definitely wasn’t those unplanned, harry casual – couldn’t care less training sessions I had in High School. It surely was not those ‘toughen up’ koppestamp[i], fitness and mental toughness sessions that the coaches got us English softies to do so we could keep the score down against the big Afrikaner boys up the road. And without doubt it is not the train-for-each match, win-at-all-costs, do as I say approach that I have encountered in recent years at some schools. So if it definitely isn’t those, then what is coaching?

The way I was coached growing up was that the coach knew everything and you merely complied with what they said regardless, because that is how it is done in South Africa. You don’t argue with the person in charge. You’re a laaitie[ii] you know nothing and you are just waiting to be filled with the knowledge your coach has to impart. Oh, and by the way, tough luck if they decide your team are useless, are too soft or too weak… they’re here to fix that! Only problem is I only hear what the coach wants, what they envision and what everyone else decides is best for that particularly unfortunate group of individuals.

So in trying to move away from this hellish experience that many people still call coaching, I became structured. I had a plan and I broke up what the team needed to learn into small chunks. I ran a tight ship and if you weren’t part of this grandiose plan, then sorry pal, you’re not invited. Now, all I needed to do was to get them to listen and do as I said and we would win! Simple! I’ve cracked coaching!

Yeah right.

Sure the team I coached at the time achieved a measure of success, they won far more matches than ever before, people took notice and the team were competitive against the majority of the schools they played, many in the top 20 in South Africa. So why were some players unhappy? Why did we lose some games by close margins? Why did a win give us such an unbelievable rush, but at the same time take a huge weight off our shoulders? And why did a loss destroy the very centre of our being, as sportsmen and coaches?

I’ll tell you why.

It was MY dream. It was MY ambition that drove the players. It was MY importance on the value on winning that provided such a high, but at the same time was such a massive relief. This is what you call coach centred coaching. It is an endless cycle of pressure that you transfer to your players in the hope they will eventually do what you want them to do and finally win the big games ‘YOU’ have always wanted for them.

Maybe I am being unfair on myself, the players did set their own goals, they had a team song, a motto and even a team name that they came up with by themselves… but I had advice from very good coaches that pointed me in that direction. I didn’t come up with it. Eventually their goals were forgotten and replaced by my own. This was not on purpose but a mere process that occurs when you do not realise that the coach has become the all-important and all-powerful member in the team.

The other day I coached a really smart group of young players. These players are brought up to question things and are allowed opinions at home. This is not the norm in South Africa or in many schools that I have come across. Whilst coaching them, I realised how much I have changed as a coach and how I truly understand now, why allowing athletes to take control of a team is not only better for their learning, but also for my development as a coach.

It is called Athlete Centred Coaching and it will change everything you thought you knew about coaching.

During the session with the u13s I was questioning them about the game they were playing and I asked them if they thought it was game specific (it was a 1 v 1 game). A few agreed and a few disagreed. After a few moments of thinking the players all agreed that it was in fact game specific.

So, to test how opinionated these kids really were, I disagreed that the game was not game related at all and asked again who agreed with me. Half of the group put their hands up, whilst one player looked at me and said that he thought it was in fact game related as he had been in similar situations before in a game. I then asked him if he thought that I was stupid and if he thought that I didn’t know what I was talking about… but he stuck to his guns and continued to disagree with me.

It was interesting to me how many of them suddenly agreed with me when I stated my ‘opinion’ but this particular player did not. It immediately showed me how easy kids will follow what the coach says, simply because coaches are generally viewed as always being correct. I congratulated the boys’ stance for firmly holding onto his opinion, even though I had ‘disagreed’ and became ‘agitated’ when my ‘knowledge’ was being questioned.

“when I started out coaching I was meant to have all the answers…”

This struck me as being a turning point, for I realised then how much I now valued player’s opinions, no matter their age, and that I respected not only their input but even their ‘differing’ opinions. I now actively encourage players to think and even disagree with me at times, if it is warranted. The big difference was that when I started out coaching I was meant to have all the answers, that I was the one who should be telling the players what to do and that I should not tolerate ‘disrespect’ in the form of questioning my methods from younger players… the list goes on and on.

The biggest change is that now I have fully embraced Athlete Centred coaching and have thoroughly enjoyed taking a step back and become more of a facilitator than a dictator. A hallmark of Athlete Centred coaching is in the questioning ability of the coach, where higher order questions are asked to test the players understanding of what they did and why. This approach allows learning to occur, instead of forcing it. It works because players are learning in an environment where freedom of expression, mistakes and experimentation are welcomed, where being positive is not just a buzzword thrown around, but is actually practised at all times. An environment where what a player says and thinks is just as important as the coach.

This type of environment is not considered normal in a sporting society that is still largely based on Apartheid era, military style coaching methods, especially prevalent in Rugby Union, which many 30+ year old coaches were exposed to as youngsters growing up. This belief that the leader knows best and that the older you are the more knowledge you possess is by and large the military approach on which many coaches and teachers base their approaches. ‘I’ know what is best for you! Don’t argue!

There will be those that believe athletes have to be forcefully disciplined in order to succeed and that without discipline players will run amok, however, have these coaches ever allowed players to take responsibility for their own discipline? Probably not. When a team has been tasked with the responsibility of setting and enforcing their own rules, they take ownership of their team – and what group of youngsters would willingly destroy their own team? Sure some youngsters will need to be guided to varying degrees to get to this point, but it may simply be because they have never been granted the responsibility before. It is a rather intimidating and uncomfortable thought for coaches that thrive in the power of being called coach, to now allow players to run their own team and remove their source of power, but does a coach really have to be a disciplinarian all the time and create a negative environment to ensure the desired respect?

It has been proven that players thrive in a positive learning environment, they develop quicker and generally stay in the sport for much longer periods of time. But it is our archaic, adult-held belief, which believes negativity is best for kids to learn on the sports field, that having fun is not working hard and that the coach always knows best. I have often heard that kids need to harden up and the only way to do this is seems to be by screaming and shouting at them in contact drills or whilst running around with tyres, chains and poles up a ‘koppie’[iii] until they puke. I never realised sport is like war. Maybe I missed out on the wonderful benefits that basic training in the army would have given me to forcefully toughen me up… I don’t know. But what I do know is this: Sport is not about the coach, the parents nor the school or club, it’s about the players and what they want matters, and it matters a lot. One of the biggest reasons players drop out of sport is because of coaches creating an environment that is simply not about the players, it’s about themselves, their egos and ambitions.

An athlete Centred environment is truly one of the best coaching methods a youth coach can utilise, however I fear many coaches do not even know about the various methods out there. Proven methods such as Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU) or the Constraints approach are ideal for knowledge transfer, but have these approaches even been heard of? Many believe that once you finish playing and pick up a whistle you are automatically a coach, you now know what is best for your players and you despair when they don’t understand what you want.

“Coaches learn from players just as much as they learn from us”

Coaching is not an exact science; it is an ever evolving process of player and coach development. Coaches learn from players just as much as they learn from us, sometimes we learn even more. The issue I have encountered more than anything else is that of the coaches’ ego – the belief that the coach must always be right, that they have all the answers and that their dreams and ambitions are what counts. The egos of many coaches holds their players development back as well as their own, simply because no new ideas or new philosophies are allowed to develop because an egotistical coach always knows best.

The sign of a great coach is one who can step back, allow their players to learn and understand the game through questioning. One who creates a positive environment that caters for individualism and freedom of expression, one where the long term development of a player is more important that the results of the past weekend. This is good coaching. What we have been led to believe in popular culture or in past experiences is certainly not good coaching, it’s exactly the opposite.

Imagine the possibilities of a team that is allowed to play more and listen less, that are encouraged to make mistakes and learn from them and be allowed the opportunity to understand the game tactically by themselves from the moment they start the sport to the moment they stop playing as adults. The possibilities are endless.

[i] A small sided game with a small grid, that is full contact. The aim is to force players to take a lot of contact to try to out-muscle each other and score a try. Its purpose is to get players used to contact and to up their aggression levels. A great game at times but can be over done by coaches focussed only on ‘toughening’ up their players.

[ii] A youngster

[iii] A small hill

My thanks to people like Mark Upton (@uppy01), Tim Goodenough (@TimGoodenoughZA) and Lynn Kidman (@lkidmanfor helping me discover a better way of coaching and to question everything I see and do now. I have so much more to improve on but looking forward to it! Once you open Pandora’s box…


Find & follow Ross

Ross is an enthusiastic coach keen on learning, debating and studying all about how we coach Rugby. He now owns a marketing agency called Inversion Agency servicing international brands worldwide.

Find him on Twitter @RossRugby or on LinkedIn

Also published on Medium.