It’s been 10 years since I first fell in love with coaching when I stumbled upon a group of 7-year old’s whose coach had not turned up. You get those moments in life when something just clicks and without a shadow of a doubt it was one of the best things to ever happen to me.
Coaching has been tremendously rewarding and incredibly frustrating at times, but more importantly it has taught me how to become a better person and leader.
Without coaching I would not know how to inspire those who need it, get others to dream bigger than they ever thought possible, teach discipline to those who need it, make all feel like they belong to something bigger than themselves and learn where winning, sport and the coach really fits in.
Throughout my 10-year journey I’ve coached everyone from 6 up to 45 years old. I’ve coached C teams, B teams and A teams. I’ve coached u20 Varsity Cup, a club 1st team and have experienced the exhilaration of being promoted and the heartbreak of relegation. I’ve also been the coach of a team full of South African celebs (does that make me famous?)
I’ve have been everything from an official head coach, an unofficial head coach, a skills and technical coach, video analyst, attack coach, private coach, assistant without a defined role and a consultant.
I’ve been fired once, lost one of my earliest mentees and friend to a car accident, and I’ve been on the losing side far more times than I’ve won.
I’ve also travelled to the UK and France for 2 months as a result of my mutterings on Twitter and was fortunate to spend time with various professional teams in rugby and soccer (Sorry football). I was able to meet up with some really amazing coaches, including some of my biggest influences, from many different sports and backgrounds and took away so much from these discussions over the countless coffees and the one curry we shared.
I’ve tweeted over 10 000 times and read about 150 books.
It’s safe to say it has been a tremendous journey of many ups and downs, but most importantly it’s been one of continuous learning from more sources than I could ever list or even remember!
So, after reaching the milestone that tells me I’m about to reach 30, I thought it would be great if I shared some of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt over this past decade and hope it helps others see the side of the field the way I do at this point in time.
Here it goes!
1. You have less of an impact on the development of a player’s abilities than you think.
When I started out I believed that the best coaches could turn any player into a crack athlete or turn a team into a championship “Remember the Titans” type story. The longer I coached the more I realised that my insanely well laid out coaching plans and countless hours of input did not make the difference I had hoped.
This was for a few reasons:
- The amount of contact time you have with your players is minimal compared to the time they spend, and have spent, on their own playing in their backyard, playing other sports, watching other’s play etc.
- Most coaches only look after teams or an athlete for a season or two. This is a very limited period when it comes to the overall lifespan of an athlete. (PS: the longer you spend with a team the less they learn – let them be coached by someone else.)
- Nothing compares to real experience from a match against another team or competitor. Seriously there is an entire field on this called “teaching games for understanding (TGFU)” Read up about this if you have not heard of it. I wrote an article on this topic a few years ago called Let ’em Play.
- Variables such as genes, personality traits, family background and income, environment, availability of practice venues and additional players as well as personal interests all impact on how much they train, learn and enjoy your sport.
I tried to prove the above wrong and spent more hours than I care to admit on the field with various players and teams over the years but the result was always the same… Or maybe I’m just a poor coach :)
Yet, I have seen numerous coaches, myself included, try to achieve this insane goal of creating a crack team through sheer will (ego?) and countless hours of enforced practice year after year.
As harsh as it may sound, sometimes your players are just not as good as the opposition that particular year and no matter how much you try, your tactics, training and moves just won’t be good enough to turn your team into world beaters.
So what do you do as a coach then if trying to be champions every year is not feasible for everyone all the time?
Quite simple really. Learn to coach according to the players you do have, find out how to bring out the best of what they possess using games as far as possible and teach them learn to love the journey rather than the destination.
If you do end up having a cracker of a year, congrats! But remember that your players abilities most likely had far more to with the results than you did.
That does not mean you are not vital to this success however. You are, but…
2. The environment you create is more far important than your tactics and complicated game plans
In my early days of coaching I knew next to nothing about Rugby, even though I had played it for most of my life, so my focus when I started was to learn as much about the basics of the game as possible.
This is not uncommon as most coaches I have come across over the years are so damn focused on the tactics of the game, the latest international trends – even if they’re coaching at school level – and in finding the “best” drills in the hope that these will ensure their teams will win more games. I was no exception.
What I negated to realise was that even with all the latest knowledge forced into my head, the players are the ones who must execute what is in front of them – no matter what you are trying to achieve with them. It’s not about you.
Too often I see coaches being the font of all knowledge yet their players are the ones who are on the field trying to implement the coaches idealistic view of the game and how it “should be played.”
What tends to happen as a result are practice sessions where countless hours are spent trying to perfect the coaches’ strategies on defence and attack, often against no opposition, and the players are resigned to being mere robots trying to execute imaginary moves and scenarios with military precision.
This cycle perpetuates itself throughout the season as players default to what they know or react to what’s in front of them in the actual match – because you know, it’s a game played against another team – and coaches get frustrated at the lack of “listening” going on.
If this sounds familiar you’re not coaching, you’re an army instructor.
Instead of continuously repeating this cycle I stopped, tweeted a ton and researched more and found out that there was much more to coaching than the X’s and O’s.
After many years of learning, research and improvement I have learnt that creating the right environment around improving the player’s soft skills (and your own) is where you make the biggest difference, and not what I as the coach think I know about the sport.
But what are the soft skills? They are defined as:
- Decision Making
- Self-Motivation and Discipline
- Self Esteem and Self Confidence
- Team Work
- Creativity and Experimentation
- Problem Solving
Why the soft skills though?
Simple. You’re dealing with humans, also known as people.
These people, no matter their age, have all kinds of abilities, knowledge, upbringings, ways of thinking and leadership skills. This mess must somehow be tamed into a functioning team – one that wants to play together, become effective as a unit and thirst to continuously improve their own abilities. A tall order for sure!
Unfortunately, the soft skills are seemingly never a priority for so many coaches.
If they are worked on they are often in the beginning of the season using a team building approach or with a once off mental coach session with little to no understanding of these skills and how they are improved.
These are complex issues that are the very core of coaching yet we focus on tactics! Why?
I believe this happens for a few reasons:
- Tactics and strategies are far easier to understand by coaches and is easier to implement at practice and it yields quicker, albeit shorter term, returns earlier in the season.
- Most coaching courses I have been on focus on the tactics of the game with scant focus on the soft skills.
- The soft skills are often seen as fluff, non-masculine and a waste of valuable coaching time.
- They are hard to measure or code are not easily identifiable in the next match as having made a difference – so where’s the proof?
- Coaches like control and parents/committees expect coaches to be in control and achieve results quickly. Imagine a coach that focuses on the soft skills first but lose games – they are not thought of very highly!
- Traditional thinking has coaches (leaders in general) as knowledge givers and players as empty vessels.
Therefore, I often see some teams achieve results early on because of superior conditioning or preparation but fall by the wayside later on in the season.
- The practices become mundane and repetitive because player’s are not executing on the coaches perfect plans in matches (“That’s why they lost. If they only listened to me more!”)
- Players are not challenged to think, learn or lead
- Team spirit falls by the wayside as losses mount
- Results driven coaches frustration removes the fun aspect
I’ve seen it all too often. I’ve been there. I was that coach.
Of course, tactics and game plans may be the reason behind your initial results, but I know that personally in my 10 years I cannot think of a game that was won as a direct result of my tactical coaching intervention.
The player’s individual decision making and game understanding, together with their on-field leadership, self-confidence and belief and execution were always the reason behind the moments that mattered – good and bad.
I firmly believe that the long-term success of your team will always rely on your ability to create the right environment for them by understanding who your players are, their needs and to constantly challenge them to think, learn, experiment and lead.
These are all too often the difference between teams in the long run however you must understand that it takes time and achieving the right balance between the soft and hard skills is a skill!
Part of creating the right environment, but not limited to:
- Allowing and encouraging mistakes and experimentation
- Inspirational atmosphere where anything is made to feel possible
- Every player is made to feel welcomed
- Fun and learning is at the core of every session – no matter the age group!
- Your ego is put aside in favor of player’s development and long term growth
- Winning is not the core reason of playing a sport – there must be more to it than that. Find out their why
- Developing a growth mindset
- Challenging players to think and be creative
- Encourage questioning rather than blind obedience
- Loving the journey not the destination
As a coach your biggest impact on your players will be based on the type of person you were to them (respect goes both ways right?) and the environment you created, rather than your clever strategies, long speeches, drills and the results you thought were important at the time. Trust me.
3. Letting go is more powerful than taking control
This carries on from the previous point of focusing on creating the right environment rather than the tactical aspects of the game and was one of the biggest lessons I’ve had to learn, but one that yielded a massive return when I realised the folly of being in total control.
I’ve had three distinct phases in my coaching career thus far:
- Ego Driven
When I was a newbie coach I knew very little tactically about the game and thus players were not expected to perform the X’s and O’s because I did not know them very well!
What I did do however was focus on was encouraging the players to improve, cared about them and focused on building their self-confidence rather than their scorecard.
This resulted in the team’s spirit and self confidence soaring. As a result with their results over the entire year did improve, however their actual game development was stalled somewhat due to my poor game and coaching knowledge. But they, and I, sure did have fun!
But being ambitious and with a sizeable point to prove (ego), I started studying the game studiously and got real tactical the following year.
I firmly thought that being in control of every aspect would equate to an improved performance and better players. I truly did.
What I did not realise was that my limitations in certain areas and my need to try be in control of the learning environment, both at matches and at practices, was severely hindering the players from learning themselves and thus it made the players less ambitious to try new things, take risks or make mistakes.
Thus, my efforts to improve the players abilities was in actual fact having the opposite effect!
As a result the team environment suffered greatly, player’s did not improve as they should have and never really enjoyed themselves playing each game. Winning only brought a relief. Losing was worth than death.
So why did I go down this route?
- Traditionally coaches are thought of to have and maintain control during practices and matches. When they speak, players listen. I merely copied what I had experienced and thought to be true. The more I spoke and drilled them, the better they would get, right?
- By designing practices to focus on tactical outcomes I could “control” how the players performed on match days. Often, you’ll see coaches work on previous weeks’ errors to “fix” their weaknesses to win the next game. If only each moment or game was the same!
- I believed that my vision for the team was the right one and players had only to implement what was on paper to win more games.
- I did not trust player’s knowledge, vision or decision making and saw errors as weaknesses that had to be prevented.
- Mistakes that lost games were seen as grave errors that could have been prevented had the players only listened/focused more at practice or at video analysis.
- Winning was more important than learning. The schoolboy rugby environments in South Africa is hugely competitive and drives this perpetual pressure cooker environment that forces coaches to default to win at all costs mentality rather than focus on the development of players. Egos are everywhere!
- My ambition to coach higher up – the more technical I am, the better coach I will be right?
Having been through the two prior phases, I knew that the answer lay somewhere. I knew that the blissful ignorance was not the answer nor was the overly tactical, army style – win at all costs type of coach.
Over time, and due to much introspection, I realised over time that when you let go of that insane need to win, be in control and in charge, you realise that your player’s are not as bad as you may think they are.
Their current inabilities, mistakes and losses are not a reflection of you as a coach… and they are really not in desperate need of your input every 5 seconds.
When you objectively watch your players in action you realise that they know more than you realise, they just need more time and the right environment to hone their understanding, execution and skills. (duh!)
The best teacher for this? The game itself. Not me.
Whatever sport, the actual action of playing said sport is a phenomenal teacher by itself. Who knew!
It was not an easy transition to make. It took a few seasons and I’m still learning. But it’s been wholly worthwhile!
My so-called “enlightenment” has led me to let go so much so that I actually let my u21 team to run their own match day preparations in 2017 (Only 4 games out of 14 unfortunately. I plan to do this far earlier and far more in the future). I only arrived 15 mins before kick-off and they always played far better without my interference.
My practices have also become messier with more games, balls, chaos, mistakes, movement and barely any standing around listening to me talk.
Often sessions have numerous small sided games going at once all over the field where I could not watch every single team all the time. The players ran the games themselves as they would in their own backyards and I am okay with that.
From any outsider’s viewpoint it would seem I had zero control over practices and my team as players are “just playing” and “doing their own thing“. And I have been accused of this by parents and coaches. I’m also okay with this.
Strangely, I have never had a player demand more shadow practice, speeches and technical drills from me. Odd.
Although I had let go, I am in fact more in control of the learning environment than ever before. By using TGFU, the constraints approach and questioning, each practice has become a way for players to learn the different aspects of the game through their own efforts, mistakes and successes.
Their leadership and critical thinking is allowed to develop through this approach and being left alone to think and manage themselves. Players have learnt that they are in more control of their learning and decisions than they are previously used to and slowly moved away from relying on my supposed superior knowledge as coach.
Simply put the more I let go, the more games the players played, the quicker they improved. The more they improved the better the team environment became and the more fun they had. The more fun they had, the better the “gees” (spirit). The better the gees the more they played for each other and the results improved.
It slowly became a cycle of success the less I was in the centre. I’ve seen this over and over in various teams and settings.
In summary what I realised as soon as I let go:
- Players are never as bad as they might seem at first, allow space for growth and you’ll be amazed. Believe that they need heavy input from you and it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle that is difficult to walk away from.
- Players really don’t need your input every 5 seconds. Shut up and let them learn from their mistakes themselves. Less is more trust me.
- Let them play more. Seriously. They’ll thank you.
- Ask instead of tell. They may have a better answer than you. You don’t know everything nor do you have to.
- Remove your need to win and lose the ego. You do not need to control everything. When this falls away so does shouting and screaming at players – why shout when they are learning? No one shouts whilst you study for an exam so why do it in sport? Players only get shouted at when results is the only metric that matters.
- Be patient, different people learn at different rates. They’ll get there, you just have to be a creative coach and get them there faster by understanding them better.
4. Don’t be a dick
Yeah that’s right, don’t be a dick. When you become a coach, you become a leader for your athletes – no matter their age. You are there for them, for without them you would not be a coach. Without you they can still play by themselves.
Too often coaches get involved with coaching for the wrong reasons.
Seriously I’ve seem them all. I’ve even been some of these guys (shock!):
- The ones who coach to boost their ego,
- The ones who coach to help with their self-esteem,
- The ones who coach to recreate their glory days,
- The ones who coach to try achieve what they could not as players,
- The ones who coach to prove to the world how amazing they are as a person,
- The ones who coach to be part of a winning organisation,
- The ones who coach to be in charge of something/someone,
- The ones who coach because they are retired players and have no other alternatives,
- The ones who coach to give purpose to their life,
- The ones who coach to escape their realities etc.
I’m not perfect. Never have been, never will be.
But what I do know is that over the last 10 years I have seen the ugly side of coaching. I’ve seen, and been, what I don’t aspire to be known for.
But I do ultimately desire to be the coach and person that is truly there for the players I serve rather than the other way around.
Coaching, as in teaching, is often a selfless and thankless task. It is difficult and challenging but above all else it is hugely rewarding when it is approached with the right mindset, mentality and a true understanding of where sport fits in the world.
I find that too often coaches, myself included, are caught inside of a small bubble of their own creation where their sport, their results and trophies become the centre of their world. This is not healthy nor is it good for the players, they are often far younger than you and have much more going on in their lives than what you may consider to be the most important game of their lives.
Please realise that your impact can be far reaching and have consequences outside of the sport you coach. Your influence can be both positive or negative in many different spheres.
You have the ability to make players believe that they can achieve anything anywhere and at any time, or you can confirm their fragile belief that they are not worthy. I’ve been there on both sides of the coin and my task is to make sure I’m always on the right side over the next decade.
So, drop the ego and don’t be a dick. Whether you coach u9D or a professional team, you are there for the players. Your self-importance should never be measured by the results your players achieve. You have a far more important job than merely winning games.
You have a duty to inspire your players to do more than they ever thought possible and to ensure that they end up as better people than when you first met.
I have gone through many phases and changes since I first took up the whistle (actually I don’t use one anymore. Hate the damn thing) in 2007.
I’ve been the coach to help players believe in themselves and I’ve been the coach who was there for my own interests. I’ve had an ego but I like to think I’ve left it behind. I’ve been over-invested in my coaching and my teams successes, and I’ve come to realise where sport should actually fit into life.
These are lessons that have taken a long time and a heavy toll to learn and understand, but ultimately it has been one helluva ride and one I will enjoy as it continues.
Thanks to all the people who I’ve shared this journey with thus far; the coaches I’ve worked with, parents and players as well as the people who have selflessly taught me along the way both on Twitter, Skype, in person or over email. You guys rock!
Here’s to the next ten years!
Also published on Medium.