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Posted in: General

Do ex-players make the best coaches?

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  • Coach_Browning

    One thing that has always interested me is this idea of do you need to have played the sport to coach it successfully?

    In American Football within the UK, given its amateur nature, the people who coach have at some point played. I cant think of any coach that I know who was never once a player.

    However, I read more and more about instances where coaches cross over sports - taking their (for want of a better phrase) generic coaching skills and applying it in the different arenas.

    Which leads me back to the original question...

    To be a successful coach to what level do I need a personal experience of playing over a knowledge of the game? And is my ability to coach effectively actually more important?

  • Richard2591

    In my experience within football, you certainly don't have to have played the game at the top level to become a great coach. What's important is that coaches can unravel the complexities of the game back to players in an age appropriate way. Coaching is largely becoming cross pollinated, a lot of director of football type roles are given to people from all kinds of backgrounds - this started with Clive Woodward at Southampton in 2003 - right person at the wrong time. 

    There are however sone things I feel that cannot be experienced by not playing the game - the emotions, decisions, pictures, collaboration, pressure etc. The path to becoming an expert coach is not linear, whether a former player or someone who hasn't played at all. What's important is that they can connect the game to the players they are working with. 

  • anfy

    I would like to turn this discussion on its head.

    ie Does it necessarily follow that a high-level player is the best/only person to coach others at that level?

    It is certainly the thinking in my sport and the nett result is fast-tracking of "names" through coaching qualifications, with little or no regard for their ability to COACH.

    With our Governing Body behind this, existing coaches are currently being overlooked in favour of these "names" who have very little practical experience of actually coaching. 

    In addition, existing coach trainers/tutors are now being excluded from the design of the next level qualification courses in favour of the "names", who have certainly never delivered a coaching course, let alone written one. It has taken years (still a work in progress!) to undo the damage done by poorly designed courses written by those with ZERO experience of course design, but nobody seems to have learnt from it. 

    The only reason I can see is a political one - the funding is coming from Sport England and maybe they are impressed by the high profiles?

  • CatherineBaker

    Like a lot of things I believe there are sport specific issues here, as well as generic issues. Starting with the sport specific issues, let's take tennis. Playing ability is relevant to the level of coaching qualification - you have to be able to play at certain 'set' levels in order to move on up through the coaching quals. As I understand it, the argument for this is that you need to be able to play at a certain level in order to hit with, and challenge, your pupils. As a (lapsed) tennis coach myself, I get this. When I was coaching a school 1st V1, 17 and 18 year old boys, I had to be able to cope with their power/pace etc. However, this system doesn't cater for the coach who was never a great player, but has an amazing ability to read the game/great technical understanding/gift for getting their points across and motivating their players. The question is, should it?

    Now look at hockey, a sport I was fortunate enough to play through all levels. The best coach I ever had was not a brilliant player, but that had no impact on her ability to teach, develop, motivate and inspire me as a player.  

    Moving on to the generic point, there is a lot of discussion around whether ex-professional sportspeople make great coaches (in fact Kelly Sotherton started a Twitter debate on this a couple of weeks ago). Like anything, you need to be mindful of generalisations. My belief is that an ex-player, provided they have other attributes in place as well as the required coaching knowledge and ability, can be an excellent resource for their sport/NGB, and more use should be made of their expertise. At the high performance level, they can relate to the experiences their charges are going through etc. However, on the basis that they might have been gifted, and the sport might have come easily to them, they might not be the best people to coach at the 'lower levels'. They also need to beware of thinking that their way (encompassing the way they trained/played and were coached) is the only way. 

    Any comments/thoughts on this gratefully received. 

  • Deborah

    Very valid points Anthea.  Approached athletes are sometimes starstruck and flattered when they see a "famous athlete" take up coaching and assume ( sometimes wrongly ) that the big name knows everything.  It is even worse when the big name "cherry picks" without having the good manners to talk things over with the athlete's current coach.   Sometimes, though not necessarily, the big name only knows to coach the way they were coached which will not always be suitable and may result in causing injuries to athletes in their group.  The one size fits all coaching regime does not exist.

  • StevieP

    Hi Simon

    I think this is probably the most difficult question on coaching to answer currently. I have seen great examples of both non players and ex-players making successful coaches, and equally those in both camps turning out to be less than successful.

    If you take two of the current Premiership managers well regarded in English football; Arsene Wegner and Jurgen Klopp. Neither had particularly illustrious playing careers but have developed into very successful coaches. Equally the same could be said of probably one of the greatest managers of all time, Sir Alex Ferguson. Then look at maybe Kevin Keegan, a terrific player in his time but not hugely successful in coaching.

    My personal view is that a good mix of playing ability and coaching skills may be the right ingredient. However I doubt we will ever get to a final conclusion on this

  • anfy

    Given that generalisations are dangerous and that each sport has different demands, I guess my beef is the apparent need to use high-profile players as "coaches" with little regard for their coaching abilities. In my opinion, if they wish to give their time to support current players, they would be best employed leading a master class (as actors/musicians often do). This would support the coaches on the ground and allow everyone (including the coaches) to learn from their experience without undermining those who have spent many years working on the skills of coaching.

    On a purely practical note, being high-profile also means they are able to command use of venues/equipment/fees - something the volunteer coaches would love! This is skewing the amount of support given by our governing body, who now seem to feel we are all able to work this way and are unable to comprehend the practical difficulties faced by those at the coal-face.

  • Coach_Browning

    Its that last bit that I really like...When someone gets to a high level by doing things a certain way, it can be hard for them to accept other methods.

    Everything we are taught is that people are different, learn different etc...and so forcing people into a predefined box of what success is percieved to look like is dangerous.  

  • andrewb62

    Good question(s), Simon

    But I think the answer is probably "it depends"...on the setting, on the athletes being coached, perhaps on the sport, as well.

    As a technical coach at the performance level, I suspect that recent playing experience at the highest level is going to be a big advantage, both in terms of relevancy ("this is what I did/tried to do when...") and credibility with the player.

    As a "head coach" - direct playing experience is less important, perhaps, than high level man-management skills, and the ability to identify and comunicate appropriate strategies (either to suit the available players, or - if the coach has the luxury of recruiting new players - to deliver his own vision of success).

    As a "community" coach - beyond the ability of the "star" to generate interest and attract funding..."how" you coach is so much more important than who you are.

  • andrewb62
    On 21/01/16 01:02, Anthea Dore said:

    existing coaches are currently being overlooked in favour of these "names" who have very little practical experience of actually coaching. 

    Not an example of qualified coaches being overlooked, but a recent post from the Professional Cricketers' Association suggests that players are being fast-tracked into coaching: http://www.thepca.co.uk/7549.html

  • dancottrell1

    Though I certainly don't think that the question was meant in this way, "Do ex-players make the best coaches" can be a "bitter" statement from those coaches who are held back by their lack of playing stature.

    It's harder to open doors, create the initial respect or draw on past experiences if you haven't played at a decent level. However, as we all know, these carry you only a very little distance when you are operating in the day-in, day-out environment of coaching.

    In the business world, the best firms use mentors or non-executive directors to provide missing experience. In sport, though there are examples, it could be more formalised. Many coaches I speak to value a non-judgmental view of their ideas.

    The simple fact is that ex-players will have a blood-and-guts feel of the game which is hard to replicate. Think: fear, pain, injury stress, team dynamics of that age group, a narrow view...just some of the many things flying around in your mind before or during a game while the coach is questioning why you made the incorrect tactical decision.

    In simple terms, empathy.

    But, as pretty much everyone above me has said, that's no good if you don't know how to use it. 

    In answer to question, and as the evidence of Ferguson, Wenger and so on prove, you do have to be an ex-player. You don't have to have been the "best player", but you do need to have played to a certain level.

    Another debate could be what that level is...

  • andrewb62
    On 26/01/16 08:55, Dan Cottrell said:

    In the business world, the best firms use mentors or non-executive directors to provide missing experience. In sport, though there are examples, it could be more formalised.

    I think you might have hit the nail on the head there, Dan

    I doubt that there are many "community" coaches who would not jump at the chance to coach with an ex-player, so long as there is due recognition of who is the coach, and who is the ex-player. Both bring something unique and vital to a coaching session.

    Of course, some ex-players will become excellent coaches in their own right.  Some won't.

  • Maureen

    We have the same idea popping up now in Archery. Fast tracking the bigger names. A few years ago, it was the years of experience at each level of coaching that were considered important. Experience is still important but this vital point is frequently overlooked. You would not put top A* students straight back into school to teach your children,not  until they had been through training college.

    There are four stages of development as an athlete

    1.Unconsiously unknowing (the child)

    2.Consciously unknowing ( the athlete realises learning is required)

    3.Consciously knowing (awareness of what needs to be done)

    4.Consciously unknowing ( elite athlete running on perfected auto pilot)

    It's very obvious who will make the best coach, its certainly not the elite athlete who no longer thinks about what needs to be done, but just does it. You need to take a step back to level 3, where an awareness of what needs to be done is at the forefront.

    I agree that it also depends on the athlete but the elite athlete has become very self centred  (a Prima Donna) with tunnel vision on their own goals. To step back and put others first is not so easy. The good experienced athlete who supports others and is always learning will be the best coach by far. We have seen people "doing it like their idol", but what works for one may not work for them, we are all individuals. We only need to look at the olympic archers to see many examples of poor form, but they work for the individual concerned. We should never teach the poor form but strive for perfection. Trying to undo poor form is far from easy and is often our biggest challenge as a coach.

  • Mwood

    This is a really interesting post.

    I think one of the key areas of coaching is the design of effective practice that maintains the key information neccesary for transfer to the competition environment. This is an area where I think former players/athletes have an advantage over us mortals. They can apply first hand experience and knowledge of the key information to include in practice. They are also able to direct their athletes toward this information first hand and often coupled to inspirational anecdotes.

    The auto pilot concept described earlier is at adds with this idea as it suggests that high performers are capable of switiching to a pre determined program that guides them through. Taking an ecological perspective we could suggest that high performing athletes are ideally suited to coaching as they have learned to atune to the competitive enviroment. The key then is do they have the skills to pass this on?

    That said... us mortal coaches can skip this step by providing opportunity for our athletes to explore and discover this key information themseleves and then pass it on to their peers. 

    Great initial post, i look forward to reading more repsonses.


  • IanMahoney

    Ex-players or athletes may not make the best coaches, competing and coaching have diffirent skills.

    It is true though that ex-sportsmen/women know their particular disclipline inside-out and can provide an insight on competitors prespective.

    I work as an assitant club coach (coaching endurance running) working under a lead coach who has a degree in sports coaching. my running competitive career lasted 26 years. The lead coach sets the session and we discuss during a session if it needs to be tweak. I can offer an athletes prespective and know an injuries/ niggles etc  is what I experienced and can be emphatic.

  • twalmsley

    I really like your foUr part summary of an athletes development but can I check number foUr is not supposed to be

    4. Unconscious knowing...


    4.Consciously unknowing ( elite athlete running on perfected auto pilot)

  • http://changingminds.org/explanations/learning/consciousness_competence.htm

    gives an explanantion of the 4 states of the conscious-competence model.

    "unconscious competence" being the fourth state.




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