Does the Top Player make the Top Coach?

D. Turner(2009)

(Dave Turner is a principal lecturer in sports coaching at the University of Hertfordshire).

Quite a number of our top coaches and other individuals occupying top positions in the Association (selection for example) are ex-players and have been very good performers in their time. No-one would argue with this. What however we can take issue with is whether or not the top performer is the person best suited to take on the mantle of the top coach. It seems unlikely that the superstar acquires huge communication skills during his single-minded quest for gold medals or even the abilities to effectively cope with recalcitrant teenagers. Nor does it seem likely that a strong male, topspin player will have vast experience in coaching and developing female defenders or ‘funny’ bat players. Perhaps selection of those who will handle the development of our young potential requires rather more attention to detail than we may have thought in the past.

Rather than exceptional athletes being regarded as having potential for coaching roles – being effectively fast-tracked through coach education programmes and swiftly elevated to high profile positions – perhaps they should be recognised as requiring extra support in making the transition to thinking like a coach, with more comprehensive input from coach education and the accumulation of coaching experience in minor coaching roles. We certainly need a more sophisticated talent identification process for prospective coaches than athletic achievement alone; it takes a good coach educator to keep the player at the top.

Coaching is well recognised as a cognitive endeavour, as opposed to the predominantly physical nature of athletic participation. Coaching and performing are distinct undertakings and a period of learning and apprenticeship is required in each. Decision making is arguably the most important skill for coaches ahead of communication (you have to decide what to communicate first!).

In a recent research article on the origins of elite coaching knowledge, the majority of participating coaches believed that less naturally talented competitors would experience a smoother transition to coaching, simply because they had to think twice as hard and analyse more.

Talented ex-performers may well be more familiar with how the skills, techniques and tactics of the sport feel and are experienced by athletes. They may also intimately understand the pressures involved at elite level and may be able to inspire athletes with competitive examples of excellence. However in a study of successful high-school coaches, the breadth and extent of previous athletic experience was implicated as more important in development than great athletic ability. In respect of coaching, athletic ability may in some cases be an advantage, but it’s certainly not a necessity.

Some years ago while gathering research data from athletics’ coaches; I came across the following quote with regards to the achievement of athletic potential.

‘It is often the B+ and not the A-grade people who will eventually come through. You can get so far on natural ability, but if you’re not bothered to train or if things come too easily it takes a good coach to keep you at the top’.

This resonated with some of my coaching observations. Some novices would quickly take to the skills and techniques with apparent ease and experience much early success. However it often transpired that these early learners dropped out in the longer term and those, who had encountered initial difficulties would persist, work through problems and eventually flourish.

Over time I reflected on the above and began thinking that a parallel may exist with sports coaches. Might it be that coaches, who have endured adversity as athletes could exhibit a greater potential for coaching, compared to exceptionally gifted sports people, to whom success has come much more easily? Are effective coaches more likely to have been merely adequate or good athletes, rather than excellent ones?

Of England’s 1966 World Cup-winning team only Jack Charlton went on to achieve any degree of coaching success, taking the Republic of Ireland to two World Cups in 1990 and 1994. In contrast many contemporary foreign coaches working in English football have very humble playing backgrounds, yet far more impressive coaching records (eg. Arsene Wenger). Similarly, former coaches of the highest world-ranked test cricket sides – John Buchanan of Australia and England’s Duncan Fletcher – had never played test cricket. To be a good coach and to understand things technically you don’t have to have played at the highest level. Sometimes you can introduce better plans having viewed everything from afar, looking in, rather than being in it. It can well be that when you haven’t been there and haven’t done it, that you learn and understand the game more than those who have always taken it for granted and are completely natural players.

Straightforward athletic success as a competitor may result in a lack of compassion and empathic understanding towards the problems experienced by others, which is critical within coaching. Some qualities associated with a number of elite or high-performance athletes, such as selfishness or egotism, can be a major drawback in trying to selflessly help others to reach full potential.

The message is quite clear; while perfection is unattainable in coaching, striving for perfection is an essential prerequisite for effectiveness and/or excellence. As a coach you have to assiduously develop self-awareness, work hard through times of adversity and conscientiously endeavour to improve. Success will not just happen because of natural qualities or the accumulation of experience alone.

Despite the above, the tendency in European Associations is for ex-players to go into coaching or into the official structure in one capacity or another. So the system becomes self-perpetuating and it then becomes unlikely that anything new or innovative will occur. Perhaps it is felt that young ex-players have the right ‘image’ for public consumption.

Yet when you look at the top countries in the world such as China, yes they have their young ex-player coaches such as Liu Guoliang, but also they have the much older coaches in the Association, such as Mr. Li, who has been involved in women’s coaching in China for decades. Also in their Provincial Centres they have many older coaches involved in the development of young players. In fact the latest innovation from China, the reverse pen-hold backhand, was not ‘discovered’ by a player but came from an ‘older’ coach in the Harbin Provincial Centre.

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