We all have our own take on what defines success. The title quote by motivational expert Josh S. Hinds is a favourite one of mine as reminds me of the importance of being true to yourself. When you coach any sport, you will be challenged. You will be challenged by your players, by their parents, by your fellow coaches and if you work for an organization, your employers.
What many don’t realize though, is that the best coaches around challenge themselves the most. They will relive situations in their minds, replay them over and over in their heads and question themselves on a daily basis. Coaching is about leading and facilitating performance improvements. So, it is only natural that the best coaches constantly expect improvements from themselves. The trick is to do your analysis, decide if there was a better decision to be made, learn from that…. and then move on.
When I entered coaching, I made myself a promise: I was going to make my own decisions, stand or fall based on what I felt was right and stay true to my principles and what I believed in. I had a vision on how I felt football should be played and have stayed true to several core values. I’m proud to say that I’ve kept that promise. Of course, I have made many mistakes in my coaching career but I have never made a decision that I didn’t want to make at the time.
It is important for me to keep that level of integrity in my work. It can be a lonely existence because even your closest coaching colleagues do not always agree. However, I have always wanted strong coaches around me as my type of personality requires me to talk things through before I reach important decisions. I listen to those I trust, gather opinion then make my own decisions. If the going gets tough and criticism arrives I stay the course. I make the best decision to the best of my ability at the time.
Standing true to your ideas can be a liability, however, if as a coach you do not continue to learn, evolve your thinking and refine your ideas. If you do not continue to test your ideas with the changing demands of the profession, then the game will pass you by and you will be making misinformed and incorrect decisions. An example would be my own ideas on teaching defending. As a coach I love the idea and the organization required to teach players how to work as a defensive unit. I’m one of those coaches who loves watching attacking football but can marvel at Jose Mourinho and his Inter Milan team going to the Nou Camp a few years ago and preventing Barcelona from scoring. I have run many defending sessions at coaching courses and enjoyed the challenge.
I remember being quite surprised that the legendary developmental coach Dario Gradi did not spend any time at Crewe Alexandra in England in teaching defending. At the time I did not quite understand it. Later I began to appreciate this more when I began teaching younger players as I felt that with limited time it was more important to spend time on basic ball skills, as a priority.
In the last few years my thinking has evolved a little more. I think that the art of defending is less important in the modern game. Instead it has been replaced by pressing and forcing opponents into mistakes to win the ball back. Now, I do incorporate this type of work in my training sessions. I feel young players should be taught how to close space quickly and work together to win the ball back. The work I do in this area is not like I was taught 10 years ago in my coaching courses! At that time we broke defending down to the finer details of speed of approach, angle of approach, body stance etc. Now, I keep our instructions quite simple. Get close to the ball quickly, and force the player with the ball towards crowded situations where they will be challenged to keep possession.
To the outsider it may seem that my philosophy has changed, given how I have made this switch in how I work on defending. However, in my own mind, I see my role as preparing our players to the best of my ability to succeed within the modern game. If the requirements on the top players are changing then in my opinion the training of our young players needs to adapt also. If we have a clearer understanding that what separates good players from great players is the ability to receive the ball, and then maintain possession and initiate attack even when marked tightly then we need as coaches to spend a greater amount of time developing these skills at the youth levels.
I read a great story about David Moyes. Apparently, Moyes, the former manager of English clubs Manchester United and Everton had noticed during the 2012-13 season an increasing trend for all the top teams in European to play more through the midfield area. He viewed the midfield as an increasingly important component for teams and realized that managers were using more innovative formations and tactics within this area.
The part of the story that I really liked is that he then met with Jim Fleming, head of coaching development at the Scottish Football Association and suggested some changes to the coaching courses for the next generation of coaches to reflect these changes. This was from a coach who was 10 days away from landing arguably one of the largest coaching jobs in the world (managing Manchester United.) I know Jim Fleming from when I took my UEFA B license course in Scotland. He was such a knowledgeable and passionate educator back then and it delights me to know that he like the rest of us he still strives every day to get better.
We all have to keep studying the game, evolve our thinking — but at the same time, stay true to our core values. I still want my players to focus on their technical skills and play attacking football with flair. However, I do want them to win the ball back quicker now so we can attack again. I’ve placed more requirements and responsibility on them. My ideas are the same and I remain true to playing attacking football. However, how we achieve that, and the methods we use in training on how to achieve get there that continues to evolve.
I tell coaches that I work with that I coach much differently this year than I did last year and I will coach differently next year. You must keep adding to you knowledge and the methods that you use to deliver your messages. What should not change is staying true to your ideas and how you feel the game should be played. For that you will achieve success. The prize may not come in the form of a big trophy, you may not become richer in a monetary sense, and you may not even get a pat on the back. The prize will be much larger than that – you know that you are continuing to do the right thing to the best of your ability.