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Coaching Philosophy 3.0

This season I played a more active role in coaching. After a one-year hiatus, I took upon the role of coaching the U17s team at Salisbury Inter. Despite coaching these girls two years ago, this year was different – I was the sole head coach. And admittedly I had more time than I did in 2021. What was the result? Coaching consumed me this year – I found that in my spare time I’d be reading threads on Twitter or LinkedIn, anything that challenged or inspired the way I coached. I also took more of an active role within my WNPL side – constantly analysing training sessions and games, wondering how I could improve sessions or what I thought the team needed to work on. I feel like I’m in a golden era because I’m able to both play and coach – so everything I do I’m analysing from both perspectives. As a player, how do I find this? As a coach, how would I address this? The beauty too of playing and coaching is that I still have the connections with my teammates as they see me as their captain rather than coach. I think when you officially transition into the latter, a barrier often arises which hinders your learnings of their feelings.

So why am I revisiting my philosophy now? Although I still firmly believe in everything I wrote back in 2020 (which forms the basis of my coaching philosophy), I wanted to shift my attention to more soccer principles. This year has been pivotal in cementing my desire to coach at a higher level. I have thoroughly enjoyed coaching juniors, and there’ll always be a large part of me that enjoys connecting and mentoring these young girls. But as an individual, I thrive on learning. And that’s where I’m at – I want to learn. I’m still a very young coach in the sense that I don’t know a lot about soccer. But I want to learn. I want to learn from others who do the things I can’t. From coaches who know things I don’t. Especially with regards to technical and tactical knowledge of the game. Sure, I could go through the process of getting my coaching licenses (which I inevitably will do), but I think we can learn so much more from experts around us. From coaches who have had ‘success’ – not with their results, but with their connections and retention of players.

How do you define success as a coach? Most people probably look at a coach’s coaching history and evaluate their ability based on the trophies they’ve won – but is that all there is to coaching? One thing that I find really hard to do is to distinguish whether a team is successful because they’re a great team or because they had a great coach. The reality is, there’s no way to know the influence a coach has had on a team. There’s no way to know whether a coach has truly helped a player develop, or whether they’re developing naturally because of exposure and increased playing time. For example, I look at the players I coached this year and all of them have improved from where they were two seasons ago. But that’s not because of me. Some of these girls are doing things I’ve never taught them to do. So I can’t take credit for their development – that’s all them. All I have done though, is create an environment which has seemingly been conducive for their development. So how then, can you determine if a coach is a decent coach? My litmus test is threefold – do players learn and improve, individually and collectively? (Development). Are players motivated to do more; are they engaged? (Motivation). And do players want to play for the same coach again? (Retention).

I know as a coach I don’t have the technical knowledge, yet, to really help players improve technically. What I can do though, is create a safe environment. An environment in which these individuals feel comfortable trying new things without the fear of being yelled at. That comes to the core of my philosophy – safety. Without safety, no one can reach their excellence. Without safety, people are focusing on surviving rather than thriving. Players know when they’ve made a mistake. The worst thing you can do as a coach is yell at that player for it. If a player repeatedly makes the same mistake, over and over, I believe it’s then the coach’s duty to coach that player. They’re not making a mistake because they want to, but because they lack the knowledge or the skill to do otherwise. As a coach, you need to look at where are they making the mistake? What part of the field? When are they making the mistake – under pressure or no pressure? What is happening before they make this mistake? Are they aware of what’s around them (an information issue)? Or are they simply choosing the wrong pass / making the wrong decision? If the latter, why? What have I been communicating to my players?

When giving feedback, quite often coaches give generic phrases, “You turn the ball over too much,” without considering the environment. When does this happen, and why does this happen? Is it possible the player doesn’t have other options? Is it possible that in a coach communicating “play directly” that that is contributing to a higher turn over rate? As a coach, the first thing you must do is look inward. What role have I played in this individual’s mistake? What role have I played in this team’s performance? What can I do to ensure this doesn’t happen again? What can I do to get the best out of this individual player? Self-awareness then, is a core quality that I value. So too an openness for being wrong.

All coaches are human. And part of being human means making mistakes. There have been multiple times already in my coaching career where I have admitted that I was wrong. Whether it was the approach I took with the team, tactical decisions I made on game day, or overlooking a player for a team in which she should have been selected for. The beauty of admitting your mistakes is that it humanises you. And by humanising yourself, you build trust. You build rapport. You build connection. But you also defuse the situation. It’s very hard to be angry at someone who admits they fucked up. But again, this all requires individuals to be introspective.

As mentioned in my previous coaching philosophy, my coaching style is very much a Q&A style. At the end of the day, I don’t know everything. And there’s a high chance players are able to see something on the field that I can’t. By asking them questions, they’re then engaged. They’re contributing to the team and the solution. They’re also then developing their own critical thinking skills. I ask questions like, “where are we vulnerable?” or “how does the opposition look like they’re going to score?” Then I might ask, “how do we prevent that? What do we need to do?”. My role as a coach isn’t being a dictator, it’s being a facilitator. Creating an environment in which individuals solve their own problems. The more engaged players are, the more empowered they feel, and the more connected they are to playing for each other (see Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team).

For most of my life I’ve been overlooked for teams based on what I can’t do – on the fact that my GPS data doesn’t show a maximum speed of 28km/h or higher. For that reason, I refuse to be a narrow-minded coach. I will select players for what they can do. If a player doesn’t have speed, I guarantee they’re probably smarter than a player who does have speed. I don’t care for GPS data. I don’t care for fitness tests. I don’t care about anything other than a player’s effectiveness on the field. What I mean by this is (e.g. for a centre back), how often is this player beaten? How often does the opposition play through our defence? How many goals are we conceding? Assessing a player’s ability based on arbitrary data that few people can actually change is limiting and narrow-minded. Lionel Messi ran the least distance out of any player at the men’s world cup but guess what? He was still the best player. Speed, distance, high speed running, none of that guarantees an effective, influential player.

In regards to fitness testing, the reason I don’t care for them is because what do coaches even use them for anyway? As a player, never has a coach used fitness tests as a reason not to play me. Nor have they tailored my conditioning based on the results. I find testing to be an unnecessary anxiety-provoking element of the game, yet few have questioned its relevance. If a player has an excellent running style, I guarantee they’ll excel in testing. But how does that correlate to their effectiveness on the field? How does that relate to their ability to run out 90mins? How does that relate to this concept of being fit for football? What this means is their ability to make the same quality decision in the 90th minute as they were able to in the first minute. How does running a beep test or yo-yo test translate to making better decisions? It doesn’t. The best way to get fit for football is to actually play football. Not lifting weights in the gym, not running 1km time trials, no, the best and only way to get conditioned to play a game of football is to just play.

Another aspect of my coaching style that I want to challenge for others is this concept of ‘pretty football’. Many coaches have an obsession with wanting to keep possession because they claim it’s ‘nice to watch’. Japan vs Spain in the Women’s World Cup – Spain had 77% possession but lost 4-0. Possession doesn’t guarantee results. Yes, you need the ball to score. But why do you need to make 20 passes before you can score? What isn’t pretty about playing a well-weighted ball over the top to a striker? I again argue the effectiveness of the former. As a coach, I’m looking at playing in a way that creates the most opportunities to score and the least opportunities to concede – however that looks, I don’t care.

Games are invariably won and lost by a team’s ability to convert their chances. In regards to training, how much time do you devote to shooting? Quite often coaches will probably say less than 20%. If soccer is all about scoring, why then do we devote such little time to practicing that? For that reason, almost all of the drills I design will have an element of shooting and scoring. Keeping possession, again, means nothing if players can’t convert their chances.

As a coach, what I’m looking for in a player is intelligence. How are they able to maximise their strengths, whilst minimising the exposure of their weaknesses. Better yet, how are they able to exploit the weaknesses of an opposition? What are they doing when every other player has mentally ‘switched off’. Are they looking for the quick throw in? The short corner? Intelligence will win you games you potentially ‘shouldn’t’ win. The other qualities I look for in a player relate to my three non-negotiables: work ethic, attitude, and body language. These are three qualities players are always in control over. Players can’t control the mistakes they make, but they can control their reaction. Do they work hard to win the ball back, or are they taken out of their game because of negative body language? The best player to me is not the player who scores the most goals, but the player who makes all other players better. That’s the type of player I want playing for me. The player who sacrifices personal glory for the team. And sometimes these players don’t step a foot on the field. Quite often your most important players are actually your bench players. Why? Because they determine the culture of the team. Are they pushing the starting players to be better by challenging for their positions? Are they positive on the bench? Or are they resentful, bitter, negative? How a coach manages the players who don’t play communicates a lot about their ability to coach. How are they keeping these players engaged and motivated? What conversations are they having? Are they being honest and transparent, or selling lies because they want to avoid a difficult conversation? I read somewhere that the success of your life is directly proportional to your willingness to have difficult conversations. Are they uncomfortable? Absolutely. But they’re necessary. And again, they make you human.

I know I don’t know everything there is to know about coaching, but I am willing to learn. I also admit that many of the statements I’ve claimed here have the potential to change – and that’s okay too. As humans, we’re constantly evolving. Which is why I believe it’s important to intentionally revisit the things we believe to ensure that is still what we believe. That is what I have tried to do here. If you’re interested in reading just how much my philosophy has evolved, please read my former posts; Coaching Philosophy 2.0 and Challenging Coaching.

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