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Player Management

Updated: Jun 24

As the reality of my retirement looms nearer and my transition into coaching becomes imminent, I’ve begun to heavily reflect on how I want to manage players that I coach. Over the past 20 years, I’ve had an array of experiences with coaches and their management of players – some brilliant, some average, and some plain ugly. Below is a reflection on these experiences.

 

Attendance

This falls under expectations and standards – what is acceptable within a team? As a coach, it’s important to communicate your stance on this – if a player misses training, will they still play? Does it depend on their reason? What if a player consistently misses training but is in your leadership group? Or is your only goalkeeper? What precedence does this set for the rest of the team? A recent conversation with a coach stated that his stance was simple – it comes down to a matter of priorities. Humans opt for the path of least resistance – so if they can have their cake and eat it too, they will. But remember, whatever you don’t ‘punish’, you’re inadvertently reinforcing – you’re constantly communicating what is okay based on what you allow as a coach. Having a clear coaching philosophy can guide you when making difficult decisions – are you more concerned with short-term results or long-term development? What’s the cost of accepting this behaviour and what’s the gain? How will your decision affect team culture and morale?

 

Transparency

Following on from attendance, I had a manager who would always communicate with the group where players were (if they missed a session). This level of transparency stopped the questioning – a lack of communication leaves too much room for the imagination. During this time, one of the starting players went on placement for 6 weeks which meant she wasn’t able to train with the team – but because it was communicated to the team, the team was okay with it. They were also okay with it because this player 1) had perfect attendance prior to her placement and 2) still trained – but with the reserves. Being transparent also allows for the acknowledgement that sometimes life happens and things come up.

 

The other thing this manager was transparent about was session plans. Before we would start training, there would be a laminated sheet of paper detailing the day’s session plan. Along with this were the specific roles and responsibilities of the playing group with regards to equipment e.g. defenders were on goals, midfielders on bibs and balls, and attackers on water. Assigning roles ensures there’s accountability and the same players aren’t always responsible for the equipment.

 

One other element of transparency I wanted to touch on is being human and vulnerable. In the same way that we want players to communicate with coaches if they’re not doing okay, I think it’s also important for coaches to communicate to players if they’re struggling for any particular reason. Vulnerability doesn’t mean disclosure – it just means acknowledging you’re human too and sometimes you might be struggling with life outside of football.

 

Self-awareness

Something I want to encourage more of with players I coach is their ability to self-reflect. One way to do this is through individual development plans (IDPs). The premise of these plans is to get players to identify 1) what is their superpower? What is one thing they bring to the game that no one else does? 2) What are the areas of their game that need attention? And 3) how do they think they can go about improving these areas? The role of the coach is not to give players these answers, but to instead facilitate the discussion for the players to identify these answers themselves. It also encourages players to be honest with themselves and their abilities. Often the responsibility is on the coach to provide these solutions, but I think more responsibility can be shared with players for their development.

 

Another way to encourage players to self-reflect is to send out surveys after games asking players to rate their performance on a few key areas e.g. technical, tactical, physical, and mental. This further encourages players to watch their games, again putting some ownership back on the player for their development. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Coaching is no different – a coach can have all the tools to make a player brilliant, but at the end of the day, the player has to do the work.

 

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I never cared much for this when I was in the US in college, but since coming back to Australia, and admittedly getting older, this topic has become more and more relevant. It’s also something some people have absolutely no idea about. The coach I had in 2021 did this brilliantly – he managed player’s loads excellently throughout the season aided by the use of RPEs (rated perceived exertion) after each training. He had a plan for the physical output he wanted during each session (distance covered) and usually hit those markers. For players struggling with niggles, he managed their load by either making them a neutral player or pulling them out of training early. For players not in his starting line-up, he made sure they played reserves – specifying the minutes they needed. How can substitutes be game-fit if they aren’t playing games? A lot of the onus is on a coach to manage players’ readiness (specifically match fitness) for games, but some of it falls on the individual too. At what point does a player need to take responsibility for their fitness and ask to play in the second team, just to ensure their body is staying conditioned and primed for first-team football?

 

The team in the UK also did this well with substitutes – instead of running without a ball, all conditioning and ‘top ups’ were game-related; 3v3s or 4v4s depending on the number of players who didn’t play. Running without a ball will not make you a better player. It won’t even make you a fitter footballer – but it will make you great at straight line running. Game-specific conditioning is imperative for player development.

 

Conditioning sessions in the UK were also held on a Wednesday with a game on Sunday – allowing plenty of time for recovery. For coaches who don’t know much about conditioning (I am certainly not claiming to be an expert), it takes 48 hours to recover from a hard, heavy session. So doing a conditioning session on a Wednesday with a game on a Friday is a recipe for both fatigue and injury. Structuring your week is important to maximise your players’ optimal output.

 

Some ‘old school’ coaches that I’ve had in the past believe in the ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality, especially with regards to pre-season. They believe in slaughtering players early to get them fitter quicker. But all this does is break them quicker. Players need to be eased back into trainings, especially after lengthy breaks – whether this is from the end of the season or from an injury; their loads need to be managed. There’s a brilliant article on this with regards to players training at a higher level too and how to ease them into that environment https://www.fcevolution.com/less-fit-players-have-to-train-less/ .

 

Strength and Conditioning

Throughout my life, many coaches seem to think that having an S&C coach or doing gym sessions is synonymous with a professional environment. It’s almost like a pre-requisite. Admittedly my opinion on S&C is likely to be unpopular, but please note that it comes from personal adversity. One of my biggest pet peeves is generic programs for players in the gym and on the field. What if instead of assuming we (as coaches or S&C staff) know what’s best for an individual, based on research, we instead ask the player what has worked for them. Especially senior players. In the same way that everyone eats different foods before a game, why is it so hard to believe that players might need different S&C work to prepare their bodies for a game? For me, I’ve found boxing to be the most effective form of exercise to prevent injury. Over 10 years in the gym and I had 3 acls, countless ankle sprains, soft tissue injuries etc. After taking up boxing, the longest I was sidelined for was 1 week to rest a calf issue (and that was more likely associated with over-loading). The gym isn’t for everyone. I challenge coaches to look for alternative methods to maximise players’ potentials. Perhaps a player might benefit from Pilates. Perhaps swimming suits them. Or perhaps that time might be better spent with a ball at their feet. One of my biggest regrets in my 20s is the time I spent in the gym and running beep tests in my free time – did any of that ever make me a better footballer? No. What did? Ball mastery.

 

Individual feedback

This is something I am actively working on as a coach – giving player’s individual feedback as things happen in both trainings and games. Over the past few years, my focus has been on the macro – on the team and ensuring trainings are at a high standard. After my time in the UK however, I realise that everything comes back to technical detail and individual feedback. The more I practice giving this feedback, the quicker I’ll be able to identify technical issues with players. One thing that can aid a player’s development is setting them individual challenges – whether that’s in training, or in games. For example, for a player struggling to score in games, you might set them the challenge in training to shoot every time they get the ball. More shots will invariably lead to more goals. More goals invariably leads to more confidence.

 

Confidence

When I think about players who have improved the most, both as a footballer and with their confidence, one key factor has stood out to me – investment from a coach. In 2019, my coach did this for me. She explained how she wanted me to play and encouraged me to take every opportunity to try it both in trainings and games. She wanted me to play in a way which made my game bigger, better, more dominant rather than limiting my game. In 2011, my college coach did the opposite – he told me I was a 2-3 touch footballer and that was it. Touch and play. Don’t do anything complicated with the ball. So I didn’t. And I didn’t develop either. But in 2019 I did. I was driving through the midfield, getting shots off as a centre back, creating goal-scoring opportunities, and scoring myself. This coach instilled me with confidence to play.

 

When I look at the teammates who have made the most significant improvements, they too had this from a coach. In 2021, a coach invested in one of our strikers. Now she is one of the most lethal players in WNPL. This year, the coach has invested in a midfielder. Calling her after games and actively demanding she get on the ball more in trainings and games. The result? Her game has blossomed. At the core of all of these ‘success’ stories, is a coach who’s invested their time and created environments to actively encourage the player making mistakes. This, to me, is the most important role any coach can have.

 

Scoring

Everything in football is about scoring and keeping score, yet how many times in practice do coaches either keep score or have ways in which players can score? The best players are driven by competition, without it, players have low motivation and the pressures aren’t game-realistic. Even simple drills like passing practices can be made competitive – add a goal at the end to create accountability with passing or create competitions between groups – who can get around the square five times first?

 

Coaches often lament on their team’s inability to score in games, but my first question to them is always, how much of training is towards a goal? How much finishing practice do you devote in training? If everything in football is about scoring, why doesn’t every training drill have a goal? How can you score in a game if you aren’t even practicing it in training?

 

One thing I want to implement with the next team I coach is the idea of a competitive cauldron (as used by Anson Dorrance at UNC). The idea is simple (but implementation perhaps challenging depending on resources) – every goal a player scores in training is recorded. There now becomes a competition between players to score the most during training. At the end of each week, the player with the most goals is rewarded, the player with the least, has to wash the bibs. 

 

Purposeful training

Trainings need to make sense. If your team is struggling to score, yet you work on your defence for the entire week of training, don’t be surprised that nothing changes the following week. If you’re doing a defensive session, use your starting back 4 (or 3 or 5) during training. Although it’s important for everyone to be aware how to play different positions, the higher up you play, the more important it becomes to practice how you’re going to play and with whom. Have the non-starting players be your opponents on the weekend – set them specific challenges to replicate the playing style of the upcoming team. This keeps them engaged.

 

Practice game actions in training – ball goes out, take a throw in. How many times in practice do players practice throw ins? How many times in games do players throw the ball to the opposition or fail to retain possession? Coincidence? I think not. You can’t be good at something you don’t practice. It’s also important to ensure the quality is there during practice. As a coach the other day said, if your runs into the box in training are at 75%, they’ll be at 75% in games too. Or perhaps they’ll be 100% in games, but the technique won’t be there because it hasn’t been practiced at that level of intensity in training.

 

The last point on this is regarding deliberate practice and players investing time in themselves to work on themselves. It’s the most valuable piece of advice I can offer anyone – if you want to become a better player, you need to train by yourself or at the very least, in a highly attentive, intense environment where you can’t hide (e.g. private sessions or small group sessions).

 

Playing style

Perhaps I’m still too young in my coaching career to have an established playing style, but I have a really hard time buying in to coaches who have a set playing style without considering the players they’re working with. At what point do you need to adapt the way you want to play to the players you have available? Or do you remain strong in your belief that these players will be able to play the way you want them to play? Is this development? Or is this just a player moulding to your playing style?

 

Openness

One of the most disappointing and unfortunately common experiences that I’ve had as a player has been coaches’ close-mindedness when it comes to feedback. Despite being a captain of this team for the past six seasons, there’s only been one coach who has actively sought out my thoughts and opinions. The other coaches I’ve had have either become defensive when I’ve offered feedback (on behalf of the team), or have dismissed the suggestions altogether. As I begin to coach more senior level players, I truly hope I have an openness towards my players and their thoughts and opinions. At the end of the day, no coach knows everything. Your players, and your captain(s) in particular, is(are) the vessel into knowing how the team is feeling. Without buy-in from the players, it doesn’t matter how great a coach you are – you won’t get anywhere with them.

 

The other disappointing aspect of this is how I have openly expressed my desire to become a coach. I hope that if I ever have a player who has aspirations to coach in the future, I’m including them in as much football discussion as possible. The game needs more coaches. The last thing the game needs is coaches unwilling to mentor the next generation of coaches. Perhaps something that needs to be revisited is the idea of head coaches and assistant coaches – perhaps the women’s game needs more co-head coaches. This lateral hierarchy creates an environment of equality and respect; of shared responsibility and problem-solving capabilities.

 

Mentally stable

Coaching is a hard, lonely profession. You often get most of the blame and little of the credit. This final point cannot be unstated – you must be mentally stable to take on a role as a head coach. Some of this comes down to being secure in yourself, as a person and as a coach. Having a clear coaching philosophy can aid in this security. But it’s a security that isn’t fixed – it’s not ‘my way or the highway’ it’s a ‘this is how I’ve done it, but if you know a better way, please show me’. It’s a growth mindset. Without this stability, the damage that can ensue can end players’ careers. We need more players in the game if we have any hope of developing the game in this country. In order to have more players in the game, we need coaches who create environments that are safe and stable. Verbal abuse isn’t acceptable in the classroom, so why is it acceptable on a football pitch?

 

Writing all of this is great, but the challenge for me comes in implementing these ideas and beliefs. And that is exactly what I plan to do.

 

For those interested, I’m planning on starting an academy (location TBC) for players who have the drive to become better footballers. The key footballing focus will be on ball mastery (repetition, balance, and control) using Coerver principles and small-sided games to improve 1v1 abilities and playing under pressure. Not only can I guarantee development of football skills, but I can also guarantee emotional support throughout the individual’s journey. Places will be limited – 8 only. This ensures that maximum individual attention and feedback is obtained. If you or someone you know might be interested, please complete the expression of interest form from the link below.

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