Coaches at the highest levels are judged by their ability to produce success. Team owners, directors, and fans of professional sports value winning more than they value the process, or overall performance.
When an elite player becomes a coach they are able to immediately gain respect because they’ve been there and done that. They have an understanding of their sport, club, and fans. Most importantly though, they understand how to win.
Taking a look at tennis shows the caliber of players becoming great coaches such as Ivan Lendl (who coaches Andy Murray), Michael Chang (Kei Nishikori), Goran Ivanisevic (Tomas Berdych), and Carlos Moya (Rafael Nadal). A lot of the discussion surrounding Nick Kyrgios is over whether he should be coached by former Australian great Lleyton Hewitt.
It’s not only tennis where former professionals are brought in as coaches. It’s a major aspect of football and even cricket, where Australia have brought in Justin Langer, Jason Gillespie, and Ricky Ponting to coach the team for their Twenty20 International Series against Sri Lanka.
It’s important to understanding playing is as dissimilar to coaching as studying is dissimilar from teaching. Even so, there is the assumption that being a great player makes someone a great coach, which is not true.
There’s no evidence to suggest that only someone who has played at the highest levels can coach at the highest levels. There’s no threshold that one must cross to be able to be a great coach.
Does Playing Experience Play a Part?
Having playing experience does give players a good chance to learn more about coaching from the people that coached them. Analysis has been done that shows playing experience can contribute to coaching skills as far as sport-specific knowledge goes; including the tactical and technical aspects. It also imparts some organisational socialisation skills. This is when being a player assists in the bigger picture; introducing one to the shared understanding of every aspect of their job.
Even so, playing experience gives just a small view of coaching and doesn’t showcase everything that goes into being a coach. It doesn’t show what happens away from actual training; the countless hours spent planning and preparing, the complex tapestry of commitments around each aspect of the business, and the challenging reflections coaches go through during their career.
This could offer an insight into why players who become coaches can face some difficulty.
There is clearly something to be said for playing experience. Experience on top might not be essential, but it can help a coach to develop. Even so, it doesn’t justify giving ex-players preferential treatment and pushing them through the coaching career ladder.
Michael Voss of the AFL offers a great example of the dangers of jumping from playing to coaching. Voss retired at the end of 2006 before becoming one of the 16 head coaches in the league by the end of 2008, becoming the coach for the Brisbane Lions; the team he took to three premierships as the captain.
Voss did some work as a commentator on TV and coached a junior representative side in those two years, and was sacked by the middle of 2013. This experience and the engagements made since mean he is likely better as a coach now.
Research has shown there are some advantages for coaches that haven’t played at the elite level. Coaches without an elite playing background have the chance to start coaching (and developing as coaches) much earlier. They have more varied and extensive experience in every aspect of being a coach, as well as building a deeper knowledge of their sport.
Coaches that have a modest playing background also have more opportunities to build experiences and gain qualifications that are more relevant and valuable to being a coach.
Jose Mourinho, current manager of one of the largest clubs in the world – Manchester United – has played a total of fewer than 100 games as part of the Portuguese second division. Even so, he has an extensive knowledge of sports science and was a physical education teacher, youth team coach, player scout, and assistant manager before he became a head coach. As a manager, he has won league titles in Italy, Portugal, Spain, and England.
Essentially, a coach who hasn’t had a career as a player is able to develop their abilities as a coach in ways that former players don’t have the time to because they spent their time training as athletes rather than coaches.
Problems and Potential Solutions
So what are the problems associated with former players moving straight into elite coaching?
The first is that it isn’t equitable. It is both discriminatory and unjust to hire a recently retired champion over someone who has more experience and qualifications as a coach on the basis that they were a player.
Just as problematic is that the practice puts severe limits on the talent pool of potential coaches. Every team and individual on the elite level is looking for that edge. Even so, these practices only limit innovation, stunt creativity, and enforce the status quo.
The best practices for hiring elite coaches need to include thoroughly appraising what goes into being a coach, and rationally assessing how well the background of the applicant matches the requirements of the job.
If sports wants to increase the talent pool of quality coaches, then it should promote the success stories of coaches from a range of backgrounds and celebrate them.
Coaches and the people employing them must also recognise that one doesn’t stop learning just because they have reached the highest level of the job. Continuing to learn and develop is integral to surviving in the volatile, fast-paced world of top-level sports.
Being good at a sport doesn’t mean that someone can coach to that level without gaining the necessary experience and qualifications, just as being good at school doesn’t allow one to become a teacher without getting their teaching degree and developing professionally. It is up to all of us to ensure that we don’t just give the privileged few even more privilege.
Coaching needs to be a meritocracy rather than an aristocracy.
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