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AGC #011 - What beginner coaches need - and what they don’t

Five areas where new coaches misdirect their attention - and five areas that might be more beneficial instead

Earlier this year, esteemed coach educator Wayne Goldsmith suggested a shift in coach education: transitioning from a ”one size fits all” approach to, “one size fits one”.

This touches on two recurring debates in coach education:

  • The need to shift from instructing what to coach to explaining why and how to coach

  • The necessity for more individualized help in practical settings, instead of generic information in classroom settings.

As Cody Royle articulates: “It’s an indictment on our whole industry how much we relentlessly focus on tactics.”

This focus often misguides beginner coaches. Here are five areas where new coaches often misdirect their attention and five areas that might be more beneficial to consider instead.

Reconsider: Emphasis on sports science
Refocus: Emphasis on social science

Tools like heart-rate monitors, niche strength and conditioning programs, and performance-enhancing supplements can make a difference in professional sports.

But these aspects of sports science only account for a small percentage of what a coach does or needs to know.

Understanding how to connect with those you coach, communicate effectively, manage parent relationships, and balance coaching with other life commitments are much more crucial skills, especially for coaches starting with young athletes.

You coach people, not players.

Reconsider: Focus on winning
Refocus: Focus on retention

In 2014, surveys showed 70% of kids were quitting organized sports by the age of 13. By 2019, that had dropped to 11.

Multiple recent studies show that the poorer the family, the less likely their kids are to play sports.

Travel ball is more profitable than ever, but rec leagues are floundering.

Rightly or wrongly, parents cite coaches as the highest source of pressure and stress for their kids.

And the Aspen Institute’s findings on what the kids themselves want out of sport is illuminating:

This trend continues, even into high school, for those who continue playing that far. Check the list of common motivations for playing:

  • Having fun (81%)

  • Exercise (79%)

  • Learning and improving skills (66%)

  • Playing with and making new friends (66%)

  • Competing (64%)

  • Winning games (53%)

  • Pursuing college scholarships (39%)

Coaches starting out, therefore, would do well to worry less about winning games and more about player retention.

Or as Mark O’Sullivan puts it: “As many as possible, as long as possible in the best environment possible.”

It’s not a successful season if you won a few U12 tournaments but 20% of your players don’t want to come back next year.

While performance and results gain importance as you progress in coaching, the priority should always be the players' continued engagement and growth.

Reconsider: Standardized courses
Refocus: Seeking mentors

Every coach education provider talks about mentorship, but most don’t have the resources to offer it in any meaningful way.

Only once you get to the higher levels of accreditation or the professional end of sports might you be fortunate enough to have someone come to observe multiple sessions you run and provide feedback.

Coaches are therefore left to their own devices to find mentors.

And it’s not really viable to drop Jurgen Klopp, Sue Enqvist, or Bill Belichick a DM to ask them for help.

However, effective mentorship doesn’t have to come from experts at the top of their game. My best mentors are other coaches a few years ahead of, or behind, me on their field hockey coaching journey.

Their experience and knowledge helps, but far more important is their willingness to be open and vulnerable about the challenges we all face, and to call me out when necessary.

Another way to find useful mentors is to seek out local coaches in other sports who coach the same age group you do, who would be willing to critique your sessions while you do the same for them.

If you don’t know each other’s sports too well, you’ll be likelier to focus on how they coach than what they coach.

A second set of eyes is sometimes all you need.

Reconsider: Theoretical learning
Refocus: Experiential learning

By far the most effective coach education I’ve both administered and participated in has been hands-on.

The classroom isn’t where goals are scored or world records are broken - and it’s not where effective coaching is done either.

Observational coach education is comfortable. You watch and learn, take your notes, and don’t necessarily have to say or do anything.

Asking a group of coaches on a course to get on a field or court and actually coach each other usually elicits panic.

But growth only happens when you’re uncomfortable.

The feedback you’ll get from peers and the course leaders will be personalized to you and your methods. It’ll affirm your strengths and reveal your weaknesses.

And that’ll be worth more than any PowerPoint presentation.

If, like most of us, you have limited time and funds to invest in coach education, make sure what you’re signing up for has a practical component.

Reconsider: Over-reliance on sport-specific knowledge
Refocus: Developing coaching knowledge, critical thinking, and planning skills

If I was hiring a new coach tomorrow and was given the choice between…

  • A field hockey expert with zero coaching experience

  • A field hockey novice with 10 years of coaching experience in another sport

…I’m taking option B all day long.

In reality, the choice is rarely binary, and you need both coaching and sporting knowledge to succeed.

However, we place too much of a premium in coaching on what people have achieved as players (and therefore “know” about the sport) and not enough on whether they can actually coach and teach.

As Arrigo Sacchi - who had no professional soccer playing experience, but won various Italian and European titles coaching AC Milan - said: “You don’t need to have been a horse to be a jockey.”

A curious coach with a grounding in the principles of skill acquisition and session planning can likely create an effective learning environment for a sport they know little about.

Yet I’ve also seen plenty of successful players who have no idea how to impart their knowledge running low-quality sessions where the demos look impressive, but minimal learning is taking place.

I spent too many of my early coaching years paranoid that I didn’t know enough about field hockey.

But it took failing an assessment to realize I didn’t know enough about coaching.

Growth in both areas should happen simultaneously and you’re never ‘finished’ with either.

Whenever you’re ready, here are a few ways I can help you:

1. Efficient Practice Design: My multi-step system for creating practice plans that will flow smoothly, stretch your players appropriately, and save coaches of all team sports dozens of hours a year, on and off the field.

2. Premium Practice Planner:  A Notion template to help sports coaches plan, deliver and review their sessions with maximum efficiency - then smartly archive everything.

3. Coach’s Dozen: An ebook of 12 small-sided games with diagrams and animations to help you train goalscoring in field hockey, co-authored with Mark Egner.