DR ED COUGHLAN: Why do we have such little regard for coach education?

DR ED COUGHLAN: Why do we have such little regard for coach education?
Josh van der Flier of Leinster with camp participants during the Bank of Ireland Leinster Rugby Summer Camp

Players stop playing all the time. Yet, when top players stop playing we are led to believe that among the list of things they can offer, in return to the game that gave them so much, is coaching. This may well be the case, but it is not a given.

The skills required to play are very different to the skills required to coach. The perspective and engagement in a sport as a player and a coach are far too distinct to make any real connection.

Nevertheless, we are consistently romantic about the potential of a former top player becoming a top coach. So much so that we entice them into coaching with the reward of not having to do any formal coach education beforehand, and if they do, they are treated differently to other future coaches by enabling them to skip the primary steps in the coach education framework.

Of course, there are flaws in coach education, but the fact remains that basic, fundamental principles of coaching are delivered in those early days that provide a foundation for the journey that may lie ahead.

Why do we have such little regard for coach education? Why are we so disrespectful to those who follow the path set out by national governing bodies only to have them leapfrogged by recently retired players?

The intoxicating joy of watching a player do incredible things on a pitch or court should in no way suggest anything other than a great ability to play the game.

Fast-tracking former players through to prominent coaching positions creates a situation where they are learning on the job, possibly just one page ahead of the charges they are tasked with improving.

Of course, not every former player interested in coaching is swayed by the interest of others to have a big name involved regardless of credentials. Earlier this year Jason Sherlock, the football, basketball, and soccer legend of yesteryear, spoke of his route to coaching at a conference.

He remarked how his playing career in the top flight of three sports did nothing to prepare him for transition into coaching. Still to this day as an assistant coach to Jim Gavin with Dublin, his experiences as a player do not feature in his coaching.

Jason Sherlock with Dublin manager Jim Gavin
Jason Sherlock with Dublin manager Jim Gavin

Yet, this would surprise many people, as it did on the day he spoke to a captive audience in Dublin City University.

But, why should it? Here we have an individual who has a clear sense of himself and rather than looking for connections between his experiences as a player for how to coach, he quickly realised there is no connection at all.

His experiences were just that, they were his, and no one else’s. How he viewed the game was specific, how he prepared for a game was personal. He also showed an appreciation that the game had moved on, and rather than copy and pasting his ideals on others, he realised the skill of coaching is to create an environment where others can figure out what is right for them, not to become a carbon copy of someone else.

For sure, there are many people like Jason Sherlock. Ronan O’Gara springs to mind. But are there enough who respect the transition from competitor to facilitator?

The lens through which people view a game as a player compared to how it needs to be viewed as a coach are very different. In fact, long before you even get to the game, the preparations for practice are worlds apart. A player often plays a reactive role, responding to the tasks outlined by the coach. A coach often plays a proactive role, creating sufficient challenges to stretch the potential of the player.

Ronan O'Gara with Dan Carter
Ronan O'Gara with Dan Carter

This is often where the cracks begin to emerge. Former players with little coaching experience tend to set up practice the way they experienced it with little attention to the situation at hand. They will choose games, or drills, that they liked and that they themselves took something from.

It is understandable, in one sense, to go to what you know and create a sense of comfort for yourself. But little, if anything, is related to the development of the athletes standing in front of them. Now, not only is the coaching not proactive, it is not even appropriate.

What often follows is a realisation that there is a lot more to coaching than setting up good drills. Where things can become awkward is when a player questions why they are doing a particular task, or even more troubling when a player inquires about what they need to do to improve on this task. The answers often follow a similar path of avoidance. The game or drill is either quickly dropped to sidestep any confrontation that may expose a lack of rationale for its use in the first place or, worse still, the coach tells them what they used do as a player.

Ironically, across the spectrum of world sport, the best and most successful coaches are often those who were not the best players.

Coupled with an incredible number of top-class coaches who were once teachers themselves. Of course, there are exceptions like Zinedine Zidane, but even he had the sense to spend time assisting the coaches of the lower-tier teams at Real Madrid, a period of time he admits helped him identify his own shortcomings as a coach.

Why do former minor players often become major coaches?

The evidence suggests a powerful response to their learning experienced through adversity. Often these are people who have a great love and desire to become better at the sport of their childhood dreams, and when the reality is very different, they engage in whatever means available to figure out how to get better, making them more reflective, introspective, and respectful of the process.

There is little doubt that the shared experience between a coach, who is a former player, and a current player may go some way to get buy-in for the adoption of an ideal within the training or practice environment. There may even be some lessons in how to deal with the increased exposure to the media and, depending on the sport, how to cope with large salaries and sponsorship commitments. However, these are all just bonus additions to what a coach could bring to the situation.

But all too often, we place too much weight on experience without checking how the person engaged in that experience.

We all know someone who does something they love for years on end. For example, a friend who may golf every week, twice a week for 30 years, watches every event on TV and knows everything about the game, yet has the same handicap for the last 20 years. Huge experience, but their engagement in that experience has taught them very little, apart from having plenty of answers for a pub quiz.

Most of the teams in the hurling and football Championships are left with nothing to do but think of what might have been as the Super 8 commences this weekend, without their involvement.

For some players who will have played their last game for their county, coaching may appeal as the next logical step in their journey.

Though it is the same game, let us hope they realise, for the sake of the players they may go on to coach, it is not as they know it.

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