Coach the environment to create those unteachable moments

Trent Alexander-Arnold celebrates after Liverpool’s sensational Champions League semi-final comeback against Barcelona at Anfield, a win the full-back contributed to with an outrageous piece of ingenuity to quickly take that now-famous corner to create the decisive goal. Picture: Peter Byrne/PA

There may have been only one fair way to settle the Premier League this season: A Liverpool v Manchester City play-off on the final day. Unfortunately, the campaign ended rather predictably, which is ironic, given how unpredictable a season it had been.

Every one of the top teams experienced an uncharacteristic performance slump at some stage in the season, but only two managed to survive them and go on to thrive beyond it. Fans were treated to an epic season of highs and lows with the post-season ribbing at an all-time high because of

Liverpool’s failure to lift the title having lost only one game. But the subtext is far more fruitful than the schoolyard banter between fans. There are massive lessons to be learned from how Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp conducted their business this season.

Coaches from every sport can look back on a 2018/19 football season when both managers served up as a masterclass in conduct and player engagement across all competitions, win or lose. They worked hard to deflect any praise away from themselves to ensure the players would receive all the credit due to them, yet even in their humble soundbites, the managers’ philosophies shone through.

Of course, both managers had world-class players to work with as a result of obscene budgets at their disposal, but so do many other managers of teams in sports all over the world. Few have their players playing with such freedom of expression, especially amid some of the most intense pressure in world sport.

This was never more evident than in Trent Alexander-Arnold’s outrageous piece of ingenuity to quickly take that now-famous corner against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final second leg match at Anfield, that set-up Divock Origi’s winner. The easy analysis is to put it down to luck and a spin of the wheel of fortune. But to even consider such a snap judgement, let alone act on it, with so much on the line, speaks to the environment he is engaged in every day at the club.

When asked about it, Klopp responded in his typical effervescent manner with uncensored honesty: “Oh my God! 100%! We had to be serious when we had the ball, but we needed to be

cheeky as well, this was really necessary... we needed to be unpredictable in moments. It’s easy to ask for, but much more difficult to do so... a genius moment.”

The interview went viral and people marveled once again at his idiosyncratic personality and the ‘everyman’ approach that endears him to the public. But it also sparked conversations within the coaching community about what he has created at Liverpool.

Nick Levett, head of talent and performance at UK Coaching took to Twitter to ask,

Can you coach moments like that? Or is it about creating the environment to allow players to think that way, allowed to take risks to exploit opportunities as they present themselves? One player’s opportunity is not there for another, depending on vision, creativity and execution.

This speaks to a very different way of coaching. Where previously coach education directed coaches to coach the player in front of them, nowadays the suggestion is to coach to the environment and choose to engage with the player through a number of different avenues first, before directly speaking to them about what you may want from them.

Some coaches would find this approach difficult to grasp. Their job is to have all the answers so most are not happy to just ask good questions, they want to provide the good answers too. Especially if the answers appear to be slow coming back from the players. The thinking behind this approach is obvious, however ineffective, as it suggests a coach can accelerate a player’s learning by fast-tracking the answers into their brains and bodies, like you would with a computer download of a software update.

Fortunately, we don’t work like computers, we are far greater than them in every way, shape, and form.

Our individuality needs to be celebrated and the best way to do this is to allow players time and space to experience the challenges presented to them on the training paddock. In the past, this has been misinterpreted as a lackadaisical hands-off approach suggesting a redundancy of the role of the coach.

Far from it, the opposite in fact.

That word ‘challenge’ is a key part to this approach. For example, a coach may set up a game of backs versus forwards with a particular advantage for the forwards, making it an especially challenging task for the backs. The players would be instructed to play ball as the coach steps off the field of play.

One false move later and the coach is back on the field directing traffic and moving the players into position as you would with a joystick on a games console. Once the pearls of wisdom have been dispensed they return to the sideline, waiting for the next opportunity to engage and interfere on how to do it right, suggesting there is only one correct solution to the problem posed.

However, this approach often leads to frustration from both players and coaches alike. The environment-focused approach can lend itself to more subtle interaction. Firstly, the coach is encouraged to let the play unfold and allow errors present themselves and the fullness of the challenge be experienced. In making mistakes the players may be en route to figuring it out.

Patient coaches will afford themselves time to determine whether the task is pitched at the right level for the players or whether it needs to be simplified or made even more complex.

Consideration can be put into whether the task may need to be changed in some way to expose the players to other challenges within the game, ie, an extra player added, a change in the dimensions of the playing space or a different rule introduced.

But maybe more important than all of this is the manner in which it is set up. This is where coaches like Klopp and Guardiola come into their own. Soundbites from their media engagements are littered with phrases like: “We want the players to back themselves”, and “be brave”.

Such support sets players free to play the football of their dreams, safe in the knowledge that if they truly believed a shot or pass was on, their manager would have supported the decision made in the heat of battle.

Such support is not about being positive for the sake of it, it is about creating an environment where players are excited about the prospect of expressing themselves and more importantly being ready to act and react accordingly when the opportunity to shine arises.

Again, that is a key point to the philosophy of coaches who are overtly positive: If and when they do need to challenge a player it is done in a productive way, tailored to the individual to ensure a response that will once again set them free to attack the challenge with everything they’ve got. Roll on next season, already.

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