Dr Ed Coughlan: Training can’t be all about control because coaching is coaxing

As my coaching philosophy continues to evolve, the creation of a fluid structure to guide my approach has helped, writes Dr Ed Coughlan.

Coaching is both an art and a science. The problem with this truism is it can become the source of debate between those who do not coach, or worse still, those who coach in a way that is neither artful nor scientific.

At the core of this long-standing debate about coaching is the tug-of-war between whether games or drills are the most optimal way to coach a team. A team, not an individual. The essence of a team dynamic is the emergence of a group of athletes working in-sync with each other on the field of play, against an opposition who themselves have their game plan to execute.

It is so easy to describe it and yet to reduce the coaching required in team sports to a simple definition betrays the complexity that underpins a team’s ability to play what’s in front of them. For that reason, we need to beware of the book-smart coach. That coach who has read it all and speaks with such authority as to reduce the process down to a series of bullet points to suggest that this coach has figured it all out.

Like every domain, books are an essential part of the learning process. Unfortunately, most books don’t add much in the way of value to the current knowledge base. In fact, most books say what has been said before by someone else and where coaching books are concerned, most try to make it sound easy so as to sell more books.

Two recent publications that buck this trend are Wade Gilbert’s Coaching Better Every Session and Brett Bartholomew’s Conscious Coaching. Why? Because they don’t pretend to have all the answers. Why? Because it is not about having all the answers. It is about engaging in the process of figuring it out, all the while knowing you will never figure it all out. This realisation should set a coach free from trying to control everything that happens in training and ultimately in a match.

It certainly had that effect on me. My experience as a kid being coached was one of being controlled. Run through a series of drills, time after time, that challenged me because of my skillset, but must have done nothing for the better player. Not to mention the fact, in hindsight, the skills nor the movements never felt the same in the match as they did in the drill.

So of course my move from player to coach was guided by my experiences as a player. Deciding that training needed to be organised, structured, and controlled to show the lone man walking his dog around the pitch that this was a good session run by a good coach. Ignoring the fact that matches are chaotic, unpredictable and in constant flux. Not to mention the burning desire to be heard. Convincing myself if I didn’t tell a player to pass, or go wide, or track his man, or hold onto the ball, that the world was going to end right then and there.

During this transition from player to coach, there was a realisation most conversations about coaching were about “what coaching is”. Seldom were they about “how to coach”. This is not surprising because it is such a fluid environment.

“It depends” has to be the most frustratingly accurate and useful coaching tool available to a coach. Why? Because it does depend, on a countless number of variables. Take the simple question: what will we do in training tonight? It depends on how many players we have available to train. It depends on what happened in the last match we played. It depends on the next match we’re going to play. It depends on what happened in the last training session. It depends on the incalculable number of issues each player may be contending with away from training. It depends on how long you have for the session. It depends on where you are in the season. It depends on the weather. It depends, it depends, it depends.

So when so much is dependent on so many moving variables, it is not surprising the default is to control as much as we can. Drills deceive us into thinking we are in control. Yet for the coach prepared to move away from a place of control and move into a space of variability, unpredictability, discovery, decision-making, problem-solving – all things that drills do not give us – the rewards are there for all to be experienced.

Nowadays my training is a game and my coaching has to be fluid enough to coach what’s in front of me – sound familiar? The rules, constraints and parameters that ensure that everyone in the game is being challenged is where the work goes in before, during and after every session. If there are 16 players at training, it’s 8 v 8. We might use the full pitch to play into both goals, if two keepers are available; it depends. The dimensions might be adjusted to parlay with the S&C coach’s load demands for that week; it depends. It may become 7v9 to simulate an expected tactic from the upcoming opposition; it depends. The rules may change mid-game to challenge the team’s ability to adapt to a changing situation; it depends. Specific rules may be given to some players to adhere to, to challenge them at their level; it depends.

As my coaching philosophy continues to evolve, the creation of a fluid structure to guide my approach has helped. If what needs to be said does not fit under the definition of praise, an affirmation or a question, the mantra then becomes “stay quiet”. Why?

Because praise is like having the wind at your back, you can’t see it, but you can feel it pushing you on – nature’s high-five.

Because an affirmation is feedback with context — “that’s the play you’ve been working on, great decision to try it there”. You connect the dots between what the player is working on and what they’re willing to try in training. As a result, the player is encouraged to continue to engage in the process of exploration, indefinitely.

Because a question does not provide the answer. It provokes thought and consideration. We learn more and at a deeper level if we have to figure it out compared to being told what to do. This requires patience and a willingness to not rush in and save the day. The short-term satisfaction felt from fixing all the problems for everyone is soon replaced by the monotony of hearing yourself saying the same thing over and over again because they were not exposed to a suitable scenario often enough and for long enough in training to figure it out for themselves.

Coaching, for me, is about empowering the players to take it away from you, the coach. To be prepared to be challenged by the players. To be equally aware of what you know and what you don’t know. To be content to profess only one thing, you’re engaged in the process of figuring it out, with an accepted tone of resignation it will never be fully figured out.

Coaching through games provides context and enables the emergence of realistic, unpredictable situations to unfold in front of the players, to be figured out on-the-fly. Though there are no definitive answers about coaching, because both frustratingly and satisfyingly, in equal measure, it depends. That said, for the many acceptable ways to coach a skill-based, team sport, one thing is for sure, drills are not the answer.

Be encouraged to know that coaching through games is not easy and anyone who tells you otherwise hasn’t tried it themselves. But it is worth the effort.

Coaching is coaxing.

Let the players play.


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