Working in the space between players and coaches

We all want our players to be decision-makers and to find the answers. New Zealand based Coach and AFC/FFA Pro License holder, Stephen Cain, shares his experiences on a recent webinar about how we might work with players in a more collaborative approach.

I recently attended a webinar session in which the presenters, Dave Morley and Sam Mckenzie, spoke about an aspect of the relationship between players and coaches that we are not always aware of. As I suspect most of us do, I tend to view player and coach development as two distinct but largely separate areas. Both are increasingly well taught. However, what is being investigated here is how they overlap and, specifically, how we can find constructive results by working in the space between the two.

Getting the balance right here can be difficult. Let me illustrate this with a personal experience. Some years ago in an under 17 World Cup last sixteen game, one of my teams played Nigeria in Abuja. Bit of a challenge there you might say. We had made it that far with a very disciplined tactical approach; every player knew his job intimately. Most of them were schoolboys, and we were very aware of the problems of stage fright. They would be up against a quality of opponent they had not met before. Add to this the pressures of big crowds and live television audiences and our approach was to make them totally focussed on their roles in the team in order to blot these things out.

We had noticed in training that when we put them in prescribed formations they performed very well. In drills and activities that were more open and less regulated, they were nowhere near as effective. Technical issues and inconsistency in their independent decision making were highlighted. We made the decision, not always consciously (a totally hierarchical one it should be noted), to approach the tournament as a top down tactical exercise.

This worked to a significant degree. They were in fact the first New Zealand team to qualify for the knockout stages of a world cup tournament. However, after going one down early in the Nigeria game it was apparent this approach was not going to work. We could see what was happening from the bench, but the players struggled to adapt. Five more goals later we were making plans to go home the next day. Now I am not saying the result would have been different had we taken a more inclusive overall approach. But at the very least they would have had the tools to make decisions relevant to where the game was going and learn from the success or failure of these decisions. The point is we never really left the space for the players to come into and the relationship was largely one way.

This process can, by any interpretation, be a bit vague at times. However the more we consider it the more its potential as a coaching tool becomes apparent. The overall aim is to help provide the most effective environment for the player-coach relationship to flourish and succeed. Anything that takes coaching beyond our current practice and identifies needs for future coach and player development is always worth looking at. This is especially important in the constantly changing environments we find ourselves operating in.

To explore the space in question we first must identify what it looks like and what it is about. What becomes apparent is the need to build some sort of platform. Looking at the whole thing through the lens of the coach-player relationship, the first thing to do in building this platform is to identify the primary roles and functions of both sides. As coaches we all have our own perspectives. Regardless of this we will probably include words such as educate, teach, and motivate when defining our own role; and words like perform, communicate and motivation of themselves and others when describing our players role.

Attributes like these helps define how we interact with our players. However this approach means we tend to compartmentalise, and it can stop us seeing the big picture. We should instead see player and coach development as interconnected, dependant, a two-way process. In other words if the player is to develop the coach must do the same. To make this happen involves exploring the space between the two.

This tends to lead us to the big question: who is more important to player development and success - the coach, or the players themselves? Traditionally we have seen this relationship based on hierarchies. These hierarchies cover both coach-player interactions and within playing squads themselves, often based in the latter on age, experience, and ability levels. We need to ask if this is really the best approach. We can all agree that player development is most effective when we encourage independent decision making. This will not happen if players are over reliant on coaches, especially when they are younger. Such an approach is narrow and short term, more in the interest of the coach than the player.

Role playing is the key here. Investigating if the player knows more about the role of the coach, or vice versa, involves a certain amount of such role playing and determines how the relationship works. Uncertainty within the space between the two can cause tension and conflict to occur, produce negativity and limit progress on both sides. The approach in the context of this article is that it is not an either/or scenario but a balancing act. Mutual dependency is the key and it can be found within the space being discussed. Communication here becomes more vital than ever to stop the environment becoming one of confrontation, or coup versus control. We therefore need to work out who owns this space, one that needs to be both dynamic and evolving.

We are aware that our thoughts, feelings, and emotions are interrelated with those of our players. In this context we are being asked to move away from traditional models of behaviour and interaction and think differently. Traditionally it has been the coach as the holder of power and knowledge. The player, however, needs to be engaged more, as a self-regulated learner wherever possible. This is an imbalance that has been recognised recently in coaching circles - things are changing.

There are other factors that also come into play in a general sense. One dimension is the cultural one. This will change the dynamic considerably. As Technical Director in Papua New Guinea I found the national team players were totally respectful of every word that I as a coach said. It does not occur to them to question as it is seen as disrespectful. As such they would not as a rule venture into the space we are investigating unless specifically told to do so. In such cases the players need to be invited in, perhaps encouraging them with an “I might have got this one wrong…” type of statement.

This does show the unfeasibility of any universal approach. One bottom line however should not change: it is not solely the player’s role to make the relationship work. If we as coaches can move slightly, we can improve the player centred approach we are all familiar with. Yes, the reality is that the coach has the power and must lead, but the approach we are investigating involves exploring the space between to see what we can learn from it. We need to remove limiting factors or constraints here to allow the ‘power pendulum’ to swing back to the players. The when/why/how remain the questions to be asked.

The outcomes we expect will vary considerably, but the interpersonal dynamic is vital and will require a shift in mentality from all concerned. The bottom line here is what impact this can have on how we operate as coaches. Coaches going back to their environments and handing power or all decision making to their players is obviously a non-starter.  Boundaries can be experimented with and power perhaps shifted gradually. Set pieces are a logical and safe place to start, an area player input should be significantly high anyway. The coach can be part of the process here rather than controlling it.

If nothing else, if ideas such as these encourage us, as coaches, to evaluate our approach then they are worth exploring. Asking ourselves if our approach is the best way to get the most out of our relationship with our players. To make what can be a gap between ourselves as coaches and our players become, rather, a space into which they are comfortable moving into and learning from. If we fail to understand and use this space, dealing with millennials and post millennials will become increasingly difficult for us as coaches.


Stephen Cain