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Being Coachable

This is an excerpt from One Goal by Bill Beswick.

Coachability is a key to performance breakthrough for individual players and whole teams. The one essential requirement is the willingness to listen and utilise external input and influences. The extent of this openness to learning determines four levels of coachability:

  1. Not coachable - already knows everything, not open, listens only to own voice
  2. Selectively coachable - does what's asked but only when he or she feels like it, mostly goes own way
  3. Reluctantly coachable - does everything that is asked but doubts it, never fully committed
  4. Completely coachable - does everything asked, surrenders own voice, trusts and empowers the coach

Players and teams who reject coaching often believe certain myths:

  • Coaching is for beginners.
  • We already know everything - we just need to apply it.
  • Experienced players coach themselves.

Gareth Barry, a Premier League player at Aston Villa, Manchester City and then Everton FC, was asked to fulfil a number of roles in the midfield of the England team to complement the particular skills of either Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard. In my opinion Gareth's coachability became key to the team's performance. His character and maturity were evidenced by an ability to listen, a willingness to try new things, an ability to adapt to change and the strength to accept accountability.

Of course, Gareth made mistakes, but he freely admitted them, took responsibility for them and rarely made the same mistake again.

Top coaches demand coachable players.

Photo courtesy of FC Twente.

The Coachable Player

  • Humble
  • Respectful
  • Loves the game
  • Stays in control
  • Takes responsibility
  • Thinks long term
  • Keen to learn
  • Excited by change
  • Willing to try new things
  • Unafraid of mistakes
  • Not hung up on the past
  • Inquisitive
  • Trusts coaches

How players adapt to coaching says a great deal about who they are. The same is true of teams. Coachability is an aspect of team mindset. Progress depends on the commitment of all individual members to learn their team roles and responsibilities. Great coaches can win with less talent but only if the team have a high level of coachability (see table 6.1). The New England Patriots of the American NFL have been Super Bowl winners and a dominant force in the league under the guidance of their outstanding coach, Bill Belichick, who recruits coachability:

Belichick's system relies heavily on smart, adaptable players. The intellectually rigorous, team-centric Patriots system would flop without smart, selfless, passionate players. Belichick's previous club played the same system but failed because many players weren't coachable. The Patriots have acquired many superb players who achieved little on other teams that did not utilise those players' intelligence and adaptability.

Belichick's staff relentlessly squeezes maximal performance from players whose ‘excellence' is defined by their heads and hearts as much as their arms and legs. (Lavin 2005, p 53)

Being coachable is important at all ages and levels of competition. All coaches have limited time to teach the skills of soccer, so they rely on players to be early for practice; ready, fresh and alert; keen to learn and determined to excel.

Superstars Have Coachability

When Steve Round, the former assistant manager of Manchester United, walked out for his first practice session with his new squad, he was a little nervous. Coaching superstars is daunting, and he was still unsure of the right approach. However, one of the senior players walked alongside him and told him how much the players were looking forward to the session. He went on to add that the players loved being challenged to learn new things. The word was that 'Roundy' and the manager, David Moyes, were demanding coaches. A valuable lesson learned - many superstars are highly coachable and need to be challenged every day!

Being Uncoachable

The world's most brilliant coach would fail without players who are willing and able to learn from her or him. I saw Paul Barron, a goalkeeping coach responsible for the development of many fine goalkeepers, fail with only one goalkeeper. This particular player had had some early success before Paul joined his club. From the start the player rejected Paul's coaching and experience, insisting that he knew best how to prepare. The other goalkeepers in the squad responded well to Paul, and it was no surprise when one of them accelerated through to win the first-team jersey, leaving behind a talented but uncoachable failing star.

Unfortunately, coaches, especially of younger players, are encountering more players who are uncoachable. Some players believe they are never wrong, others think that the coach picks on them unfairly, and, of course, some will not take responsibility for mistakes or failure. These instances of uncoachable behaviour reflect various forms of mental or emotional weakness:

  • Arrogance
  • Indifference - doesn't care
  • Anger - instantly fights back
  • Subversion - finds victim ‘friends'
  • Low self-esteem:
    • Unwilling because afraid
    • Makes assumptions and avoids accountability
    • Being wrong, when this is associated with feeling of less worth
    • Takes everything personally
    • Worries about things he or she cannot control

The moment that determines whether a player or team are coachable or uncoachable is immediately after a coach intervenes with advice, instruction or criticism. Figure 6.2 illustrates the choice for the player or team between responding positively and reacting negatively. From the first moment a young boy or girl starts to learn soccer, that choice reflects the person's character and determines his or her soccer destiny, unless a coach at some point can influence a change from negative to positive.

Responding or reacting to coach intervention - a measure of coachability.

Developing Coachability

Coachability is a function of the following factors:

  1. The player's motivation to learn and improve
  2. The player's desire to achieve her or his goals and dreams
  3. The strength of the relationship between the player and the coach

For the team we must add these points:

  1. Trust in others to do their jobs
  2. Open and honest communication
  3. Open and clear expectations of each other

Ensuring player and team coachability is about shaping these thoughts and emotions positively. This notion goes beyond physical, technical and tactical instruction and engages the coach more as a psychologist and relationship builder. Of course, the coach's job is to challenge players to improve, but if these elements of coachability are not in place, no learning will occur. Basketball coach Phil Jackson had to coach the uncoachable LA Lakers, star players who had lost any sense of humility and gone backwards from a ‘we' attitude to a ‘me' attitude. The lesson he shared was this:‘The essence of coaching is to get the players wholeheartedly to agree to being coached, then offer them a sense of their destiny as a team' (Jackson 2013, p 17).

Coach Jackson convinced his players that the only way to win was by being willing to be coached as one cohesive team unit.

Fully developed coachability means players become self-managing and take responsibility for their own learning. This is the mindset of a champion player or team. They come to learn every day and never waste a practice. I recommend that players engage in a 12-step programme to develop self-management:

  1. Take responsibility and make no excuses.
  2. Decide whether you want to be a fighter or a victim.
  3. Set an achievement journey.
  4. Plan targets for each day.
  5. Define your own job description.
  6. Profile your own strengths and weaknesses.
  7. Build a disciplined routine.
  8. Manage your own time and energy.
  9. Learn something every day.
  10. Don't get in your own way.
  11. Accept that you are accountable.
  12. Never give in!

Martin Krag on the website (2012) gave a fascinating insight into William Kvist, a top Danish international soccer player who is dedicated to self-managing his coachability:

William Kvist is a true professional and his approach to football is similar to the one you'll find in individual sportsmen like triathletes or swimmers. He takes responsibility for his own development in a world where players are used to being taken care of and catered to as long as they get themselves to the training ground and to the stadium on match days. Kvist himself calls it the hunt for perfection and that's why he has surrounded himself with a team of psychologists, hypnotherapists, dieticians and mental coaches.

‘I didn't become a true professional before I took responsibility for my own development and started to train on my own with the help from my team of practitioners. I had a contract but didn't behave like a professional. That came when I started to focus on my weaknesses. What I didn't get at the training ground I worked on myself, and the improvement followed,' says Kvist.

In the team bus on match days you'll find Kvist at the back with headphones on and closed eyes listening to the voice of his mental coach telling him that he will control the midfield, that he will dominate and own the centre of the field. And in the car on his way to the training ground Kvist will be listening to classical music because the radio commercials are disturbing his concentration.

William Kvist is a good example of a highly coachable and self-managing player. Every coach should encourage this mindset in young players. It begins with creating a practice and game environment where learning is encouraged and rewarded. At first the players must be shown the ways in which they can improve their performance, though eventually, like Kvist, they should be able to develop intrinsic motivation and be allowed to take control over their own learning.

Creating a Learning Environment

In my experience many of the barriers to learning and being coached are removed by creating a healthy and productive environment as a foundation upon which to build. Such an environment is the sum total of everything that affects the player's psychological and emotional well-being and therefore has a direct or indirect influence on performance. Coaches create a learning environment by making learning a key objective of performance. Because soccer is learned through trial and error, coaches must create a zone of psychological safety that fosters change and innovation and, more important, removes the fear of being embarrassed by making mistakes. Fear can stifle the learning process and prevent the development of those valuable players who can think outside the box.

Coaches remove fear and encourage new learning with a tough and warm coaching style that challenges but always stays in tune with each player's and the team's feelings.

The coaching environment is important because the coach has control over it and determines whether it is a positive, productive place to learn soccer or not. Many of the mental and emotional strengths that players gain are achieved through daily exposure to a challenging but positive and productive coaching environment. This sort of setting enables players to maximise their talent potential. Because the programme is well prepared and organised, nothing detracts from quality teaching time. Enthusiastic coaches teach mastery of the skills and constantly stress excellence in performance rather than focus on results. Players are given individual learning goals and allowed sufficient learning time every session. Progress is measured and rewarded. Effort is constantly recognised and praised, and the player receives continual feedback, especially after making mistakes.

The most effective leaders always explain why a skill is being taught and what benefits it will bring. They think and act positively, spreading optimism and a can-do attitude. From careful observation they offer the players accurate, objective and supportive feedback. Tolerance of mistakes is part of the learning process, and the good coach is able to interpret such failures as learning moments.

Of great importance is using games as an important learning experience, as a test of development rather than simply a win or a loss. All learning progress in practice can be destroyed by a results-fixated coach at game time. The best coaches do their best teaching at game time.

Establishing Work Standards

Understand exactly what work is required.

Ensure that all work is relevant to the age, gender and competitive level of the players.

Always explain why the work is needed.

Communicate your high expectations.

Encourage all players to work to their maximum potential.

Establish hard work as a team ethic.

Model the high standards you set.

Do not accept mediocrity.

Reward good work.

Inside the Team

Overcoming Resistance to Coaching

Coach Tom inherited a team of U15 boys who rejected coaching and had seen the departure of several well-meaning coaches. Tom discussed this with me, and we decided that we needed to change the way the team were thinking and slowly build up coachability. Because of the deep-rooted nature of the resistance, we had to think creatively. We came up with the following programme:

  1. For the first three practices Coach Tom was a pleasant guy with a whistle who just let the team play games.
  2. A practice game was arranged with a well-coached opponent. When the boys lost 0-4 Tom simply remarked, ‘Well, that was fun'.
  3. As anticipated, by now a reaction was building from both players and parents, so the coach called a meeting before the next practice.
  4. At the meeting ‘WHAT DO YOU WANT?' was written on the board. The answer came back that everybody wanted to achieve. So Tom wrote on the board ‘WHAT DO WE NEED TO DO?' The answer included being coached to improve. Tom then handed to each player and his parents a sheet containing his eight rules of practice:
    1. Be on time and be ready.
    2. Run when the coach whistles.
    3. Listen attentively.
    4. Try very hard to play as the coach asks.
    5. Help each other to learn.
    6. Respond positively to feedback from the coach.
    7. Be willing to change your game.
    8. Understand that change can be uncomfortable.

When every player and his parents had signed and returned the sheet, Tom continued with practice.

  1. Tom did not revolutionise practice, but he slowly integrated short, sharp learning moments within an enjoyable game structure.
  2. A visit was arranged for the team and parents to watch a professional team practise. The whole concept of work, focus and coachability was emphasised.
  3. A return match with the previous opponents saw the team tie 2-2 and appreciate the improvements they had made.

Tom is now in his third season with the team!

Learn more about One Goal.

More Excerpts From One Goal