How Do Coaches Learn?
How do we learn a thing? If you are in any normal pursuit, you probably read a book, or take a course. Maybe you check out some peer-reviewed journal articles, should you have access to materials at a university. Possibly, what you want to learn has some expert sites on the internet, so you trawl through their material to get up to speed. In a few rare cases, maybe you are lucky enough to have access to a subject matter expert and you ask them for information.
That’s for normal subjects, which covers the vast spectrum of all things humans need to know.
Now… how do you learn if you are a coach?
This is a question that has fascinated me since I started working inside of football, not least because I needed to figure out the best ways for me to impart my knowledge to coaches for them to use. So I started studying the problem inside of our clubs, and also took the English FA Level 2 Coaching Course to see how new coaches learn from a personal point of view.
What I figured out is this:
How coaches learn is
- an unbelievably important thing for people who work high up in football to know.
- horribly misunderstood by almost every decision maker I have encountered.
It’s not really anyone’s fault – it’s just that picking up coaching knowledge is so different than how humans learn almost anything else, it’s easy to make assumptions that seem natural, but are quite clearly wrong.
The issue here is that unlike almost every modern profession in the world, coaching is really an apprenticeship. Instead of learning via reading or attending lectures, the vast majority of knowledge you need to do the job comes via observing and doing. Theory is still important, but the practical element is dominant.
Before we carry on, let’s break the job down further – what do coaches actually do?
Choose a style of play for their team.
All the potential styles of play under the sun are possible, both in attack and defense.
Design training sessions to impart knowledge to their players about the style of play and specific tactics.
Once you have chosen how you want your team to play, you need to teach that to the players through training.
These elements are huge. If you can’t teach and communicate your ideas in a clear and effective manner, then you aren’t likely to be a good coach. And the subjects you need to teach to players are potentially vast and hugely different, but cover all areas of technique, tactics, phases of the game, and dynamic situation analysis of yourself, your teammates, and the opposition.
Football is complicated. That’s one of the things that makes it so captivating.
So much of what a coach actually does in training is correcting things that are not quite right, or teaching players about the options they had available. A teachable moment occurs, the coach stops training, rewinds to what they want to discuss, and then corrects actions to how they want it done in the future.
These meetings can cover a variety of topics including reviewing training, reviewing games, what to expect from upcoming opponents, teaching new tactics, etc. You only get so much time on the pitch each week as a coach, and then everything else you need to give your players comes outside that area, typically through video review. That means meetings, and at the professional level, potentially lots of them.
These are just the basic elements of the job, but there are plenty additional responsibilities I have skipped over for the sake of brevity.
Right, so now we know what coaches do – the next step is learning how to do it. In order to teach the material to players at an elite level, you have to master the material yourself.
Where does that mastery come from?
- Playing the game.
It’s possible you picked up some coaching basics via osmosis when your brain and body were busy learning how to play.
- Learning from past coaches you played under.
Most of these will not be role models for the modern game, especially if you played in England.
- Coaches you apprentice under as a lower level, or assistant coach.
Most new coaches land at their early jobs not based on what those jobs can teach them, but based on the fact that those were the jobs they could get. How many of those will be great learning environments?
- Coaching courses and licenses.
In many cases, you are required to go on these to maintain your licenses. Like many courses in other pursuits, some are useful, some are not.
- Internet resources.
Useful, but a mixed bag of material and rarely comprehensive.
- Watching other teams play?
With regard to this one, how do you go about seeing tactics in game situations and turning them into training sessions for players?
Without belaboring the point too much, coaching is a knowledge-based profession that is also a practical apprenticeship, and it’s incredibly hard to find a good place to learn how to do it well.
Let’s step away from coaching as a whole, and make this simpler... Say I want to learn how to train a single tactical element from top to bottom, and do that well.
Pick one item from the following list:
- Defensive pressure like Jurgen Klopp
- Generate great shots like Arsenal
- Execute set pieces like Atletico Madrid
Awesome, we have a topic… now what?
Uh… I don’t know?
You can’t exactly walk up to The Jurgen Klopp School of Football Coaching and get a degree in Rock and Roll Gegenpressen. And as far as I am aware, there is no Arsene Wenger MBA of Elite Attacking on offer at any university in England, nor Cholo Simeone’s Science of Set Pieces anywhere at all.
This is unfortunate, because as a student of the game and someone who actually needs to know a lot of this stuff to be better at his job, I would enroll in this as an Executive MBA program in a heartbeat.
It sounds like I am joking, but this is serious stuff – if you are a young British coach that wants your team to learn German-style defensive pressure, how do you do it? Where do you do it?
The basic unit of coaching is a training session. Where can I find 10 or 20 or 30 training sessions strictly on imparting the knowledge of zonal defensive pressure and gegenpressing, explained in detail?
And more importantly, where can I find the video of those training sessions, so that I can learn what right and wrong look like in training, and be able to make crucial interventions? Because that is what you need to have in order to learn the material well enough to teach it to players who are unfamiliar with the concepts. You need example after example of what is right and wrong, and an expert pointing these things out and explaining the difference.
This isn’t just a personal lament – I’m writing about it because it explains one of the incredible oddities of the football world: coaches almost never change styles.
This is weird, right? Coaches are typically smart, and football is a dynamic game that changes tactically on a regular basis. So why do so few coaches go on to incorporate other styles or develop new ones over the course of their career?
- As noted above, it’s hard to learn a new style in the first place.
- Where and when are they going to test out that style while learning it?
Successful learning environments are low pressure, where students can make and learn from mistakes while getting feedback. Making mistakes (and reviewing them) is fine because that is how we learn, especially in a hands-on, process-oriented job like coaching.
All first team coaching jobs in pretty much every professional league in the world are high pressure environments. You’re a first team coach – your job is to win matches. If you don’t win matches, you will be replaced. Period.
These two things are wholly incompatible. Being a first team coach means you exist in a terrible learning environment.
Additionally, when pressure increases, we tend to revert back to what we know and think works best. Which in coaching terms will be the tactics you are most familiar with from your historic learning journey.
Thus is it any wonder that we rarely see professional football coaches learn new things? For most of them, their job makes for an environment totally inhospitable to experimentation, which is crucial in the pursuit and mastery of new knowledge.
THIS IS A HUGE PROBLEM!
Say you want to hire a new head coach because your old one was too successful and has been poached by a bigger club. You find a new coach whose personality works, who seems open to new things, but his past teams have only exhibited two of the four crucial components to your club’s style of play. What do you do?
“Well, can learn what they don’t already know.”
Definitely not if this change is happening in-season, or if the job is a high pressure job – as pretty much all of them are. Even if they want to increase their knowledge, it might not be possible because the learning environment is toxic.
At the end of the day, understanding the problem fundamentally changes how we address it.
Instead of “ can learn what they don’t already know” decision makers need to ask the following:
“How do we enable to learn what we want them to know?”
New coaches are what they are. Do not expect them to fundamentally change on their own – we have an overwhelming amount of evidence that indicates that doesn’t happen. Instead you need to think about empowering them to learn and provide subject matter experts to bolster their knowledge.
So How Can a Coach Learn New Things?
- Spend time interning with coaches who already know these things. This would presumably involve going to watch training with other clubs during the off season. The problem here is that most coaches are secretive about their training and tactical knowledge, and the off season happens at the same time for practically every club in Europe. Where and when would you do this?
- Hire assistant coaches that are subject matter experts. The obvious example here is hiring set piece coaches to coach your set pieces, but it can be true across the whole spectrum of coaching expertise. In American football, there are coaches for each specific football role (Quarterback, Offensive Line, Running Backs, Wide Receivers, etc), as well as coordinators who sit on top of offense, defense, and special teams and who all report to the head coach. These act like coach-analysts I have mentioned in my previous work, and can be more hands on with players about every aspect of their games.
Want to implement a defensive press? Hire a bright, young defensive coach who has expertise in this area to work inside of your coaching staff. Hopefully the personality and linguistic differences work out fine, and everyone ends up happy. That last bit is tricky, but people need to make it work because it’s one of the only possible ways to add new knowledge to your club.
- Create training programs inside your own club to address these areas. As I noted above, there’s very little public learning material that can turn you into an expert in specific tactical areas, or even to give you the basic paths for learning the information. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. If a club wanted to, it could go out of its way to create courses that teach the various elements of its style of play, complete with instructional videos, videos of past training, session plans, and written explanations that tie it all together.
Make no mistake, it’s a lot of work to create something where nothing existed before. But if your club has taken the time to develop a style of play it thinks is important, doesn’t that deserve the investment necessary to make sure every coach inside the club can learn all of the tactical elements inside of that style to an elite level? Including incoming head coaches that may only have parts of the knowledge you need them to have?
It comes back around to this: football is a knowledge-based game. Smarter coaches and smarter players equal smarter results. And yet our ability to increase coaching knowledge is somehow incredibly limited.
Remember, it’s not just book learning we are talking about. It’s learning the material well enough to communicate it to other people. It’s seeing the situations in training and on the pitch, recognizing they are outside the ideal, and then correcting them in a way that the player can understand and that makes them better for the future. And it’s reviewing training and game performance to figure out what is missing, so you can implement and adapt future training sessions to address that.
There’s one more big thing that is missing, even from the points above: reps.
In any new learning, it’s important to be able to practice a skill repeatedly. The more you do it, the more situations you see, the broader the knowledge base you build for what does and does not work in those various situations. If you are a professional coach who wants to add new tactics to their bag of tricks, how do you get the training and game reps to improve your learning and cement the new knowledge?
I don’t actually know the answer to that question, but I do know it’s important.
Head coaches already have too much on their plates at most clubs, but maybe the assistants can also coach academy teams in order to gain experience in tactical evaluation and organization cycles? Regardless of my inability to provide an acceptable answer, it’s noted here because it’s another important element that needs consideration.
- Coaching is a different type of profession than most of the world’s occupations.
- How coaches learn is radically different than how most people learn to do their jobs.
- Decision makers need to understand these facts. If they don’t, they have expectations for what coaches can and cannot do that are unaligned to reality. This gets expensive when teams are constantly firing head coaches and bringing in new ones in attempts to fix perceived inadequacies.
- Resources for learning new tactics and how to teach them to coaches and players alike are scarce. This makes learning new things somewhere between difficult and impossible.
- If you want to have a coherent style of play from one coaching generation to another, then clubs need to make sure they take steps to enable and empower new coaches to learn their style of play at an expert level.