Player Development Project Technical Advisor, Dan Wright discusses the importance of knowing your player, building relationships and coaching the person.

Building trust between coach and player is vital for success at all levels.

If your goal as the coach is to aid development of youth players or to win the Premier League it is impossible without the relationship between athlete and coach.

The intangible bond between athlete and coach is very noticeable, at training sessions, in conversations and at games and yet at the same time difficult to quantify. It’s not earned on a course nor is it exclusive to coaches that have ‘played the game’.

As I move along my coaching journey I believe it is these interpersonal soft skills that separate the good from the great. Yes there will always be tactical innovators; new systems and roles but these are redundant if the player doesn’t buy into the methods or truly believe the words and promises of the coach. Call it personality, charisma or chemistry, it’s important and it can be improved. Conversely, the coach must buy in to the players and understand them.

Let Them Speak

This is a crucial starting point for me, how can you begin to understand your players if the communication is a one-way relationship.

With older players this can be done in a one to one meeting, but with younger players I’ve distributed an ‘about you form’. This gives the player freedom to discuss his football, travel, past performances and everything in-between.

A Shared Vision

The key here is to ensure that these individual learning plans are agreed between player and coach, in my experience if they are driven by the coach the player will not take ownership when it really matters. Equally if they are set by the player but not agreed by the coach they can be so generic they are difficult to measure later on.

Be Honest

Throughout the player development journey the coach must remain honest. Too often we tell the players what they want to hear rather than what can help them reach the next level. Of course, we must be considerate with younger players and parents, but honesty is vital to this process. If you aim to be “nice”, later on when the targets are not met you will be seen to be untrustworthy and perhaps even inept.

Players that I have worked with have always appreciated honesty, some more than others granted but it has been the rock solid foundation of success. You can’t build a true relationship on false promises or unwarranted praise.

Unconditional Support

This is the hard part, the part where most coaches struggle. Once you’ve set the expectations or targets, you have to stick to them. There is no linear path from novice to expert, everyone is different. It is so easy to be supportive and encouraging when the player is confident, scoring goals and demanding the ball. But what is your body language and communication like when he’s given 5 misplaced passes in a row? How can the player trust you if as soon as there is some adversity you cut all ties and claim he’s not at the level or needs to be released.

Obviously at times failure is harsh necessity on the journey, but too often we blame the players. “He can’t move” or “he can’t use his weaker foot.” Well, isn’t that your job as a coach? You’d be out of job if all players were Messi at 7-years-old.

If a player fails in training or in games, I will always ask myself “Is there is anything more I could of done to help them in that situation.” Almost always the answer is yes; be it through one to one sessions, video analysis or just a simple “keep going!”

I live for that golden moment, when the player becomes aware and self relflective. He makes a mistake and will tell you “I should have…”, sometimes even a look is enough. That to me is great coaching, when a player starts to self-correct and all you have to do is nod or give them a thumbs up. They don’t need the hair dryer treatment when they start to recognise their own faults. However, to get to this stage it can take weeks and months or sessions, games and discussions.

Stay on the Same Page

The unconditional support still has a framework. You can’t just back someone without a road map of where we are, where do we want to go and how will we get there?

This is best done formally, I like this to be written down and I use a similar template as to when we started. Again aim to be honest and objective.

Know Your Player

This is the art of coaching. Knowing how and when to communicate, and how this varies from individual.

A key way to do this quickly is to speak with their parents, preferably without the player.

Ask key questions like:

  • What’s motivates them?
  • What makes them frustrated?
  • Why do they play football?
  • What are they like at school?
  • What are the like socially?
  • Do they have any siblings?

This will open a whole new level of understanding; you’ll get an insight to the person behind the footballer. Once you’ve worked out whether they need praise, encouragement, criticism, a high five or silence you’ll start to see fantastic results

It’s Not all About Football…

Some players are easy for coaches to connect with, they might enjoy feedback or be the joker in the group. Most young players are actually quite difficult to get to know properly, the player you see on the pitch might be very different to the personality at school, home or even in the changing room.

A great way to make that first connection is to get to know them and if possible talk about something other than football. A few simple questions could include;

  • Do you have any brothers or sisters?
  • How was school today?
  • Do you speak any other languages?
  • What’s your favourite thing to do in your spare time?
  • Do you play any other sports?
  • What’s your favourite…food/movie/holiday destination etc

This is something which is blindly obvious and has almost instant results. Players feel like you care about them not just how they play football. These conversations open lots of doors, create weekly conversations and even some great new nicknames!

“You can’t work with them exactly the same way. You’ve got to study and analyse each individual and find out what makes them tick and how you get them under control. Some you may have to put on the bench more. Others you’ve got to pat on the back more. I wish there was a formula…”

                                                                                                                                                                  John Wooden

About the Author

Dan has been coaching in a full time capacity since 2007, starting out in grassroots football and he is now Head of Coaching & Player Development for Gulu United in Uganda. Dan previously worked for Brentford Football Club overseeing the club college program and as Head Coach of the U11/12 age group. He has also worked at Eastleigh, Portsmouth and Bristol City and is currently working towards his UEFA A license and is a holder of level 1, 2 & 3 FA Youth Awards. View more of Dan’s content here.

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