Ego. Why does it dominate coaching? Player Development Project Editor & academy coach, Dave Wright challenges the place of ego in coaching questioning where it comes from, the difficulty of removing it and accepting that as a coach, you may not have all the answers.

“The kumara (sweet potato) does not need to say how sweet he is.”

It’s game day. A cold winter’s morning, you look outside, it’s gloomy, but there’s no rain. Game on. You’ve planned and prepared for weeks through a gruelling pre-season. You’ve looked at the balance of your side and constantly question, which formation should I go with? Do my players have what it takes? How can I best ensure my team’s success? The nerves keep you on your toes and as you roll out of bed you grab your tracksuit off the hanger, the three stripes or the little tick alongside that club badge make you feel like a pro. You know you’re mentally ready, but are your players? You arrive at the ground; drive into the car park listening to the last song that will get you focused before you head towards your team’s changing rooms. Your mind is clear and your tactics are sure.

You walk into the changing room. Like a true professional, you’re early and prepared. Two or three of your players arrive soon after, kit bags in tow, tracksuits on, pressed and ready. Then, one of your players turns to you and says “Can you help me tie my laces?” At this moment you wake up, realise it’s not Wembley on FA Cup Final day and you have to get over yourself as the 9-year-old boy looks up at you, his mentor, his role model, his coach and asks for help with his boots.

The cup final that you have in your head is not what’s about to play out. You’ve invested in yourself to soak up knowledge, to help your players and become a better coach, yet you still haven’t got the point.

As harsh as it may sound, the scenario I describe is one that happens all over the world every weekend in any country where sports teams have coaches, where adult expectations are projected on children. Ego is something that we all possess, let’s not kid ourselves, we’ve all got one, we all like to feel good and we all like to think we have the answers.

However, in coaching it’s crucial to understand the why? Why do you coach? In an interview recently with John Van’t Schip, (Former Head Coach at A-League club, Melbourne City FC & former Ajax Coach & Netherlands Assistant) published in Issue 15 of Player Development Project Magazine, I asked John, “What makes a good coach?” He swiftly replied, “The realisation that it’s always about the players and never about you.”

I fell in love with coaching because it gave me an opportunity to bring people together. Maybe I’d seen too many sporting movies as a kid, but I love the challenge of leadership. I captained football and cricket teams as a young player and have been fortunate enough to coach them as an adult. Building towards common goals and seeing the development of individuals is the reward of coaching.

In order to continue to grow we have to stay humble, we don’t know it all. Coming from New Zealand makes seeing the rest of the world exceptionally interesting. New Zealanders are self-effacing and notoriously humble, sometimes too humble. This is partially because Tall-Poppy-Syndrome is rife, so naturally people will talk themselves down.

Richie McCaw, the recently retired All Black Captain who achieved everything possible in the game of rugby is for me, the ultimate sporting role model. No ‘big noting’, always self-effacing, forever humble and a true team man. Richie is a quiet achiever and phenomenal competitor. He personifies grit and sacrifice and experienced unrivalled success as a rugby player and leader.

There is a beautiful tribalism to football in the UK, a pride and passion that is entirely unique. During my time coaching there I learned more about coaching than ever, but the tracksuits can lead to inflated egos when perhaps they are no more than a three-striped mask of our own insecurities? The club badges are part of English football and there are plenty of unbelievably good coaches around who wear them, but the best of the best seem to remove their own ego from the equation, putting their players development first.

In James Kerr’s best-selling book about the All Blacks culture, Legacy, he cites a Maori proverb – “The kumara (sweet potato) does not need to say how sweet he is.” I like the sentiment that goes with this and believe we can learn from it as coaches.

I’ve been exceptionally fortunate in my time to meet some fantastic coaches. In the last few years, I’ve been privileged to interview some of the best for Player Development Project. The common traits I have seen with industry leaders are:

  • No swagger, no ego, just grit
  • A desire to help their players and to help their team
  • An obsession with knowing their players and building relationships
  • Patience on their own journey. Many of these top coaches have been in the game 10-20 years at least and grafted to get to where they are.
  • Self awareness
  • A desire to look beyond football in their quest to get better.

PDP Lead Researcher, James Vaughan discusses the impact of ego in coaching and the value in removing it. He explains, “Ego is often about looking, feeling or simply being perceived as ‘better’ than others. The focus on others breeds social comparison and we define our success based on societal norms, which means we conform to societal norms; the way we dress, speak, behave, coach, even the tactics we use and team talks we give. Quieting our ego is about recognising that we don’t know and we don’t have all the answers, it’s recognising that others (your players or other coaches) may be able to come up with answers to football problems without you and that’s ok. It’s also recognising that creating the chaos and space for this to happen will often reflect badly on you as a coach, because it looks like you don’t know what you’re doing, but quieting our ego is about not caring what other people think and doing what’s best for our players.”

It’s important here to differentiate the idea between confidence and ego. I believe confidence is essential and any coach has to have faith in his or her abilities and have a philosophy which can be backed up with methodology. I want my players to feel confident, to show resilience, but there is enormous value in taking a humble approach to your journey and valuing discomfort, both as a player and coach. As an example, the reality of working in an academy for the first time is exceptionally exciting for any young coach – but have you made it? No. You’ve earned the right to coach in a position of privilege with young people who are deemed to be the best in their age in their sport, nothing more. That’s when the hard work starts. Are you good enough to challenge them? What can you learn from them? Whatever level of sport you are working at, keeping the players needs at the forefront of your mind is paramount.

In a recent wide-ranging interview with England U16 Coach, Dan Micciche (published in Issue 11 & 12 over two parts), Dan said, “I’ve learned more from all of my players than they will have ever learned from me”. A humble statement and worth keeping in mind in your next session.

Good things will come to those who work hard and if you make it to the top of your industry, you are no doubt worthy of praise and have had to work hard to get there. I would give anything to be working day-in-day out with full-time professional players and it’s one of many goals I have, but I have a long way to go. Whether your own coaching goal is non-league football, your son or daughters local sports team, or to manage a Premier League club, we all have ambitions and if you achieve those goals, enjoy them, celebrate them, but don’t forget why you’re there…and drop the bravado.

I question how ego comes in to coaching and why we all feel the need to keep up the charade? I challenge developing coaches to remember your own coaches, teachers and mentors when you were a young player or student in any learning environment. What impact did they have on you? Who were the good ones and why? I certainly don’t recall my teachers swaggering into school claiming they were responsible for the development of the world’s pre-eminent thinkers, researchers, doctors or entrepreneurs, so what right do coaches have to claim the success of their players?

Football is without doubt an industry now. In fact, it was said at the Soccerex Global Convention in 2015 that the value of the global football industry is worth around 2% of global GDP – more than the entire international food industry! I accept the commercial realities that go with the game in 2016 (although I will argue for eternity that 18-year-olds should never be on £10,000 a week – perhaps a blog for another time) but I do not believe that we should be playing Football Manager with young players’ lives. As Claudio Ranieri so eloquently said in early 2016 about his Leicester team’s surprising surge to the top of the Premier League, “In an era where money counts for everything, I think we give everybody hope.”

Let the players enjoy their time – you’ve had yours. Your opportunity now is to create, facilitate and nurture a safe, challenging, positive environment that encourages your players to be brave and learn from mistakes, to have some fun, to adopt a growth mindset and become the best they can be. If you’re lucky, maybe one day they’ll think back and be grateful for the positive impact you had on their lives.

Popular searches: defending, finishing, 1v1, playing out from the back, working with parents