P. Potrac, R.L. Jones, D Gilbourne and L. Nelson.

The Big Idea

Let’s approach this research paper indirectly. For it concerns a hard truth in the profession of football coaching, the culture of it. Let’s introduce the problem by way of fiction first – even though there is nothing fictive in the comparison.

Louise Penny is an award-winning Canadian writer. Her novels feature Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surete de Quebec. Early on in one of Penny’s books, Inspector Isabelle Lacoste reflected on how her homicide department, once collaborative, had become something else.

Isabelle Lacoste had been in the Surete long enough to know how much easier it was to shoot than to talk. How much easier it was to shout than to be reasonable.How much easier it was to humiliate and demean and misuse authority than to be dignified and courteous, even to those who were themselves none of those things. How much more courage it took to be kind than to be cruel.

The Surete had changed over the years. “It was now a culture that rewarded cruelty.  That promoted it.”  Lacoste asked Gamache, “Why do decent young men and women become bullies? Why do soldiers dream of being heroes but end up abusing prisoners and shooting civilians? Why do politicians become corrupt? Why do cops beat suspects senseless and break the laws they’re meant to protect?” Because they can? Lacoste questions Gamache.

Because everyone else does, said Gamache. Corruption and brutality are modelled and expected and rewarded. It becomes normal. And anyone who stands up to it, who tells them it’s wrong, is beaten down. Or worse.

Does the life in professional football coaching imitate the art in Penny’s story of the Surete?


  • The focus of most professional football (soccer) interpersonal research is between coach and player.
  • Research on coach to coach relationships is uncommon.
  • This paper is focused on a personal professional football coaching experience.
  • Paul is both one of the authors of this research paper and the coach who both witnessed and participated in a high-level football training club immersed in inter-coach and manager humiliating and bullying tactics, and abusive behaviour.
  • The four negative, easy-to-learn rules from what was supposed to be player-centred coaching programme were:
    • Look after yourself
    • Coaches come and go
    • Watch your back
    • Seize any opportunity
  • Using the ideas of sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, this poisonous culture is analyzed.
  • The lesson: Co-existence or no-existence. (Piet Hein)

The Research

Setting the scene

This paper is autobiographical – for research purposes it is labeled “autoethnographic.” The first author (Paul) has a story to tell and expects it to be a common tale among those in the world of performance football (soccer) coaching.

It begins with infatuation. He grows up in a family climate in the UK with a professional footballer as a father. His father’s exploits in football are intoxicating. Paul strives to follow in his dad’s footsteps. Eventually realises he won’t become a professional. Coaching others who are striving to win professional contracts is next best. He becomes an academic as a day job. But he throws himself into part-time coaching with gusto. Paul loves it: “I wore the kit.” Coaching fuels his ego and gives him identity. Match days are addictive. Paul is happy.

But behind the appearance of collaboration and cooperation, was the discovery that the Surete fiction was coaching fact: selfishness, back-stabbing, cronyism, bullying, abuse, and cruelty. In practice, learning social “rules” became the priority, not coaching talented youth footballers.  And then comes the confession: “Not only did I learn these social ‘rules,’ but I participated in their practice.” Paul wanted to do well, wanted to succeed, wanted to protect himself, wanted to out perform the others, wanted to win. And badly. Here are the rules.

Rule #1: Look after yourself

Paul only half-heartedly welcomes Niall, a new assistant coach. The other two assistant coaches do little to make Niall comfortable. Niall’s first test was to lead the team in the warm-up, fresh-faced with polite enthusiasm. Anxious, Niall is. Things don’t go well on the pitch. Niall is on his own. Paul said he could have settled Niall down. Paul said he could have helped him. On the pitch the players are lackadaisical, too relaxed. The Gaffer (slang for Head Coach) takes the field and takes over. Niall is now redundant, sidelined, and humiliated. Niall, shunned by all, was from then on, really on his own. Paul did not console him or pep him up. Nor did anyone else.

Rule #2: Coaches come and go

Niall joins in on the team events, on the BBQs, the golf. Things go along, but Niall just isn’t connecting with the staff. Paul and the assistants engage in locker room banter. Joshing one another. This is now two months later. Niall is not in the locker room. Paul asks where Niall is.  Darren, another assistant coach, says, “Haven’t you heard? He won’t be coming back. . .. He had the big elbow. He couldn’t cut it, so the Gaffer’s let him go.” Paul says he liked Niall. He just needed some help to feel more comfortable and secure. But nobody gave it. It was time now to get back to business, all three assistant coaches felt. No one called Niall. No one cared enough to do so. “He was history. . .. You’re either in or you’re out; there was no middle ground.”

Rule #3: Watch your back  

Eventually, Paul gets what Niall got. In another training session, and using a schedule that the Gaffer previously approved, Paul believes he has directed a winning practice. The balls were moving crisply, the speed and intensity was on the ball, and the Gaffer gave a thumbs up. Paul was proud of his field leadership. They took a break. Then the Gaffer divided the team into three groups. Paul’s group was with the rotation of the centre midfielders.  Paul thought the players were moving slickly and following the planned patterns of movement. He was happy with all his coaching points.

But just before the break, it happened, and he never saw it coming. The Gaffer stopped Paul’s practice. He asked Paul’s players to demonstrate what they had been doing. After seeing the movements, the Gaffer said their movements were OK, but too basic and naïve for their level of play. The words cut to the quick.  Paul crumbled, feeling humiliated, ashamed, and betrayed.  “A sense of betrayal gave way to numbness. I should have known better. Some coaches would say ‘that’s just how it is.”

Rule #4: Seize any opportunity

Paul was now relegated to running warm-ups. He was jealous of Darren and Steve. When Steve took over the team for the practice session, Paul was on the sideline. He noticed at once that Steve had set up a passing activity wrong. It was sure to go badly. Paul at first thought of signalling Steve and letting him know the activity would crash. He didn’t. Instead, Paul watched as the players became confused and dysfunctional. They looked at Steve for help, but he didn’t know how to fix what was broken.

Paul saw his opportunity to recover some self-esteem. He went onto the pitch, saying he could sort this exercise out. He explained to the players where they needed to be and how the activity should work. Instead of leaving immediately after the fix, he pulled the trigger: he said to the team and Steve, “It was always going to fail with that set up.  It never had a chance of working.” Then Paul said to Steve in front of the players, “They’re all yours now mate.”

Steve, wounded now, carried on but without his usual confidence; flat and fragmented, practice was. Back on the sideline, and surprisingly, Paul said guilt swelled inside of him. “I felt shame, shallow, selfish, egotistical, uncaring—everything a coach shouldn’t be; everything I had become.”

The final whistle: calling time on his coaching life

Four weeks later, Paul quit coaching on the high performance programme. The Gaffer accepted his training kit with no attempt to change his mind. He shook hands with Darren and Steve, saying he would see them around. He never did. No phone calls; no golf; and no BBQs.

So what?

This true personal illustrative story was used by Paul and his research team to highlight the importance of understanding the subtle and not-so-subtle intricacies of coach-to-coach relationships. Most of the coaching research literature, they say, focuses on the relationships between coaches and the players.  There is little interest among researchers to explore this darker side of the coaching profession: the impact of individual motivation (goals, fears, and keeping a job) on coaching collegiality in team sports: the politics of coach-to-coach relationships.

The larger context of this paper for these researchers is found in the work of Zygmunt Bauman, who is popularly known as a “sociologist of possibility.” His critics say he is a “sociologist of pessimism.” Whichever, Paul’s narrative on professional coaching culture is to be an illustration of Bauman’s idea of “liquid modernity.”

What Bauman offers is a critique of the insidious preoccupation with protecting, promoting, and empowering individuals over inter-human relationships and cooperation. The consequence “is a high degree of individualisation, uncertainty, precariousness, and privatisation” and “. . . it is a world that puts a premium on competitive attitudes, while degrading collaboration and teamwork.” Common fates and interests are less personally interesting. Active political argument and action decays. Organisations then become arenas of struggle; consensus goals are abandoned; the space is filled with the politics of identity.

The culture of football, according these researchers, is infested with “me” over “us.” If competition is the be-all-and-end-all of the structure of this social institution, then who is surprised when its discourse, like in the Surete, consists of shouting, demeaning, humiliating, and cruel behaviour. Trust, compassion, kindness, and courage are on the wane.

For Bauman, it is the image of “the hunter” that drives social organisations today. “Given this sentiment,” as another researcher claims, “critical pedagogies have an important part to play in coach education in terms of encouraging coaches to develop their moral sensibilities through a questioning of how they react to the experience of others.” The banality and triviality of everyday coaching lives gives rise to insensitivity and moral blindness.  These researchers have identified this problem, hoping that others will pick up the call to civilise coach-to-coach behaviour. So, now we ask the more provocative question: Should the life in professional football coaching imitate the art in Louise Penny’s story of the Surete?

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