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The Blog

Running the Gauntlet

The life of a modern, top flight football manager can be short lived. With club and supporter expectations bordering on perfection, for a manager to successfully negotiate the gauntlet of public pressure requires skill, knowledge and perhaps above all, luck. Sean Douglas, Football Federation Australia’s Advanced Coaching Manager, explores the criteria most often used to judge coach success, and offers a new context with which to assess performance.

 

“Half the season gone, half the coaches gone; forget the Tasmanian devil – the A-League coach is Australia’s most endangered species” That was the headline in a major Australian newspaper half way through the 2013-14 season. Available statistics from both the A-League and the English Football League (kindly provided by the League Managers Association) make for grim reading if you are a football coach.

So forget all those proclamations of five- year plans and long- term philosophies. If you’re appointed head coach of an A-League team, your job security is roughly a season and a half.

There have been 46 permanent A-League coaching appointments (excluding interim stints), with an average lifespan in the job of just 44 games.

So forget all those proclamations of five-year plans and long-term philosophies. If you’re appointed head coach of an A-League team, your job security is roughly a season and a half.

The statistics for the Football League in England don’t make much better reading. The overall average tenure of dismissed managers at this stage last season was 1.99 years. This figure is skewed, however, with the departures of three of the longest serving managers.

Seven of the 11 managers dismissed in the first half of the 2013-14 season had been sacked within 1.5 years of appointment, five of 11 within a year of appointment. So, life expectancy as a coach in either the A-League or the Football League is roughly one and a half seasons.

The professionalization of the game has led to an increasingly common ‘measurement agenda’, which has brought with it notions of accountability and evaluation of coaching work.

But how are these coaches evaluated before being sacked? What criteria do those in charge look at that tells them they need to change coaches? Or are they swayed by the far more regular and public evaluations about their coach’s performance and effectiveness found across the press, TV and Social Media?

Albert Ferrer helped Cordoba CF reach the top flight in Spain for the first time in 42 years, sacked October 2014 after a bad start to the year. Photo: voetbal_foto

Albert Ferrer helped Cordoba CF reach the top flight in Spain for the first time in 42 years, sacked October 2014 after a bad start to the year. Photo: voetbal_foto

While the reviews of coach performance conducted within Olympic sports tend to be more thorough and incorporate a wider set of ‘performance measures’, it seems that the most common criteria used to evaluate coach performance in many  professional team sports is a crude win vs loss. And why not? Isn’t that what the coach is there to do – win matches? So why examine any other measure? The following questions may provide a rationale for looking further than win/loss statistics:

• What contribution does a coach make to the performance of a team? How do you know? What evidence do you have?

• How do we know if a team would have performed better under a different coach or with a different approach?

To put it simply, your team may not be winning, but how do you know that changing the coach will change that? How do you know that it is the coach that is the problem? Or is it a case of change the coach and cross your fingers? Typically, we default to win/ loss records because it is easier than answering these questions.

Although winning is dependent largely upon the talent, skills, knowledge and performance of players, coaches are currently evaluated primarily on this one outcome measure of coaching success that is neither completely controllable by coaches nor reflective of their ability to develop players as people as well as performers.

Roberto Mancini, before being sacked by Manchester City in May, 2013. Photo: Roger Goraczniak

A recent study of coaches in the NBA found that coaches do make a difference to team performance but that the typical performance standard – wins and losses – can be misleading, and is therefore not a good measure.

Take, for example, the respective records of two coaches in the NBA – Pat Riley and Doug Collins. Pat Riley was highly respected because his teams won pretty much all there was to win. Collins, on the other hand, did not have such a great win/loss percentage. However, when we look at how players’ performances changed when playing for specific coaches, we find that Riley did not have nearly the impact that Collins did. The research found that Collins actually contributed more to the performance of teams that he coached than Riley did.

Does a coach’s win/loss record truly measure their contribution to team performance? The research indicates that it is not a good measure of coach performance/expertise.

This is an important concept and one that many football clubs have not yet grasped. How do you evaluate the performance of the coach given that each coach is working with different resources? Different squads of players, support staff, budgets, facilities?

Does a coach’s win/loss record truly measure their contribution to team performance? The research indicates that it is just not a good measure of coach performance/expertise.

In a real-world example this is highlighted by the fact that Brendan Rodgers was chosen by his peers as Manager of the Year – yet his team came second to that of Manuel Pellegrini. So why wasn’t Pellegrini regarded more highly by his peers? The answer I would hope is obvious to most. It was perceived that Rodgers had a lesser quality squad, but was able to get more out of them. It was thought that he was able to improve the performance of his team to a greater extent than Pellegrini.

So how do we measure the input of the coach? Is it possible to measure how much of an effect a certain manager has on the team? This is almost an impossible task, but what can be measured is how effective the coach is. To assess coach effectiveness, however, we have to clearly define what the coach’s role is, and what we mean by effective.

Carlo Ancelotti, fired from Chelsea in 2011 after failing to win back to back titles. Photo: Илья Хохлов

Carlo Ancelotti, fired from Chelsea in 2011 after failing to win back to back titles. Photo: Илья Хохлов

What is the coach’s role?

The word ‘coach’ has its origins with the horse-drawn coaches that were used to carry aristocrats across the countryside. Implied in such a definition is the idea that a coach helps transport athletes to where they want to go in sport and life. So ‘coach’ became the metaphor for anything thatИлья Хохлов enhances the journey and gets performers successfully to their final destination. This should ideally encompass both sport and life, with the coach assisting the player through the pitfalls found in both.

Coaches therefore occupy a central position of influence in efforts to improve performance, with what they say and do impacting on players’ achievement and well-being.

What is coaching expertise/ effectiveness?

One definition of coaching effectiveness, put forward by Côté and Gilbert in 2009, is comprised of the following components:

1. Coach Knowledge

2. Athlete Outcomes

These components must be viewed within the ‘coaching context’, which is the working environment (and its constraints), the players’ ages and their competitive level.

1. Coach Knowledge

Research has identified three forms of knowledge that underpin coaching effectiveness and expertise. These are:

• Professional Knowledge: sport- specific, including knowledge of the sport’s sciences, techniques and demands, and educated in how to teach these.

• Interpersonal Knowledge: emotional intelligence, understanding of the importance of the relationships developed within teams which are based on social interactions.

• Intrapersonal Knowledge: a keen sense of self-awareness, aware of own strengths and limitations, able to act on insights gained. This awareness is developed through constant self- reflection.

…a coach helps transport athletes to where they want to go in sport and life.

2. Athlete Outcomes

To improve performance, the coach needs to apply the above types of knowledge to help their players/team perform to the best of their ability. The ‘4 Cs’ is good framework to measure performance (Competence) and the psycho-social outcomes (Confidence, Connection, and Character) required for elite team sport.

• Competence: can be broken down into general dimensions – for example the teaching of Technical, Tactical, Mental, Physical skills in such a way that they can be reproduced in competitive situations.

• Confidence: coaches should try to instill the belief and confidence in their players that they possess the capability to be successful and compete in the sport they practice.

• Connection: elite sport is a social venue that requires interactions with a broad range of individuals for optimal performance, therefore coaches need to foster a climate in which their players engage in meaningful and positive relationships with their team- mates, staff, and others involved.

• Character: coaches must promote the development of character so that players make appropriate and ethical decisions about their training and their overall involvement in sport.

From this framework, we can see that the ultimate role of a performance coach is to develop their players’ ‘4 Cs’ so that they can compete at their highest level of performance on a consistent basis.

A coach’s ability to maximize players’ outcomes rests not only on being able to consistently apply extensive professional knowledge and interpersonal knowledge, but also on constant introspection, review, and revision of their practice.

There is a trend in football, in common with other sports, whereby the current emphasis is on professional knowledge alone. For example, it is rare for a professional team to hire a coach who is not a former player. The assumption here is that the primary requirement to become an effective coach is an extensive knowledge of the sport – professional knowledge.

When assessing the performance of a coach, it’s rare for clubs to consider how well an individual connects with others (interpersonal knowledge) or how open they are to continued learning and self-reflection (intrapersonal knowledge). This myopic view of the necessary knowledge for coaching effectiveness may partly explain the high turnover rates of professional coaches.

Brendan Rodgers (left), voted Manager of the Year 2013/14, with Iago Aspas. Photo: Kev Ruscoe

Brendan Rodgers (left), voted Manager of the Year 2013/14, with Iago Aspas. Photo: Kev Ruscoe

So how should the effectiveness of football coaches be measured?

Effective coaching is the achievement of goals that are shared by all stakeholders, and which are bounded by time and the context the coach is working in; for example, the quality of players or available resources.

As discussed above, the typical coach effectiveness measure of win/loss records is not a good measure. More important are the knowledge and skills (application of professional, interpersonal and intrapersonal knowledge) that effective coaches use to get the best out of their players by improving their ‘4 Cs’.

A professional coach cannot control the outcome of the match – they can only control how they prepare their team and players. By focusing on developing the ‘4 Cs’ within a clearly outlined playing style and tactical framework, this will give the team the best opportunity to win matches.

Also, as witnessed by the sacking of many coaches who ‘lost the dressing room’, the coach-player relationship in football is crucial. Therefore any evaluation that does not include feedback/input from the players is flawed. A coach can only be effective over time if there is a two-way relationship built on trust and respect. If this relationship breaks down then performance will drop.

Coaches therefore should be evaluated on how well they develop the ‘4 Cs’ and their team model or playing style, taking into account the resources available (financial, facilities, staff, players), and their interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, to achieve the result on match day in a manner that entertains the fans.

The work of high-performance coaches is complex, and so clearly the examination of their work is problematic. There are no simple solutions, but that should not deter clubs, consultants and coaches alike from attempting to pursue the challenge of re-evaluating what makes an effective coach. If more coaches were evaluated in this way instead of looking simply at wins and losses, perhaps the ‘endangered species’ will instead be given the space and time to thrive.

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