Rob Sherman explains the player-centred approach and asks whether it is exclusive to youth development.

Rob has over 30 years’ experience, starting in amateur leagues before graduating to be an Area Coach for the Welsh FA and coach of Wales U16. After several years as the Welsh National Player Development Manager and Technical Director, in 2007 he became High Performance Manager at New Zealand Football and coached at FIFA events and two Olympics. After establishing the Asia Pacific Football Academy and a stint in Australia as Head of Coach Education, Rob returned to New Zealand as Technical Director and now consults across a number of organisations.

On many of the courses I have directed over the years I often ask the question: why do people coach? The overriding theme in the answers is to ‘help players or to give something back’. Seldom do coaches talk about what’s in it for them. As discussions evolve, especially around youth development, the ‘player-centred approach’ is often touted. But what exactly does a player-centred approach mean and is it exclusive to youth football?

Fundamentally, ‘player centred’ is a principle or value, but without the overarching vision and supporting behaviors it is unlikely to be uniformly applied across an organisation. In my experience, I have found that in many environments where player centricity is held as one of the core values, it is in fact forgotten when it’s more convenient for the coach or club to place their interests first. It’s a fine balance – as a coach we must look after our organization’s best interest, the key stakeholders and the technical and support staff. Ultimately, however, our main asset is the player and their welfare should be the key consideration. Whether you’re coaching at the top level or at grassroots the challenge remains the same: how do you keep the player at the centre?

Your personal vision

As a coach it’s vital that you understand and know your own motivations. It’s important to explore your opinions and beliefs about football and life in general. I’m not talking about your playing vision and style of football. I’m talking about your core values, the things that make you who you are. These are the anchors to which you remain true and will not compromise upon.

Do you have a personal vision? What are your values and the behaviors that you demonstrate? You might want to be an excellent coach who can improve players and performance. Your underpinning values might be ‘people first’, ‘no detail too small’, ‘teaching and learning’, ‘team first’, for example. The behaviors you live by may be ‘integrity’, ‘empathy’, ‘honesty’, ‘respect’, ‘hard work’, ‘commitment’ and ‘discipline’. Whatever they are for you, these values and behaviors should be clearly defined in your mind and set the framework by which people can recognize you as a person and coach.

The vision of the club

The club should also have a vision to provide a reference point for those who operate or interact with that club. Without the vision, the underpinning values and supporting behaviors, there is a real potential for the organization to drift away from its purpose and values and underperform. In essence, the vision should provide a checkpoint at which at any time we can ask ourselves, or others, ‘is what we’re doing leading us towards the vision?’ If the answer is ‘no’ then don’t do it.

A key consideration when taking a coaching role is whether the vision, values and behaviors of the organization are clear and if they are aligned with your own. We can never be sure, and even if on the surface it appears to be aligned at some stage we will find out one way or the other whether the two are compatible. At these moments you will find out how true you are to your values. If the purpose of the organization is clear and the values and behaviors clearly defined, then people can be held accountable to these. And with accountability comes responsibility. It is essential that everything is defined and not ‘open to interpretation’. If the ‘player at the centre’ is one of the values, you need to define this and explore the actions that will bring this to life, and how that might look on and off the field.

Establishing these foundations will help you maintain the difficult balance of living the values and asking the right questions of yourself and the organisation when these are tested. For the avoidance of doubt, the player-centred approach puts the best interest of the player first and not the self-interest of the player.

Knowing people

The second step as a coach is to understand that not everyone sees the world through the same lens. You may have a common vision and set of values and behaviours but people are very different and act, learn, and process things in many different ways. Emotional intelligence is a key factor for any coach, and the ability to recognise and deal with different behaviour models and adapt your own behaviour accordingly is essential. You may be someone who likes being told something in a direct manner or someone who learns by seeing, but you must remember not everyone does. You can’t know your players until you know yourself, and you can’t place the players’ best interests first if you see everything based solely on your own perspective.

Develop people

As a coach it’s likely you believe that you can teach and help players develop. If we are effective leaders then we must also look beyond the player’s time with us. We need to make sure that we do everything we can to help the player grow and be better for today, their time with us, and tomorrow, their time after us. We should be developing them for life inside and outside football, in essence educating them for football and life. Education isn’t exclusive to youth development and I am convinced players want to develop throughout their careers.

Placing the player at the centre and doing the best we can for them is a value that should benefit all parties. But where there is a conflict the default should be what is ‘best’ for the player. This is the continuous dilemma of the ‘player at the centre’ mantra and needs to be applied across the myriad of situations.

If we hold this as a truth then we need to start by thinking beyond their time with us and consider a number of elements that place them at the centre.

Exit point

Every football career comes to an end and, of course, players move between clubs. This means we need to prepare, educate and manage players for the time this happens. This applies no more or less to the player being told there no longer a place for them in an academy, a young pro not securing a second contract or a seasoned pro coming to the end of their contract or career. Preparing players at this difficult time will help them and help the club build its reputation as being player-centred.

Football is a vehicle in itself to develop football and a vehicle to develop life skills. Skills such as working with others, facing disappointment, dealing with success, commitment, dedication and taking responsibility. Preparing a player for our first team is a given but we should also be using football as a means to create opportunities beyond football. Academies should pride themselves on the range of exit routes they provide. How many provide strong partnerships with clubs at a lower level where they can place a player (at any age), provide pathways to US scholarships, links with local colleges, tertiary education, vocational training and with the school the players attend so they can monitor their progress and help encourage study and manage scheduling? Academy alumni should include first team players, players at other clubs, lawyers, teachers, sports scientists, physiotherapists, businessmen, plumbers and coaches – and at the very least people who can forge a happy life. A true measure might simply be how many keep playing the game. If the academy experience has turned them off football, then we have done something seriously wrong.

Does the same mantra apply at senior level? As a head coach can you help the player stay in the game as long as possible? Get the best out of them for your club and help them sustain a career by moving them on in the right way when they are no longer part of your requirements or when they have outgrown you? Of course, bringing this to life is not easy and may not always be successful. It is time consuming and takes resource. But because it’s hard does that mean we shouldn’t do it, or is this something that gives you a point of difference when recruiting players?rob

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Rob Sherman
Rob Sherman
Rob has travelled around the world working in senior coach education and technical director roles with the Welsh FA, Football Federation Australia & NZ Football. With a wealth of experience, Rob currently works in coach education and consults to a number of football organisations.

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