In the sport of football it is the players who are continually executing their own decisions within the context of the game. This is different than from other sports, i.e. baseball were the coach makes the decision and the players go out on the field and execute the coach’s decision to the best of their abilities. The same can be said about American football since the play, the positioning of the players, is already decided by the coaches and the players try to execute this play. When comparing these sports we see that baseball and american football can be called a ’coach sport’, since it is the coach who make the main decisions within the game. However, when we look at the characteristics of football, we see that it is the players who are making the decisions on the pitch that they execute themselves. This fact means that football is a ’players sport’ since they are the ones making the decisions and not a ’coach sport’.
Knowing and understanding that football is a ’players sport’ and not a ’coach sport’ is the first step for football coaches who want to learn how to coach football. Since the job of the coach is to improve the players, an understanding of the characteristics of football is necessary. If the players are executing better decisions on the pitch, they have a greater chance of reaching the objective of the game; scoring minimum one more goal than the opponent. Hence, the job of the coach is to improve the players by helping them to improve the quality of their decision making on the pitch. Given this fact, the question becomes; what is the best way of coaching to promote improved decision making in the players? Or in other words, how should you coach your players in order for them to improve their decision making?
In football there are three general leadership styles that coaches use when coaching their players. You have seen coaches using variations of these leadership styles many times to a varying degree of success. In alphabetical order these leadership styles are; the commander, the manager and the teacher. The coach who is coaching like a commander is the coach who is telling the players what to do, what decision that should be made and executed by the player. The manager however is a coach who is on the opposite side of the commander and approaches coaching the players in a more laissez-faire way. Coaches who are using the leadership style of the teacher are guiding the players through the process of learning football. All of these leadership styles have their time and place within the context of improving football and coaching football in training and in games. However, based on the characteristics of the game, football being a ’players sport’, there is one leadership style that per definition should be the starting point for how you coach your players. Let’s use some examples to see if we can find out what the (right) way of coaching should be.
Imagine that you are coaching a team that is in a situation that resembles some sort of crisis. Think of a scenario where you have taken over a slumping team in the middle of the season and before your first session you are reflecting upon what leadership style to use. In a crisis situation like this, the players are probably experiencing a lot of pressure from the outside which leads to them overthinking everything they do. In order to relieve this pressure that the players are experiencing, it could be a smart move by you as the coach to make the decisions for them, if only for a short period of time. Using the leadership style of the commander in your coaching reduces the decision making that is required by your players and helps them relieve the pressure they are experiencing. It also gives you a chance to implement an extremely clear reference for how things are going to be done on and off the pitch from now on. Telling the players what to do when taking over a team in the middle of the season helps you to hit the ground running and to implement your reference for football.
Now, imagine you are brought in to coach the team that won the league last season with a big margin. This team have a lot of experienced players that have been successful in different places over time. For you as the coach, the question is if you are going to start by telling them what to do or if it could be a good idea to give these players more freedom to make decisions? Taking over a successful team with experienced players and start telling them to do things your way might not be a very good idea. Perhaps it could be smart to use the experience of the group, take a step back and coach more like a manager. In this scenario your main job is to maintain the current level of the players and try not to interfere in a negative way. That means instead of being a commander or a teacher, you want to be a manager who facilitates the players existing knowledge and good decision making into good execution on the pitch.
After reading these two examples of scenarios you can ask yourself if they represent most of the situations that you as a coach encounter or if using the leadership style of the commander and the manager are more an exception to the rule. Given the fact that football is a ’players sport’ and that the job of the coach is to improve players by helping them improve their decision making, the question is what leadership style is best suited? You have probably already concluded that being a commander or a manager is not the best way of improving your players decision making and that this leaves only one answer.
When you are coaching like a teacher you are guiding the players through the process of learning football. That means that instead of telling players what to do, the coach guides the players by asking different questions that are more or less open and/or leading to help the players improve their decision making. These question does not need to be verbal questions, they could also be questions that are asked by the coach through manipulation of game situations in the training session. The leadership style of the teacher is therefore the best way of improving the players decision making in football and as a result, the best way of improving players. To answer the question that we started with; what way of coaching promotes improved decision making in the players the best? – Coaching like a teacher.