7 Pieces of Advice for Young S&C Coaches wanting to work in Football

I haven’t written a blog post for a long time, but have decided to make it more of a regular thing, to discuss some of the questions I get asked regularly.

I thought a good way to start these blogs would be to give, what I feel, is the 7 best bits of advice I have ever been given. I have been really fortunate to have the support of some excellent individuals from within the Sports Science / S&C profession in football, and that alone has helped me forge not only my own philosophy but some pointers that have stayed with me throughout my career. Here are some of those tips (in no particular order!).

1) Believe in your own ability to succeed


Football can be a high pressured environment, especially in S&C/Sports Science. Performance is everything, and lots of individuals will have opinions on how things should be done, and probably how you do things. If you don’t have the belief in your own ability, then it will be hard for anyone to believe in you. This goes for sending an email in hope of getting an internship or work experience to practically coaching a group of senior players. Have belief in yourself, and keep things real, you need to create opportunity for yourself in this game, learn all you can about coaching – do a level 1 coaching badge if need be – it will help you to become confident with groups!


2) Not all that glitters is gold.


If your sole aim is to work for a big 4 club and be the guy warming up the players during a Champion League game at the Nou Camp, then so be it (nothing like being ambitious!!). However, don’t expect to walk into a club with a bit of paper in your hand and find yourself working with players in the San Siro. Be prepared to put in everything you have to earn the right in the game. You will need to work long hours, and do many thankless tasks to earn the right for these golden moments and they are definitely to be savoured! In the beginning you will probably find yourself doing an awful lot of work for free, but what you reap what you sow. Professional football is a very small community, do the best job you can, and be willing to give your all, from making shakes to sweeping gym, whatever it takes – and who knows maybe one day you will make your BT Sport Champions League debut! 


3) Knowledge is power, the use of knowledge is powerful.


There is tonnes of emerging research into virtually everything in football, from the nutritional side to small sided games and sleep patterns. Applying most of this theory can be challenging and can often have a reverse effect if the application isn’t suitable for your players. Trying to put novice players through advanced techniques is suicide. Learn the basics, and apply them. By all means use the research to guide your decisions, but by trying to re-invent the wheel you may end up doing more harm than good, or simply just be wasting your time and the players time! Contact time can be low in the game, so bang for buck is the key! 


4) Be a sponge.


Get to conferences, get to know the people who are applying in the game, listen to podcasts, get yourself known and be a sponge. Absorb what you can from who you can. The internet and social media has opened up access to those within the game who are applying knowledge everyday. Read the books, push yourself to learn your trade everyday. Make it your craft, and be relentless in your own personal development. 


5) Enjoy the process, be realistic, and learn from your mistakes.


Working with top level players can be extremely rewarding, but it can involve long hours, and lots of situations can arise, in which people will require your expertise. Don’t be fooled by thinking that a few hours a day is all it takes and then you are home with your feet up watching The Chase with a cuppa. You might get the odd day like that, but those days can be rare. Manage your time well though as your health and well being is just as important as the players and staff you work with. Be realistic. Walking into a top level job, with little or no experience is highly unlikely, but if you put the hours in and get as much experience as possible, whether it be with your local club or as an intern, the process needs to be enjoyable. You will make mistakes, but thats the best way to learn. Keep pushing yourself to attain high standards and eventually you will get to where you want to be in the game!! 

6) We coach humans, not spreadsheets.

Our data drives the decisions we make, in some respects, and we collect the data to help us make informed decisions to assist the head coaches & management. However, we still need to be able to coach people, and that where I have seen others fall down or lose the players. This can be fatal. I personally love the research and academic side of sports science and its a pleasure to be involved in research projects, looking for areas where we can improve players through our own data collection and that of others in the research field – but we still have to be able to coach & communicate with our subjects. The best coaches understand this, they know the value of getting their messages across clearly & concisely and by avoiding jargon – players don’t want to be confused, they just want to perform.

7) Players are human too, take time to understand human nature.

Football is a highly pressured environment which so much going on at once it can be very intense to say the least. Players are human beings though, and they have the same wants, needs, desires, flaws, goals, ambitions, hopes, dreams as any other person you will meet. Not everyone in life will want to be open with you about their life or even like you, thats just life itself, but players are human too, do your best to understand what makes them tick (all individuals are different!), what their interests are away from football and so on. Their maybe a time in your career that you may have to have an awkward conversation with a player (maybe from your data collection!), but this can be made a lot easier when you have taken the time to understand the player – thats what the best coaches do, work with the people not against them.

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Cost-free cultures.

Culture, especially in high performance sport, has become a buzz word. From books to symposiums, everybody wants to understand what makes the elite successful. There is nothing wrong with that whatsoever. It’s good to want to learn the why, but often context is bypassed. Suddenly, sheds are swept and a no d*&$head policy implemented. That’s great – if you are an All Black steeped in exceptional tradition and cultural values that span across generations of rugby.

However, in an industry predominantly based on our relationships with players and coaches, there are simple, daily practices that should become the norm as opposed to token gestures when building a culture. A strong culture must be built on taking care daily of what truly matters – people. Taking time to talk about family, opening doors, having a coffee with a colleague with no work related discussion. Personally, I think the more you understand about someone away from work the less astigmatic our relationships are.

In his brilliant book, The Culture Code, author Daniel Coyle identifies 3 skills at the heart of how humans function within successful teams:

  1. Building safety & a sense of belonging creates a comfortable working environment.
  2. Share vulnerability – no one needs to be perfect.
  3. Establish purpose through a common goal and define a clear pathway to get there.

Now, while opening a door, saying good morning to everybody, taking the time to learn about others may seem small token gestures, or assumed to be the norm, there is a neural hardwiring that gives us a sense of belonging. These small, and perhaps to some, trivial interactions are part of our hardwiring. We want to belong. We want to feel like we belong, and when it comes to belonging our brains either do or don’t feel that.

For example, a recent study by Roghanizad and Bohns (2017), found that you are 34 more likely to recieve a positive response in person than you are via email. Small interactions matter on a large scale! In a face-to-face situations our hardwired brains have more interactions do deal with. Are we safe? Do I belong? Are we sharing risk? Are we working towards the same common goal for the benefit of the team? Just these questions are impossible to answer via WhatsApp / text / email. We need to communicate in person. 

In other words, culture is not a set of traits — it’s a signaling contest. Improve your signals, improve your culture.

Daniel Coyle

Coyle uses the example of San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich as a master of building the belonging culture within his team. Popovich mastered the concept of using three belonging cues (“you are part of this group,” “this group is special; we have high standards,” and “I believe you can reach those standards”) to create his highly successful basketball team.

After defeat to Oklahoma City Thunder, Coyle observed something extraordinary at the next Spurs practice session when the legendary coach arrived:

“Popovich wasn’t yelling now. He was walking around, wearing a misshapen T-shirt from Jordan’s Snack Bar in Ellsworth, Maine, and shorts a couple sizes too big. His hair was spare and frizzy, and he was carrying a paper plate with fruit and a plastic fork, his face set in a lopsided grin. He looked less like a commanding general than a friendly uncle at a picnic. Then he set down his plate and began to move around the gym, talking to players. He touched them on the elbow, the shoulder, the arm. He chatted in several languages. (The Spurs include players from five countries.) He laughed. His eyes were bright, knowing, active.

When Popovich wanted to connect with a player, he moved in tight enough that their noses nearly touched. As warm-ups continued, he kept roving, connecting. A former player walked up, and Popovich beamed, his face lighting up in a toothy grin. They talked for five minutes, catching up on life, kids and teammates. “Love you, brother,” Popovich said as they parted”

Coyle continued that shortly after practice the Spurs team assembled in the video analysis room expecting to go over the defeat to their arch rivals, Oklahoma. But this wasn’t the case. Popovich showed the team a documentary about the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Afterwards, the coach asked the team to discuss the film. His questions were intent on drawing a connection between the historical events and his individual playing staff. What did you think of it? What would you have done in that situation?

Gregg Popovich continually sent out the three belonging cues (“you are part of this group,” “this group is special; we have high standards,” and “I believe you can reach those standards”) to his players. These actions from the legendary coach draw parallels with a study by a team of psychologists. The researchers had middle-school teachers assign an essay-writing assignment to their students, after which students were given different types of teacher feedback. To their surprise, the researchers were amazed to discover there was one particular type of teacher feedback that improved student effort and performance so much that they deemed it “magical.”

What was the magical feedback?

Just 19 words:

“I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them”

That’s it. Just 19 words. But they’re powerful because they are not really feedback. They’re a signal that creates something more powerful: a sense of belonging and connection.

Looking closer, the phrase contains several distinct signals that mirror those of Gregg Popovich;  You are part of this group. This group is special; we have higher standards here. I believe you can reach those standards.

Build a culture of trust, respect and hard work, but don’t losing the humanistic element of working with people. Ultimately, the small daily interactions we have amount to big things. We do not need to start at the top of the mountain to begin to build culture, instead we must focus on the small pebbles and continually build.

“Culture isn’t magic. It’s about tuning into a series of small moments that send powerful signals: You are safe. We share risk here. We are headed this direction.”

References

 

Ask in person: You’re less persuasive than you think over email (Roghanizad,M and Bohns, V, 2017)

The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups (Coyle, 2018)

Soccerology Podcast #2 – Ross Bennett (Head of Academy Sports Science, QPR)

The second Soccerology podcast is now live!

In this episode we discuss:

– Ross’s roles with Chelsea FC, Aspire, QPR and London GAA.
– His philosophy in Sports Science and how he has developed through experience.
– GPS, RPE, Heart Rate and monitoring on a budget.
– Working with full-time and part-time athletes.
– The external challenges youth players may face during their development.
– Translating the science for youth development coaches.
– The challenges of part-time players and full-time workers.
– People first, athletes second.

 

Soccerology Podcast #1 featuring @Fergus_Connolly

Welcome to the first episode of the Soccerolgy Podcast with Dr. Fergus Connolly.

Dr. Fergus Connolly is a performance consultant who has worked with a variety of sports teams including Bolton Wanderers, Liverpool FC, San Fransico 49ers and the University of Michigan.

In this episode Fergus discusses:

– His recent experiences in sports science across multiple team sports

– Fergus’s books 59 Lessons and Game Changer.

– Advice for young sport scientist’s and coaches.

– Learning from Prof. Vitor Frade, Brendan Rodgers, Sam Allardyce, Bobby Robson, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Charlie Francis and many others.

– Buy-in and the art and science of coaching.

– Individualization in team sports.

– The Policeman, The Drunk and The Priest…

To listen on Itunes Click here

BASES 2018 Presentation

A copy of my presentation, ‘The effect of sleep on high speed running during a weekly micro-cycle in elite female soccer players’,  at the BASES Student Conference, Newcastle (2018).

 

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