The future of coaching

The Coach

Russell Earnshaw, Magic Academy

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2033, location TBC, the final minute of extra time in the world cup final. Exactly 30 years on from Jonny Wilkinson’s defining moment, and someone currently sitting their SATs positions himself behind a ruck with one opportunity to change history...

Jonny met Steve Black, John Fletcher and Dave Alred, all coaches that helped England win the world cup that day. That kid sitting his exams is going to have to meet some people who understand the future of coaching just like those coaches did.

Firstly, coaching in the future means predicting and understanding the game of the future. Players must be ready for the game that will be, rather than the game we all played. Across sports, this translates to new tactics such as zonal defence in hockey (Belgium led the way and won last year’s World Cup), skilful forwards in rugby (think Dane Coles, Brodie Retallick et al. with the All Blacks) causing defences headaches, and player-led tactical changes in games of football (Croatia at the World Cup). In rugby, think Italy scaring England with Venter’s defensive masterclass as a clueless home side asked Romain Poite what a ruck was.

Secondly, coaches of the future are serious about getting better. Very serious. They step out of their cosy little bubble and get cracking trying to find out what they don’t know. Think cross-sport coaching communities where coaches get together to share problems and solutions as active citizens. Think Gareth Southgate visiting Eddie Jones; Eddie visiting Danny Kerry, Tim Dittmer at the FA with GB Hockey goalkeeper coaches at St George’s Park sharing knowledge bombs; and Ed Hall from Northumbria University running an ‘Invisible College’ WhatsApp group with coaches across sports sharing academic research and then translating it into their context. Imagine people coming into your world as ’naive experts’, not trapped into thinking ‘in (insert sport) we have to do it this way’. Most successful organisations already disrupt their own thinking like this, think Kirk Vallis hanging with hockey coaches at Google, Saracens visiting Burnley to discuss the impact of money on motivation or Leinster acquiring the IP help of Stuart Lancaster. 

Thirdly, the coach of the future understands learning. There has been a shift in focus to co-creating a ‘learning environment’ and the need for all coaches to better understand what learning is (and isn’t). I’ve noticed that the best coaches are using analysts as people to challenge their biases (not reinforce them) and to check for transfer from training to the match (and then adapt their training rather than blaming the players having ’told them what to do’). Interaction and engagement with this data is the holy grail. Think Saracens bringing in a magician or a comedian or even a dangerous animal to attach emotion, memories and meaning to the stats. Coaches of the future are constantly seeking to better understand each individual and how they can be best supported; what feedback might be impactful for them (and what might not)? How can they be better at receiving feedback? Who might be a great mentor and why? The one-size-fits-all that many of us experienced is long gone as coaches seek to ‘know everyone, not everything’.

In the future, the ‘pink and fluffy stuff’ will become the ultimate marginal gain. Think Saracens ‘making memories’ skiing in St Anton, ‘Thinking Thursday’ with the GB Women in Rio, teachers at the Brit School speaking the same language and wearing the same clothes as the kids whilst standing anywhere but the front of the classroom, Klopp sat on top of an open-top bus drinking beer with the Liverpool players. The landscape has and continues to evolve from the coach as an all-knowing technical dictator to one where coaches use words such as ‘love’, ‘care’ and ‘feelings’. Understanding, connecting and inspiring people and speaking their language is a performance gain – it’s team sports’ equivalent to the cycling world creating a more aerodynamic helmet. Imagine the person/teacher/coach that believed in you and supported you to be better than you thought was ever possible – that’s Klopp on the bus or Joe Shaw skiing. They pass my litmus test for the coach of the future; I would want them to coach my kids.

Finally, and most importantly, mental health will be even more on everyone’s agenda and the power of sport to support it will be harnessed and not abused. Coaches will help people develop the necessary skills, build supportive relationships and connections, and allow people to follow their passion rather than the exact opposite. In order to achieve this, coaches of the future will have to have a better understanding of psychology and more support from psychologically qualified coach developers (such as Suzanne Brown at Birmingham City or Paul Connolly with GB Hockey). Who knows… future coaching courses may well start with human behaviour rather than technical models.

And so who are these coaches and where do they live? Last month, I was in for a day with Danny Kerry and the GB men. He interrogated me more than any coach I’ve spent time with. I use the word ‘interrogated’ intentionally. He did. He wanted to know what someone who knows close to nothing about hockey had noticed about the session and how he might make it even better.

Pre-Christmas, I took five Israeli rugby coaches into Saracens. Every single player introduced themselves and thanked them for coming in, every Saracens coach asked for feedback and the coaches were made to feel like a family had just been reunited with five long-lost brothers. It was 10/10 on TripAdvisor.

More recently, I went for dinner with Max Caldas in London after he found me on Twitter and asked me to come and hang with him. He’s done some decent things in coaching and just said he wants to keep learning. The best coaches do. They really do. 

Words by: Alex Mead and Matt Hardy

Pictures by: Peter Minnig

OpinionSimon Campbell