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What qualities do you need to become a great coach?

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Muhammad Ali

THE GREATEST OF THEM ALL: The late, great Muhammad Ali. As well as being famous for a multitude of hilarious quotes, there were numerous inspirational ones in his back catalogue too. This one will strike a chord with coaches: 'If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it  then I can achieve it.'

Take a journey through the ages as we explore what ‘greatness’ looks like. Charting a winding course, we explore the attributes of legendary performers and managers for some insight before turning the spotlight on amateur coaching. It soon becomes clear that any attempt to settle on a definition of the word ‘great', in any sporting context, is problematic to say the least.

What is love? What happens after we die? What is the meaning of life? Questions that have troubled philosophers for thousands of years. They are as perplexing today as they ever were, and, judging by the astronomical number of times they are typed into the Google search bar every hour, they remain unresolved.

If academics and amateur philosophers while away the hours theorising about such things, then sports aficionados tend to be preoccupied with another of life’s great imponderables: the definition of greatness.

Who are the greatest sportsman and sportswoman of all time? Who is the greatest sports coach of all time? What constitutes a great coach?

These weren’t questions ConnectedCoaches member Jaimie Sinfield was necessarily considering when he inquired: Do you need a qualification to be a great coach?

But the thread quickly morphed into a debate about what qualities coaches must possess if they are to be considered great. It is a word that tends to grab people and deflect them from their initial thought process.

Is an enviable win/loss record the be-all and end-all in determining the best from the rest? Do you have to be liked? Or is respect the most highly prized quality? We’ll examine some of the many responses later.

Where exactly do you begin when trying to answer the question: what makes a coach great?

How about with Muhammad Ali, whose death last Friday triggered blanket media coverage and some outstanding eulogies from sports writers the world over who, at the start of the millennium, had unanimously voted Ali the greatest sports star of the last thousand years?

If Ali was ‘The Greatest’, as his self-imposed sobriquet claims, surely an analysis of his many attributes should give us a few pointers.

Personality test

Okay, Ali was an athlete not a coach (a bit of expert insight for you there!), but this short digression will provide a frame of reference to help us better understand the complexities involved in defining greatness.

Ali wins every newspaper, television and radio poll going every time the ‘greatest of all time’ question is posed. And yet, paradoxically, boxing writers don’t even rank him in their top three greatest fighters of his generation. Go figure!

Certainly, he is the greatest self-publicist who ever lived. But there was so much more to Ali in his prime than the speed of his overworked mouth and flying fists.

Strip away the outer layer that was the Louisville Lip, the endless hype, the bombast and the hot air – although these were undoubtedly a huge part of his charm – and there was an intelligent man whose incredible charisma set him apart from any sportsman that ever was, or is likely to be.

It has become an overused phrase when glorifying celebrity figures, but Ali really did transcend the sport of boxing. He was hero-worshipped by millions of followers of the noble art in the 60s and early 70s, and was an icon to billions more, of all nationalities and races, who were transfixed by his wit and exuberance, and who admired his courage, ring craft and strict adherence to his principles.

In a career spanning 21 years, he ‘shook up the world’ to become a three-time world heavyweight champion. But, and this brings me to my point, the moniker of greatness was bestowed on him, not as a result of his record alone (he lost five times in his career and edged many more controversial decisions), but because of this vibrant mix of attributes that shaped his personality and sporting prowess.

Special One and Old Big Head

You can draw two notable comparisons with Ali in Brian Clough and Jose Mourinho.

Great managers with great records, whose stars did not fade after great failures, proving that even the best cannot be successful all of the time.

As the saying goes, form is temporary, class is permanent.

The Special One (another self-imposed alias) took the same Chelsea players from the top of the table to the wrong end of the table in a matter of months before he was sacked by Roman Abramovich last season.

Sandwiched between Clough’s miracle achievements with Derby County and Nottingham Forest – guiding each side from Second Division also-rans to their first ever top-flight titles (not to mention two European Cup triumphs with Forest) – ‘Old Big Head’ was sacked after 44 catastrophic days in the Leeds United hot-seat.

One season, their Marmite personalities were bringing them unprecedented success, the next, their approach was proving to be a curse, not a blessing. If Mourinho had lost the dressing room swiftly, Clough’s aggressive man-management style at Leeds had seen things go pear-shaped quicker than Norman Hunter could ‘bite yer legs’.

Failing to understand the individual needs of their players had tripped them up. Any amateur coach worth their salt could have told them this approach would spell disaster.

So while a third Premier League title helped strengthen the bond between Mourinho and the Chelsea fans, it didn’t help him maintain his relationship with his players. And to think, normally it is the notoriously fickle fans who rebel against their manager first.

Clearly, cold hard statistics only get you so far in your players’ eyes. A lesson here for amateur coaches when it comes to fostering good relationships with your troops.

Being great is not about winning a popularity contest though. You can be loved by some and hated by others, but you must remain respected by all.

Hanging on to that respect can be as much of a challenge as earning it – as Mourinho found out to his cost.

What else have we learned so far? That arrogance, which is a ‘quality’ that defines Ali, Clough and Mourinho, is often associated with greatness at an elite level. Wield it as a tool and, while undoubtedly you will always be walking a tightrope and could come a cropper at any point, carefully manage your self-confidence and you could be on to a winner.

Whether this translates to player management and psychological preparation at an amateur coaching level is another sticking point.

Moving the goalposts

You can really twist yourself in knots with this debate. Take this golfing analogy to further complicate matters.

Colin Montgomerie is one of the most successful players in European Tour history, but because he has never won a golf major, does that make two-time major winner Angel Cabrera the greater golfer?

Success at the highest level isn’t everything, Monty fans will argue. But it certainly helps. How else do you rank the ‘greatness’ of cricketers if not by scrutinising their international or domestic batting and bowling averages?

It would appear that the measurable factors that define greatness in an elite coach are more numerous and complex than in performers. So, ultimately, are you better off just relying on good old common sense to provide the answer?

Greatness is highly subjective and context-dependent, and the goalposts are forever shifting. 

You may be a great coach but never win a league title because you have mixed ability players. A rival coach who may not be fit to lace your bootstraps, meanwhile, is lauded after running away with the league, entirely because he has the best players at his disposal.

Even at grass-roots level, agreeing on the parameters of what constitutes a great coach can degenerate into disagreement and generalisation.

In the members’ thread, it was initially suggested that likeability was a key trait, and a healthy winning percentage.

Jaimie Sinfield argues: ‘I've seen plenty of winning coaches who range from not being liked to being detested by players and peers alike.’

He adds: ‘I'm not suggesting popularity is MORE important than success, only that success isn’t always measured by league points alone.'

Anthea Dore adds: ‘Most people (presumably) would prefer to be liked, but the clue is in the word “winning”. They may not be liked, but are they (and their guidance) respected?

‘Is popularity more important than success in the job? Is the fact that they are detested actually having a detrimental effect? Would they be even more successful if they were liked?’

You see, the topic throws up more questions than answers.

Respect 1 Liked 0

James Turner baulks at the vocal approach taken by some coaches but is the first to admit that it can get results.

‘I know coaches that have a “my way or the highway” policy,’ he says, ‘shout at their athletes and even punish them. I find the approach of one coach hard to watch and it’s clear that during some of his sessions, some of the athletes dislike his harsh methods.

‘Having spoken to some of those young athletes outside of the session, they couldn’t speak highly enough about him, because they know that he can get them to where they want to be.

‘I would say respect, rather than being liked, is more important. You could be the nicest, most caring coach in the world, but if the results do not come in then athletes will lose their respect in your ability to get them to where they want to be.’

Taking the time and effort to get to know the individual personalities and attitudes of your group will help you determine whether you should be taking on the role of good cop or bad cop when you are pushing players out of their comfort zone.

Your motivating technique should not be to impose your own personality and attitude on your players. Finding what motivates each player to rise to new challenges is a quality in itself and thinking up innovative ways to help each individual reach their potential should be standard practice for every coach.

‘The most important thing is to be what the athlete needs you to be,’ says James. ‘A coach should have the tools to handle all personalities and adapt accordingly. If anything has changed in the last 20 years it is the need for coaches to be more athlete-centred… but that doesn’t necessarily mean nice, right?’

James also believes that a great coach, besides being autonomous, will have an innate ability to do the right thing at the right time.

There is such a thing as a born coach, he surmises, recalling a conversation he had with an experienced rugby coach, academic and data analyst: ‘He said he can walk into a room full of first-year coaching students, observe them for a session and know if they are going to be a good/great coach. It’s something a person has in them, where you just know that they get it.’

Wendy Russell pitches into the debate by raising another issue. She says: ‘I know some fantastic people who are great with younger children, getting them engaged in sport, yet put them in an elite adult session, and they struggle. This can also be said of the opposite, where an elite and very qualified coach struggles with younger players.’

Round in circles

Simon Browning hits the nail on the head when he writes that greatness can mean so many things in so many contexts.

‘What constitutes a great coach? Probably impossible to define completely. I would say that somewhere in the definition would need to be a phrase like “difference maker”. Something about how the coach can get the very best out of people – whatever that may be.’

Now we are getting somewhere. Or are we? This begs the question, how does the coach make a difference? Which is kind of the same thing as asking what qualities make a great coach? Back to square one.

A few other intrinsic ingredients to add to the mix for the perfect coaching recipe: passion; emotional intelligence (empathy, self-awareness); the appreciation of two-way communication over soapbox coaching.

Getting to know your players as people, meanwhile, and their lives outside of the club setting, can help you build and maintain a good rapport. You may earn their respect by getting results, you definitely will by building their self-esteem, learning the important difference between praise and acknowledgement and how to make a success out of failure.

The list goes on. Instilling a team ethic into your players, teaching good sportsmanship, establishing a friendly environment where players feel comfortable discussing their on and off-pitch problems.

All attributes of a good coach, which will help develop a growth mindset in your players.

Being aware of them is one thing, following through with them is another entirely.

So are we anywhere nearer a definition? As I see it, to be classed as a great coach you will need a unique combination of qualities, effective in a particular set of circumstances and over a certain course of time.

Can you do any better?

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Comments (4)

That's a really thought provoking post Blake, and I'm not sure I can add much to your comments that you haven't already covered. The one thing that springs up in my mind when we talk about coaching greatness is the context or environment that a coach works in. You touch on it a few times in your post, but take Jose Mourinho as an example, and also Pep Guardiola - whilst they have demonstrated significant success in roles where they have sizeable budgets and resources at their disposal, it would be interesting to observe how they would fare working at a much lower level or with very limited resources available.

As you say I don't think we will ever find a really true definition of greatness that everyone will agree on but for me that's the beauty of this subject, and indeed coaching itself, different points of view and different approaches
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I'm agreeing with Simon in your post Balke. Greatness is subjective and will mean different things for different people. The only opinion that should really count is that of the participant/ athlete. Do they think their coach is great?
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Greatness is for others to determine. As a coach all you can do is try & provide the best support, environment & process you can for your athletes to improve & develop. At the end of the day the athletes determine the success of the coach & how they may be perceived.
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Great post as always Blake. Expertise (and maybe the link to greatness?) is defined by the group you are working with. You can be an expert to some and a novice to others, it comes down to opinion, perceptions and impact. The journey to being an expert never stops....
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