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Chemistry lesson: A formula for coaches who have ever felt ostracised by their own players | Coaching Adults | ConnectedCoaches

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Chemistry lesson: A formula for coaches who have ever felt ostracised by their own players

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Lawrie O'Keeffe

Lawrie O’Keeffe has learnt the hard way how to get players to stick to a collectively-agreed set of team goals. But for new coaches struggling to be accepted by players who have formed a tight bond, any lapse in work ethic presents a big problem. Building chemistry with your players can take time, and it’s easy to get off on the wrong foot.

  • Entrenched attitudes of players can cause problems for an incoming coach.
  • Coaches can circumvent potential tension by establishing an aligned set of team goals with players at the start of their tenure.
  • It is prudent to revisit these goals – and the sacrifices the players are willing to make and commitment levels expected of them – at regular intervals throughout the season.
  • By ensuring everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet, it will give coaches the licence to pull up individuals who fail to put in the agreed level of effort.

When you pass your Level 2 coaching qualification in hockey, you receive a free magic wand with your certificate.

You are then free to wave your smoothed sprig of enchanted mahogany before every match. Hey presto, three more points!

Of course, this only happens if you live in cloud cuckoo land. If you are a resident of planet Earth, you will appreciate that there is a bit more to coaching a successful team than wishful thinking.

ConnectedCoaches Community Champion Lawrie O'Keeffe  is a Level 2 hockey coach and has encountered a worrying number of adult players who don’t live in the real world.

Players who don’t seem to realise that, after collaborating with the coach to establish an aligned set of team goals, they cannot then shirk their own contribution to the cause and still expect to meet those agreed objectives.

No coach can make wish-lists become reality without concerted effort on the players’ part.

‘I’ve had players who expect to pitch up on a Saturday on the morning of the game and play, without having done any work to warrant their place in the team,’ says Lawrie.

He has presided over squads that have contained Level 3 coaches and PE teachers – sometimes within the same starting XI – but, he says, their understanding of the role of a coach has not always been in accordance with his own.

‘Their way of thinking does not conform to what you would expect of England Hockey coaches. At England Hockey we try and create a learner-led environment so that you develop athletes who are able to make decisions for themselves and handle different situations and not have everything dictated to them by the coach.

‘In my experiences, they wanted the coach to say: “This is what we are going to do, how we are going to do it and why we are going to do it, now go and do it”. They expected a coach to come in, wave a magic wand and for them to start winning games. But that goes against the grain of what I understand coaching experienced adults to be.’

Feeling side-lined

Entrenched attitudes within teams can be a Pandora’s box if you don’t get the full support of the players from the outset.

Particularly for new coaches coming into a team where a tight bond has formed over many years. They can soon find themselves isolated and excluded.

And the toxic atmosphere of segregation can deteriorate further if the clique begins taking orders from a senior player or manager rather than the coach.

Before you know it you have ‘lost the dressing room’ and there is no way back.

Lawrie has found out how quickly the mood can sour if there is no chemistry between yourself and a tight-knit team.

‘It’s not great because, when you’ve worked hard to try and establish some kind of rapport with the players and the door is closed to you, it’s very frustrating and highly disappointing and it isn’t an easy thing to hear, I can tell you.’

He has learned valuable lessons, which include the importance of establishing goals and realistic targets with players and staff at the start of pre-season, ideally before you even commit to taking on the job.

‘What I have learnt through my experiences, quite seriously, is that you have to drill down even deeper than defining what the goals of the team are – because the sacrifices that go with the goals are what converts them from dreams to goals.

‘Ideally, you need to bring some support people in to clarify that difference between what a dream is and what a goal is. So, a sports psychologist for example, or coaches or players who are already at the level they aspire to. They can come and talk to the players and tell them “this is how we did it, these are the sacrifices we made” – give them the reality of the situation.

‘Afterwards, you can ask the players if their goal has changed or if it is the same and, if so, are they okay with the level of commitment it will involve?’

Lawrie O'Keeffe 2

Reality check

What Lawrie finds highly frustrating is when players refuse to keep their side of the bargain, but still expect the coach to deliver on the set goals.

‘While they have this target, they aren’t prepared to do the work to achieve it,’ he says.

In other words, the goal hasn’t changed, but the goalposts have.

‘I think, in fact, that what some players are looking for is a trainer to run them through a series of drills. But that is not coaching in my book.

‘I’ll certainly help individuals hone their technique, but it’s not time to be telling experienced players the ABCs of how you play hockey.

‘I now know I need to be 100% sure that the players understand what it takes to get from point A to point Z in reality.’

The turbulent experiences that have tested Lawrie emotionally as well as professionally have, he says, shaped his coaching philosophy and, without doubt, made him a wiser and better coach.

But it is hard not to be scarred mentally when you are told you lack direction and an obvious strategy and are left in no doubt by those who have closed ranks that you are not an appropriate fit for the team.

It is one thing for Roy Hodgson to get panned by all and sundry for failing to guide England into the latter stages of a World Cup or European Championships, as you could argue being put through the wringer comes with the territory when you earn a salary of £3.5million a year.

But when you are paid a nominal fee to work at a regional level, you don’t expect to have to wear a flak jacket to training just months into your appointment.

Left out of the loop

It is a scenario a lot of coaches will find familiar, perhaps awakening dark memories they had intentionally pushed to the back of their minds.

Of the time the players picked the starting line-up and chose the tactics, handing you the team-sheet and positions (which bore no resemblance to your own) on the morning of the game.

Of the time you weren’t informed which players would not be making the trip to the must-win clash against your bitter rivals, as the players had opted to bypass you and e-mail the captain direct.

Of the time the dominant figures in the group gave the pre-match team-talk, while you were bringing in the kit from the car.

Such hypothetical examples of player power, or outright mutiny, are a coach’s worst nightmare.

If there is an established culture in the dressing room when you first take over, gaining the players’ support has the potential to turn into an uphill struggle.

And if you have a manager assisting the team, which virtually every side does at national level in hockey – and even regional level – then that can further complicate matters.

They may have no authority for on-field affairs, their main responsibilities being administrative duties and logistics, but their influence can run deep.

‘The manager can become almost like a confidant for the players,’ says Lawrie.

‘One of the biggest catalysts for the sort of established culture we have been discussing is the manager. They invariably have limited hockey knowledge and often zero coaching qualifications but have entrenched themselves as a prominent figure in the dressing room.

‘And therein lies the problem. You’ve got this incredibly strong bond and team culture, which is difficult to break into.’

Unfortunately, a lot of new coaches don’t find this out until they are well into the process, when an unbridgeable schism has already been formed.

Plan of action

Lawrie has set his stall out at his new club.

‘I’m about to take on a men’s team again after coaching ladies for a good few seasons. They have just been relegated and I have had several meetings with them already, in the main with the captain – who has been a player-coach over the last couple of years – and vice-captain.

‘I stressed the need for me to be able to talk with the players directly, and that only after having conversations with them could we make a decision on whether I am the right fit for the team and discuss what achievable goals we are going to set in the short term and long term, and what standards are expected.’

Lawrie has had these meetings – with the captain, vice-captain and players en masse – and is happy that, as a result, there is a far greater understanding of what each side is capable of bringing to the table and what is realistic in terms of the players’ commitment to the club and to training.

‘The scenario we have settled on with the team this year is to try and consolidate. If we happen to get into the top two and then get promotion, then that is a bonus,’ he says.

‘We haven’t even got to pre-season yet but we understand what each other’s expectations are. We will be working hard this year to get our basics right and the structure right.’

Lawrie O'Keeffe 3

A soft touch to CPD

If Lawrie did possess a magic wand, he would most probably use it to persuade governing bodies to add elements into their Level 1 and 2 qualifications that cover the ‘soft skills’ of coaching.

At present, these skills are something most coaches have to pick up on the job, leaving them underprepared for the unnerving and sometimes unforgiving scenarios that can await them in the coaching world.

Rob Chapman raised the point in his ConnectedCoaches conversation Athlete to Coach Programme.

He asked members if learning techniques to help you recognise the impact of your behaviour on others, understanding how to manage yourself as a coach, and strategies for maintaining effective relationships, were key components that should be taught on the coaching pathway and form part of coaches’ continuing personal development.

For Lawrie, this is a no-brainer. ‘The man-management side of coaching is something that is noticeably missing from most governing bodies’ coach education,’ he says.

‘There has been no mention of man-management skills in any of the courses I have ever been on that would help you deal with the scenarios we have been talking about.

‘On the back of that sort of base, and being taught some basic techniques, you can then cope with a much wider range of things that might present themselves.’

Do you agree with Lawrie’s approach to tackling entrenched attitudes and developing a strong culture? Please share your own experiences.

Lawrie’s top tips

  1. Be true to yourself; your principles are your greatest strength.
  2. Keep the faith – learn from failures or rejections; believe in the process.
  3. Coach the person, more than the athlete; get to know your athletes individually.
  4. Find a mentor that you can really work with; you may need to change this person from time to time as you evolve as a coach.

Next Steps

If you are interested in improving your soft and personal skills UK Coaching (formerly sports coach UK) has a number of workshops that can help you, including:

 Visit the UK Coaching workshop finder to find a workshop running near you.

This blog is also available as a podcast on a number of platforms including Itunes. Listen here.

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Comments (4)

Thanks for the insight Lawrie. Understanding the soft skills requirement in coaching is key. Courses need to cater for that as well as the business of coaching which is significantly lacking.
Avg: 4.76 / 5 (1votes)
best thing i've read in ages by a coach.
i'd go further, if you're not mentoring a coach, you're not a coach
Avg: 0 / 5 (0votes)
Excellent read. This is something I encounter a lot coaching a men's football club within a university, having the differentiation in ability and player attitude is something which can be very difficult to manage. Looking after 60+ footballers from high ability to low ability, is something which is very difficult to be able to "learn on the job" with. This has been a great help and is something that I will be taking into the coming season.
Avg: 4.51 / 5 (1votes)

From my experience, Lawrie's suggestions are excellent. The soft skills are crucial and the coach educator's problems are ,
A. What soft skills are essential?
B. How are these delivered throughout a course? As these are complex, perhaps they are for another forum.

Having, experienced player power once in my 25 years coaching, it certainly was memorable and in hindsight a great learning experience. My suggestions to avoid a recurrence ,
A. Identify the top dogs, either get them onboard or get rid of them
B. Indentify and understand the culture
C. Identify cliques, remove.
D. Have players formulate a new culture, described by three words, I.e. Honesty, Excellence, Hardwork
E. Have players formulate outcome, process and performance goals
F. Have one on one meetings regularly with players, especially at start
G. Surround yourself with good people

Avg: 0 / 5 (0votes)