With the modern game constantly evolving, being brought to new levels by managers such as Guardiola or Bielsa, there remains a prevalent myth that seems as strong as ever. There remains to this day the idea that in order to manage at a high level, you have to have played at a high level, and it is still the biggest myth in modern coaching.
The argument is presented that someone with no professional playing experience can't “truly understand” the game at the highest levels. How can someone who hasn’t played in the Champions League, or the World Cup truly know the intricacies of the dressing-room dynamics? How can a non-pro truly empathize with players who are playing for their country? Can the non-pro understand the nuances of the game? The subtleties of the tactics they are attempting to bring to their team? All good questions, until you realize they are backed by little to no foundation.
It’s important to remember that being involved in a given field in one capacity does not translate to success in another capacity. There are several tangible examples we can use. I have been involved in science classes for the majority of my life, and after 15 years or so of said classes, I would not be qualified to teach the subject (by my own admission). However, to be a biologist, I don’t need to have parents who are biologists, nor do I have to have a pre-requisite understanding of osmosis from the womb. What is needed is intense personal engagement with the material being taught, in order for me to learn. We don’t demand our lawyers be personally sued before they can defend a client, nor do we demand our doctors break their own arms in order to “truly” understand how to mend a broken bone.
What we do demand is intense study and preparation. Theory and practice joined together, working with mentors and educators, trial and error over a period of time in which we can develop skills that seemed impossible only a few years ago. Coaching remains one of the few lines of work where this idea of “unteachable knowledge” comes into hand. Imagine telling a brain surgeon he has to have a tumor before he can truly understand how to treat a patient with one! It’s always good to remember the words of Arrigo Sacchi.
How often do we assume ex-pros are going to be fantastic coaches because of their playing experience? However, do they have the required knowledge of psychological or physical development? Do they understand the stages of development for a ten year old compared to a fifteen year old compared to an adult professional? I can assure you, being in shape does not guarantee a deep understanding of physiological training, nor does playing for Guardiola guarantee a tactical nous similar to Pep’s. We look to former superstars because of their prowess on the playing field but forget that coaching is a different matter all-together with a much different skill set. For every Guardiola, there is a Maradonna.
One aspect that is often overlooked is that while many argue a former professional will have an easier time empathizing with players at the highest level, it can often-times be the opposite! There are many cases in which top level players cannot understand why someone cannot do what they’re asking them. In fact, what they did as a player came so naturally that their ability to actually break down the technique or the idea and explain it and transmit that knowledge to the player or the team can be non-existent. Michael Jordan could never understand why players couldn’t do what he did for years in a way that seemed effortless, and perhaps that’s why he didn’t take away years from his life by becoming a coach after his playing days were over.
The game at all levels is dependent on the ability to manage relationships and to transmit knowledge into individuals and team and show them that you know what you’re talking about. These things are not mutually exclusive to soccer, nor are they things that must be learned by playing. Arsene Wenger, when describing his approach to managing relationships with his players, doesn’t attribute his success to his time at Strasbourg, or his early coaching stints in France. Instead, he attributes much of it to his time growing up in his family’s pub. As he says, “There is no better psychological education than growing up in a pub, because when you are five or six years old, you meet all different people…From an early age you get a practical, psychological education to get into the minds of people.” Practical knowledge that can be applied to coaching in the game can come from all parts of life, not just the field.
Understanding the game itself is not dependent on playing at a high level. Being immersed with the game at whatever level, studying the game, watching the game at all levels, and learning from coaches and other mentors is critical in developing knowledge for the game. Studying pedagogical methods, understanding different tactical analyses or systems of play, these are things that can be learned given focus and time. Study and practice, trial and error, developing your own ideas and offering them up for scrutiny. Being a student of the game, learning from contemporaries, and testing your ideas and methods with teams and players is how one continuously learns about the nuances and subtleties of the game. The good news is that anyone can do this. Having the capacity to do something, and having the drive to do something, are two very different things however. Einstein was not always a world famous physicist. He was, however, someone who dedicated himself to learning and studying his craft.
Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves, is there truly any knowledge within the game that can’t be learned? Why do we hold the nuances of the 4-3-3 in such high regard and yet we accept that astrophysics is a learnable subject? The game itself is shifting to a place where many analysts and coaches haven’t played at high levels. What they have done is spent years and years studying, learning, and practicing their craft. All too often, former professionals are given cushy jobs in big clubs but they haven’t spent any time actually preparing for a role off the pitch. At the same time, there are many professionals out there who ARE actively studying the game. They are taking in every training session and beginning to create their own ideology and methodology for coaching, whether it be professional or youth. Top level playing experience CAN be a huge asset, but it is not a definite asset, and we must not fall into that line of thinking.
There is another group of coaches out there also. These are the non-pro’s who haven’t been offered opportunities right off the bat. The years they might have spent playing have been spent at university, with clubs, with coaching mentors and getting their badges. Their lack of experience on the pitch has forced them to work that much harder because they understand they are going up against a player who has a national team cap or a champions league appearance and has been fast-tracked through the UEFA badges. There may be players who have a head start with their knowledge and understanding of the game, but it’s by no means an impossible journey to reach that level.
I didn’t play at a high level. I know several players who have been offered positions at very respectable college programs with little to no experience or understanding in actual coaching or management. I’m glad I’ve had to fight to get where I am and where I’m going, because ultimately it has given me the drive to continue to learn and get better every day. Each session is an opportunity for you to demonstrate your knowledge and ability as an educator and coach to your team, regardless of the level. Players are intelligent, and in this day and age they are questioning things more and more. If you understand the game and haven’t played, what you know is going to win them over in the long run compared to the former professional who has some great YouTube clips and some horrible training sessions.
The idea that there are certain aspects of coaching that can’t be learned, except on the playing field, is one founded in misunderstanding. You can choose to accept it and assume that this isn’t for you, or you can choose to put theory and practice to work and focus on improving each day at a time.