Monday, July 09, 2007

on being qualified to coach high level players

I'm going to split my next post into two parts - one regarding coaching, and one regarding game, since it's a topic that could generate much discussion.

I got an email while I was on vacation from a new coach, who is experiencing some self doubt (I'm keeping her name anonymous by request).

"I've never played for a really good team, I've never played select sides, and I never even dreamed of playing for the Eagles. Now I'm coaching a team that is getting really competitive and I don't know how to take them to the next level, since I never played at that level".

So here's the question - is it necessary for a coach to have "high level athlete experience" in order to coach "high level rugby?", or, can a coach educate themselves to the point where they become qualified to coach high level rugby.

To this new coach - I totally understand how you feel, and have wondered the very same thing myself. Elite level athletes play sports at a different level, but how much of that is based on genetics/fitness/training/instinct, versus how much is based on study and education? As a player I never reached the highest level. As a result, when I first started coaching I was very comfortable coaching "up to" the level that I had reached. It took quite a bit of time and study before I felt comfortable with players who achieved greater glories that I did on the field. I'm confident that practicing the craft of coaching, studying video, attending camps and clinics run by other coaches, and actually working with higher level players can build your coaching skills to the degree necessary to meet your players needs, but what of that final extra step that takes a coach and/or her players all the way to the top?

As a player who never instinctively knew how to evade defenders, I had to dissect how to decelerate, shift weight from one foot to the other, accelerate, balance, etc etc etc. Often I've heard the naturally evasive athlete say something along the lines of "why didn't she just step that defender and take that hole?". For some at this level of skill, "how" to execute isn't nearly as hard to learn as "when" to execute. I seemed to always know "when", but couldn't get my body to do it in time. While this was somewhat disatrous to me as a athlete, I think it helped me develop as a coach (especially when working with newer or less athletic players). But how about coaching the elite level athlete whose bodies CAN execute? Is there something a coach with an elite athlete past can give them that I'll never be able to? What do you think?

If we were to look at the coaches in our nation who work with the senior US teams and with the senior territorial teams, there certainly does seem to be a pattern of retired USA players occupying those roles, particularly in the women's game, particularly women coaches. Yet this doesn't seem to be true of the men who coach the women's high level teams/programs. Are we, as women, holding each other to a higher standard than we hold our male counterparts? Or even worse, are we, as women, making gender assumptions that we shouldn't regarding the skill/knowledge of male vs female coaches? Can a man without International PLAYING experience achieve the highest level of coaching in the US? Can a woman?

Interestingly, when i google Peter Thornburn, the men's national team coach, the press releases speak entirely to his coaching experience - not a word about him as a player. When I google Kathy Flores, the women's national team head coach, the press releases mentions primarily her playing career and this despite the fact the her achievements as Berkley's head coach make her far and away the most impressive coach in US women's rugby, and that under her our WNT is back on track and fast on the road to success.

So - is this just random? Or, as Americans (men but especially women), do we demand that our home grown rugby coaches have an international athlete resume? Is it wrong to suggest that coaches born outside our shores are not held to this same standard? Is it because we are still young as a rugby nation?

And to the original question - Can a coach, who has never competed as an athlete at the select side or higher level, coach players with those ambitions and even those experiences? Opinions please!

My advice to this individual - keep working at it. Go to camps, go to clinics, go to coaching workshops. If you can't find a rugby coaching workshop to go to, go to another sports workshop. Reach out to the select side coaches in your area and ask to attend their camps and tryouts. Ask to help - get guest coaches to come to your trainings. Find someone to mentor you. When you see something you like - TRY IT. Just like players take chances, we as coaches have to take chances. America is the land of opportunity and invention. Keep working at it, perhaps in a few years you'll be the one introducing new techniques, defensive systems, or attacking strategies. Just keep coaching.

Here's an interesting article from the USOC Coaching newsletter about coaching veteran elite athletes vs emerging elite athletes.


AOF said...

Wow, lots of awesome stuff to think about. One quick comment on about 2% of what was mentioned - research on coaches and attitudes concerning previous experience does show that female coaches believe they need to particpate at a higher level as an athlete than men who coach the same sport. I could search for the exact studies, but the general idea was that for a woman to coach a collegiate sport they felt they needed to have played that sport at an top level (generally DI, for example), while male coaches indicated that they could coach that sport after ending participation in high school. Interesting stuff!

Meredith said...

I absolutely think that you do not have to have experience playing at the highest levels in order to coach at the highest levels. If you look at almost every other sport, you see coaches who were mediocre or merely good athletes having tremendous success as coaches. What is more important, to me, is a thirst for knowledge about the sport and a dedication to the craft of coaching. Furthermore, as you pointed out, sometimes having a little less "natural" talent pushes a person to have a more thorough understanding of technique, strategy, etc.

Regarding the issue of the double standard for female coaches, I think that that is somewhat unique to rugby as well. Though I don't discount the effect of prejudice, I think that there is another issue in effect here: the size of the women's rugby community. While it's growing at a tremendous rate, women's rugby has traditionally been a fairly small community. As a result, the circles of elite women athletes and women who are extremely dedicated to the sport overlap more than in other sports. It may even be that, to some extent, we have conflated the two categories.
Just a thought.

Blondie said...

Yes, I'm with AOF. WOW. Great post.

My take on this is that I have always felt that coaches should be just like their players - how do you improve your game? You train, you learn, you study, you practice, you challenge yourself. And perhaps the difference between the top athletes and the top coaches is that not every athlete can be a good coach and not every coach needs to have been a good athlete. I know plenty of our elite athletes who amaze me on the rugby field, but I think would absolutely suck as coaches. Some who I wouldn't even want as captains. And there are some coaches out there who I would love to play for, because just being in their general vicinity improves my game.

As for the women's game ... I'm looking forward to our next few decades of rugby when even more women's players playing now start coaching, starting new teams, having daughters raised on rugby.

Alan said...

That's absurd to suggest that an elite coach must have been an elite player. Of the last 10 men to be head coach of a Super Bowl winning team, only one played in the NFL. All of the rest played in college, though generally for minor or very obscure schools, and many of them had fairly undistinguished careers even at that level.

Only two of the five coaches to have won the mens' RWC were international players.

Only five of the last 10 men to win NBA coaching titles played in the NBA.

Fewer than half of the soccer World Cup winning coaches played for their national team.

Anonymous said...

I agree that one need not be/have been an elite athlete to coach them. As a high school soccer player, I was the back-up GK for the best coach in the county. He often told me that as soon as I graduate from college, I should look for a coaching job at the college level. I read the game. I think about the game. I was often frustrated when I did get on the field because I saw the game 2-3 passes later. My teammates didn't. Players and coaches have different mindsets. They have to. I think that's often why they don't see eye-to-eye, regardless of what sport it may be.


BMB, Seattle said...

WOW! This is a great blog. I just stumbled on it - and what a great topic for discussion! So...This is not going to be PC, but that's not my strong point anyway. So here goes.

Everyone SAYS that you don't have to have elite playing experience to coach at the elite level. In practice though, it would appear that you do. Everyone on the WNT coaching staff is a former Eagle.

I've had very limited experience with those specific coaches. But I do know from experience that good players don't always translate into good coaches. No matter how much talent, energy, or skill you have as an individual, translating that into instruction is a completely different talent.

I think that the unfortunate thing is that a lot of people who have experience and skill playing automatically assume that they are imbued with the ability to be an ultimate authority on rugby and that their way is the only way. In my experience, those coaches are the ones most resistant to changes in styles of play and are unwilling to admit that they could learn from others in the community. Are these coaches really the ones who should be developing teams and training future "elite" athletes?

Anonymous said...

BMB makes a solid point. But you forgot to also point out that you have to be a WOMAN and a former eagle to coch the WNT. You here complaints about the "old boys club" but from where I stand the old girls look a lot worse.

sue said...

Are you serious? Cathy Flores is the first womens national team coach in the entire era since there has been a womens national team. Kevin Obrien, Joe Kelly, Martin Ghallager, all came first.

Give us a break, ANONYMOUS.

Anonymous said...


Kathy Flores
Candi Orsini
Krista McFarren
Liz Kirk
Alex Williams

All former eagles, all women. The fitness coaches are all woman, the doc is a woman, the pt is a women, the manager is a woman, and the gm is a woman. Everybody knows what else they are too. Nobody pays money to watch women play rugby so you may as well have your own club.

Anonymous said...

Ah yes… I little chance to rumble with the boys…

First of all, there is hardly a conspiracy to keep men out of coaching women’s rugby at elite levels… Fact is if a woman has colleagues, past teammates and friends who are mostly female then they have the perfect right to chose from that group who they want on their staff… But, mostly, they got their positions through a winning tradition. Their clubs were/are dynasties in women’s rugby. There have been plenty of men coaching clubs playing them and those men lost every time. If you think you’ve got what it takes to win, then arrange for a match with their clubs - e.g. put up or shut up. Conspiracy theories are for losers and the clinically paranoid.

Second, women are complex. They are complex individually and they are complex socially. Rugby is a social sport of large numbers. The subtleties of how to get women to stay together and work together effectively are most often understood best by women… Not surprisingly, women have the most experience working with women…

Also, anyone who makes a comment like “what else they are” should not be involved with other human beings in a civilized society… It is a very sick statement. In a highly social and diverse sport like rugby it is unacceptable that anyone would make such an outrageous comment. The person who made this comment should immediately move to a remote location and never have human exposure again.. May I suggest a hovel deep in the Himalayans…