Former elite football players who become coaches are able immediately to garner respect and offer the seductive promise of having been there and done it. They understand the sport, the club, the fans – and, most importantly, how to win. This however is done as an individual part of a team with little responsibility to the overall picture.
The practice of hiring former greats as coaches is not unique to Uganda but a world phenomenon. The majority of football fraternities subscribe heavily to it.
Playing is not coaching, much as studying is not teaching. Yet there remains a somewhat arbitrary assumption, legitimated within sporting cultures, that a professional playing background is the sole criterion for becoming a successful coach. This clearly is not the case.
In 2007, I led Maroons Football Club to the Premier League after 20 years of abeyance. In my first interview with a journalist from a leading media house, I was asked which club I played for and how many times I played for the national team. I expected to answer questions about team performance and how we managed to create a winning side!
No evidence exists that a person can only coach at the highest levels if they have performed there. More specifically, there is no established threshold to be crossed to be eligible for future coaching success.
What role does playing experience have?
However, playing experiences do give football players an unusually good opportunity to learn about coaching from their own coaches.
Previous research has shown playing experience does contribute to coaching skills related to sport-specific knowledge, such as technical and tactical aspects, and a degree of “organizational socialization”. This is where playing serves as part of a broader apprenticeship, an inculcation into shared understandings regarding aspects of a job.
However, these experiences can only give a partial view of coaching, and may not reveal the true extent of the coach’s role. What’s missing is what happens away from face-to-face training, the countless hours engaged in planning and preparation, the complex orchestration of commitments across all aspects of the business, and the personally challenging reflections that quality coaches engage in throughout their careers.
This may give some insight into why former players moving directly into coaching positions often face difficulties.
Clearly, previous playing experience has a role to play. And top-level playing experience – while not essential – can serve a socializing role within a coach’s development. But it does not justify the privileging of ex-players with fast-tracked progression through compulsory coach accreditation structures and enhanced career prospects within coaching.
Many players, especially in the English Premier League have fallen short because of their lack of coaching knowledge and experience and most retired early. We can look at Alan Shearer, Chris Waddle, Thierry Henry, the Neville brothers, and Lampard at Chelsea. In Uganda, our culture of taking criticism poorly and fear of being labeled unprofessional, will not allow me to mention anyone.
Research shows there are advantages for coaches who have not played at an elite level. For example, those without elite playing backgrounds are generally able to start coaching and developing their craft much earlier. They tend to have more extensive and varied experiences in all aspects of coaching work and the pathways of their sport.
Similarly, coaches with more modest playing backgrounds generally have more opportunities to gain other qualifications and experiences that are valuable and relevant for coaching.
Jose Mourinho, the current manager of Tottenham Hotspurs, played less than 100 football games in the Portuguese second division. But he studied sports science and worked as a physical education teacher, player scout, youth team coach, and assistant manager before becoming a head coach. In his managerial career, he has won league titles in Portugal, England, Italy, and Spain.
Essentially, coaches who did not have a career as a player were able to develop coaching skills in ways former champions simply did not have the time to engage with because they were busy maximizing their athletic performances.
Best practice for employing elite coaches should include a thorough appraisal of what the job of coaching entails and a robust and rational assessment of the fit between applicant backgrounds and the job requirements.
Just because you were good at sport does not mean that you can coach without furthering your qualifications and experiences, in the same way that just because you were good at school does not mean you can teach without gaining a teaching degree and engaging in professional development. We must ensure we do not simply continue to privilege those who are already privileged.
Coaching should be a meritocracy, not an aristocracy.