January 4, 2016 • Soccer

Keys to developing coachable soccer players

Coachability is a key to performance breakthrough for individual players and whole teams. The one essential requirement is the willingness to listen and utilize external input and influences. The extent of this openness to learning determines four levels of coachability:


  • Not coachable. Already knows everything, not open, listens only to own voice
  • Selectively coachable. Does what’s asked but only when he or she feels like it, mostly goes own way
  • Reluctantly coachable. Does everything that is asked but doubts it, never fully committed
  • Completely coachable. Does everything asked, surrenders own voice, trusts and empowers the coach

Players and teams who reject coaching often believe certain myths — coaching is for beginners; we already know everything, we just need to apply it; experienced players coach themselves.

Gareth Barry, a Premier League player at Aston Villa, Manchester City and then Everton FC, was asked to fulfil a number of roles in the midfield of the England team to complement the particular skills of either Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard. In my opinion, Gareth’s coachability became key to the team’s performance. His character and maturity were evidenced by an ability to listen, a willingness to try new things, an ability to adapt to change and the strength to accept accountability.

Of course, Gareth made mistakes, but he freely admitted them, took responsibility for them and rarely made the same mistake again.

How players adapt to coaching says a great deal about who they are. The same is true of teams. Coachability is an aspect of team mindset. Progress depends on the commitment of all individual members to learn their team roles and responsibilities. Great coaches can win with less talent but only if the team have a high level of coachability. The New England Patriots have been Super Bowl winners and a dominant force in the league under the guidance of their outstanding coach, Bill Belichick, who recruits coachability.

Belichick’s system relies heavily on smart, adaptable players. The intellectually rigorous, team-centric Patriots system would flop without smart, selfless, passionate players. Belichick’s previous club played the same system but failed because many players weren’t coachable. The Patriots have acquired many superb players who achieved little on other teams that did not utilize those players’ intelligence and adaptability.

Belichick’s staff relentlessly squeezes maximal performance from players whose “excellence” is defined by their heads and hearts as much as their arms and legs. (Lavin 2005, p 53)

Photo: Kevin Hoffman

Being coachable is important at all ages and levels of competition. All coaches have limited time to teach the skills of soccer, so they rely on players to be early for practice; ready, fresh and alert; keen to learn and determined to excel.

Superstars have coachability

When Steve Round, the former assistant manager of Manchester United, walked out for his first practice session with his new squad, he was a little nervous. Coaching superstars is daunting, and he was still unsure of the right approach. However, one of the senior players walked alongside him and told him how much the players were looking forward to the session. He went on to add that the players loved being challenged to learn new things. The word was that “Roundy” and the manager, David Moyes, were demanding coaches. A valuable lesson learned — many superstars are highly coachable and need to be challenged every day.

Being uncoachable

The world’s most brilliant coach would fail without players who are willing and able to learn from her or him. I saw Paul Barron, a goalkeeping coach responsible for the development of many fine goalkeepers, fail with only one goalkeeper. This particular player had had some early success before Paul joined his club. From the start the player rejected Paul’s coaching and experience, insisting that he knew best how to prepare. The other goalkeepers in the squad responded well to Paul, and it was no surprise when one of them accelerated through to win the first-team jersey, leaving behind a talented but uncoachable falling star.

Unfortunately, coaches, especially of younger players, are encountering more players who are uncoachable. Some players believe they are never wrong, others think that the coach picks on them unfairly, and, of course, some will not take responsibility for mistakes or failure. These instances of uncoachable behavior reflect various forms of mental or emotional weakness like arrogance, anger, subversion or low self-esteem.

The moment that determines whether a player or team are coachable or uncoachable is immediately after a coach intervenes with advice, instruction or criticism. From the first moment a young boy or girl starts to learn soccer, the choice between responding positively and reacting negatively determines his or her soccer destiny, unless a coach at some point can influence a change from negative to positive.

Developing coachability

Coachability is a function of the following factors:

  • The player’s motivation to learn and improve.
  • The player’s desire to achieve her or his goals and dreams.
  • The strength of the relationship between the player and the coach.

For the team, we must add these points:

  • Trust in others to do their jobs.
  • Open and honest communication.
  • Open and clear expectations of each other.

Ensuring player and team coachability is about shaping these thoughts and emotions positively. This notion goes beyond physical, technical and tactical instruction and engages the coach more as a psychologist and relationship builder. Of course, the coach’s job is to challenge players to improve, but if these elements of coachability are not in place, no learning will occur. Basketball coach Phil Jackson had to coach the uncoachable L.A. Lakers, star players who had lost any sense of humility and gone backwards from a “we” attitude to a “me” attitude. The lesson he shared was this: “The essence of coaching is to get the players wholeheartedly to agree to being coached, then offer them a sense of their destiny as a team.” (Jackson 2013, p 17)

Coach Jackson convinced his players that the only way to win was by being willing to be coached as one cohesive team unit.

Fully developed coachability means players become self-managing and take responsibility for their own learning. This is the mindset of a champion player or team. They come to learn every day and never waste a practice.

This is an excerpt from ‘One Goal: The Mindset of Winning Soccer Teams’ (Human Kinetics, 2015), written by Bill Beswick, an internationally renowned leader in the field of applied sport psychology. The book can be purchased at www.humankinetics.com by clicking here.

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