Footballers and learning: thoughts for the coach

Recently the England national team have changed the way they ask players to learn. It came about following the poor performance in the last World Cup – needs must. They’d been beaten By Uruguay by tactics which they had worked on a lot in training and team meetings. The old learning methods had not worked.

The business gurus tell us that when it comes to influencing and changing behaviours ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. In other words the well-rehearsed ways of doing things assert themselves and make any change difficult. We see this in professional football, though thankfully it’s changing.  In many clubs the old way of doing things spreads like a disease.

Only one of the following four coaching disorders is an actual medical condition. The others just stop you doing your job which is to help players improve and to perform when they need to.

  1. Gafferitis or ‘let’s wait for the boss to decide’
  2. Attitudinosclerosis or ‘hardening of the attitudes’
  3. Precedentitis or ‘we’ve always done it this way’
  4. Responsophobia or ‘fear of losing authority’

Regarding player learning here are some of the cures to these diseases of coaching.

Gafferitis or ‘let’s wait for the boss to decide’

A condition called ‘learned helplessness’ occurs when people wait around for someone else to make all the decisions.  The trouble with learned helplessness is that if it’s relied on too often then it becomes the default: no-one makes a decision or solves a problem independently. The more immature or lacking in confidence you are the worse the problem becomes. For footballers this is disastrous. They can spend their lives second guessing how to please the manager and staff. The solution lies in more open and honest communication with no fear of ‘reprisals’ for players who speak up.

Responsophobia or ‘fear of losing authority’

Many managers and coaches end up over coaching because they are fearful of losing status. The culture dictates that they have to be seen to be in charge. Too much stop-start follows; too many lengthy coaching interventions; over-elaborate instructions; talk, talk, talk.  And if the manager is watching your session then it’s worse. Keep the balls rolling. Limit the talk when you’re on the grass.

Attitudinosclerosis or ‘hardening of the attitudes’

How we think shapes how we make sense of the play we see in front of us. Many coaches exhibit what psychologists call confirmation bias – a tendency to filter in information which confirms what they expect whilst filtering out information which challenges it. In other words they justify what they do and collect evidence as they go. The tighter the coaching staff the more they think alike.

Precedentitis or ‘we’ve always done it this way’

A simple definition of culture is the ‘way we do things round here.’ As we said above it’s the culture of a club -or a group of players within a club – which has the biggest influence on behaviours, more so than the manager unless that manager is a stayer like Fergie or Wenger or charismatic like Pep or Mourinho. Attempting to shift the culture leads to resistance. In some clubs there’s hell on just trying to get players to do extra sessions in the afternoon.


The England national side changed the way they support player learning. This came because of the Uruguay disaster. At the time work on learning was being done for the England DNA and we had the presence around the camp of Dr Steve Peters, a consultant psychiatrist. It required a cultural shift.

Prior to the last World Cup, team meetings would have looked no different to any held over the previous fifty years. The technology had moved on, electronic whiteboards have replaced the ragged old flip chart, but the pedagogy had remained unchallenged.

Peters encouraged the coaching staff to move away from direct instruction, from lectures and PowerPoints and towards unit meetings and player responsibility. So now players meet informally and are given the likely game scenarios to work on together and away from coaches.  To create a generation of problem solvers on the pitch starts in a discussion.

Midfielders may take themselves off together to a study area or a bedroom watch the video analysis material prepared by the sports scientists and work on their own solutions. The solutions are then brought back to the team meetings. The aim is to mature players into the national squad quickly by encouraging then to talk, share opinions and ask questions.  Many great sporting leaders talk about devolving responsibility to their athletes but it’s not easy. Although players may be adored by tens of thousands of fans, have phenomenal wealth and own what they want, few, especially the younger ones, want to speak in front of their peers. Culturally this has not been the way of football. You did as you were told.  You sat there and you listened. Now it’s changed. I’m delighted.

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