The Greatest Pressure

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“Players learn when they are ready to learn.” Phil Jackson

Every coach who has been a coach for more than about a month intuitively understands this statement to be correct and can instantly recount examples from his experience. It doesn’t matter how much you explain, show, practice, scream, cajole or plead with your players, they learn when they are ready. For different groups, ‘ready’ can mean different things. For some, it can mean going through the pain of losing before being able to accept a new idea. For others, as this wonderful article explains, it can mean understanding the concept behind the motion. The required movement / motion / skill only becomes apparent after the learner has understood the concept.

While every coach understands this statement to be true hardly any heed the lessons it implies. Somehow every coach subconsciously expects that he will be the exception to this rule, and so constantly provides feedback, information and correction about every tiny thing. When faced with the subsequent lack of learning, if he is a ‘good’ coach he will double down and provide more feedback and information. If he is a ‘bad’ coach he will bemoan the fact that his players can’t learn or that he doesn’t have enough training time. But either way he will have done everything he can.

The problem is not that the coach doesn’t understand the best way to coach. The problem is one of expectations. Every single observer (spectator, parent, management, journalist) knows in his heart that the reason a player does something poorly is solely because he has not been told the right way to do it. I know this because I thought exactly like that. If I had had the chance to tell the player how to do it correctly, the skill in question would automatically and miraculously be fixed. The player would become a great player and all would recognise my wisdom as the only person who really understands. It turns out it doesn’t work like that.

As the already linked article explains, learning is multi faceted and coaches do far more to inhibit learning than to produce it. ‘The game teaches the game’, as proposed by official USAV coaching courses, or the game sense approach to learning, coming through the UK and Australian PE systems in the 80’s and 90’s, are approaches that address this issue. Great football coaches like Johan Cruyff and Jose Mourinho independently of those systems and of each other, describe training methodologies almost identical to these game based approaches. Where all of these systems are similar is that the learning occurs not (only) from the interventions of the coach but from the structure and organisation of the practice itself.

The success of Cruyff and Mourinho in this narrative is important. Both developed successful training methodologies away from the norm and achieved inordinate success in an incredibly competitive field. Both are also stubborn and self confident, or arrogant depending on your viewpoint. The point is that they have to be, because the greatest pressure that a coach faces in his work is not to win. The greatest pressure that a coach faces is to do the thing that is expected of him. That means training in the expected way. That means using the expected tactics. That means making the expected changes.  Those pressures are greater than the pressure to win because by deviating from expectation, the coach ensures that the responsibility for perceived failure will be endured solely by him. Accepting that responsibility takes a certain (enormous) amount of stubbornness and confidence.

If I were asked to give advice to a young coach who asked me about ensuring his job security, it would be ‘always use all your subs and all your timeouts’. That is because all the people watching, including your employers think, that match is the only part of your job. That is the only part of the job they see. If you use all your subs and timeouts, you are ‘doing’ something. Being patient is not doing anything, because nobody can see you doing it. Showing trust is not doing anything, because nobody can see you doing it. Allowing learning to occur is not doing anything, because nobody can see you doing it.

The greatest pressure on the coach is NOT to win…

“You don’t have to do some-thing, or any-thing. You have to do the right thing.” Mark Lebedew

Some articles on this and similar topics…

The goalkeeper whose motivation is not to stop a penalty.

Gregg Popovich about Manu Ginobili

The effectiveness of timeouts

NFL coaches who are ultra conservative in game decisions because the threat of taking a risk is greater than the reward for success

Timeouts in crunch time in the NBA


Read about the great new Vyacheslav Platonov coaching book here.

Cover v2


  1. I wasn’t fortunated to ever meet football coach Walerij Lobanowski or watch a training session of his. But the post immediately reminded me of him as another noteworthy person in point. As described in this (german) article, Lobanowski hardly ever talked much with anybody (be it journalists, assistant coaches or players), yet apparently everybody who worked with him was amazed by a) his knowledge of the subject (football) and it’s methodologies and b) his eagerness to learn and evolve hisself, which together gave him c) a natural authorty:


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