Don’t Despair, Also The Greatest Fail

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Coaching is difficult.  During the course of every day, some situation is sure to arise that tests our training plan, our tactical concept, our patience, or even our personal sense of right and wrong.  On a bad day, it could be all of these. Each time one of these situations occurs we track back to our philosophy, our mentors, our research and our experience to learn how we should deal with it, all the time knowing that our ultimate responsibility is to the team and our egos must be appropriately subjugated.

It doesn’t seem to matter how much we prepare, how diligent we are and how much passion we have for our work, at some point, sooner rather than later, we will be in a position where we must compromise.  And when we compromise it is easy to feel like a bad coach.  I have read ‘Sacred Hoops’.  And ‘The Score Takes Care Of Itself’.  And ‘They Call Me Coach’.  Those coaching legends** never had to compromise.  They were wise and smart and firm and disciplined, and because of that they always had success and never had to compromise.  More than once I have sat reading one of those texts at the end of a tough day and despaired that I could be anywhere near as good I want to be.

On those days it is easy to lose perspective, both of our work and the work of others.  We remember of ourselves only the (too many to count) times that we have been forced to compromise and of our mentors and idols only their unfailing wisdom and success.  Of course reality is never, ever how we imagine it is especially our perception of others (and especially the ‘truth’ passed down in their own autobiographies).  Perhaps in moments of stress we should remember the failures of others to remind ourselves that coaching is an inexact science and an imperfect art.  So here is a list of some of my favourite failures, compromises and misconceptions, all of them big ones, to make you feel good about yourself.

  • Alex Ferguson (recounted in a Pep Guardiola biography) after 25 years at Manchester United made a mistake in organising the accommodation for the Champions League final that cost his team the match, or at least left them far from their best condition.
  • Pep Guardiola (from a different biography) allowed his players to talk him into compromising his tactical beliefs for a big match, and lost.
  • John Wooden (from his biography) did not begin his famous winning streak until his 16th!! season at UCLA.  And his famously close relationships with his ex players did not begin until long after they finished playing.
  • Bill Walsh (from his biography) despite being credited as a genius and with changing the game, had many more only just above average seasons as dominant ones, often barely making the playoffs.  His style of play become the dominant style of play, but it did not dominate others during his career.
  • Doug Beal (from his book Spike!) compromised his rules many times for one player, who ultimately quit the team anyway.  The team still won the Olympic gold medal.
  • The unnamed coach, whose best player decided they did not like the shirt the team was supposed to wear that day, who then individually went to all other rooms to inform the team they would wear a different shirt that day.  The team finished the season as champions.

** Phil Jackson, Bill Walsh, John Wooden


  1. Not exactly a failure, but I love the way Steve Kerr talks about his decision to start Draymond Green ahead of the highest player in the team a ‘lucky break’ “I had no idea Draymond was going to be this good,” Kerr admits.


    1. Nice one. I could do a companion post on the luck involved in the great victories. That coaches never acknowledge.


  2. The great thing about your posts Mark is that they often serve as a catalyst for reflection.

    It seems to me if you apply the principles of growth mindset to player development then coach development too must be a journey of belief, hard work and importantly mistakes and resilience. As with players who are outliers, those that just seem naturally brilliant, so too it may be with a few remarkable coaches. However as I am not one of those gifted few, I must embrace my errors, faults and weaknesses and build on them.


  3. Tony Dungy, the former coach of Pittsburgh Steelers was fired from Tampa Bay in a moment where the management did not trust him anymore as a coach.


  4. Here’s a very obscure analogy. I recently heard something about the new generation of curved TVs. The ones that improve immersion, depth of vision, field of view, and contrast. The ones that provide a uniform viewing distance. It turns out that they ONLY reason they are curved is that the screen is so think they need to curve to provide structural integrity!


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