Many coaches have experienced bias throughout their coaching careers – either in their favor or against them. Often times, certain coaches will jump straight up to the top of the ranks within their organization, become coaches at higher levels, or avoid questioning of their methods by others strictly based on their playing experience. Especially if someone has played professionally. It happens all the time at the grassroots level. And even professionally – Zinedine Zidane is now the manager for Real Madrid after only four years of experience as a coach, and Patrick Viera recently took over NYCFC’s team after only four years as a coach… Surely, these guys were world class players, but that doesn’t necessarily make them world class coaches, does it?
This situation finds many other coaches frustrated. I know several coaches who have missed out on opportunities to others simply due to playing experience. Despite their hard work and dedication at improving at their craft of coaching, they are left behind by others who were high-level players and barely started coaching. Many times, these high-level players are in fact terrible coaches. Just because they were talented players, does not mean they have a sufficient knowledge of the game to coach. And even if they do have the knowledge, it doesn’t mean they are effective at transferring that knowledge to their players.
But when it comes to becoming an effective coach, does playing experience matter at all?
Why Playing Experience Matters
We can start at the basic level. Say we have two people coaching nine-year olds. One coach is a former player (at any level) and the other has never played. Surely, the former player will be able to better teach these children how to properly pass and execute moves since he has done it all before. The non-player coach will struggle since he has never actually had to do those skills before. However, this coach can certainly learn the proper technique and eventually teach it effectively.
But what if one coach played professionally and the other played throughout childhood, but never professionally. Does this difference in experience matter when it comes to coaching nine-year olds? Not really. It could, to some degree. But the coaching experience and effectiveness is far more important. Since they have both played at this level and understand the basic concepts for U9 or U10 soccer, it does not make much difference the level of playing experience they have beyond the grassroots level.
But what about when we reach higher levels of play? When we talk about coaching higher-level twelve-year olds, seventeen-year olds, college, or professional players?
Let’s say we have two people beginning as coaches at the college level – one who played collegiately and the other who did not – is one of them at an advantage (assuming all other credentials and experience are similar)? Absolutely. The coach who has the playing experience at that level can potentially be much more effective. But why?
A coach who has played at the level of his players can empathize with them. This coach understands what it takes to perform at this level – the physical, technical, tactical, and psycho-social aspects. No amount of book reading or studying can ever replace having actually experienced that level of play. Sure, the non-college-playing coach could be effective, but it will take much longer. It will take more years of first-hand coaching experience than first-hand playing experience to learn to empathize with these players. Furthermore, it is usually necessary for this coach to learn from an experienced mentor at that level to help bridge the gap.
Reversing the Scope
It’s not just about coaches empathizing with players. The opposite point of view also matters.
Players respect a coach who can play. If a coach jumps in a session and can out-play his players with ease, all those players will instantly look up to him. They will also likely strive to reach that level. Conversely, if a coach cannot demonstrate or showcase exceptional playing ability, he loses credibility among his players. Therefore, the higher level of players a person is coaching, the higher level of playing experience that person ought to have.
And again, of course a coach can be effective in this scenario – coaches can have players demonstrate or simply never jump into a session. But doing so is another set of weapons in the arsenal of coaching tools, and we never know when they might be most appropriate.
It Matters Unless It Doesn’t
So in conclusion, the answer to “Does playing experience matter?” is the classic response, “It depends.”
If a coach has played at the same level of play as his players, that’s all he needs. Anything beyond that is not especially important. If he hasn’t, he can certainly learn, but it will take much longer.
More importantly, a coach’s effectiveness and ability as a coach is far more necessary and important than his playing ability. Just because someone played at a high level does not mean he will be a more effective coach than someone who has not played at the same level.
What do you think? Does playing experience matter for coaches? And to what extent?