Rugby Coaching Blog | Professional Rugby Advice & Coaching

Do former athletes make the best coaches? by David Clarke

Here is an interesting article about whether you need to have played the game to the top level to be a good coach. It comes from former top UK athlete, Katharine Merry.

Do former athletes make the best coaches?
Katharine Merry | 07:42 UK time, Thursday, 9 April 2009

Do those who have been successful playing sport at the highest level make the best coaches?

It’s a question many football fans have been asking since Newcastle appointed Alan Shearer as manager.

We also discussed the matter/issue on BBC 5 Live’s London Calling programme last month, particularly in relation to Charles van Commenee, the new head coach of UK Athletics who was forced to end his competitive career at the age of 18 because of injury.

Just because you are good at sport doesn’t mean you will be good at teaching it. Yes, you can have a sound knowledge base from what you have learnt from your own coaches but, when it comes to being a successful coach, ex-athletes run the risk of flying by their reputation rather than the knowledge they have.

In football, you can’t get a better example for both sides of this coin than the Charlton brothers. Bobby was the far better player, but failed at lower league coaching whereas Jack – arguably a weaker player – was a tremendous coach/manager.

Oddly, football clubs who bring in foreign managers – the likes of Arsenal and Arsene Wenger or Liverpool with Rafa Benitez – do so based on their coaching ability, while those who appoint home-grown managers – like Newcastle with Shearer – do it based on playing ability.

Athletics is peppered with former stars who have an input into athletes’ careers, either as coaches or mentors. But the majority of athletes have coaches that never been stars themselves.

Michael Johnson and Donovan Bailey both achieved phenomenal success with coaches who were students of the sport but had never hit the heights themselves.

There is a difference between experience and knowledge. So what skills does a good coach need?

To me, good coaching is about helping athletes to understand themselves, where they want to be, and helping them to get there. This means having knowledge of the sport and good communication skills.

In my experience the best coaches were the ones who took the time to get to know me as an individual, learning about my strengths and weaknesses.

Athletes are by nature blinkered and focused on their own careers. Does this mean they will take what could be described as selfish attributes into coaching and only teach what they think is right?

Some of the best coaching seems to come from a combination of experience at the highest level of sport and experience from years of coaching.

Linford Christie was coached throughout his career by Ron Roddan, whose own sprinting career peaked with an appearance in a Middlesex county final in the 1960s.

With help from Ron, Linford coached me and Darren Campbell to Olympic medals and the combination of knowledge and experiences from both of them together was priceless.

Now Linford is coaching on his own, with Ron as a sounding board, using all that he has learnt from him over the years.

Another successful coaching duo is Lloyd Cowan and Christine Bloomfield, who work with Christine Ohuruogu. Both were international athletes in their day but clearly have a great blend together that helps their athletes be far more successful than either of their coaches ever was.

Should therefore any person wanting to come into coaching, regardless of there sporting achievements, be subject to a period of apprenticeship? I know Sport England and UKA are now really putting an emphasis on coaching education and development.

I do believe ex-athletes can make excellent coaches and make a valuable contribution to the development of coaching.

However sometimes too much of an assumption is made from having been there and done it. This doesn’t automatically make an effective coach.

Any person that can add to the support system of an athlete to develop them into the best they can be is a good thing.

Let’s just make sure we develop and support the backbone of sport in this country and never overlook coaching talent from non-elite athletes.

Better Rugby Coaching


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