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1st October 2015, 9:39am
Why ‘respect’ for sporting greats provides fast-track up coaching ladder
Sports coaching A study of senior decision-makers in some of England and Wales’ top professional football and rugby union clubs suggests that former top-class players are being fast-tracked up the coaching ladder because of a belief in the boardroom that they are best placed to gain the immediate respect of players.

Distinguished ex-professional sportsmen are given a springboard into the upper echelons of the coaching pyramid due to the value placed on their playing pedigree and personality by club executives, a new study has found.

At the start of the 2013/14 season, 96% of all head coaches at the 92 professional men’s football clubs and 22 professional men’s rugby union clubs in England and Wales had previously played their respective sports at an elite level, research by the University of Lincoln and Leeds Beckett University discovered.

Responses to a survey of directors on the boards of professional football and rugby clubs confirmed that executives often preferred the so-called ‘great player’ over a coach who did not have such an illustrious playing history, because they felt current players would be more likely to accept the direction of a veteran star as “gospel.”

One club director said a new coach needed to “wow everybody” straight away in an effort to gain the respect of players. Coaches who failed to immediately connect with their team could quickly face dismissal. Another director said the “raw personality” of a top former player better equipped them to make the right decisions at the right time.

The study found that top clubs claimed highly-qualified coaches without glittering playing records sometimes failed to get their messages across. Often clubs looked to recruit a top player from within their own system ahead of outside professional coaches.

One club director admitted that if a player had been good to them, “demonstrating the values that you like”, they would consider them for a coaching role.

Lead researcher Alex Blackett, from the School of Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Lincoln, said the findings were important in understanding how coaching talent was developed and progressed.

He said: “The fast-track transition from elite player to head coach is so common in professional men’s rugby union and football in England and Wales, it is easy to overlook the reasons why this pattern exists, and whether it is in the best interests of the sports.

“Our study showed that club directors place a great emphasis on past playing success when appointing senior coaching staff – often over and above formal coaching qualifications – because of a belief that playing pedigree is the best way as a coach to earn the respect of current players.

“This represents a disjuncture between the skills promoted on formal coaching routes by the sports’ professional bodies and the recruitment strategies of our top clubs.

“In an era where scientific advances in coaching have elevated performance of elite athletes in many disciplines, it may be that football and rugby union are needlessly shutting the door on a large pool of potential coaching talent.”

The research was supervised Dr Adam Evans, who is now based at the University of Copenhagen, and Dr David Piggott from Leeds Beckett University. The paper: Why ‘the best way of learning to coach the game is playing the game’: conceptualising ‘fast-tracked’ high-performance coaching pathways was published in the academic journal Sport, Education and Society.

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