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Who's the Best Coach You've Worked With and What Set Them Apart?

This was a question posed by Rob Porter (@RJPcoach) on Twitter back in April 2020. It brought about some good answers, and I went on a bit of a waffle. I thought I would detail that waffle here. This is my original answer to the question that I wrote eighteen months ago.

Two coaches that stick out in my mind as being particularly impactful, were both heads of academies, both Manchester United fans, both English, and both quit their jobs under a year of working with them. They were highly principled, always ready to stand up for what they believed in, development focussed, put the kids first, and would fight any troublemaking parent.

They both knew a lot about coaching methodology, curriculum design, and session planning. I definitely learnt a lot in those areas from observing them. I could listen to them talk coaching and football all day. It's a shame I only knew them for between five and six months, but they both had profound impacts on my development, my outlook, and my coaching. But most importantly, I think they both inspired me to stand up for what I believe in. I was always passive and non-confrontational. I'm still a calm pacifist, but years later have become a much firmer and more effective communicator.

Coaching is like architecture. We create environments. Environments are made by the people within them. It took a while for me to get there, but now I have the communication skills, the vision, and the knowledge to make it happen. I regularly find myself thinking back to their examples. This would be how they dealt with coaches and parents, and how they tried to make sure everyone and everything aligned. They had visions, and were very clear about what they were. If someone stood in the way of that, they confronted them. How are we all supposed to achieve if you have people pulling in different directions? It's a team effort, and that requires unity.

But, by far the most important example I had as a coach was my dad. He was our coach for a few years when I was a kid. He just volunteered to help out, and became the manager of our Sunday team. We were a squad at a club, with two teams in our age group; the Saturday team and the Sunday team. It wasn't split by ability, but simply who could play on what day. He was the complete antithesis to all the other coaches around us.

At a club where the others were short, aggressive, arrogant, and belittling, my dad was a gentle giant, who thrived on self-deprecating humour, and helping us have a laugh at anyone's expense, including our own. We turned up to games and practices excited. We used to sing stupid songs. We had stupid nicknames. We got beat sometimes and never stopped having fun. We pulled off miraculous victories and still talk about them to this day.

The most true testament to his ability was how so many of my former teammates still talk about him and ask how he is. After leaving the team, I didn't see them for years, as we went to different schools. Much later, many of them went to the same college (high school) as me. As young men, they still asked about him and shared their favourite stories. They never asked about me. It was always "Hi Will, how's your dad? I still remember that time..."

Around that time, aged sixteen, I started to play 5v5 indoor with and against many of them. My dad eventually got involved as our keeper. They loved seeing him. We were late teens or early twenties, and my dad was over fifty, 6'4", and over 250lbs. We'd hear our opponents mocking him before games, licking their lips at the prospect of facing an immobile fat bloke as keeper. The look on their faces would soon turn to horror, as he would routinely block close range shots with his face. Think Kane from WWE being smacked by a chair and not flinching, then seeing his opponent absolutely brick themselves, as he seemingly feels no pain.

Close range shots, straight at his face, he wouldn't use his hands, but would head them out, often starting counter attacks. We'd likely have a 4v3 overload going forward because their striker would be frozen, stunned at what he had just witnessed.

I've taken many lessons from him. Coaching isn't about you. It's about who you serve. All players, not just kids, are self-conscious. You're going to be doing a lot of criticising, correcting, and encouraging. If they don't trust or value you, you're going to have little impact.

My friends without dads wanted him to be their dad. My friends with unfulfilling for dads wanted him to be their dad. His gift was making them feel comfortable, included, appreciated, and special. Many parents, teachers, and coaches fail to do that. He's a very intelligent man, but you wouldn't know that from looking at him. He's not concerned by reputation or accolades, and views so much as superficial nonsense, designed to impress and mask one's lack of any real substance. Much like how some celebrities, athletes, and pop stars need flash cars, weird clothes, stupid haircuts, and scantily clad backing dancers. It's reputation over character. They want your adoration, without having to earn it. Why? Shortcuts to success, I suppose. My dad has never cared about his reputation, only the people within his care.

He doesn't care for fancy restaurants, and will try to get away with shorts and a t-shirt in all situations. All he needs for his birthday is a Burger King voucher. There's no airs and graces about him. It's a waste of time. Be who you are and enjoy yourselves.

His life philosophy is "You're a twat, I'm a twat, everybody's a twat. The ones you have to watch out for are the ones who can't see it in themselves. So I'm sceptical of anyone who I think coaches through ego, is concerned about image, and tries to pull the wool over our eyes. I'm always on the lookout for disingenuous charlatans trying to use others for their own gain. People who are more interested in reward, credit taking, and self-promotion. Sadly, there's plenty of cowboy coaches in youth sport. My dad was one of the rare ones, yet life would be better if coaches like him were in the majority. Kids are supposed to have fun. Football is supposed to be fun, regardless of age or ability. The adults who detract from that are not involved in sport for the right reasons.

This is him, pretending to sign me for the Red Bulls on my wedding day.

This photo was a week later, at a Red Bulls game. In his element, watching football with a bottle of Coke, and wearing a children's Minnie Mouse hat.

Presenting him with the best man shirt, a year before the wedding. Notice the attire in a fancy restaurant.

Helping me put up a Rovers flag at work.

Fixing the fridge with some help. Can't tell if cats view him as a beanbag or a human.

On the Columbus Crew pitch.

Giving him a tour of the club in Mexico.

When we hosted a friendly against a team from Belgium.

Outside the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff the day Rovers won the League Cup. Imprinted in my mind as February 24th, 2002.

Catching up after refereeing a game in Canada.

We spend a lot of money reading books from the likes of Dale Carnegie, John Wooden, and Walt Disney. We listen to the Ted Talks of excellent speakers such as Simon Sinek. And with good reason to. These people help to provide a framework to the reader of how to interact with and to treat those within their care and guidance. As is often the way, though, how may coaches do you think have read those same books, listened to those same Ted Talks, and subscribe to the same podcasts, without practising what is being preached?

The two main takeaways for me are authenticity and empathy. Those two things really cannot be faked. You actually have to want other people to do well. Sometimes, that means they do better than you. It means frequently going above and beyond, putting others first, without any credit or reward. And then doing it again. Because it's the right thing to do.

So be a bit sillier, remember to keep calm, and remember that it's only football. Football is a game of people. Put the people ahead of the football, and the football will take care of itself.

Football is the great escape. We get to pretend something unimportant is important for a little while. Which, ironically, is what I think makes it important.

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