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deVos: Is a playing career essential to be a coach?

Jason deVos
11/13/2013 12:17:24 PM
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Arrigo Sacchi once said, "You don't have to have been a horse to be a jockey."

With regards to becoming a professional soccer coach, that is an expression that one will hear often. In fact, it is a mantra for aspiring coaches who never made the grade as professional players. They point to recent successes in football management - like Tottenham's André Villas-Boas - who never played the game professionally as examples of why a professional playing career is overrated when it comes to being a professional coach.

But is it? Does a professional coach need to have a professional playing career first in order to be successful as a coach? Is it a prerequisite for getting hired? Is a coach who never played the game viewed by the establishment as inferior to those who did?

Let's take a look at the coaches in the English Premier League for some insight.

Since the league began in 1992, there have been 179 different men in charge of the 20 clubs in the league. Some were only in the job for a day as caretakers, while others - like Sir Alex Ferguson - were in charge for many years.

By my count, only six of those coaches moved into coaching without first having enjoyed a substantial professional playing career. The likes of Villas-Boas, Roy Hodgson (now manager of England) and Avram Grant didn't accumulate years of experience in the game as professional players before moving into coaching. Instead, they served years as coaching apprentices before working their way up through the coaching ranks. Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers retired from the game as a player at the age of 20 due to injury before beginning his journey on the coaching pathway.

But these coaches are very much the exception. When it comes to getting a job as a coach at the highest level in England, having a professional playing career behind you is almost mandatory. But does it actually make a difference? Does a professional playing career make you a better coach?

I'm not convinced that it does.

Some of the brightest coaches in the game - people like Villas-Boas and Rodgers - demonstrate that the ability to coach the game isn't reflective of one's ability to play the game. Those coaches became students of the game at an early age and worked their way up the coaching ladder, either as assistant coaches or as academy coaches, before moving into senior management.

Internationally, some of the most successful coaches in the game achieved their success without ever touching the field as professional players. Arrigo Sacchi turned AC Milan into one of the greatest club teams ever in the late '80s and early '90s, winning back-to-back European Cups. Carlos Alberto Parreira won the World Cup with Brazil in 1994; neither he nor Sacchi ever set foot on the field as professional players.

Closer to home, Canada's women's national team coach, John Herdman, never played professionally. Yet he is one of the best coaches I've come across in over two decades of professional involvement in the game.

While players are immersed in a football culture day in, day out, that doesn't necessarily translate to success in coaching.

Take Arsenal and England defender Tony Adams, for example. An exceptional player for both club and country, his forays into management with Wycombe Wanderers and Portsmouth FC failed to bring success; he suffered relegation to League Two with Wycombe and only managed to win four of his 22 games in charge of Portsmouth before being sacked. Adams' last coaching appointment was in May 2010 with Gabala FC in the Azerbaijan Premier League, a post he subsequently left in November 2011.

Arguably the world's best-ever player, Diego Maradona, had a disastrous spell as manager of his national team. In charge of Argentina's 2010 World Cup appearance, he will be remembered for his tactical naiveté and general incompetence during his country's 4-0 hammering at the hands of Germany.

In professional football, being able to manage the personalities of your players is far more important than being able to ping a 60-yard ball across the pitch. Sir Alex Ferguson summed it up nicely in his recent autobiography, when he said, "Football management is a never-ending sequence of challenges. So much of it is a study in the frailty of human beings."

While a professional playing background teaches you the technical, tactical and physical requirements of the game, does it teach you to understand the frailty of human beings? Not really. Being a player is often a selfish existence; you worry, first and foremost, about your own performance. You don't have that luxury as a manager, where you must give as much of your time (if not more) to the weakest member of your team as you do to your star player. You must be able to see the bigger picture, and must be able to tailor your teaching methods to meet the needs of each and every one of your players and staff.

The ability to do this comes naturally for some - which might explain why so many clubs make the mistake of hiring a former player as their coach. They assume that years spent playing the game are equivalent to years spent teaching it.

But for most coaches, being able to manage a group of professional players comes only with years and years of practice. But if you don't have a professional playing career behind you, getting an opportunity at a professional club is very difficult.

Because there is definitely a perception amongst club owners and chairman that the lack of a professional playing career is somehow a black mark on a coach's resumé - as if the ability to teach the game is directly related to the ability to play the game. Perhaps the only way to dispel this belief is for more coaches like Villas-Boas, Rodgers and Herdman to achieve success in the game.

Jason deVos

Jason deVos

As one of Canada's most accomplished soccer players, Jason deVos spent nearly 20 years on the pitch playing competitive soccer at the highest professionallevels in Canada and around the world. After retiring from international play, deVos began his broadcasting career as a soccer analyst with the CBC and GOLTV. Most recently he provided commentary and analysis for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa for the CBC.

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