In the aftermath of any hockey competition, comes reflection. And plenty of questions for the coaches. What could we have done better? Did we perform to our potential? Was that the right formation/press/outletting/short corner strategy? The list goes on.
This is especially true of an interpros, where countless hours of preparation over many months comes to a head over an intense weekend of matches, and suddenly it’s all over. But for some of the players – those who get called for Ireland trials – the interpros are the starting point, not the end. It raises, for me, a more interesting overarching question for a coach – would you rather win a tournament or see one or more of your players go on to make an Irish team?
Or, put more simply – do we coach to win games, or to develop players?
To some, the answer is obvious – if we don’t compete to win, why compete at all? But a couple of salient examples persist across the sporting spectrum showing why putting development as your first priority over winning can lead to greater success in the long run.
German football’s recent World Cup success has been put down, in part, to a revamp of attitudes towards technical development and youth structures, forced by a dismal Euro 2000 campaign. Miguel Delaney’s excellent series on the “real problems with Irish football” – part one focuses on the political side here while part two discusses coaching approaches – show that even one of the ‘big three’ sports here is asking similar questions. An English FA-produced document highlights how some of the country’s best young football coaches fell about winning versus development.
Further food for thought? England’s Rugby World Cup-winning coach Clive Woodward used to tell his players that if they were the best in their position, the team would be the best in the world. New Zealand’s All Blacks adhere to a “no d**khead policy” that helps ingrain the notion that to be a great player yourself, you must also bring out the greatness in others.
For a hockey example, look no further than the Portugal U21 men’s team. A nation without any real hockey pedigree, along with Ireland, they earned promotion to the European A Division this summer. Their coach Bernando Fernandez penned a fascinating piece outlining how they did it, citing the decision to allow the players to express their individual skills and making them technically strong individuals as major factors in their success. Their highlights reel from the tournament backs this up:
Contrast this approach with some of the things you’ll hear on the sideline at many hockey matches in Munster.
“Just get rid of it!” when a player takes more than 0.5 seconds on the ball anywhere in their own 25.
“Great ball!” when the ball is tonked aimlessly up the pitch and goes out of play, handing possession back to the opposition.
“Jesus, not there!” when a player attempts to dribble anywhere in their own half.
Rock bottom came in a B-level schoolgirls friendly game when the opposition put together an incredible flowing passing move that started at right back and ended up at left forward, before a ball cracked perfectly to the back post was just missed by a diving attacker. The coach’s response? “If you miss that ball the next time you’re coming off!”
So let’s ask that question again – do we coach to win games, or to develop players?
The conclusion I’ve come to, after discussing it with other coaches, is that the answer is: both. They aren’t mutually exclusive, rather the relationship between the two changes depending on the sport’s culture, how high up the food chain you are and how much pressure there is to get results.
Getting the balance right isn’t easy but those of us coaching underage and schools teams in particular can help. You can encourage freedom of expression at training, if you remember not to lambast players when they bring it to the table on match day. It can be hard to do so in the heat of the moment, but you can praise the process, even when the outcome isn’t always what you hoped. Most of all, you could try not let your players’ flair and initiative be replaced with a fear of “doing it wrong”. Develop your players because you want to win, not the other way around.
If we aren’t careful, the famous ‘Red’ Sanders quote of “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. The difficulty is, if you fail, what have you got left? If winning was a team’s only goal and they didn’t achieve it, was it all just a waste a time?
Whether we win or not is only partially within our control, but so much of a player’s enjoyment of their sport, their environment and their potential to grow as people through those mediums is in the coach’s hands. Choose wisely.