If there is a universal truth about coaching, it has to be that you must know what you’re talking about if you want to be a good one. You must know the strengths of each system and what to do when faced with teams taking a particular approach. Equally you have to know when to use different systems and approaches as well as how to gradually get players used to those systems if you want to get ahead in the game.
In short, you need to learn and think deeply about the game.
Yet that is only half of the equation because a good coach must also be able to put his message across to his players. Indeed, all the knowledge of tactics and coaching is useless if that individual is not capable of teaching his players how to play in the manner that he wants them.
That is why Gerard Jones, a coach who has a Masters Degree in Performance Coaching and whose thesis was about this subject, has decided to write “Let’s Talk Soccer”, a book that deals with communication in football. “It is a subject that everyone takes for granted as a 'given' and yet it is the least studied area of coaching in terms of the choice of the words we use and how these can help paint pictures in the minds of the players,” he explained. “Most coaches will accept that their communication is good and may feel "What can I learn about communication?" but there's a lot in terms of what we say that is of value to coaches.”
“I wanted coaches to read the book and think deeper about what words they use to describe moments in the game that occur and how they can use this vocabulary to influence the learning experiences of the players.”
“I believe the book caters for all levels and experiences and perhaps the more experienced the coach is the more he will be able to relate to what I'm saying in the book.”
Before a coach can think about communication, he must first think about what kind of message he wants to put across. And this can only happen if he has established how he wants to play.
“To choose the right words, coaches must break down what their playing philosophy is, what decisions will this cause players to need to be able to make and the situations these occur in. From here, coaches can create with the help of other coaches and their player's (trigger-words) used to describe that situation and offer a solution.”
That of trigger-words – or game calls, as they are referred to in the book – is one of the main points of Jones beliefs around communication.
“Game-calls are a method used to encourage players to share and understand the language used by the coach, to help facilitate decision making alongside the decisions the players are expected to make in line with the playing philosophy of the team.”
“The theory is designed to encourage team cohesion in the sense of clear communication with substance that should increase players organising, demanding and working hard to keep possession of the ball.”
“It all came from experience working across a range of levels and from what I've seen working with some excellent coaches, through to research articles on learning and coaching that found its way into becoming a Master's thesis that later shaped my teaching practice when I became a qualified teacher and now it has evolved into the book.”
It is a very interesting theory, especially if linked with ideas of the importance of habit forming in football where, essentially, a game-call acts as a trigger for players to reflexively carry out during games particular movements that had been practised and discussed during training. (The importance of habits in football – along with instances where these have been adopted at the highest level - was discussed in detail here)
Whilst the idea of having specific game calls to trigger certain actions might appear to be a simplistic one, the actions that the players have to execute on hearing each game call are far from simple. To achieve this, coaches must be patient and slowly introduce their work.
“You need to programme your work in order to build from one learning outcome to another. This is where the coach builds his training sessions into (simple steps) for the players to scaffold their learning so that one leads onto another.”
Even so, given that the time a coach has with a set of players is limited, certain ideas have to be introduced in parallel. Again, a coach has to decide how much his players can learn in each session when deciding how many concepts to introduce.
“This is determined by the group of learners the coach is working with, what learners can digest more than others, the focus of each session and how the coach assesses the players come matchday.”
As anyone with experience teaching a group of people can relate, ideas are absorbed at different rates by different people. Whilst some are quick to grasp the concepts, others take longer. This often creates a dilemma on the pace of teaching.
Jones, however, is in no doubt. “Team communication is always based around what the objective and strategy for the game is!” he says. “As such this will determine what we're learning and working on in training.”
“Within this will come the language around 'units' for example the defence, midfield and attack in terms of roles and responsibilities. Individual communication is based on what each individual needs in that specific situation that may be different from what the team is working on, but always linked to it.”
However, coaches must be aware of how they are doing and how their message is being received.
“Each session I always time myself on how long I speak and what content I say....how long was the ball rolling for until my next intervention? Also what was the percentage ball rolling time in total for the session?”
“These questions will help determine what context was delivered, how much of it was offered and how much time to physically 'play' the players had before I spoke next.”
“This is vitally important as coaches need to be aware of what they say and how much they say, and how much of this has taken away or added to the learning experiences of the players. Ultimately I'm a big believer in 'less is usually more' in terms of detail! Let the players make sense, the ones who you can give more too then of course give more, but some may still be wrestling with the initial learning task you've given them. Let them make sense of it!”
Eventually, the aim is for the players to start using these game-calls during actual games. Which raises the question: won't this alert opposition on what they're aiming to do?
“Not necessarily as some game-calls may be simple and straight-forward like "Start-again" or "Press" which everyone can understand,” Jones replies. “Some may be 'code-words' where the club adopts certain trigger words (game-calls) - for example "Echo" - may mean something completely different to the word itself and when heard by the opposition, especially on set-plays won't mean anything to them as they won't understand it's relevance.”
“Equally, I may say "Start-again" but this may be a disguise as the opposition think you're then playing backwards when really you're playing forwards. Ultimately the opposition will and should really respond more off of what the players (DO) as oppose to what they (SAY) as players typically respond off visual triggers and cues.”
Another doubt is what happens when a new player – one who possibly does not know about the concept of game-calls – joins a team that operates off them. “Again, the vocabulary I use is shared with every player.”
“In training, when I'm describing or getting the players to describe key moments or answer questions, we use specific terms that I will then always check with players. For instance I’ll ask ‘what about that made sense?’ to which you'll get an answer of either everything or some bits of it or nothing at all.”
“Then your questioning can grow deeper and be more specific from here to check understanding. Simply saying "Did you understand that?" will only get a YES or NO answer. I want more from the players. And the best assessment of learning is the player actually 'doing it!' because you get no prizes for knowing all the answers in football if you can't actually action it when required.”
The key point here, then, is on the importance of feedback although attention has to be made here as well.
“I believe less is more.”
“Try not to overload players in terms of giving them feedback on every little decision and mistake they make whilst playing and likewise, try not to talk over players or answer your own questions for them as these are common mistakes some coaches make when interacting with players.”
“Although I’ve not yet fully perfected this, I try to interrupt the session minimal amounts of time. I tend to stop and talk to the group if it's a group message or if they could use the time as a rest but I predominately speak to individuals either talking for around 15 seconds or so giving feedback, and usually asking questions and letting them do the talking for no more than a couple of minutes.”
“I will always make note either in my head or on a bit of paper, what points I've said and to what player so that I can reflect and decide whether to give them more or let them digest that bit I just gave them longer.”
“Often coach mistakes lie from 'over-coaching' and talking for sake of it, because some coaches like to be the main 'actor' in the show and feel if they aren't talking they aren't working.”
This, however, does not mean that the coach’s role should be simply a silent one but, rather, that it should become a more measured one. “Coaches need to become more skilled in how they manipulate their tone and frequency of words.”
“They need to ensure that they place emphasis on certain words and the key points within the message to enhance listening.”
The full text from the interview – including how to ensure that players become over-reliant on their coaches’ instructions - with Gerard Jones will be shared among subscribers to Blueprint for Football Extra. If you want to read more about communication in football, make sure you join.
Let’s Talk Soccer is available from Amazon whilst any further questions on the subject can be forwarded to Gerard Jones on Twitter.