The human brain is built to identify patterns and react to them accordingly. That is how it was at the beginning of humanity. Eat a particular fruit and you will survive; ignore the rustling of leaves in the forest and a deadly animal will jump on you. Those who were better skilled at identifying and following those patterns survived. They passed their genes on to their children until humanity as a whole was wired to follow those patterns.
Our brain is still essentially the same. That is why most of us value the familiar and dislike change. We look for patterns and, when we don’t find them, our brains start to panic because they cannot predict what the outcome will be. It is why we feel discomfort when we’re faced with change.
The thing is that our brains were shaped in extreme times where not being cautious could result in death (and a painful one). It still reacts to what isn’t familiar in the same manner. And whilst, sometimes, the sensible option is the best one there are also circumstances where change is beneficial.
Football provides plenty of examples of this. When Liverpool opted to replace Graeme Souness in the early nineties they decided to pick Roy Evans in his place. Evans was an excellent coach who tried to innovate in his own right – he opted for a formation with three at the back to capitalise on his team’s attacking talent – but his main qualification for getting the job was his history at the club and as a member of the fabled boot room. If promoting from within had worked in the past why shouldn’t it now?
Yet the face of English football was changing. Arsene Wenger was bringing with him dietary regimes that were unheard of at other clubs whilst Chelsea were investing their new-found wealth in foreign players. Liverpool needed to be brave and embrace the change but instead went all conservative. There are many factors that contributed to the club’s decline and it would be grossly unfair (not to mention hugely incorrect) to pin it all on the appointment of Roy Evans. But the appointment was emblematic of a mindset that wasn’t ready to deal with change.
This in itself was hardly surprising. For the previous two decades, Liverpool had been the dominant force of English football so they had more to lose than most. It is fairly easy to be brave and experiment when there is little at stake but that is often not the case with the successful. Even if there is an element within those organisations that fully believes in looking at different ideas, it is extremely hard to convince others to get on board.
Liverpool had, essentially, forgotten the lessons from their own history because their longevity was fuelled by change and their ability to pull it off at the right moment. Big players left and were replaced by others who didn’t have the same characteristics but, in their own way, shaped the team so that it continued to be successful.
Crucially, Liverpool’s managers were always willing to push along this change. They didn’t get sentimental with players: when they felt that someone was getting to a stage where he wasn’t good enough, they were quite ruthless in selling them. However, they always had a plan in place so that when that player left they already had a replacement who pretty much knew what he had to do even if it meant tweaking other areas. And so change came about without impacting the team.
It was the same with another of English football’s most successful managers. Sir Alex Ferguson kept on winning partly because he had the vision to foresee changes in the game and prepare for them. It wasn’t simply tactical brilliance that shaped his success but rather his ability to see the bigger picture, identify what was going to be a problem and then prepare so that his side effectively improved.
Even Barcelona’s modern success is founded on change: when Pep Guardiola took over he faced down the huge risk of moving on some players who had been huge for the club – the likes of Ronaldinho and Deco – because that is how his side could really develop.
What does this all mean for coaches who aren’t at a big Premier League club and are doing this purely for their love of the game? Essentially that change should be embraced. Change can be uncomfortable but if you try to put it off then what you’re doing is undermining your capacity for success. Look out for what might be changing, prepare for it to make the transition as easy as possible and then carry it out.
Some words of caution though: change for change’s sake can be just as bad (to continue on the Liverpool case study: Graeme Souness tried to change too much, too soon) so always be aware of why you’re doing all this. And be ready to fail. Not everything will work out smoothly. But it will be the instances where they do that will define you.