Great Players / Great Coaches

Like almost everyone with more than a passing interest in sport, I subscribe to the truism that great players do not make great coaches.  The conventional wisdom goes something along the lines of; great players never have to understand what they do, so are unable to explain it to others.  Or at the extreme, great players cannot understand why others are not able to do the things that for them were easy and become easily frustrated therefore affecting their ability to interact with their team.

The recent book ‘This is Your Brain on Sports‘ by L. Jon Wertheim studied the topic and found that among baseball managers, the best managers were below average players, and the best players who became managers were below average managers. Right now I am pretty sure you are sitting in front of your computer going through some list in your mind of the great coaches who were never great players (Mourinho, Jackson, Popovich, Velasco) and the great players who were not good coaches (Maradona, Russell), nodding vigourously and perhaps wondering were I am going with this.

It dawned on me that other that perhaps the statement is not as true as we instantly imagine.  If you turn the question around a bit and ask how many coaches are great coaches, you probably come up with a pretty low number.  A small percentage of coaches are actually great at coaching. As you would expect in any field. The next question is how many great players actually become coaches. I think that is a pretty low number too.  In big time professional sports (for example football or basketball) players would have to take big pay cuts to become coaches even if they started at the top. And the work is really, really hard. They probably also have more employment options outside their sport. There is no motivation to go through a difficult process for less money than they earnt as players. To do that requires a very specific motivation. At lower level professional sports (for example volleyball), there seem to be more great players who become coaches.  Quite a few great players who are working at the highest level (Kiraly, Bernardi, Giani, Lang Ping).  Perhaps they have fewer options outside their sport, and are less financially independent to the extent that coaching is a better career choice.

Given the small number of actual great players, and the even smaller number of them who try to be coaches, maybe that is too small a number to be significant. Therefore, maybe what we think we are seeing is not really there.  Maybe coaching and playing are two completely independent skill sets. Some people have both of them, some have one or the other, and some have neither.

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3 thoughts on “Great Players / Great Coaches

  1. Alexis

    I like the line: Just because you are a bird doesn’t make you an ornithologist.

    I think most discussions about great player/great coach are purely rhetoric to justify the writer/speaker’s point of view. The most important point, which is often the purpose of any lines like the one above, is that great coaches don’t have to have been great players.

    Consider this, right now in the NBA there are probably about 5 ‘great’ players. There are also about 5 ‘great’ coaches. Now, the chances that one of those ‘great players’ will end up coaching at all are pretty small. Which means the number of ‘great’ players who end up ‘great’ coaches is going to be very small.

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  2. Berti

    I like your diferentiating statistical point of view as well, since obviously having been a great player is neither nessesary nor sufficient for being a great coach.
    More thinkig in a causal way, in discussions with friends we have come up with this hypothesis: Being a great coach requires you, as a nessesary condition, to have put a lot of thought (among other things) into the subject-matter you are teaching, in this case volleyball. Being a great, i.e. in many cases professional, player is one, though not the only, opportunity to do so.
    I don’t want to come up with the 10.000h-rule for coaching here, but my guess is, that you indeed have to spend something around this amount of time studying volleyball in order to understand the game sufficiently to become a really (no “given-that-and-taking-into-account”-restrictions) great coach. It’s hard to think of someone, who does so only in his or her spare-time, doing something completely different for living. So the possibilities to become a great coach are limited, and my hunch is, that you either have to be a great player, a sport-scientist or just be indifferent reagarding money and lifestyle.
    What do you think about this?

    * No offense to all coaches out there, who neither played professionally nor have a formal degree in sport-science – neither do I. I don’t want to imply that we are bad coaches. I’m just saying that, under these conditions we’re very unlikely to make it to the greatest of our field.

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  3. jhforman3

    I this it’s pretty fair to say that in just about any field, true greatness requires a lot of time, effort, and sacrifice – coaching being no exception.

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