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UK Coaching Team
Talent and Performance Developing Mindsets

Old School Coaches: Maybe They Had it Right and We Should Go Back to Basics

Experienced sport psychologist Michael Caulfield shares his thoughts on how high-performance athletes have coped during the pandemic and asks whether ‘old school coaching’, with a focus on relationships and managing people, is all we really need

In this latest lockdown – I have lost count which one it is – sport has been a saviour to so many. Not just those participating (more of that in a moment), but to those stuck at home watching from afar. 

The viewing figures for The Six Nations, the compelling Test series between India and England, The Australian Open Tennis, The Premier League, The FA Cup, horseracing, boxing, darts are simply remarkable, and it proves once again that sport remains the most important of the unimportant things.

But what of the athletes, the players, the coaches, the staff. How have they fared? I am very fortunate to have spent the vast majority of my working life in sport one way or another, and I remain fascinated and intrigued by it, particularly at this present time. As a self-employed sport psychologist during the pandemic, I have been fortunate to continue to work, and have spent much of my time living in a variety of bubbles, or attending training grounds after being extensively tested and adhering to the protocols that sadly have become the norm.

When we first went into lockdown last March, we all wondered how the players and athletes would return. To put it mildly, the athletes have been nothing short of incredible. It is almost as if they realised they had to do it all themselves, with online assistance. All the teams I have been associated with returned to training in the form and shape of their lives – even if they could not attend formal training and coaching sessions. They have worked it out for themselves. 

Despite the lack of crowds, stimulation, atmosphere, and a relentless fixture list, the standard of football has been absurdly high. The same applies to cricket, as the teams fly from bubble to bubble, in and out of quarantine, with limited practice and no social interaction whatsoever – which cricket thrives on.  

The same applies to rugby; and as for the standard in Melbourne at The Australian Open, I have never seen anything quite like it as the players emerged from 14 days of strict quarantine to produce drama and skill day after day… remarkable.  

Through the lens of nostalgia

Even if you disagree with me, which you may well do, it has all been, dare I say it, rather old school. There, said it!  

And it has got me thinking: did old school have it right after all?

I have spent some of my free time reading and watching the coaches and teams of yesteryear (my youth) and it has been a rewarding experience in every way.  

It reminded me of why I first fell in love with sport as a dreamy-eyed child, and that is no bad thing.  When we first fell in love with sport, I don’t think it was because we dreamt about a body fat test, being measured or scanned constantly, marginal gains, sitting in long team meetings or being scrutinised in every possible way.

We fell in love with sport watching our heroes play, and we then rushed into the garden, street, park or anywhere we could find space to dream of breaking a world record, winning a gold medal, hitting the winning runs in a Test Match, securing your first Wimbledon singles title, or scoring the winning goal in a cup final. That was the dream. Or, as beautifully expressed by the actor Brian Cox: “Always carry a picture of yourself when you were a child, as that’s who you are, who you’ll always be”. 

And sport, even coaching, has had to be a little old school as, in the main, sport has been stripped back to its basics. 

Yes, we live in the ever-evolving digital era, and we spend time on Zoom, Teams, WhatsApp, and every other digital tool, but sport is not played on Zoom, yet. Most of the ‘extras’ are no longer available or allowed due to wretched Covid-19.  

Let’s explore what has changed at training in professional sports during the pandemic:

  • Meetings are short if they are held at all (and on the field, not the meeting room).
  • Treatment is either limited by time, or on a needs-must basis.
  • Social events are non-existent, with team bonding sessions (currently at least) a thing of the past! 
  • Visitors to inspire or engage athletes are only allowed on Zoom. 
  • We are not even able to eat together.
  • We travel separately, or in separate parts of a coach or plane.
  • And all the “ologists”, of which I am one, have become rarer due to restrictions and, of course, budget.

Coaching at its core

And when you take all of those away, what are you left with from a coaching perspective? You are left with your eyes, your instincts and, above all, your ability to speak and listen to your athletes.  

In a recent interview, Julian Naglesman, head coach at RB Leipzig said: 

Tactics only make up 30% coaching success. In the end, the man-management and relationships with the players is more important.” 

And I believe he is right.  

If you go back 30 or 40 years or more, all coaches had was their management skills as they had no extras; a bit like the current situation. They did not have Zoom, WhatsApp, measurement, analysis, science even, they just had their raw coaching skills, and their wonderful relationship-building skills. And all the athletes had was basic training and support, a bit like now. 

I think that sport now is more about coaching the individual, respecting his or her way of life, how they are finding life, as opposed to the marginal gains and latest coaching idea. 

Only recently, Gabriel Jesus – who is part of the all-conquering Manchester City team – said about his coach, Pep Guardiola: “He has changed, I don’t know why. I don’t know if it’s because of the pandemic, constant testing, masks, restrictions etc. Today, there are less videos, he doesn’t talk so much but the intensity and the will to win are the same.”  

Sport has progressed so much in my life, and I have enjoyed every moment, but as I watch the coaches and players now, it takes me back a bit to my youth, and in this instance, that is no bad thing. Maybe they had it right after all.


Q. How well do you know how your participants are feeling?
Q. What can you ask them at your next practice session which will help you better understand how they are ‘finding life’ at the moment?


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