Tuesday, 1 April 2014

When a player is released, is it all down to the player?

Hearing again recently some Academy staff taking credit for successful players developing into first teams or sold on for profit made me think. I have heard that allot over the years. When a player has seemingly done well, gets a scholar, has a good spell etc. Coaches are quick to take credit. Patting themselves on the back and stealing the opportunity to tell anyone that will listen what their part in the process was. 
Well it occurred to me, what about all the players that are released? I don't think I have ever heard a coach say. "I think I could have done more"? or "Did I actually coach that problem away"?

We talk a lot about evaluation of our session as coaches but what about our overall evaluation of how we handled a player over a period of his holistic development? Did we really do enough? Are you brave enough to question yourself or is it that you don't care enough about the impact? You see, someone at some stage identified some great 'talent' in that boy, maybe a rough cut diamond. But for some reason, it never materialised. Was that because the boy had reached his ceiling of development and capability, which could happen. But what if you, the coach, the S&C, the psychologist, the dietician, the physio, the head of coaching, the academy manager... what if you didn't do enough?

I remember my first 'management' job and still to this day it was the best business coach I’ve had in my life. A Managing Director who oozed class and quality. Sat in his office with the huge shining table, display cabinets with business awards, mahogany desk with a pen holder. You would walk in knocking on the door to be welcomed by his warm secretary and onto his office with your feet sinking into the deep pile carpet. Mr Hardy sat in his green leather chair that looked like it was straight out of a classic Jag, suited with his tie shirt and gold cuff links immaculate. Despite being nervous, I was only young, he would greet you by stubbing out his cigar and stand up with a huge grin and welcome, "come in, sit down". 

So, he had heard that I was frustrated with a young teenage lad we had in. He was learning, his first job, but he was difficult to manage. After trying hard and several stern discussions this lad went missing again and I went looking. I caught him smoking behind the bins. This for me was the last straw, I wanted him fired.
So, I was told Mr Hardy wanted to see me... although he was a fair, lovely man. He had that 'ore' about him, so I was apprehensive. "So, I hear you’re going to have him sacked Tony, OK, whatever YOU decide, I will back you, that's why I put you in this position. But, I have just a couple of questions and comments". He spoke with a smile and did never do anything intimidating, but his persona and clear intelligence I had admiration for and slight fear.
"Can I ask you Tony, who or how does this lad get to work everyday"? 
I was stumped, "I'm sorry Mr Hardy, I don't know" 
He informed me again with a smile so as not to scare me. This was clearly a lesson I was getting.
"Well, sometimes his Dad drops him off, I’ve noticed he gives him a stern talking to before he leaves the car. The other times his Mum drops him and she gives him a kiss every morning followed by his sandwiches. So, what do you think that tells me about his family"?
I could see where this was going by now, I guess he doesn't want me to sack this lad but he wants me to decide. "Well, I guess he’s got a loving supporting family" I replied. 
He, Lent forward in his chair,
"Yes, you see, now isn't that great. But as a parent it’s tough. Only years down the line will this young man realise what his parents were trying to teach him. So, I see it from their view, they can see he is a typical teenager and they are desperate to get him through this spell. Well, I can look ahead and think to myself, no, what if that young man turns into them? Wow, what a great staff member we would have. Plus I think that as one parent to another, I don't know them, but they are placing their young man, still a boy, in my care and I take it very seriously"
He went on "So, I will ask you one favour if I may. Could you please help me list all the things we (he meant me) have done to help this lad overcome his issues? Because, if and when I look his parents in the eye I want to be comfortable and confident that we looked under every possible stone to find the solution"
He picked up his dark rimmed glasses, placed them on his face, collected his pen and placed the tip on the watermarked paper on his leather dressed desk. Looking at me ready for the first answer. I winced, "Mr Hardy, now you put it like that I think we could do more to help him, I suggest I go away and provide you a list of suggestions, interventions, separate courses, motivational ideas etc and come back to you, is that OK"?

A beam came across his face "Excellent, well if that's your choice Tony, I'm happy to go along with that"

Mr Hardy then later called me back and placed me on a Dale Carnegie man management course. So, he taught me so many things. Not only about his own management of a situation which was breathtakingly superb and ensured I still walked out with confidence. But, more importantly it taught me the impact of my decisions when being in such an influential position. To this day I have never forgotten that story and is partly why today I find releasing young lads the single most difficult thing in football, but regretfully inevitable and necessary.

I was asked about a lad, if we should keep him in a player review meeting. ‘Succession plan’ The lad was struggling a lot, I hesitated. The boss then said, OK, that's enough to know he’s released. Hang on, that hesitation is because of my experience. I'm doing what Mr Hardy taught me, I'm thinking. Yes, he’s struggling but have we done enough? Is it him... or me? or us? But I had no power to change this guy’s decision. 
A week or so later, I got a text off the lad saying 'thanks for everything'. I didn't even know they had released him. They never even gave me the opportunity to talk to him.
We took this boy out of school, we gave him a dream and we tore his world apart. Surely we should take this process more seriously? Moreover the football league, premier league, the FA, EPPP should be doing more. I believe there should be a better process for this. 

Coaches especially need to look at themselves. We know what the four corners are and how to develop them. So surely, if a player has failed, then that is also a failure for us, the coach? It must be surely? So at the very least we should review our own performance of that individual and reflect on our actions with that individual. Did we really look under every stone? 
For me, I would have the confidence to have this documented. A formal process, even a player exit interview for the coach. This document should then be available for the parents and his school. Because after all, whichever way we look at it, we may have actually improved this individual as a sports-person and athlete, but we have had a negative effect on his confidence and certainly been detrimental to his educational performance. Do we not owe a better explanation? Plus if we reflect more, it could be that we could improve our own performance and ultimately have more success in retention. 

One example I have was a lad that got released. I recalled in his player assessment that he was told he needed to improve his range of forward passing instead of going sideways and backwards always. The next training session I watch the lad make a 40 yard forward pass on an angle which was pinpoint accurate and if Paul Scholes did it, we would be bowing to his greatness. The coach intervened, “STOP, bad decision, that could be intercepted”. I thought, well hang on, YOU were the one that told him to add that to his game, he’s desperate to please YOU. How many other examples happened to that lad? He was confused about what you wanted from him, yet now he’s released. Maybe on reflection that coach would think deeper about what he says & does? The coach needed to improve.

In my teams, I have to admit (and people that know me would back me up). I know the best performing players are easy to pick out, focus on and boast about. But what about the struggling lads? So called middle and bottom of the group? I would be passionate about doing my absolute best to work with them, improve them, give them the tools and knowledge, a chance. Instead I think some coaches ignore them to claim the glory story. 

Well, what if you’re the coach with that glory player, but the highest percentage of failures? Should we measure that? Because maybe your part of the problem.

Tony McCool

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