Coaching Fear or Risk?

risk reward

It’s no secret that I love other sports. I’ve played and followed English Football, [soccer] all my life. Every once in a while a gem from the other disciplines pops up to help me in paddlesports.

I’ve followed Tottenham Hotspur since I was in my twenties. On a rainy ill-fated evening in February of 1994 I made the trip to White Hart Lane to see Spurs play Aston Villa. Tottenham has been the “Bad News Bears of Football” for as long as I’ve known them. That was until Mauricio Pochettino came along. Pochettino belovedly called MoPo is a former Argentine national player with several world cup appearances under his belt. He also had a good career at a club level. He played defense for Paris Saint-Germain in French Ligue Un, and Espanyol (Barcelona’s rival in La Liga). Top level managers usually form a tightly knit group of coaches and nutritionists to work together. Mauricio Pochettino’s assistant manager is Spaniard Jesus Perez. Jesus is part of the coaching team that completely transformed Tottenham Hotspur. They were a side that languished in the middle of the pack of England’s 20 top tier clubs in the Premier League. Tottenham are now serious contenders for the league title and have reached 2nd, 3rd, and 4th in the league in the last four years. Perez is a fitness expert and an assistant coach for Tottenham Hotspur.

jesus perez

I am always interested in how coaching works at the elite level of Football. The players are so talented and more fit than they have ever been in the history of the sport. Players can control the ball under incredible pressure and perform feats of amazing dexterity and skill while running roughly 25 miles an hour. The coaches are expected to maintain and motivate the fitness, nutrition, and mental health of around 30 multi-lingual/multi-cultural highly athletic, uber competitive rock stars. (The players are often on eye-watering wages of roughly $120,000 a week.) The coaches also have to know more about tactics, positional play, and the opposition’s tactics and performances than the players do. The coaches are staying one step ahead of both the players and the opposition, or they risk losing their jobs. Suffice it to say managing a Premier League side is a high risk, high reward job for the coaching staff of any Premier League club. I write all this to give you context for something that struck me, from this interview with Jesus Perez @  Football London. You can read the whole article here.  This quote below struck me as being poignant for developing great leaders and paddlers on the water:

“There are two ways in football to coach,” he said. “You can coach with fear or you can coach the will to try. It’s risk with knowledge. So if you say to a right-back ‘be careful with this pass, don’t do this pass, don’t do that’, then this guy will try to choose the other three options you didn’t say and it’s dangerous. But if you say to this guy ‘be in a good position, be in a good angle and then you try, try because it’s you on the pitch, I give you a position and then it’s up to you’. Now we have one guy playing who has good skill and takes a risk in possession. We don’t tell him to be careful, but to try to read the situations. Sometimes you need to pass and go back and offer support.”

In some ways this is a profound lesson on coaching. You’re either coaching fear, or risk. We have choices as coaches to give paddling students the mental framing for success through freedom to take risks. If we frame opportunities with risk, rather than fear, what changes for students? If this works to motivate elite level athletes being paid millions, what could it do for paddlers? If we begin framing learning in terms of opportunities, rather than “don’t do this” or “don’t do that”, we may actually facilitate their development. The limiting nature of the fear approach, cuts out amazing things that students might do given the freedom to take a risk.

Of course the other edge to this sword is the part that Jesus Perez eloquently stated as: “it’s risk with knowledge”.  Safety is always paramount. If a student is new to an environment or a sport, they can’t properly evaluate the risk of any given choice because they don’t have the knowledge. This is especially true in moving water, and surf zones where students are new to this environment will vastly underestimate the power of moving water and waves to their peril. So it isn’t freedom to fail without knowledge, we have to educate them about the risks without taking away their independence. Once educated about cause and effect in any given environment, does the conversation change to “try” instead of, “do, or don’t”? I think this is where you have students ready to enter the best possible future for themselves. They are engaged, and free to go forward, but they are also appropriately educated about potential risks and hazards that exist.

Many of the interviews with top clubs and teams don’t yield much in terms of passing my “so what” test. I found this interview with a coach who doesn’t interview very much really educational and very inspiring. As counterpoint to the concept of coaching with fear, there is always Mourinho. The results in the turn of my club’s fortunes speak volumes about why this approach has been working. So I hope you enjoy.

Come on You Spurs.