Sports, Fall, Column

Coaching The Uncoachable: How To Deal With A Genius


And then, everything stopped.

The players froze, the ball ceased rolling in the middle of the possession drill, and with his gray hair and sunglasses, Ed Kelly, the Boston College men’s soccer team’s head coach of 27 years, yelled, “Why didn’t you play that 1-2 with Moro?”

Derrick Boateng, otherwise known as “Nana,” just stood there and shrugged.
“Why not?” Kelly screamed.

The whole team stood quietly with each player staring at the ground.

“We need to start thinking, guys,” Kelly said. “Notre Dame is over.”

This situation from last Tuesday’s soccer practice reveals two important issues in the lives of players: 1) Decision-making and 2) Coachability.

Whenever people think about the cause and effect of what happens in sports—soccer or not—none of the tactics or strategies covered can work without the above two components. In other words, it’s assumed that each player’s decision-making is perfect, and that each player is coachable to the fullest extent.

For example, if I write about the midfield diamond and its workings, I’m assuming that Kelly and associate head coach John Murphy can teach it perfectly to every player, and that every player will listen. I’m also assuming that within the diamond, every player will know how the coaching staff wants the system, and that he or she will make the right decisions all the time.

Comprehension of tactical systems varies among different athletes. Some players watch tape and others don’t—and some players have high IQs in their sport, which their teammates might lack.

The willingness to learn from a coach is an important trait. Players are often selected in squads based on whether they’ll listen and carry out instructions.

Take Louis van Gaal, the manager of Manchester United.

He’s the guy who masterminded the Netherlands’ remarkable run to the semifinals of the 2014 World Cup, and had the team been better from the penalty spot, the Dutch would have reached the final. People forget that the Oranje were not even supposed to get out of their group.

The extremely young squad was right in van Gaal’s wheelhouse. After losing Kevin Strootman to injury and with the performances of the team’s three-headed attacking trio turbulent as ever, van Gaal realized that the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 were not going to yield success.

The Dutchman had to mix it up, and the team bought into his plans.

An older group of players, or a more rebellious crew, might not have listened. Playing the three/five back system that the Dutch did, and giving specific man-marking instructions not for one player, but for an entire midfield, is about as unheard of as a freshman guy from Newton getting invited to a Mod.

Van Gaal’s system worked because the players were coachable. Daley Blind and Georginio Wijnaldum bought in, as did the three center backs. Sure, van Gaal might be a psychopath who has the tendency to resemble German dictators when giving public speeches in Munich, show his teams his genitals, and tell Wayne Rooney how to shoot, but the man is a genius. To achieve success at the World Cup, his players let his genius work through them.

But what should be done about players who resemble Van Gaal in that they have an indescribable intelligence, but refuse to conform? Van Gaal has been successful despite his antics, so why haven’t coaches done the same with players?

Take Nana.

The junior has the first touch of a La Liga star and the work rate of Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson, who hasn’t stopped running since last year’s 1-0 win over Manchester United.

Nana can’t find his way into the team, though, and he has not been a consistent starter since his freshman year. Part of that is because he does not, in the eyes of the coaching staff, follow their directions and play the way they want him to. But that comes as a result of Nana’s decision-making.

Every person who lives has to make very, very quick decisions. Whether that’s telling someone you don’t want to take an extra shot at a party, or deciding whether to shoot first time or take a touch—life and games are decided in those split-second decisions.

Jim Christian talked about the same thing when he neared the end of his first week of practice. He’s dealing with both teaching the players a new way of playing basketball, and enriching the choices his players make on the court before tip-off against UNH on Nov. 14.

Christian has chosen to focus on the defensive end of the ball, which cost the team so many games last season. Last season’s coaching staff was very much hands-on when it came to dictating what the players did on each possession.

“In basketball there are ebbs and flows, and you have to be able to react,” Christian said. “That’s what you try to teach them in practice, so that they can react without thinking.”

Teaching decision-making is different based on the player and the sport. Sometimes players have to watch tape of their errors, and in other situations, the sequence has to be broken down for them live—like what Kelly did with Nana. The first situation illustrates an idea or concept to the player to think about, and the latter corrects his mistake right away.

Christian watches film with his players before practice, and each day has a different theme or focus. For example, one day the team will watch its transition defense on tape, and the next, check out its off-the-ball defense. Each player has an iPad, so that coaches can send him clips at any time of day.

Back to the enigma that is Nana. His tactical decision-making and position is fascinating. Even though he fits the mold of an attacking midfielder due to his work ethic and creativity as a footballer, his brain works differently from everyone elses. You have to wonder if he sees tape of himself off the ball, or realizes why he is not seeing time on the field—he often looks lost.

But, if you put Nana and every other soccer player in this country, amateur and professional, through the same sequence 10 times each, only Nana could spot and play the perfect ball each of the 10 times. He doesn’t always pick out the obvious pass, but he picks ones out every once in a while when you ask, “how did he see that?”

What Nana does on the pitch, or for that matter what he wears to class, is not something that coaches can coach, nor is it something they can harness, try as they might.

Coaches cannot cage these players up. You can’t bench them because you don’t like them or the way they act or play. Coaches have to let these players be themselves. Nana might not be the most coachable player in the world, and his decision-making is extraordinarily inconsistent, but in his case, and in many cases with geniuses, he is a player that is at his best when turned loose.


Featured Image by Emily Fahey / Heights Editor

October 16, 2014