What makes a good grassroots coach?

My name is Charlie and I am primary school teacher and a grassroots football coach. I am a FA level 2 coach and have worked in a variety of clubs and set ups. As a teacher, I would like to think that I have natural keenness to want to help others progress.

When my semi-pro/amateur football career was cut short due to a serious knee injury, I realised that the only way I wanted to stay in the game was through coaching. I have since worked in coaching youth players at county and national level, worked with professional clubs in their community work and most recently worked with coaching adults in a semi-pro setting.

I feel that through my experience as a player and as a coach has helped me to identify some of key traits of a good grassroots football coach.

Before we discuss what we expect from a good football coach, we need to first discuss how tough this job/hobby/vocation of coaching really is. Coaching is sometimes a thankless and frustrating task in what can sometimes feel like a no win situation.  

Basically, if you are a coach, then you are constantly ‘on show’ and are ‘performing’ for the players and spectators. This is evident when it comes to coaching in youth environments, something I have lots of experience of.

Rightly, football is all about opinions, in which players and parents love to share them with you (even if you didn’t ask for them). To combat this, I have sometimes found myself addressing and coaching spectators as much as much as the players. It can feel like you are trying to convince spectators of your philosophy in your sessions just so they will get off of your back!

When it comes to judging your performance, everyone seems to be an expert and have the “qualifications” to criticise you in which they all seem at the ready to offer you either the thumbs up or thumbs down signal. 

My most recent experience of coaching in a Semi-Professional set up I have found that what’s even more frustrating for a coach is that so much of this external judgment comes from individuals who don’t seem to have a clue about you, your players, or what you’re trying to accomplish with the team.

The amazing thing about coaching is that your ability as a coach is measured by something that doesn’t happen during your coaching sessions and is very often totally out of your control: winning and losing. The feedback on the quality of your work in your coaching sessions on a Tuesday doesn’t come to fruition until the following Saturday. 

In many ways you can be a bad or ineffective coach, yet because you are lucky enough to have great players on your squad, you win all the time. Because of this external record you are considered in your profession to be a “great” coach.

Similarly, you can be a wonderful coach and teacher but because of a lack of player talent, luck, or other circumstances beyond your control such as player injuries, your win-loss record is just mediocre and, as a consequence of this, you can be seen as an ineffective coach.

So now let’s take a look at what makes a really good coach.


What makes a good coach?


The very best coaches get their players to believe in themselves – good coaches inspire their players to do more than they think they can. As a teacher I see this in action every day. I get my pupils to stretch themselves in what they think they can achieve. Part of being a coach involves building the player up rather than knocking him down.

Good coaches always build self-esteem rather than undermine it. This self-esteem building is not done just for the sake of it. In other words the coach doesn’t praise a mediocre effort.

We simply make it as part of our practice to catch the players doing the right thing. The good coach doesn’t get caught up in playing mind games that leave the player questioning their abilities.

From my experience a as grassroots player and coach, using embarrassment as a teaching tool has no place in the game. This may have been an effective tactic in yesteryear but the modern player does not respond well to this kind of approach.

Some coaches, (particularly older ones), think that embarrassing or humiliating a young player for a mistake, failure or short-coming will build mental toughness or enhance performance!

I can tell you as a teacher, there is NOTHING educational or constructive about it. It rapidly brings down that player and grossly undermines their  self-esteem and creates performance problems, which is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve.

The easiest trap to fall into as a grassroots coach is to think that the game is all about you. I can break it to you now…it’s not!

The best coaches are mentally healthy enough to know that it is the performance of the players on a Saturday is of the utmost importance. They do not feel diminished as an individual when their teams fail nor do they feel that much better about themselves when their squads succeed. 

It is vitally important to ask yourself a simple question before every session, “WHY?” Why are we doing this? Is this session for the benefit of my players or is it to make me look like an outstanding coach?

It is so important to not make our sessions about ourselves. Many blatant coaching mistakes come directly from the coach’s overemphasis on their own ego rather than the outcome of the session. 

As a player, my favourite coaches didn’t just coach me; they took the time to get to know me as a person. The best coaches have a basic understanding that each player on their team is different in attitude, personality, response-ability, sensitivity and how they handle criticism and adversity.

These coaches take the time to get to know each players individual differences and styles. They then hand-tailor what they say to, and how they treat the player to achieve maximum coaching effectiveness. They know that while one player may respond well to one approach, another may totally shut down. 

As a result, a coach who really cares about the player as a person find that their players are more motivated and work harder. You can’t ever separate the player as a performer from who they are as a person. 

I am blessed that being a Primary School Teacher means that I have a good understanding of different learning styles and approaches. I learnt early on in my teaching career that there is no such things as a, ‘One size fits all’ approach to learning, this is something that I also take into my coaching practice.

As a coach, you have to constantly think of different ways of reaching a player. When a player struggles to learn something the better coaches do not blame the players for their incompetence. Instead they approach it as a “teaching opportunity” and therefore change how they are presenting the material to that player.

If one approach doesn’t work, then they try another until they figure out the best way to reach that particular player. One of the best bits of advice I was given by a senior coach to me was, just because that player may not be responding to your coaching does not mean that they have an attitude or commitment problem.

Coaches who are rigid, who continually adopt the attitude that “it’s my way or the highway” are far less effective than those coaches who have mastered the fine art of being flexible. This is probably the most tiring and time consuming aspect of being a grassroots coach.

Coaching can be a great release from the pressures of your job and day to day life, but adopting a flexible coaching approach does require a large amount of detailed planning, of which there is not always the time to do. 

I learnt early on, particularly when coaching adult teams, that players want their opinions to be heard. It is vital to learn that communication is a two-way street and involves a back and forth between coach and player.

Some of the worst coaches I have played for and work with think that communication is a one-way street. You talk and the players listen. Instead, effective communication entails that you as a coach carefully listen to what your players are saying.

When your players talk you must actively put your ego aside and carefully analyse what the player is saying. Far too many coaches are too busy countering in their head what their players are saying to actually hear them. If you can’t learn how to listen then you will never truly be effective in reaching your players.

It goes without saying that when you are working in a competitive environment, tensions will rise and there may be conflict in a variety of ways. I have always found that good coaches keep the learning environment emotionally safe.

A really good coach understands that the emotional climate on the team dramatically affects how players practice and perform. They make it their job to directly and immediately deal with scapegoating, bullying, ostracism and petty jealousies that sometimes arise between players. They give a very clear message that cruelty and mistreatment of others will not be tolerated and are counter to the mission of the team.

As a consequence, this kind of coach creates an atmosphere of safety that is absolutely crucial for optimal learning and peak performance.

Whether working with children or adults I have always found that school teaching and football coaching are almost identical. As a teacher, I am always trying to challenge and extend the knowledge and the understanding of my pupils.

Coaching players is no different. I find that as football coach of either children or adults that it is my job to   inspire my players to believe in themselves and I do that by continually putting them in situations which challenge their limiting beliefs.

I do this by pushing my players outside of their comfort zone, physically, mentally and emotionally, and then helping them discover that, in fact, they can do better than they first believed they could.

I once read an article by an experienced NFL coach whose mantra I adopted, the “GET COMFORTABLE BEING UNCOMFORTABLE principle,” which states that the only way to grow physically and emotionally is to constantly challenge yourself to do things that aren’t easy. In this way players and coaches refuse to tolerate mediocrity in effort, attitude, technique, training or performance.

One of the most important values of being a grassroots coach is honesty. For me the best and easiest way to display our honesty and integrity is is modeling.

It is vitally important that we as coaches also know that how we conduct themselves in relation to their players the parents, opponents, the referees, the fans and the media is never lost on their players.

They are honest and demonstrate character and class in everything they do. The very best coaches are also passionate about what they do, their passion is infectious, motivational and inspiring.

Lets be honest, at grassroots level we play football because it is fun! The social and physical benefits that come from playing football are immeasurable.

So then it is so important that we as coaches make our training sessions fun as well. It is important to find creative ways to integrate this fun into what they do over the course of the season, in training sessions and during competitions.

When a player is enjoying themselves, that player is loose and relaxed. It is my belief that loose and relaxed are two of the most crucial ingredients to peak performance, it is in your best interests as a coach to find innovative ways to keep your players smiling. 

Mistakes happen! As coaches we have such an important responsibility to help players understand that mistakes are ok. I like to reframe them as ‘Learning Opportunites’.

We know players need to be relaxed and loose in order to play to their potential and that a fear of making mistakes will always undermine this relaxed state.

To this end, the good coaches give their players permission to fail and make mistakes. They instill in their players the understanding that mistakes and failures are nothing more than feedback, feedback about what you did wrong and specifically about what you need to do differently next time.

One of the bigger teaching mistakes that coaches make is to get angry and impatient with there players when they mess-up or fail. This response to your players’ mistakes will ensure that they will make plenty more of them.

One of my favourite quotes ever is, “failure is feedback, and feedback is the breakfast of champions!” Knowing that your coach gets impatient and angry when you make mistakes will cause you to worry about this while your performing. 


By: Charlie Betts

Photo: English Football Association