"If I was asked to find one word to describe one of the main differences I have noticed in 25 years of coaching," Gérard Houllier remarked at this year's Elite Club Coaches Forum, "the word would probably be 'Why'? Today's players want to know the reasons behind each session on the training ground – and, of course, you have to be ready to give them a good answer."
At today's multilingual professional club, this can become even more demanding – which is why some technicians, Olympiacos CFP's Panagiotis Lemonis among them, now open proceedings with an explanatory talk, either on the training pitch or in the dressing room. Pragmatisms apart, the coaches at the forum emphasised that modern footballers tend to be top-level students of the game and, in order to attain maximum levels of motivation, need to feel involved and, to a degree, responsible for the shape of training exercises. José Mourinho voiced the opinion of many coaches when he said he encourages feedback from his players and prefers to implement a "guided discovery" strategy on the training ground. "Sometimes an exercise starts in one way and finishes in a totally different way," he commented.
Everybody has his or her modus operandi but the clear message was that the days of "just do what I say" are past history. It was a theme which cropped up again at the UEFA Coach Education Symposium in London, attended by representatives from all 53 member associations and, in addition, colleagues from FIFA and the other confederations. There was a clear consensus that, in today's dressing-room climate, the technician is required to devise training exercises which are motivating, interesting and totally relevant to matchplay. "The important thing is to start with clear objectives you can explain to the players," Mourinho commented in Nyon. "And then you design the exercise to attain those objectives. Everything must be game-related. The game is the end, so it should also be the beginning."
"I use a global method," he told Andy Roxburgh during a recent interview. "I use direct methods when preparing our organisation but I also use guided discovery where I create the practice, dictate the aim and then invite the players to come up with different solutions. My practices are aimed at developing an aspect of my team’s play – they are specific for my style of football.
Sometimes I decide I won't use a certain practice again because I am sure I can devise a better one with this specific outcome in mind."
Some would argue that a peak-of-the-pyramid club like Chelsea are not the perfect example in that many of the players have been acquired rather than developed. Zico, who was poised to make his UEFA Champions League debut with Fenerbahçe SK, admitted his training programme focuses as much on the development of the individual as on the construction of a winning team. "It's important to go back regularly to basics and to make the player feel responsible for his actions," he said. LOSC Lille Métropole's Claude Puel endorsed his viewpoint. "When you have a young squad like we have at Lille there is a need to develop players," he explained. "Training therefore becomes an educational process as well as the means of preparing for a specific game. This is why competing in the Champions League was important. It helped us to raise standards."
'Philosophy and enthusiasm'
For Houllier, the training ground is one of the places where the personality of the coach – as well as his methods – become highly relevant. "Today's players want to ask questions about what happens when we meet opponents who do this or do that. And the training ground is where the coach's philosophy and enthusiasm are passed on to the players." At the symposium in London, Houllier stressed the importance of building your entire season as a coherent training project aimed at raising the level of competence, building confidence and mutual trust among the players and establishing a culture of constant progress and improvement. Both he and Ottmar Hitzfeld also highlighted the need for training sessions to combine fun and efficiency.
But what is efficiency? Is it simply measured by the next result? These are two of the many questions posed in Nyon by Arsène Wenger. "It's correct to say we have limited time in comparison with other sports. So what is the most efficient way of using, for example, a one-hour session? Sometimes I think a training session has been good. But that’s a subjective assessment. How can we objectively measure the effectiveness of a session? What is the best way for us, as coaches, to work on aspects such as vision or reading the game? I still cannot unravel the mystery of exactly what makes a player suddenly improve and develop."
This is an abridged version of an article that appears in the latest edition of The Technician. To read it in full click here.
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