The Perils Of Coaching Abroad: The 1 Question Every Coach Should Ask the Team

You’re a football coach, coaching abroad. You have a football team. Congratulations!

Now what?

I have had the privilege of serving, in various capacities, the game of American football in South America since 2010. In that time, I have seen teams, players and coaches in all stages of development. I have been blessed to be with some teams during their very first experience in full pads, when they still have no idea what they are doing, and I have seen teams with multiple players who could have played on my university team. I have spent time with people who have NFL experience, and those whose only football resource is Youtube.

I’ve seen teams who have entire compounds with fields, housing and kitchens for weekend practices, while I myself have held practices anywhere from a tennis court in Brazil’s cerrado, to a hotel roof in Mexico, to a town square in Montivideo.

Whether I’m talking to a coach from the deserts of Northern Chile, or one from its southern frontier on the edge of Patagonia, I have seen huge disparities in regard to facilities, equipment, knowledge and resources, and I have observed a variety of drastically different approaches, methods, techniques and attitudes implemented by coaching staffs and team administrations… but even with all of these differences, I also, always, see one thing that every group has in common. Regardless of the city, or the country or the language being spoken, there is one thing that resonates with a coach. Usually they ask me about it.  Sometimes, I bring it up, and when I do, there is always a knowing smile that creeps across their face, until they say “Ya. We have that issue.”

For most great teams, this is something that has been dealt with. For a lot of good teams, it’s an issue to resolve before they can be great. For a lot of new teams, it’s something that, if they deal with early, can accelerate their development.

So what is it? What is this one thing that I have learned while coaching abroad that can confound and stagnate teams from the Mendoza region of Argentina to the banks of the Amazon river? Or anywhere else in the world?

Identity confusion.

Surprised? Shocked? Disappointed? Mad that you just read four paragraphs thinking this would be about pass protection or pressure packages? Give me a few more paragraphs to explain.

Let’s start with a story:

We have two players or coaches on the same team and coaching staff. Keep in mind that many times these are player-coaches. Player/Coach A and Player/Coach B. Below are the “football characteristics” of each person:

Player/Coach A: Likes football; thinks football is fun and a good way to make friends; does not consistently show up for practices (misses practices for things like: rainy days, a headache, pain (not injury), a game the previous day, no game for a few weeks, barbecues, being too tired from the weight room); always shows up for games; considers practice his exercise and does not condition or lift weights outside of practice; does not rigorously study playbook, scouting reports, film; is not on time; is not consistent in following team policy, rules and communication procedures; has lots of Facebook pictures of him in uniform; expects to play as much as everyone else on game day; gets frustrated and angry with people on the team who take football ‘’too seriously.’’

Player/Coach B: Loves football; thinks football is fun; has friends on the team, but is not on the team to make friends; consistently comes to practice; is prepared for the drills and events of practices (might even help run practice); knows the playbook and it’s adjustments (often teaches it to other people on the team); helps others get to practice when necessary; knows the scouting report (might even help create it); watches film and understands opponent each week; lifts weights and conditions in addition to team practice time; gets frustrated and angry with people on the team who do not take football “seriously enough”.

One Saturday afternoon, Player/Coach B calls Player/Coach A and reminds him that he is needed at practice. Player/Coach A says that he is at a barbecue and can’t make it. Player/Coach B is upset with Player/Coach A about this decision, they argue, nothing is resolved and both people are frustrated. The team is unable to have a full scrimmage at the end of practice because too many athletes are barbecuing at Player/Coach A’s house. The guys at practice are frustrated. The guys at the barbecue don’t understand what the the big deal is.

A couple of weeks later, there is a game, and Player/Coach A is frustrated because it is the 3rd quarter and he has not been in the game yet. He does not think it is fair that he does not play as much as the other players. When he does get in the game, he makes several errors and is removed from the game due to the errors. He does not know that he did anything wrong, he was just trying to make a tackle.

So, in the above-scenario, who is “correct”? Player/Coach A or Player/Coach B?

The answer, on a team that is suffering from identity confusion, is: BOTH!

As far as Player/Coach A is concerned, he is just as much a member of the team as anyone else. He even has a Facebook profile picture wearing the team uniform! American football is good exercise, and a lot of the guys are fun to hang out with (except for Player/Coach B’s when they are mad). For Player/Coach A, the team is recreational and exists as something to do when convenient. His actions and behavior do not exist to improve daily as a football player or to win football games.

Player/Coach B, on the other hand, believes that the team is competitive. Everything he does is geared to improving the team on a daily basis, with a goal of winning football games. Some of those things might be difficult and not fun in the moment, but improving is fun and winning is fun! For Player/Coach B, recreational players are not part of the success formula.

I have heard about, or seen the above scenario in multiple countries. My guess is that it plays itself out, in some form or another, thousands of times per year in subtle and very noticeable ways, in many more places than I have had the privilege of coaching football.

This sounds so familiar, but what do we do?

I have an idea that I will share with you in the form of a challenge:

Ask the question. Ask it to your players. Ask it to your coaching staff. Ask it to your administration. One version of it could go something like this:

“Gentlemen, for this group to be successful, it’s really important that we are all on the same page. Our behavior, as a group, does not necessarily match our stated goals, and it is important for us, as a coaching staff, to understand what you are looking to get out of this team, and what you are willing to do to achieve any stated goals.

We are asking you to decide right now, in the form of a vote, if you want to be a recreational team, or a competitive team.

A recreational team exists to have fun. There are no team expectations or demands, everybody plays, everyone makes decisions (basically, you can go on to describe ‘’Player/Coach A’’ from above.).

A competitive team, by nature, exists to improve daily with the goal of winning football games. Everything that we do will be geared toward that. If we vote to be a competitive team, it is the last vote that the team will ever have, because competitive sports is a dictatorship, not a democracy.”

 Why not just tell them that we are a competitive team?

Because to demand the behavior, and accountability, you must first have permission to make that demand. Almost every team in Brazil, for example, at some point in its history, consisted of not a whole lot more than a group of friends or colleagues who came together in their spare time to play football, create a team, etc.

Continuing with Brazil as the example, the sport has exploded there, and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down, but it is still, in many ways, functioning at a grass-roots level and is still considered to be a ‘’new’’ sport by many people. These factors, combined with the still amateur and semi-pro nature of the majority of organizations there (and maybe in your country too?), lead to a lot of ambiguity when it comes to the expectations of a person new to a team, or to a person who does not see or perceive that his recreational team is now filled with a bunch of competitive-team players.

Once you have the permission of the group, you can have (and provide to the team) clarity. If you decide to be a competitive team, you can clearly explain the expectations to the recreational players. If they want to adjust their behavior, then you have a larger number of competitive players. If they want to leave your team to find a recreational team, that is fine too, because their departure will subtract from the recreational players and leave you with a higher percentage of competitive players on your team. Moving forward, you can clearly explain the expectations of your competitive team to any new players (instead of just saying “Hey! Come to our tryout!”), and their choice to join is a de-facto agreement to the expectations.

If you thought the ideas shared in this article were of benefit, you can check out the video of me presenting these ideas (and more) at the 2013 FPFA Clinic in Maringa, PR:

Thanks for taking the time to view the site and read this article. Hope to see you back here soon.

Attitude is everything

A version of this article, in Portuguese, originally appeared on headcoachbrasil.com.

Coach Lovett can be contacted at:

Email: [email protected]

Facebook: Clayton Lovett 

Clayton Lovett
Clayton Lovett has served football in Brasil in a variety of roles, including as the member of the coaching staff of two CBFA national champions (Cuiaba Arsenal 2010, 2012). Football is his hobby. Professionally, he is the founder of CS Educacional, which provides educational and competitive opportunities abroad for student-athletes.
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