Dutch top coach Louis van Gaal has won many (inter)national trophies with Ajax, FC Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United. In 2014, he reached the World Cup semi-final in Brazil with the Dutch national team. As coach Van Gaal has reached the last phase of his career he is now thinking about how to leave a legacy for the next generations of coaches.
Because of or in spite of?
Top coaches often share their expertise with other coaches based on subjective opinions and experiences. They advise the next generation of coaches to manage specific situations in a certain way because that is what they did in those situations and they were successful. But the question will always remain whether these coaches have been successful in certain situations because of or in spite of their specific interventions? Everyone with some sort of a scientific background understands that this is very difficult to prove. It will be no surprise to hear that many aspiring coaches struggle to apply this subjective information of top coaches in their own environment. Therefore, coach Van Gaal decided to try to translate his coaching knowledge in more objective and reliable coaching references.
What is an objective coaching reference?
An objective coaching reference is a coaching principle which is always true and does not depend on the context or on external factors. So, a coach can trust this information much more than the subjective experiences and anecdotes which are normally shared between coaches. The more objective references a coach has stored in his unconscious brain the bigger the chance that at least one of those reliable references is activated in any of the situations a coach has to deal with on a daily basis. Based on this objective and trustworthy information the coach will try to manage the specific situation.
However, there is still no guarantee for success as things might go wrong after all. For example, in case the coach does not have the ability to subjectively apply the objective knowledge in the right way. Even if you have all the objective football knowledge in the world, if you apply this in a rigid way – without being able to anticipate on all the external factors in your environment – you will fail. But in general, with objective references as a starting point, the chance of success will be significantly bigger.
A bare coaching brain
On the other hand, coaches with a relatively bare ‘coaching brain’ will have accumulated less objective references and more subjective references in their brain. When they are dealing with a certain coaching situation they will predominantly have subjective opinions and past experiences popping up in their brain. Will they now decide to manage the situation based on these arbitrary thoughts? This might still be successful but in general, with subjective references, the chance of success will be significantly smaller.
Theorising the coaching practice
Understanding the above processes does not mean we have solved the problem. The football world is lacking so-called ‘football philosophers’ who are able to think about the game in an abstract way independent of the practitioners and external factors like preferences and culture. Until now, not a lot of objective and universal football references are available for coaches to upgrade their thinking.
Therefore, over the past 18 months, I have had ten 3-hour sessions with Louis van Gaal discussing and analysing the coaching of his ten teams. My role was to theorise and translate the countless coaching situations into general and objective coaching references. Theorising means the analysis of multiple similar situations in an attempt to identify what all these situations have in common. One extrapolates the objective characteristics and leaves out all subjective elements like the personality and opinion of the coach as well as the characteristics of a specific context. The end result is an objective coaching reference. This way, I have tried to theorise Louis van Gaal’s coaching practice starting in the nineties with his Champions League-winning Ajax teenagers all the way to winning the FA Cup with Manchester United and everything in between.
Sharing the lessons with coaches around the world
Although the process with Van Gaal is still work in progress, we have decided to start experimenting with his objective coaching references in practice. In other words, in the next 6 months, I will present the first 10 coaching references to coaches in Asia, Europe and the USA. During the four 1-hour presentations I will use many coaching situations in Van Gaal’s career to make the objective coaching principles come alive. In small subgroups, the delegates will also get the opportunity to immediately discuss the practical application of the coaching principles in the context of both youth and first team football.
The Football Coach Evolution of Louis van Gaal
This will not be a one-way process. By sharing the references with coaches around the world, I will hopefully receive their feedback in return. This will be extremely valuable information based on which we hope we can further improve the objective coaching references. Once the references have been tested intensively and frequently enough in all different football cultures worldwide, they will be written down in a book with the title ‘The Football Coach Evolution of Louis van Gaal’.