Two sports - two coaching perspectives

At a UEFA conference in Belfast, Europe's coach educators heard insights into coaching from two separate sports - courtesy of Northern Ireland national team coach Michael O'Neill and his Ireland rugby team counterpart Joe Schmidt.

Northern Ireland coach Michael O'Neill speaks at the UEFA conference in Belfast
Northern Ireland coach Michael O'Neill speaks at the UEFA conference in Belfast ©Sportsfile

Europe’s football coach educators have heard wise words of wisdom and advice about coaching from two different sides of the sporting fence – football and rugby.

At the UEFA Coach Educators’ Conference in Belfast, the experts responsible for “coaching the coaches” to foster good footballers were given fascinating insights into coaching and its myriad facets by Northern Ireland’s national football team coach Michael O’Neill and his Ireland national rugby team counterpart Joe Schmidt.

Joe Schmidt talks to UEFA coach educators
Joe Schmidt talks to UEFA coach educators©Sportsfile

Both men looked at the professional qualities needed to be a successful coach, and the challenges that coaches face in setting up and inspiring teams to produce winning performances, as well as the personal attributes needed in handling players and overcoming difficult situations. 

O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s coach since 2012, explained how he overcame a tough start to his tenure, when results on the field were disappointing, to lead his country to the UEFA EURO 2016 finals in France – their first major tournament appearance for 30 years – and the forthcoming FIFA World Cup European play-off against Switzerland. “When I started the job,” he said, “expectations were low, so what we had to do was to change mindsets and create a positive atmosphere.”

“We held frank discussions with the players about what we wanted to achieve. We got the players to make higher demands on themselves, and gave senior players responsibility. Gradually they started to believe that we could achieve something. We developed a spirit within the squad, and the momentum grew from there.”

The ultimate result was an outstanding EURO qualifying competition that ended with Northern Ireland topping their group to book a berth at their first ever EURO finals, and a splendid showing in France which saw O’Neill’s charges acquit themselves excellently and reach the last 16. “The momentum that we had built up before the tournament held in France – it was a magical experience,” O’Neill reflected.

“Players don’t want to look back on a national team career with 70 caps and have nothing to show for it. It meant that our players were able to have the chance to play in a major final tournament.”

O’Neill said that Northern Ireland’s achievement should act as a spur to other small countries to believe that they can do the same. “It is possible,” he emphasised, “if you can get the right group of players, the right organisation and if everyone pulls together.”

Self-belief and mental strength, O’Neill explained, were key elements within a coach’s character. “If you want to get the trust of players, you have to be yourself,” he said. “You have to be strong enough to take decisions that are difficult sometimes. You must find your personality and identity.”

Joe Schmidt, who has led Ireland to two Six Nations rugby championship titles, and won European club titles with Leinster in Ireland, also looked at the ingredients that made successful coaches and winning teams.

“Get the right people who work hard for themselves and for others,” he said. “Invest in them, make them feel that they can trust you, and they will commit to the values that underpin what you are trying to achieve.”

The New Zealander, at the helm in Ireland since 2013, expressed the view that coaches had to be ‘energisers’. “Energy is contagious,” he said. “If you don’t bring energy into your coaching environment, it’s very hard for players to reciprocate. You have to be a catalyst.”

Schmidt said that coaches must be able to show clarity in communication. “You need to be able to pass messages effectively, win or lose.” he said. “Consistency is key to conveying those messages.”

“Coaches have to challenge themselves, but they must accept that they will be challenged by others – for example, by players or the media,” Schmidt told the audience. “As coach educators, you have to teach coaches to believe in themselves, but also make them aware that their beliefs will sometimes be confronted.”

“Coaches have to hold on to their beliefs. If they have a strong philosophy, it’s more than likely that players will believe in it as well.”