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Are former players better coaches?

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I remember years ago asking my high school baseball coach about his career as a high school baseball player.  To my surprise, he told me he never actually played high school baseball, but that he had “studied the game” intensely over the years.  When we disagreed with his coaching style and questioned his practice and game-time decisions, I and many of my teammates wondered whether there wasn’t an obvious limit to his coaching abilities due to his lack of on-the-field experience as an athlete.  Situations like that experienced by my high school baseball team lead me to wonder whether there is any clear evidence that people who have actually played the game are better suited for coaching.  Is there is any way to statistically prove that a former player is a better coach than one who hasn’t had real-life game experience?  Here’s my take on the subject.

Coaches who have played the game are better qualified to coach.  Of course, there are many different levels of playing any particular game.  There’s obviously quite a different approach to a city recreation league or church ball than the NBA, or even college and high school competition.  Intuitively, it makes sense to think that the best coaches are most likely to be ones who excelled at whatever level they are coaching.  Steve Spurrier is an example of this.  He was a Heisman Trophy winner during his college career, and he is undoubtedly one of the best coaches in college football.  His competitive nature as a player extended to his approach on the college sidelines.  At the next level, Spurrier isn’t known for any accomplishments as a player or a coach in the NFL.

Now, you may be wondering if I’m saying that, unless a person has coached in the pros, he can’t be a pro coach, and so on for college and high school athletics.  Well, have a look at the coaches who head up teams in the NFL, NBA, MLB, and in the NCAA.  What percentage of them have played the sport at the level they’re coaching? [I'll do some more research on this to see if I can't quantify it better, and I'll write a follow-up article.] 

Obviously there are exceptions – CEO-type coaches with MBA’s who manage teams like they would a public company.  However, I think the record will show that coaches who have spilled the blood, sweat, and tears required to compete at a particular level have a keener empathy for those from whom they expect the same standards.  That investement into the game is what allows Phil Jackson to win championship after championship.

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