FEATURE | The Number One Job For A No 2

Ian Hill.jpg

FEATURE | The Number One Job For A No 2

As a coach, there are certain etiquettes that you simply have to learn through experience and one of those is how to master the role of being an Assistant Coach.
23rd Jul 2020

There are countless tomes to flip through that provide the perspective of a Head Coach or Manager that can help you solve dilemmas and offer tips on best practice. However, you might have better luck locating the Holy Grail than discovering a Dummies Guide to Being A No 2.

Becoming an Assistant Coach is a rite of passage for many coaches and it remains one of the most important roles in building a team. Therefore it is imperative to understand the Do’s and Don’t’s before ever stepping over a line that undermines the Head Coach or goes too far with the players.

Ian Hill knows a thing or two about this area. A former player with Leicester City, Hill has been the Assistant Coach with the Republic of Ireland Under-17s for the last few years and his understanding of the role is crucial to being successful in it.

“As an Assistant Coach, firstly, you are there to support the Head Coach,” said Hill.

“The qualities I would look for are loyalty, trust, being approachable, being organised, being open-minded, possessing good presentation skills and always being willing to learn. You have to be able to plan and execute tactical sessions alongside the Head Coach.”

With the U-17s, who are led by Head Coach Colin O’Brien, Hill has enjoyed some terrific experiences, including three successive UEFA European Championship tournaments. In that time, he has fine-tuned the art of not stepping on any toes so much so that he graces around the hectic dressing room environment like Fred Astaire in a packed ballroom.

Hill has developed a tight relationship with O’Brien, where opinions are shared but, ultimately, the final decision rests with the Head Coach. It is the same format when addressing the players, with the key points discussed in meetings beforehand so that everything moves in symmetry exactly when it needs to.

“I think the Good Cop, Bad Cop caricature is old school and, for me, particularly at underage level, it is all about creating a player-focused model with a good learning environment for the players, where communication channels are open for coaches and players,” he explained.

“As an assistant coach you must also be an ear to the players with good people skills and sometimes be that bridge between the Head Coach and the players.”

Naturally, an Assistant Coach will sometimes feel that a different approach or decision would benefit the team and it is part of their remit to share such views with the Head Coach. But it must be done in the right way, at the right time.

Irene Hehir knows all about this and believes it is an integral process in building team unity – on and off the pitch. Working with the Ireland Women’s Under-17s, alongside James Scott, she knows when to step forward with an opinion.

“There must be openness to discuss different opinions and air beliefs for different tactical decisions but this should be done before the incident where possible such as half-time or a quick chat during a natural break in the game, however, at the end of the day the Manager has the final say,” stated Hehir.

“If anything needs to be spoken about after the game then it should be done in a trusted environment. I'm happy to say that this is the way the teams that I work with behave.”

Striking that understanding with a Head Coach takes a lot of work, which is why Hehir places so much faith in communication. It may sound like something taken from a text book but simply setting out time to discuss a plan and being clear with roles will lead to cohesion once the players report in.

“Pre-planning of the session and staff discussions to go over all details of the session is vital,” said Hehir, who is also a Head Coach herself with Treaty United’s Women’s Under-17s.

“The Head Coach then has to have trust in their staff to carry out the session as planned from there. Feedback from the Head Coach afterwards is also key, especially in a new environment until all staff are comfortable in their roles as assigned by the Head Coach.”

Hill subscribes to that same theory espoused by Hehir. The Dubliner, who is highly skilled in the area of youth development, knows that he can only excel in his role if he is trusted to do it – but that trust must be earned.

When the Head Coach asks you to become part of his staff he is aware of your strengths and skills as a coach,” said Hill.

“My coaching style, philosophy and understanding of player development would be very similar to the Head Coach. There is a level of trust and being able to plan and execute sessions alongside him is key in my role as an Assistant Coach.”

Both Hill and Hehir need to continually adapt in their roles. Whether it is perfecting performance analysis, working on football fitness techniques, or simply brushing up on their knowledge of players & games, there is always work to be done.

It’s hardly surprising then that they mention a lot of the same attributes required for the role: Being open-minded, D=developing a strong relationship with the Head Coach, maintaining good communication skills, striking an understanding with the players, and always being ready to embrace the next challenge.