Former Arsenal midfielder, Paul Davis, explains that the best coaches he played for found a balance between structure and freedom - an approach he is now helping other coaches find in his role as FA senior professional coach developer.

As Paul Davis was amassing a collection of trophies during 18 years at the heart of Arsenal’s midfield, he was clear what he wanted from his coaches - and it didn’t involve being overloaded information.

“When I was playing, I didn’t want too much information and I knew my colleagues didn’t,” says Davis in the hotel at St. George’s Park, where he now works as an FA senior professional coach developer on The FA’s A licence and Pro Licence courses.

“We wanted enough information to know that the coach knew what they were talking about and then we wanted to be left to go and sort it out. That’s the thing I think players still want today.

“I didn’t want the coach to run my game for me because then they’re taking the enjoyment from me,” he adds.

Davis, who made 447 league appearances for the Gunners in the late 80s and early 90s, believes good coaching is a balance between structure and freedom with enough room to make some mistakes.

“As a player I needed to know I’m a part of a team with some instruction, but I also wanted the coach to believe and trust in me that I can do something.

“That’s the skill of a coach to give a player those two things. If you can give them a structure and a feeling of belonging to a team and also a feeling that you believe in them and that you’re going to support them to do stuff they see on the pitch - that’s the sign of a good coach.”

“The worse thing for me as a player was a coach who just wanted to run the game for me.”

Paul Davis issues out instructions to a group of players during a UEFA A Licence course at St. George's Park.
Davis believes players need some structure but also want to figure things out themselves and enjoy the game.

Much of Davis’s playing success came under George Graham who was the manager at Highbury between 1986 and 1995.

“George Graham put a good structure in the team. We played 4-4-2, I played in the midfield two – we weren’t interchanging, there was no rotation – we knew where we were, we knew where everyone should be, so there was a good structure there.

“From that, there was some instinctual stuff we did. For me the game is around allowing instincts to come out and players to play what they see.

“For me a good coach does have a good structure but also allows their players some allowance for creativity and instinctive play.

“Don’t come down on players that do something that they see at that moment – be brave as a coach to allow your players to make mistakes from your structure.”

I think mindset is just as important as ability


Although Davis recognises the role of coaching in his playing career, there are many individual attributes that he had to develop to help him progress in the game. No more so than self-management before, during and after a game.

“It was always about being positive and in the mindset of no matter who I was playing, I wasn’t fearful.

“Or, if there was fear, I’d try and quickly knock it out, because I learned very quickly that you can’t go on to the pitch with fear or being frightened or doubting your ability – if you did you were on to a loser straight away.

“So, that’s the first thing as a player: be positive, believe in yourself and don’t be fearful of any opposition.

“Obviously you have to have a certain amount of ability, but I think mindset is just as important as ability.”

The FA's Paul Davis stands at the front of the room and talks during an FA Alumni event for Level 5 learners.
Davis plays a key role in FA level four and five courses supporting coaches working in the professional game.

Mindset is what helped Davis through the tough moments during games; be it a bad pass, a refereeing decision or the reaction of the crowd.

“On the pitch it’s a constant battle with yourself. There’s the crowd going on around you, the opposition, the referee might have made a bad decision, you might have been booked – but whatever's going on, it’s about self-management.

“For me it was about staying positive - you can’t drop back into the negative. If you’ve made a bad pass you can’t say ‘it’s a bad ball, I’m going to be a bit scared of getting the ball next time’. You’ve to quickly get into the mindset of ‘that was a bad ball, I want it again’.

“You’re talking to yourself all the time - you can’t hide from yourself. If you’re going to get to the top level you’ve got to go through all that stuff, all those battles.”

The battles didn’t end on the pitch. Media scrutiny around players has increased since Davis’s playing days – but it was still a huge aspect of being a professional that needed to be managed.

“I didn’t read newspapers particularly. If you played a game the papers would give you a score - that was a killer for us. If you got a three or a four, you think ‘how am I going to deal with this’. As a player you had to find a way of looking after yourself, looking after your mental well-being.

“I think to be able to be judgemental with yourself but have a really balanced view on how you played, is a skill to learn.”

Article image courtesy of Colorsport/REX/Shutterstock.

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