María Ruiz de Oña, Athletic Bilbao, Psychology and Elite Professional Coach Developer

Developing World Class Potential

“we need doubt – it makes us think”

Mark Upton
Aug 14, 2015

In mid July I was fortunate to contribute to the English FA’s Youth Development Phase conference at St Georges Park. As much as I hope to provide value for others in my sessions, I’m equally eager and curious to learn from others at these events. I wanted to share some thoughts from one person I came across there who I found engaging and inspiring.

María Ruiz de Oña has been a psychologist and coach developer at Athletic Bilbao for almost 20 years, with a primary focus on helping coaches create the best environment for the development of talented young players. She happened to attend my session on “managing players learning in practice” and I think some of my ideas resonated with her based on our discussions immediately after.

I was really looking forward to her session in the afternoon on “developing world class potential” and she did not disappoint with a captivating and unique style. I made a few reflective notes that I wanted to share with you…

María used a very interesting activity to begin her session. She had the front of the room cleared of tables to create a “space” that might represent an academy. She then invited people into the space to represent different agents that act in the space (ie players, coaches, administrators, parents, other clubs) and also events (matches, training sessions etc). By having people move around the space and responding to other people movements, María created a very effective visual example of how an academy is actually a complex system — many interconnected parts (people) influencing each other. Her message was the need for coaches to be aware of these dynamics taking place and how they, at different timescales, will influence player development. Managing these dynamics is a key skill of the coach — and many of them occur off the pitch and have little to do with the technical aspect of football.

Here are some other notes I made and have expanded upon…

  • the environment needs to be a very positive one, but at the same time be quite clear about the purpose of talent development.
  • quite a few good things on change, which I’m sure she has been challenged by on a regular basis given her role and way of thinking! “Everybody wants to change others, but nobody wants to change themselves”. Whenever we change, we lose something that was probably creating a level of comfort. This is why there is resistance to change. Genuine change will, and should, lead to confusion/doubt for a while. The willingness for change is based on a certain desire for what the future might look like combined with a dissatisfaction with the present.
  • espoused values (I’ve blogged on this recently) – we say the player is the most important thing, but that is not necessarily reflected on the pitch and by the coaches actions.
  • for the prospective coach, the starting point is not “do I feel ready?”, but “do I understand how to develop players and the environment I will be working in?”
  • a coach needs to learn to observe, and “see” what cannot be seen (the dynamics mentioned earlier).
  • if we want to produce players with high confidence, we need to create challenging environments (rather than make them feel safe with predictable and repetitive practice activities — this generates “false” confidence).
  • related to the above, if the coach has fear, the tasks created for players will be too easy. The coach will not be comfortable with messy, nonlinear learning. This “fear” could come from insecurity in their role — I think a huge problem in academy football in the UK and probably other places.
  • “we need doubt – it makes us think”. This was my favourite quote from her session! If we think we know everything, then we are limiting the players development. I spoke with her after the session about this and we both agreed that the common belief is coaches needed to model absolute certainty and belief to their players. No, she doesn’t buy that. She would allow players to see that the coach has doubts, but that it is leading to thinking…learning – this is modeling learning for the players.
  • developing talent will always challenge and demand more of you – more than you know at the present time. Too often we look for the quick fix/secret recipe – no!!!

It was an absolute delight to hear from and speak with Maria. Her passion, openness, intellect and quiet determination are admirable traits that I suspect are not uncommon in people involved in player development on the continent. The outcomes they achieve do not happen by chance…