Learning to lead through sports coaching
Could AI replace Graham Potter?

Could AI replace Graham Potter?

The launch of ChatGPT last year has brought the seemingly unstoppable rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to the fore. According to newspaper the i this week, more than half the UK’s 18 to 24-year-olds think AI might affect their future job prospects. Should football coaches be worried?

AI as a valuable tool for tactics

Large-language model applications like ChatGPT draw on immense knowledge databases and powerful logic to produce human-like responses to questions on any subject under the sun. In some ways, this makes AI likely to be of immense use to football coaches.

In some respects it is already demonstrating its potential value as a strategy tool for managers and coaches. Many football teams already use it in their analysis and planning ahead of matches. Premier League clubs Brentford and Brighton – well respected for their use of data and analysis enabling them to punch well above their historical weight in the game – are already thought to be drawing on AI’s capabilities. The Guardian, among others, has reported how “AI assistants” are likely to become popular in the near future.

And AI technology may not just benefit managers and coaches in the professional game. Its low cost could mean that grassroots coaches are able to use AI to find solutions to problems within matches or over the longer term.

Footballers chasing the ball

Like other computer systems, AI is based on the application of cold, hard logic married with information retrieval on a scale far beyond what humans can achieve – even self-professed tactical geniuses like Jose Mourinho and Sam Allardyce. Solving tactical problems is what computers are good at. That is why AI has been better than humans at chess since the end of the last century, when Deep Blue, a computer, out-foxed renowned world champion Gary Kasparov.

The human side of coaching

But coaching is not just about tactics. There is far more to helping a football team achieve its best than Xs and Os. Improving player performance at every level of the game involves engaging with people and supporting them emotionally and mentally.

In 2017 Laura Hodgson of Sheffield Hallam University published research into psychological attributes underpinning elite sports coaching. She found that coaches’ abilities to identify, understand and manage emotions in themselves and others were among the most positive attributes people identified in them.

People now recognise these very human skills at the top level of the game. Critics have lauded former Brighton and Chelsea boss Graham Potter for his ability to listen and build confidence with his players.

But the emotional skills managers like Potter exhibit are critical at all levels of the game. Finding a way to boost an Under 9’s confidence is a hugely important part of developing grassroots players. So is keeping a high-achieving teenage player grounded, for example. 

(Ray Power’s grassroots coaching classic Making the Ball Roll covers these and other psychological challenges for aspiring football managers.)

Similarly, watch and listen to coaches like Jurgen Klopp and Jose Mourinho on the sidelines of matches. You can quickly see how the very human emotions that they display feed massively into their team’s performances.

People need to know you care

In that sense, AI is miles off replacing humans – as football coaches or in most other sports. That doesn’t mean it won’t replace or supplement certain data-mining or analysis tasks currently carried out by humans. As a way to manage knowledge or as a source of ideas, AI may well change football coaching at all levels of the game.

But as the famous Teddy Roosevelt quote goes, “no-one cares how much you know until they know how much you care”. It’s likely to be some time before AI can replicate that.

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