Professional footballers who later become head coaches are less successful if they don’t work as assistants first

Our research suggests that young, ambitious players should first gain lower level coaching experience before take their chances as professional head coaches.

Young, ambitious coaches who immediately take their chances as head coaches without first gaining experience in lower coaching rankings are putting a successful, professional coaching career at risk. This is an important finding from our research at the University of Antwerp and University of Ghent in Belgium.

Education at the heart of a football association

Football Associations (FAs) play a crucial role in the education of coaches. But some FAs do not have evidence-based setups that enable them to optimise the education given to coaches. In Belgium, one of the major questions raised about football coach education is about the steps and advice available to coaches at the outset of their professional careers. A key phenomenon is that coaches do not become successful through theoretical and practical courses if this education is not supplemented with valuable practical experience. Therefore, the right combination or theoretical advice and practical experience is critical for coaches beginning to venture into their careers. 

To help improve the advice given to coaches at the Royal Belgian Football Association (RBFA), I reached out to Stijn Baert, Simon Amez and Marco Verheuge, to collaborate on research focused on optimising the development of football coaches. Our objective was to publishing unveal new insights into the RBFA’s education programme for coaches.

Having a rich data source involving all coaches that went through the education programme of the RBFA was an excellent starting point. The data was supplemented with statistics obtained from the Transfermarket database (a frequently used and reliable source for academic research) on the careers of former professional players who went onto become head coaches at later points in their careers. Various econometric models were estimated afterwards, which revealed an interesting finding: coaches with some years of experience as a youth coach or assistant coach in a professional team produced significantly better results during their career as a head coach of professional teams than those who became head coaches right after earning their coaching badges.

The extra development acquired by new coaches through their work with youth teams or as assistant coaches in a professional setting can significantly aid them in being more successful in their careers. By starting in a less demanding position, these coaches, trying to find their feet in the professional game, are given time to experiment with different systems, tactics, playing styles, and communication styles, giving them a lot more flexibility when making the step up to the next level of seniority. 

Moreover, these novice coaches also get the opportunity to learn from more experienced coaches, incorporating their advice into their coaching journey. The extra experience gathered during this period ultimately gives them an upper hand compared to coaches who do not undergo this initial period of experimentation – a critical consideration when they are expected to deliver immediate success at the highest level. If success is not immediately realised, which happens most times according to statistics, these coaches have a lot less credibility and less profound knowledge to set themselves up for sustained success in their careers as head coaches.

These findings make sense if you also consider professional football players. They are not dropped directly into the first team of a professional club either. They first go through extensive, practical training in the academy of a club, gaining experience and confidence. This is required for former professional players who aspire to a career as a professional head coach as well. Their playing experience is a valuable plus for them, but not an assurance of a successful coaching career. These aspiring coaches also need the opportunity to gain coaching experience.

Experts with experience confirm the findings

Qualitatively, some of the world’s best coaches confirm these results from their experiences, which further supports our quantitative research results.

Raúl González Blanco, Spain’s former top striker and currently a youth coach at Real Madrid Castilla, commented, “The road to obtaining success as a player differs from obtaining success as a starting coach. Training, knowledge, and data are all important. But above all, you have to learn to convey the right message and values to your players.”

The road to obtaining success as a player differs from obtaining success as a starting coach. Training, knowledge, and data are all important. But above all, you have to learn to convey the right message and values to your players.

Raúl González Blanco, former Spanish national striker and currently a youth coach at Real Madrid Castilla

Roberto Martínez, the manager of the Belgian male national team and technical director of the RBFA, echoed this notion. He said, “Gaining experience in a coaching environment where you can make mistakes in order to learn and improve yourself, that is crucial.”

Marco Verheuge
Marco Verheuge analysed data from more than 200 coaches to obtain his findings
Credit: Marco Verheuge

Get involved 

Young coaches interested in receiving more advice and insights from Belgium’s head coach can watch the full interview with Roberto, Raúl and my study co-author Stijn Baert.

Interested students and researchers eager to analyse any of the many challenging research questions can have a look at the RBFA Knowledge Centre and consider collaborations.


Balliauw, M., Verheuge, M., & Baert, S. (2022). Which former professional football players become successful professional head coaches? Applied Economics Letters, 1–4. https://doi.org/10.1080/13504851.2022.2078776

Matteo Balliauw

Dr. Matteo Balliauw is a Data Strategist, Analyst and Knowledge Centre Coordinator at the Royal Belgian Football Association (RBFA). He obtained his PhD in Applied Economics from the University of Antwerp and has published many scientific articles in international peer-reviewed journals.

Matthieu De Wolf

Matthieu De Wolf holds a Master’s Degree at IE University in Madrid. His thesis focuses on marketing in the sports industry. He has spent one semester as an Intern with the Royal Belgian Football Association, focusing on data analysis and marketing.

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