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Can Replacing a Coach Save a Team in Trouble?

The head coach is obviously one of the most important personnel to the success of any sports team.  The coach is responsible for organising the team, instilling discipline and focus, and making other staffing decisions which can alter the course of where the team is headed.  Because bad coaching can sabotage a team with otherwise great prospects, it may seem logical to expect a positive change if a team decides to fire a coach and bring someone new onboard.  How should you take this into account when you are betting on sports?


Study results are actually kind of surprising on first glance.  One study in Social Science Quarterly examined coaching changes which took place between 1997 and 2010 in American football teams.  Their conclusion? 


“We find that for particularly poorly performing teams, coach replacements have little effect on team performance as measured against comparable teams that did not replace their coach.  However, for teams with middling records … replacing the head coach appears to result in worst performance over subsequent years.”


Another study published in the Journal of Sports Economics looked at European football.  They concluded, “It emerges that coach replacement does not produce statistically significant effects on team performance.”


Based on these suggestions, replacing your coach if you are doing really badly will result in no immediate change, and should actually be avoided if your team is doing so-so.  What are the possible implications and explanations for these findings?


  • Many coaches receive similar training and as a result are likely to make similar judgment calls.  This is not to say they are interchangeable (intangibles cannot possibly be), but their methods and decisions across the board are perhaps more similar than they seem at first glance.
  • Coaching changes pose an obvious disruption to players.  If a team is fighting to get organised, a coaching change may lead to further disorganisation, at least in the short term.  It is easy to see how a team that is doing so-so could start doing worse after a coaching change.  An already poor team will probably continue performing poorly since the disorganisation will simply shift forms (again, at least initially).
  • If two teams change coaches, one for the better, and one for the worse, their results will average out when performing the math.  In other words, “on average” there would be no improvement from coaching changes, even though for one team there was a relative improvement, and for another, decline.  Plus, remember, team sports are zero-sum games.  Someone always wins, someone always loses.  League-wide, that will never change, even if everyone is playing better or worse than they were before.
  • Also consider that when poor coaching does not lead to firing, there are no direct consequences for failure for the coach.  Knowing that poor performance will be met with the loss of a job motivates coaches.  It could well be that if teams never changed coaches, there would be an overall drop in performance throughout a league—but as the drop would be overall, you would not be able to measure it through wins and losses.  Everyone would be playing worse, but obviously every game would still have a winner and a loser.  This comes back to the zero sum issue.


So can replacing a coach save a team in trouble?  According to these studies, no.  Common sense and anecdotal evidence tell us otherwise, however.  We have all seen good and bad coaching in action.  There is an intangible quality to good coaching which is simply impossible to measure statistically.  It is difficult to draw conclusions from these studies without thoroughly analysing them and understanding how the data was generated. 


One thing you can conclude however is that any coaching change will lead to at least a short-term disruption as a team struggles to get organised.  So if a new coach can save a team, do not expect instant results.  Keep a close eye on the team however and you may very well see great improvements over time.


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