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Luís Castro: “A coach is always what his players make of him”

Luís Castro is the current coach of Shakthar Donestk and has managed clubs such as FC Porto, Rio Ave, Vitória de Guimarães, or G.D. Chaves. Throughout this interview, the coach shared his thoughts about football unpredictability, leadership, the psychological dimension of players, and the importance of assertive communication. Read the full interview conducted by Nuno Milheiro below.

The Portuguese coach began his journey as a football player in 1976, in a small club called Vianense, and quickly understood the importance of organization at the different moments of the game. “In Vieira de Leiria, we played football on the beach, in the square, or at school chaotically. There has never been a very determined or strict organization. Then, we started realizing that the organization could lead us to better performances and that a team must be connected as a whole. Since I was not a very technical player, organization was essential for me. If there were space or freedom, I would have sunk in the game. At that period, coaches are crucial. Fortunately, they complemented the education my parents gave me very well. Congratulations to Mr. Graça and Mr. Orlando Rosseau, who I still remember with great passion”, he said.

Vitória de Guimarães, União de Leiria, Fafe, RD Águeda, and O Elvas were the other clubs he represented in a 20-year career in which he went through all Portuguese football divisions. However, contrary to his career as a coach, his journey was oscillating.

Along the way, I have played as left-back and centre-back, but right-back was my base position. During my career, I went a bit up and down”.

The values of integrity, work, discipline, dedication, and respect for the profession have always followed his path, and he believes that this is the only way to be in the sports industry. “It is an obligation for all of us. I do not want to be remembered as a person who was an exception. I simply stick to the rules as to how we should be in the sport. I do not believe in mind games, or in these stories that everything is done for this or that. It is not worth worrying about what we do not control. I only have to worry about what I can control: my team, my players, my training process, my game, and then understanding where I am failing. If I am focused on any other aspects, I will lack attention to all fundamental things”.

For the 59-year-old coach, there should not be an ideal standard in building coach careers. “Some of my colleagues started at the top. They were recognized for their competence at an early stage and are doing well. Many of us started at the bottom and could not make it. We have to be patient. I am pleased with what we did in the last few years. We did well at FC Porto, Rio Ave, G.D. Chaves, Vitória de Guimarães, and now at Shakhtar Donestk. It is a fantastic sign for my technical team. They managed to implement dynamics that have led us to success and stirred interest in the football world. My career was built from the bottom. That is not why it is better than the others who started at the top. Each does his own. I want to see all my colleagues well and everyone moving forward with their lives”.

Currently, it is possible to verify that several clubs are promoting coaches with short professional paths. However, Luís believes that experience is not a mandatory condition for achieving success. “I think that the experienced coach and the coach with less training time both fail. When analyzing a very young coach, people tend to say that he failed because he was not successful. But then, the same rule is no longer applied when they are analyzing a more experienced coach on an unsuccessful experience. There it was not for lack of experience; it was for some other reason. There is always a justification for failure. The only reason for failure is that we are human beings. Portugal is a major supplier for the Big Five European leagues. We have a fantastic national football team, which has a lot of talent. I applaud the youth coaches in Portugal because they are doing a fantastic job. So, if these coaches have opportunities in senior teams, fine. The most competent ones should always be in power. Do I have to fall out? I know that there are many people below growing, so I have to increase my capabilities to face the competitiveness that exists between us”.

Although the Portuguese coach believes that football is, at its core, a simple sport, the psychological dimension of the players from many different levels is highly complex and could greatly influence their performance.

Everyone wants to win and play. Everyone gets upset when they are replaced or do not play. Everyone gets sad if they are not on the list for the match. Their context is completely different, but in terms of feeling it is all the same. There are levels where the player has a good career and is financially comfortable. Others are at a point where they are financially uncomfortable. All of this penetrates their emotional world. We need to understand what is good or bad for them. But that is our feeling. That is why we are leaders”, he acknowledges.

Decision-making is an essential part of the life of a coach. “The coach has to make his decisions in difficult and record times. Suddenly, the game takes us to decision stages where we cannot wait long. We usually prepare a game for a week, and unpredictably, everything changes, and you have to go after a result. What is best for the game is something that is part of us”.

 He refuses vague speeches and adopts a clear stance when analyzing the performance of his team. “If I am there to tell lies, I am punishing myself. People saw it. My players felt it. Why am I going to say something different than the reality for a press conference? Sometimes I am wrong in my analysis, but that is different from lying. I do what my conscience determines. Losing a game is already losing a lot. But losing myself is losing everything. Have we fairly lost the game? If we have, how will I say we have unluckily lost the game? We deserved to lose. Our opponent was better. I also do not like to hear my colleague win by two or three goals, arriving at the conference and saying “we could have won by more”. This is humiliating. He has already won the three points, so there must be respect”.

In opposition to life, he believes that football is a sport in which unpredictability prevails, and multiple nature factors may influence the success of a player or coach. “Things happen a lot by chance. By chance, you play well when there was a scout at the stadium. By chance, you happen to be with an agent on a plane and transfers you to a club. By chance, you happen to be in a fantastic generation of players that supported your growth. If you were in a weaker generation, things would not work. Football is a bit like this: a set of successive crossings. A colleague of mine chooses one path, and I choose another. At the end of the season, mine was the right way by chance! Of course, competence has a lot of weight. I think all of us [coaches] are competent. We just have different skills. Then, it is a matter of having a bit of luck with ourselves and very positive energies”.

Luís recognizes that all his athletes played a decisive role in his success as a coach.

A coach is always what his players make of him. I am forever grateful to all my players, from the lowest Portuguese division to Shakhtar Donetsk. I owe football everything I am today, but my players, administrations, and supporters have a great portion of my success. Sometimes the value of teams is very much focused on the coach, but the quality of players is decisive”, he concluded.

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