Opinion: Taking it to the next level can be a challenge

It is the exception rather than the rule for professional athletes to juggle the transition from player to coach, as Ryan Nelsen has with the recent announcement that he will be the head coach of Toronto FC, in America's Major League Soccer, while still contracted to Queen's Park Rangers as a player.

He has transferred the football from his playing foot to his managerial foot so swiftly everyone was caught off guard, including New Zealand Football, which only heard of his decision through the media.

All athletes entering the twilight years of their playing career start to think about the future, and Nelsen was no exception.

At 35, Nelsen knew his playing days were numbered. With the World Cup just around the corner, though, Ricki Herbert and the All Whites were banking on Mr Dependable sticking around to qualify for the tournament and defend their ''unbeaten'' title.

Nelsen had other ideas. It seems he was destined to be a coach and has been thinking about coaching since he was 21.

As a rookie, he may lack the art and science of coaching, but those who know him well wax lyrical about his leadership, management and communication skills - key for any coach in football.

He has also had an impressive apprenticeship as captain of the All Whites, Blackburn Rovers, QPR and DC United, and was touted as being the most influential individual in the World Cup campaign for the All Whites.

Let's face it, the All Whites needed Nelsen more than Nelsen needed them, something reinforced by the fact that Ricki Herbert and New Zealand Football were left completely out of the loop with regards to negotiations between QPR and Toronto FC.

If QPR does not release Nelsen from his contract, however, he will miss a huge chunk of the MLS season. Luckily, Nelsen's assistant, Fran O'Leary, has more than 20 years coaching experience in the US college system and has a pro coaching licence.

How must O'Leary feel, having coached for so many years only to be beaten by a rookie coach for the top job?It is a trend that is happening more and more in rugby circles as well, where professional players are getting paid coaching roles before those who have completed NZRU and IRB qualifications in coaching, or come through the ranks of amateur coaching.

In rugby, however, there has been a less drastic transition, with most players taking the player-coach route first before deciding to become fully-fledged coaches.

Tana Umaga, Francois Pienaar and Carlos Spencer are examples of rugby players who made the changeover from muddy boots to polished black shoes in this manner, and not always successfully.

As a defender, Nelsen will make a solid coach, and if his people skills are as good as claimed, he will be a great figurehead, ambassador, motivator, and tactician for the Toronto FC side.

What he lacks in coaching experience will be countered by having the more experienced O'Leary by his side (and protecting his back, perhaps?), and he will have the respect of the players, having been one of them only moments ago (something referred to as prototypicality in leadership speak).

A word of caution, though: not all great players make great coaches, and it will surely take Nelsen a few seasons to find his rhythm as he dons a suit and practices his gesturing and proclamations from the sideline rather than the field. Umaga took a few years to grow into his coaching shoes, and Spencer eventually ditched his coaching aspirations for mining (and a bit of charity boxing on the side).

Anyone can be a coach for one season, but it takes a special kind of person to be a great coach, and only a few such as Alex Ferguson, Lois Muir, Wayne Bennett, John Wooden, Vince Lombardi and Graham Henry can claim legendary coach status.

If Nelsen's first season as an MLS coach/manager goes well, surely New Zealand Football or the new owners of the Phoenix will be looking at him as a potential coach for the future.

Nelsen's decision to retire as a player may be a huge loss for New Zealand in the next few years, but a potentially good one if he can harness his leadership skills and football knowledge to become one of the few legends in coaching.