Mind the Gap: Being Liked & Respected CAN Work

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Wednesday evenings and a crescendo of violins breaking into Mark Ermler’s Dance of the Knights means my favourite leadership programme is back for another year.

BBC and Lord Sugar’s The Apprentice has, for the last 13 years, taught its viewers how to operate in high pressure situations, how to manage individuals, teams, superiors and expectations whilst observing high levels of accountability and professionalism. How to improvise when things are not going to plan, and how to use creativity to appeal and engage your target audience – all of the attributes that top level sports coaches need to have at their disposal as well as business leaders. The beauty of the show is that it has also taught us very clearly how not to do all of the above.

During the debrief after the first task this week, one candidate rather firmly attributed its failure to a ‘teammate’ citing, “a key part of business is getting on with people and you don’t get on with people.” The comment is hardly a ground-breaking discovery. To be successful in most industries requires an individual to foster, develop and maintain strong relationships, and a considerable wealth of literature reinforces that assertion. However, it does beg the question, what does ‘getting on with people actually mean?’

Carlo Ancelotti is renowned for being incredibly well liked by his players.

Conventional predispositions around successful leadership suggest that respect is the pivotal ingredient that leads to getting things done, with ‘being liked’ seemingly unable to co-exist alongside it. Indeed, it seems many occupants of leadership positions globally subscribe to this view, with Donald Trump, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Theresa May all not scoring highly in popularity polls at present (you might debate what they actually get done too depending on your politics). But to suggest “bad people make the best leaders”, or likeable people lack credibility as some articles have done over the years, is a rather short sighted and poor attempt to simplify an art that is far from simple.

I read Carlo Ancelotti’s recent publication Quiet Leadership last month and you will not find a person who strikes a better balance between being liked and being respected. That is not my opinion by the way; those are personal accounts of players.

Legendary centre-half Fabio Cannavaro says, “he’s not just a great coach; he’s a professional that always has a good relationship with his players. Everyone feels comfortable with him.” Andrea Pirlo recounted, “he knows how to treat the players and that’s why he fits in well in the dressing room”, whilst Zlatan Ibrahimović stated, “I’ve worked with great coaches, but never with one that had a relationship like that with his players. It’s the key to success. And he’s elegant, even when he talks. His method is soft and very patient. He makes the players feel safe”.

It’s not just Ancelotti however, England’s cricketers have often paid testament to how well liked Paul Farbrace has been around the dressing room since his return in 2014. Jurgen Klopp’s energetic personality has appeared to go down very well with the Liverpool FC players, and Toronto Maple Leafs Head Coach Mike Babcock is renowned for ringing his players up whilst on the golf course during the NHL off-season, just to let them know that he’s there for them and thinking of them.

England Cricket Assistant Coach Paul Farbrace is an extremely popular figure in the dressing room.

Do these coaches actively seek popularity? Does Mike Babcock for example ring up his players just to make his players like him even more? One would think a person entrusted with such a high-pressurised job in an uncompromising, results driven industry is not that naïve. He will be under no illusions of the results he must look to provide, and part of achieving that result is to cultivate a secure, comfortable and enjoyable environment for everyone.

One of the biggest misconceptions it seems in debating the difference between being liked and being respected lies in the leader’s intentions. Margaret Thatcher once said, “if you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing.”

The problem with this, as alluded to already, is we are assuming leaders are trying to obtain likeability rather than letting their actions, habits and behaviours influence people for them. When tough decisions have to made, or negative feedback has to be given we are also assuming the recipients of those decisions do not have the foresight to understand them, or the maturity levels to prevent them from perceiving them as a personal attack. Some of the people in leadership roles I’ve had the privilege of working with, or under have told me to up my game on something or made a decision that doesn’t benefit me particularly but that doesn’t mean I don’t like them. If we disliked every person we had a disagreement with then our friendship count would be pretty low.

Jurgen Klopp’s effervescent character makes him an extremely difficult to dislike.

What is important as a leader is being transparent – it does not mean you have to compromise on things and be soft around the big decisions that need to be made. It might mean that you aren’t someone’s cup of tea for an hour or a day, but when you think about it, I would probably dislike someone more for not being strong and assertive enough to stick by their values, or for not seeing the bigger picture against someone who is, even if it that does not correlate to personal gain. The only way to see it from this viewpoint however, is for the leader to be an excellent communicator and to explain, justify and inspire people in an articulate fashion. People generally appreciate openness and honesty as it builds trust and mutual understanding; in fact when thinking about the coaches and colleagues I’ve enjoyed the best relationships with, it is their honesty that makes their likeability factor increase tenfold.

Of course, it is just not possible to like everybody; naturally we gravitate towards some people through mutual interests or personalities and sometimes there are people we just don’t ‘click’ with. That goes for colleagues in business and players in our teams as coaches. Whilst there must be a degree of respect to be able to work effectively with these people, it should not tarnish the thinking that people (leaders specifically) can be hugely successful by being liked and respected at the same time.

Toronto Maple Leafs players have spoken about how much they like Mike Babcock and his close knit relationship with his players.

Maybe you already work with a leader or a group of players you really like; if that’s the case it might be worth thinking why that is – what makes you like them? What is it about them that makes you want to put in the hours with and for their benefit? If you can answer and really understand these questions, you begin to work out how to get the best out of people no matter the situation. This is what the Carlo Ancelotti’s and the Mike Babcock’s of this world do without a thought towards their own likeability factor. The irony of it? Theirs has already gone up.

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A Life Away: Does Top Level Coaching Have a ‘Sell by Date’?

Statistics never lie. They do not always paint the whole picture or do something justice but they never lie.

How many days a year would do think coaches at the highest level spend on the job – 200? 250? Try a minimum of 300 if you’re Australian Cricket Head Coach Darren Lehmann which, for those of you like me that struggle with arithmetic, equates to a staggering 82.2% of the year. To clarify further, that figure is physically being away from home – it does not take into account the days spent sat in meetings, planning, putting out fires from the media or scouting the next generation. That would mean that this summer, since succeeding Mickey Arthur in June 2013, Lehmann will have spent a maximum (probably far less) of 260 days (17.8% per year) at home over the last 4 years. Whether that surprises you are not, few can dispute that is a staggering commitment.

Many might argue it is a necessary one for that is what the domain of elite cricket, and high performance sport in general demands. Inevitably however, such a time commitment raises the question of sustainability; just how long is someone able to consistently operate at their best on a daily basis? What things might impact upon their ability to do so over a prolonged period? Just like Usain Bolt whose energy, efforts and sacrifices over 4 years culminates in a mere 9.58 seconds, it would ironic if the pinnacle of your coaching career; the job you strive towards the most over the years is the one which can only be only be endured for the shortest duration.

Over the last decade in particular, research has explored the many complexities and intricacies embedded within sports coaching to better understand its nature and subsequent application. Certainly at the elite end of the spectrum, considerable evidence of conflict and struggle can be found amongst the coaching community (Krista, 2008; Olugsoga et al. 2010), suggesting that life at the top is perhaps not as glamorous as one might assume. Emotional exhaustion and the constant battle to obtain a work/life in particular feature prominently in many coaches’ cognitions. Research suggests that the most significant of all however, is an underlying sense of de-personalisation (Fletcher and Scott, 2010); essentially a feeling of detachment from reality and from within oneself which Zakrajsek (2010) describes as “sacrificing part of ourselves” in an uncomfortable conflict of personal values. In simple terms it encompasses all of the things that have been ruthlessly left behind under the uncompromising premise of ‘the job comes first’.

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Why is this such an important area to understand?

When you hear top players speak about the successful environment in their team, a large part of that revolves around the coach or manager; the ethos they have instilled, the belief they have given certain individuals, the energy they bring; attributes that have been brought to life because of who that coach is. Trevor Bayliss, Eddie Jones and Gareth Southgate are all recent examples in English sport that have been spoken about in such terms. It would not be unreasonable to suggest then, that the coach – their individuality and way of doing things – is significantly linked to the overall athlete experience. Indeed, world leading coaching science scholar Robyn Jones confirms this in saying “the person of the coach, much more so than the methods he or she applies, is a crucial element in what constitutes ‘good’ or successful coaching” (Jones and Santos, 2011).

What about the coach themselves though? If any internal conflicts similar to those outlined exist to even the smallest degree in them, then the person within – the individuality of oneself that makes them successful– may be being prevented from operating at their highest capacity, subsequently influencing players and performances in that environment.

Have we seen any examples or evidence of conflicts come to fruition lately? It was only in the last few months that Jose Mourinho, under pressure to deliver results and living in a hotel in Manchester rather than cause major disruptions to his family, branded his life outside of football a “disaster”. It was only in Janurary when Liverpool’s lacklustre performances were attributed to Jurgen Klopp “looking tired himself”. Prior to being sacked last year, Louis Van Gaal admitted that in Old Trafford lay his last job due to a long standing promise to his wife – a promise which he had already stretched to its limits. Away from football, Amelie Mauresmo explained that, upon ending her partnership with Andy Murray, “dedicating enough time along with the travel” has been a challenge for me”. Last year Jason Gillespie distanced himself from the Australian Bowling Coach job with the words, “at this point in time in my life, I am not prepared to be away from my family for that length of time.” Even Andy Flower reflected that he was “very aware of the clock ticking away” on watching his three children grow up whilst in charge of England, in addition to finding it “difficult to comprehend how much time I spent away.”

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Being an elite coach in any sport requires dedication and commitment in unforgiving quantities. For those looking to make the transition to high performance sport, understanding who you are and what you are prepared to give and sacrifice to the cause is of fundamental importance. Understanding what person you might be, and what you will have left in your life by the end of it is of paramount importance. In an age where sport is in such high demand all year round from an entertainment perspective, it is not surprising to see the emergence of format specialists or consultancy coaches becoming ever more prominent. Is it possible that elite coaching in the traditional form as we know it is approaching its sell by date?

The Imitation Game: Coaching Lessons from Alan Turing & World War II

They say that your response to challenge in the face of extreme adversity defines you as a person. If trying to penetrate the most complex code breaking system ever made whilst thousands of your countrymen are dying every day does not qualify as the highest form of extreme adversity, I would be intrigued to see what does. It was on January 23rd, 1940 that saw one of the most significant moments in world history; largely shaping the world we live in today; the moment where a small team of British mathematicians and computer scientists, led by the slightly eccentric Alan Turing, broke the German encoding machine ‘Enigma’ to mark the beginning of the end of World War II. For those that aren’t familiar with Enigma, it was the German’s primary mode of communication, comprising of letters and words being coded through a complex cipher system; the result equating to 150 million possible combinations per day before being reset for the next day.

The start of the festive period for many, naturally marks an appropriate opportunity to reflect upon the year; and for yours truly occasionally results in a glass of wine in front of the many films  accumulated on the ‘to watch’ list throughout the year. Whilst this piece is a far cry from a history lesson, watching Mortem Tyldum’s fantastic adaptation ‘The Imitation Game’ (also written by Graham Moore) has certainly brought some thoughts to the surface. In re-telling the fascinating and powerful story behind Turing’s success, there are some poignant messages and parallels that can be seamlessly applied to the complex world of sports coaching that we exist and interact in. I’ve picked out five of the most prominent that might help to aid our reflections moving forward into 2017.

Being Normal Will Get You Nowhere

Probably the best line and key message of the film is uttered by Turing himself (Benedict Cumberbatch) of “sometimes it’s the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine”. A stuttering, socially inept introvert to the point of rudeness, Turing would perhaps be the least likely person one might expect to change the fortunes of the world. That was certainly the opinion of Commander Alastair Denniston who despite employing Turing’s services to crack Enigma, held strong doubts that such a feat could ever be accomplished. He made his mind up about Turing almost immediately – as it happened Turing was a genius; possessing a brilliant mind to design a machine intended to accelerate the ciphering process that had previously been attempted by hand.

Have you ever seen a player that immediately stood out from the crowd? Most of us have I would have thought; whether it was through their abnormally high skill level, shrewd tactical expertise, pure natural athleticism or perhaps a combination of the three at such a young age. They are not normal. They stand out for all the right reasons and thus they generate considerable excitement with how they can elevate your team and coaching credentials to even greater things. What about those players that don’t initially appear exciting? What if they don’t appear to have a great skill level? More often than not, they are mentally noted in our heads as ones not to get excited about and are subsequently pigeon-holed and cast aside in the pursuit of others.

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How many times have we seen late bloomers in sport? Players who come to the party at a slightly older age and enjoy a shortened, but outstanding career. Players who are cast aside at some clubs yet excel at others. At the highest level in sport, it is a cut throat business where there perhaps isn’t as much time to wait for players to develop, but there shouldn’t be the same problems below that. Just because a player doesn’t get us excited about their ability (or personality in some cases), that shouldn’t mean we dispose of them. They might have a skill set that we haven’t tapped into, they might have the best work ethic or be the most coachable player you’ve ever comes across for example. The message here is keep an open mind – being different is desirable. Look for the attributes that the majority aren’t looking for and you might uncover a diamond. As Herb Brook (US ‘Miracle’ Ice Hockey Coach) once said, “you cannot be a team of common men, because common men go nowhere. You have to uncommon.”

Find & Polish the Key

Whilst Alan Turing was the main figure behind the breaking of Enigma, he was helped along the way by some of the smartest brains around Britain. This was, largely, in part down to Turing’s unorthodox recruitment process consisting of candidates solving a set of crossword puzzles under a time limit. Turing knew he was smart; what he wanted to find out was who was similar or smarter than him. When Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) entered the exam room, the first officer laughed and refused her entry on the premise of her gender. Turing however, allowed her sit the test and in less than five minutes was rewarded with Clarke finishing the puzzle first, and in less time than Turing himself. Here was the key – the Lionel Messi of code-breaking and problem-solving; Clarke was a rare talent and would thus be pivotal in helping break the German’s code.

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Power is an interesting concept within coaching literature. Exchange theory (Blau, 1964) suggests that interactions are complex structures of association, in that people engage in relationships in the recognition that they will gain something from them. According to this then, much of our coaching behaviours are a series of calculative and strategic endeavours. Knowing that Clarke was a key member of the team, Turing went above and beyond to ensure she was comfortable having moved away from home, to the extent that he proposed to marry her in an effort put her parents’ concerns at ease.

Whilst we may not openly admit it, we as coaches can be found guilty of having favourites. We treat some players differently to others; allowing some more freedom, giving some more of our time, providing some more opportunities. Is this wrong of us? Shouldn’t we be treating everyone the same? In today’s society a parent or onlooker could easily tarnish us for being inconsistent, citing an obligation to provide equal opportunities for all. But if Alan Turing was to marry every member of his team that was pivotal to the breaking of Enigma then society would most definitely have a problem!

A key to good coaching is recognising your gold star player/s and understanding that whilst they are not above anyone else, they might on occasion, require a different management style. For if you keep them on side, they have to capacity to raise everybody else in the team and provide the group with a success that on their own they would not be capable of achieving. It might mean you go that extra little mile for them in the knowledge that your return on that investment will reap the dividends.

The Team is the Doorway

It’s all well and good finding the key to your team, but it has little effect when there is no door to open. For Turing, who alongside Clarke represented the key to the team of mathematicians deciphering Enigma almost blew the opportunity to win the war from the outset. As has already been mentioned Turing was bereft of social skills, preferring instead to seclude himself from his team without communicating his work thus allowing mistrust, doubt and animosity towards him grow. With advice from Clarke however, Turing started to make attempts to interact with his team through small gestures to show that he was trying. Indeed, when an angry and frustrated Commander Denniston demanded an update and progress on the project, Turing’s work was almost decommissioned on the spot for not producing any results. It was only through the communal support of his team, who recognised the potency of Turing’s machine that prevented it.

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On another day, Turing’s team would have turned on him and allowed the project to be terminated. The result would most likely have claimed another few million lives. The simple message? Take the time to understand people, to get them on your side so that you have a support network who know what you’re trying to achieve. World leading coaching scholar Robyn Jones (et. al 2011) reiterates that “unless you understand [athletes] as people, the best coaching book in the world isn’t going to help. It all comes down to how well they really want to do for you…to the relationship you have with your players.”

It shouldn’t be the case but inevitably coaching at the higher levels is a close fraternisation with time; how much time until you produce results. Being able to build strong relationships with stakeholders, players and support staff can be hugely significant in buying you enough time to produce the desired outcome.

Stay One Step Ahead

That pivotal day on January 23rd when Turing broke Enigma for the first time was monumental. Oddly enough though, breaking the seemingly impossible code was just the easy part. His team’s reaction, in amongst sheer jubilation, was to set about relaying the German’s military formations back to the British military command. Turing however wasn’t about to let two years of hard work become insignificant; he knew that any action taken by the army based on their intelligence from Enigma would convey to the Germans that they had broken Enigma. If that happened, they would alter Enigma’s settings (in effect change their communication method) and render their discovery useless.

Instead, Turing and his team worked discreetly with the government to limit the number of major attacks on British forces by providing an alias story to explain how they knew what was going on. All the while the war raged on, unbeknown to most that in effect it had already been won. The hard part was slowly breaking down the Germans over time using the information from Enigma to stay one step ahead.

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How many of us would have followed our first instinct to take immediate action? How many of us would look to secure that quick win to beat away the critics? How many of us would have the foresight to see the bigger picture? It’s an interesting debate and one we will never know the answer to, but the lesson we can learn is an important one – keep your cards close to your chest and always try and stay one step ahead of the game. Whether it’s spotting something in your environment and ensuring it doesn’t have the opportunity to grow and become a real problem, or whether it’s a case of gathering some more examples of behaviours before you decide to present a case. Someone once told me that slow is smooth and smooth is fast and it rings true here. Even if it takes longer than you’d hoped to solve, logic and careful thought is a far better solution than haste and indecisiveness.

Appreciate What You Have

Have you got any players that are good at criticising and moaning about what they have? Whether it’s that they’re not playing enough, someone else was at fault or that they have to pay too much for what they get? Of course, very little is heard about what they offer to the group! Unfortunately large parts of society today are guilty of this, none more so than students and young athletes with a disturbing level of consumerist tendencies. They forget that facilities and equipment cost a lot to hire, that people often go out of their way (often voluntarily or at very little cost) to provide them with opportunities to develop. They forget the administration, logistics, planning and bureaucracies that go on behind the scenes to their advantage. They forget a lot of things.

I might be sounding like I’m speaking from experience here, and to a point I am. But largely, it was society’s treatment of Alan Turing that really struck me. Despite his work that saved over 14 million lives and changed the world, Turing was driven to his suicide by society who deemed that homosexuality was a crime and should face prison. Whilst prison was avoided, it is believed his alternative of chemical castration drove him to his action.

(L-R) KEIRA KNIGHTLEY and BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH star in THE IMITATION GAME

Whilst Queen Elizabeth II granted him an official pardon and apology in 2009 for his treatment, Turing’s treatment is something for us today to take heed of as the festive season approaches. Appreciate what we have – the opportunities, the freedoms, the privileges, the differences, obscurities and complexities. Ensure your players appreciate what they have when they turn up to a session, with their football boots or cricket kit or tennis racket. For whilst nothing will always be perfect, it is a whole lot better than what a large majority have in the world.

Filling in the Blanks: Negotiating the Grey Areas

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If experience or research hasn’t taught you already, coaching is a complex and problematic profession.

For all its glorified peaks, benefits and gratifications a labyrinth of puzzles, issues and obscurities lie in wait beneath the surface; waiting to come to fruition at the most challenging of times. For years literature has examined the numerous delicacies embedded within the coaching domain, despite an acceptance that blank spaces inherently and inevitably form part of its science. Indeed, if all theories and problems had an answer to them, coaching it would seem, could be a simplifiable and replicable phenomena for generic application.

Have you ever been presented with a situation or encounter in your career where you had to rely purely on your instincts? A problem that your coach education courses and years of study would not cater for? A problem that rears its ugly head and demands an instant reaction on the spot, before you’ve had the opportunity to seek counsel? I’m sure one, if not many spring to mind! These are just some of the blank spaces or “grey areas” that are a depiction of coaching’s complexity; they are questions that do not possess prescribed answers; they are problems that no theory or book will answer for you; they are problems that one learns from tackling head on in the moment. After a whirlwind few months sport, and indeed politics have been presented with an impressive array of problems to deal with; from Brexit and the US Presidency, to FIFA and the FA poppy dispute, to Pep Guardiola’s stand-off with Yaya Toure and his representatives, to Louis Smith’s questionable video, to Sam Allardyce’s farcical one match tenure. Have I missed any?!

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Donald Trump’s ascension to the Presidency has thrown the United States and the world into a political grey area that has many complexities, ambiguities and unknowns. It will be interesting to see how it is negotiated.

Before we get into establishing how to negotiate the grey areas, I thought I’d share with you one of my encounters from a few years ago that certainly acted as a benchmark moving forward. Whilst I do not tend to socialise with the guys throughout the year, preferring instead to maintain a boundary of professionalism, the function put on for them was an opportunity to round off the intense pre-season they had impressively endured. It was a chance to celebrate the hard work, efforts and dedication that they had engaged with thus far heading into the season – I wanted to demonstrate my thanks and appreciation to them and having an enjoyable drink for a few hours with them seemed an appropriate enough way to convey it on this occasion.

Our first game of the season was four days later, and it was on the departing bus that one of the quieter members of the group made me aware that one of our players was struggling with illness. It didn’t take the Spanish Inquisition to understand that he was hungover, possibly still even under the influence of alcohol. As it happened he had decided to continue the celebrations from four nights ago through into last night. So here I was, faced with an issue my coaching courses and books hadn’t covered, and one of my most promising players the culprit.

My reaction? Although not wanting to cause too much of a scene, I did not do a fantastic job of hiding my emotions. Surprise, anger, frustration and anxiety were at the forefront of my mind. How on earth had the player got themselves into this state? Did they not realise what today was? Have other players conformed to something similar and are staying quiet? Upon reflection, a large proportion of my frustration, whilst being directed at the player was actually at myself – how had an issue like this gone beneath my radar? Why (and how) had the culture we’d instilled (or tried to) failed to pre-empt this? Back to the moment however – I rang one of our players who hadn’t been selected for the game, and told him to pack his kit and to be ready outside in 20 minutes.  Next I marched up to the front of the bus and instructed the driver to return to our departure point.  Upon our return amid a few curious and incredulous faces, I told the offending player get off the bus, sort himself out and be ready to see me in the morning whilst the team helped our new addition into the bus. Looking at the team they seemed disappointed; they knew the player in question was a big loss and would severely harm our chances of securing a positive result that day (and it did).

Without going into too much detail with regards to that conversation the next morning, there were some thought provoking themes to come out of it which taught me, as a coach, some important rules to follow should anything similar arise again.

Stick to Your Values

Whenever you are faced with a challenging or delicate situation, inevitably your values and philosophies are thrust into the spotlight. How you decide to act and resolve the problem is largely determined by them, so it is vital we have a clear and robust set of ideals that guide our thinking. How strong you are in sticking to them can often be the difference between negotiating the issue or not; if you bow down to the problem and concede ground you are, in a sense, accepting the action, behaviour or incident.

Pep Guardiola was categoric in saying that Yaya Toure would not play for Manchester City until he and his representatives had apologised for their unacceptable actions against him. Despite a media storm, global criticism and scrutiny, Pep was adamant. So soon into his managerial reign, his credentials would be severely compromised in the eyes of the world and his players if he gave way. Two and half weeks passed until eventually Toure and his agent conceded and issued a public apology, with the unspoken message very much being one of “ok, we understand that you are the boss and that is not acceptable”.  Whilst we as coaches do not want to rule with an iron fist, extreme circumstances sometimes result in extreme actions. Sometimes you need to go a step backwards first in order to move forwards as a unit. Be prepared to stick by your values, and in most cases your players will stick by you.

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Coach Boone in ‘Remember the Titans’ famously drove his team to breaking point until they accepted playing in a mixed race team

Make Decisions You Know You Can Live With

Whilst this in part bares a similar resemblance to the point made above, it paints the picture in a slightly different way. Sometimes the norms of your culture or society dictate certain behaviours and actions; some more acceptable than others. In hindsight, do I wish I had caused less of a scene with the rest of the squad in dealing with my player? In some ways yes. Do I regret being harsh on them, and not allowing them to take part in the game? Absolutely not – I would not be doing my job as a coach if I did.

Ironically enough, the toughness, the frustration and the sanctions imposed in the weeks that followed were genuinely issued with the best interests of the player, and the team at heart. If that carried the risk of compromising my relationship with the player for the long term, then that was a loss I was prepared to take and live with. What I couldn’t live with, was standing by and doing nothing to address the problem. Having no regrets can sound cliqued at the best of times, but when negotiating the grey areas it certainly rings true; make sure you address the problem how you see fit, and not what you think is pleasing others. The more experienced you are, the easier it becomes to find a way of addressing the problem.

Looking Beneath the Surface

As mystifying some events can be, there is usually a reason behind them. In the heat of the moment, it can be easy to deal with the issue and move on without really stopping to delve a little deeper. Possibly the most underrated aspect of the whole experience, was indeed the meeting with the player the following day. Though still frustrated at the loss from the day before (and their behaviour), 24 hours enabled me to bury some of the raw emotion and ‘red mist’ and have a constructive conversation. Whilst in no way condoning his behaviour, I came away from our discussion with a better understanding of the player’s thought processes, perceptions and attitudes that govern his actions.

Consequently, the coaching team and I were able to reflect and implement some improvements to our environment that aimed to prevent a similar occurrence from happening again. Being able to understand your players is undoubtedly a pre-requisite when it comes to coaching, but people are complex beings! I certainly do not pretend to know each and every one of my players inside out; that is unrealistic. Being able to recognise and understand their motivations, drivers, worries and inclinations can be pivotal in helping them fulfil their potential in addition equipping them with essential life skills.

Film Title: Coach Carter.

Sometimes even the most difficult players can teach you something. Leave no stone upturned to better your environment.

So there you have it – hopefully an example of a grey area within the realm of coaching. Have you had an experience of problem that you wish to share and discuss? By all means feel free to share it with us. Remember that the complexities within coaching, whilst at times hugely frustrating, are what make the profession the exciting and challenging enterprise that it is. Its ambiguities and delicacies should be celebrated and welcomed in our pursuit to fill in the blanks.

What About Me? Coaching in the Shadows

Mesmerising. Absolutely fascinating scenes last Monday on the Victoria Derbyshire BBC programme, during which retired MI5 officer Tom Marcus, hooded in black, shed light on his covert experiences throughout an eight year career with the British Security Services. From going undercover as a homeless person tracking deadly terrorist targets, to saving an officer’s life acting as a deranged drunk, in addition to foiling a bomb plot in a Manchester shopping centre you understand how intriguing listening to him was. Attempting to comprehend the work and sacrifice that these people do for their countries around the world, behind the scenes and in the shadows of everyday life – now that is a tough one; one which the large majority of us will fail to ever fully grasp or appreciate.  The most staggering and sad thing about it all? Tom can’t find a job. He resorts to working in a call centre and a burger bar three years on just to pay the bills in an attempt to support his family.

What has this got anything to do with coaching you might ask? In part it links with an interesting chat I had recently with a colleague of mine, during which we spoke about the challenges of getting on the map or career ladder as a coach. As considerable literature suggests (Jones Bailey, Thompson, 2012; Jones and Wallace, 2005; 2006; Wallace and Pocklington, 2002), coaching has drifted away from the traditional ‘coach-led’ approach towards a more balanced relationship between coach and athlete. An approach that places greater emphasis on holistic, as well as sporting development; one which involves coaches ‘steering’ as oppose to controlling hence the recognised concept of orchestration.

Think of the orchestrator on stage during a performance, steering rather than dictating their group throughout the piece. Are all eyes on him/her? I could be wrong, but the majority would probably say not. Their attention would instead be drawn to the various musicians in perfect harmony as they play with precision and grace.

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Turning the focus to a sporting context, I can think of many coaches that would be delighted with this – the praise and attention of onlookers to go to their players rather than them; their efforts resulting in a mere physical or verbal pat on the back from parents, colleagues or line managers. Thinking about it, aren’t most of us like this? Don’t we all coach to help our players enjoy sport, improve and achieve success without any real wish for personal accolades? Haven’t we all accepted that the pre-requisite for that success is hours and hours of hard work on and off the field that frequently go unnoticed? Isn’t that internal gratification of bumping into a player five years down the line hearing that you inspired them to carry on playing worth it?

It might well be worth it for some we discussed; that’s all well and good, but how does a young coach who has aspirations to climb the ladder get themselves noticed? How do they find the balance between staying in the shadows as an orchestrator, and getting some recognition for the work they are doing? In some sports it might be consistently winning that gets you noticed….so one might be tempted to forgive those coaches who are results driven even if it defies what coaching is really about. After all don’t most employers ask for something tangible that demonstrates your ability to be successful? We should all know and accept that success doesn’t always equate to on-field results, yet unfortunately it remains embedded in the currency of coaching.

Indeed, in a world where the person who shouts loudest, or who knows the right person often wins (or gets the job) the coaching industry can be a frustrating, lonely and confusing one for coaches looking to further their career. At the higher levels isn’t so difficult as networking circles and media coverage increase, resulting in your name becoming more familiar with the general population of your sport. Even if you are relieved of your post, your mere experience at that higher level will rarely see you go without work for long. It is no wonder we see many coaches taking to social media to publicise their work. Fantastic a platform as the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are, their artificial nature does not decipher between those coaches who are really doing a good job, compared to those who just look like they are.

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So how to come out of the coaching shadows whilst staying true to your coaching philosophy?

  1. Document Your Work

You may not want to shout about the work you do, for the fear of coming across as arrogant. There is nothing to stop you though, from sitting down and documenting all of the elements that your coaching encompasses; from the on-the-pitch things to the administrative tasks that consume just as much if not more time than actually coaching! This will make you recognise just how much you do, and if and when the time comes to interview or discuss your environment with someone, you can give a true and honest reflection of what ‘being you’ involves. They say that your work or players’ attitudes are a reflection of your work, and whilst this may ring true, your players can’t speak for you at interview!

  1. Broaden Your Coaching Network

Time is always of the essence and often we as coaches aren’t blessed with lots of it. If you happen to have a day off though, or a spare hour here and there, why not arrange to shadow or observe some other coaches at the higher level? Most of the coaching community are warm, inviting and happy to showcase what they offer and this might help you develop some links personally with other coaches, and indeed with other clubs. Word of mouth spreads quickly and it won’t take long for people to sit up and take notice.

  1. Enhance Your Cultural Experiences

One of the best ways to improve your coaching is by broadening your cultural experiences. Both Eddie Jones and Stuart Lancaster have recently spoken in the Daily Telegraph, about the impact that going abroad has had on their personality, perceptions and general coaching skills. It might be easier said than done, but if you have the opportunity, there may not be a better way to come out of the coaching shadows.

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It would be fascinating to hear the thoughts and opinions from any young or aspiring coaches looking to further their careers, or indeed those who have met various challenges along the way in theirs. Head Coaches, Performance Directors and Head of Departments – your insights would also provide a stimulating debate!

 

 

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The Strategist (INTJ/INTP): What Coaches Can Learn From Sherlock Holmes

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Detectives, like coaches require an outstanding skill set. Problem-solving, critical thinking, attention to detail and patience to name a few, whilst possessing an ever expanding long and short term memory store is vital to the cause. It unsurprising therefore that the most famous of all detectives – the uncompromising Sherlock Holmes, classifies as an INTJ according to Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality profiles. Designed to illuminate the individual preferences from which we individually perceive the world, the MBTI deduces that INTJ’s are inventive, complex and imaginative people capable of creative genius through their theoretical and abstract thought process.

Upon belatedly watching the compelling BBC series ‘Sherlock’ starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Holmes) and Martin Freeman (Dr Watson), many thought-provoking themes can be taken from the intriguing world of crime and forensics, and applied across to the field of sports coaching which might pose some challenging questions and entice us to reflect upon our current practices going forward. Below I’ve offered 4 of the most prevalent that could help us become coaching detectives:

Heighten Your Senses

If you haven’t seen Sherlock Holmes at his best, either through Cumberbatch or Robert Downey Jnr then you will, I hope, be at least familiar with his extraordinary sensory abilities. By no means am I suggesting that coaches are expected to walk into a room and notice or deduce the numerous minute details that Holmes does; the scuff marks on one’s knees that suggest they’ve been kneeling down a lot recently; or the damage on one’s phone that suggests it was second hand in addition to the personalised inscription on it that suggests it was a younger man’s device rather than somebody older. No. Those particular gifts lie with Holmes and a very small minority.

That said, some things are certainly within our observational realms of ability – whether a person consistently holds their cup of coffee in their left or right or hand, or has a dominant hand when using gestures, or whether they walk predominantly using weight from their heels or from the front of their feet. You might ask why are some of these relevant? What do they tell us? Recognising how someone walks for example can tell you a lot about their motor patterns and their physiological organisation – how they move most efficiently, how their body can distribute weight effectively, which muscles act as drivers to their movement more than others. Determining whether someone is left or right handed might not tell you much on its own, but when you start coaching it might help contribute toward building a profile of characteristics such as eye dominance for example. This in turn can influence their technique in ball sports where catching and receiving are of pivotal importance.

Observing and noticing body language during discussion can be a hugely powerful tool.

Observing and noticing body language during discussion can be a hugely powerful tool.

Reading and gauging people’s body language is another skill in observation which we can all improve in – it might be something as simple as trying to consciously trying to mirror the actions and movements (leaning forward or folding your arms) of your player to build a feeling a trust during a delicate discussion for example. All of these things outlined involve our eyes primarily, but don’t let that stop you; after all our eyes can sometimes be compromised through bias of our own perceptions of the world. Heighten your other senses, your ears – what are your players actually saying? What aren’t they saying? Engaging in such an activity requires a lot of concentration and can initially be mentally draining. Over time however, it will become second nature.

A Second Opinion Never Hurts

As genius as Sherlock Holmes is, one cannot help but be drawn to his sidekick in amongst the chaos – Dr John Watson, ably portrayed by Martin Freeman in the BBC series and Jude Law in the film equivalent. Few would disagree with the statement that Watson does not possess the same level of intellect or criminological prowess as Holmes, yet together they form a formidable team. Why? Simply put, he is able to provide a drop of perspective, a piece of common sense to compliment the creative mind of the INTJ, who according to research can become disorientated and maintain rigidly held decisions if on their own for too long a period.

Gone are the days in modern sport where athletes and teams are sent off on tour with the coach and his assistant. Nowadays the player to coach ratio is rapidly closing; for the 26 athletes of the Team GB Cycling team for Rio 2016 over 20 coaches were present. That is staggering. For a Head Coach or experienced coach it can be very easy to think your way is the right way – naturally you’d think so most of the time! Engaging with your assistants and other members of your support team is hugely important.

Dr Watson (Jude Law) offers soem advice to Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jnr). Second opinons are often undervalued.

Dr Watson (Jude Law) offers some advice to Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jnr). Second opinions are often undervalued.

You might not change your mind sometimes and that’s fine. But every now and then you might miss something which you haven’t considered and who knows….it could be a game changer.

Know Where The Line Is

An eccentric hermit wouldn’t be too inaccurate a description of Sherlock Holmes at times, for INTJ’s are notoriously known for their private nature; often preferring to enjoy their own solitude rather than interact in a heightened social environment. They are typically supportive in relationships they care about as long as their independence is respected.

A problem many coaches come across when they step into a new environment is what type of coach to be; the stereotypical firm, authoritarian figure who is respected, almost feared by players or the fun, laid-back ‘one of the lads’ coach who is comfortable socialising with players in and out of the workplace. That word workplace is where the debate is to be had – for the coaching environment is just that. Different contexts and sporting norms might dictate where the line of appropriateness falls between coaches and players, but ultimately it boils down to your philosophy and standpoint is. Sir Alex Ferguson, hailed by many of his players as the best coach they’ve ever worked under, wrote in his latest book Leading the importance of maintaining that professional barrier, as ultimately he would have to make major decisions based on footballing reasons rather than personal ones. Herb Brooks, the USA Ice Hockey coach of the 1980 Miracle Olympics reiterated a similar viewpoint.

It’s important for the coach to be close with his players, to have that respect and bond within the team – the challenge is ensuring this stays in intact over a period of time, and knowing where to draw the line is key to this.

Making Players Experts

Remember that player (or players) that you are frequently frustrated with because they demonstrate sloppy habits or thinking? They don’t use their common sense on the pitch and can’t be relied upon when the pressure mounts. This would drive Sherlock mad for INTJ’s, more so than the rest of us, prize intellect, honesty and integrity at the very top of the tree. Whilst we might not all be blessed with players of high ability, we can certainly look to school them in their sporting intellect, particularly during their years of youth.

More importantly becoming exasperated at poor standards and sloppiness is far from being a bad thing; yes there is a line to draw somewhere about trying to be a perfectionist like Holmes, but if your coaching is geared towards a relentless pursuit of producing better, smarter thinking footballers, basketballers, cricketers or rugby players then most will excuse you. The worst that will happen is those who don’t live up to your standards and culture won’t last long, and they’re not worth wasting time over anyway.

England Rugby boss Eddie Jones has made it clear to his players what standards are expected of them.

England Rugby boss Eddie Jones has made it clear to his players what standards are expected of them.

Next time you’re in your coaching environment see how much of a coaching detective you can be – you might be surprised at how much you information you’re able to take on board.

*For those who find the MBTI aspects particularly interesting, there is plenty of room for debate to suggest Sherlock demonstrates the characteristics of an INTP. Ultimately it comes down to individual interpretation. Substantial literature can be found on personality types online, but to see which profile best fits you why not have a look at: https://www.16personalities.com/personality-types

Building Bridges: Why the Opposition Hold the Key to Your Development

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We’ve all had those games. The ones where you as an individual or a team were just not at the races; you barely turned up. Or the ones where the opposition blows you out of the water so convincingly that you’re left in the changing room feeling depressed and dejected at how things went so awry.  Socialising is the very last thing you feel like doing, with your teammates that is let alone your opponent.

Looking back over the years on the many times I’ve experienced this feeling as a player one example sticks in my mind more than any other. As a young 16 year old yours truly was particularly downcast and frustrated at the final result – a tight encounter which the team narrowly lost compounded further by losing an intensely heated personal battle with a senior member of the opposition. Any player will tell you the internal gratification at getting one over your opposite number, and the angst that resonates when you come second best. After moping for far too long I eventually sauntered downstairs into the club house and to my dismay, spotted my opposite number (a guy in his mid-thirties) still at the bar. It turns out he was waiting for me and immediately strolled over to buy me a drink much to my surprise. Our earlier bravado on the pitch forgotten, we proceeded to reflect on the game, during which we chatted about our varying game styles and approaches, our attitudes to practice in addition to our backgrounds away from the field.

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It goes without saying that this interaction was a light bulb moment. Putting aside the cliqued mantra of ‘whatever happens on the field stays on the field’, it opened my eyes to the idea that sometimes you can learn just as much, if not more after the game from your opponent, than on the field from your own team.

With sport at the highest level dictating the importance of the small 1% gains, it seems that such interactions have unfortunately developed mixed connotations. Take the Australian cricket team last year after their defeat in first Ashes Test Match in Cardiff; captain Michael Clarke refused Alistair Cook’s offer to join them for a beer in the changing room. More recently it became apparent that Louis Van Gaal did not wish to continue Sir Alex Ferguson’s long standing tradition of inviting visiting managers into his office for a post-match glass of wine. Whilst some admit to preferring to reflect alone after a game (Arsene Wenger a notable example), and some concede it difficult to fraternise with their opponent after a defeat (new Chelsea boss Antonio Conte), there is much to be said for having the strength of character to enjoy the company of your opponent if only for a brief time afterwards.

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Indeed, after his recent Wimbledon campaign Andy Murray spoke of the special moments in the SW19 locker room afterwards with a host of past champions and his opponent Milos Raonic; “we weren’t talking about tennis but just chatting about other stuff, like kids and life in general. That was really nice to be a part of.” Whilst one can argue it is much easier to engage in such interactions after winning, few can doubt that both Murray and Raonic will have learnt from that experience. They might only be small things, but gaining a broader and richer perspective from others can benefit your game in a way that the best technical coach in the world cannot.

This is an approach the New Zealand cricket team have embraced in recent times under the leadership of Brendon McCullum. Win, lose or draw the Black Caps have reinvented themselves as a team that want to respect the opposition, play the game as hard and as fair as possible whilst trying to be genuinely good people. You might say this philosophy bears similar resemblance to their rugby compatriots, and it does. The funny thing is that no one sees the All Blacks taking things easy on the opposition. Unfortunately, in many environments there appears to be a perception that developing relationships (dare I say friendships) with the opposition has a negative and debilitating impact on one’s ability to perform against them. A paranoia perhaps, that soft spots emerge and vital information about your own game might let slip for your opponents to exploit. Arrogance too, that you don’t need to interact with opponents; that they are simply there to be played against before moving onto the next one.

Wrong. The beauty of sport is such that you one minute off the field you can be smiling and joking like old friends, the next you are running in trying to knock their head off at 90mph, or bring them to the floor in a crunching tackle, or trying to deliver them a huge knockout blow. That is competition. Don’t forget that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are the closest of friends, or that Andrew Flintoff and Brett Lee hold each other in the very highest regard during, and after their frenetic encounters during the 2005 Ashes.

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The point is not to say you should be friends with everyone – there are people we can all remember playing against that we simply did not get on with or did not like. 20 years after the 1996 Masters Nick Faldo and Greg Norman are only just beginning to tolerate each other! The point is that rather than seeing your opponent as someone who you should avoid, often it should be someone we should embrace. For they can not only provide us with a broader and alternative perspective, but they can see things we as coaches can’t. They are right there with you in the arena, on the field, in the ring. Coaches aren’t; we’re on the sidelines – we get a good feel for what’s going on, but your opponent is the one who has the best seat in the house. Use that source of knowledge to better your game, your experience, and your character. It’s very easy to hide behind your mobile phone at the end of the game, or your own teammates, or simply stay in the changing room.

Next time you lose, why not be brave; dust yourself down and go and have a chat with the opposition? You might be surprised at the response you get.

Digging Deep: Why ‘Grit’ Could Be The Most Important Sporting Attribute

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Some years ago now, I attended a coaching conference where an SAS Commandos officer shared without doubt the most powerful seminar I have had the privilege of attending. The officer spoke predominantly about performing under intense pressure, recollecting an experience which should have been the last for many people.

Marooned with a broken down vehicle in the middle of the Afghanistan desert, with no reserves or ammunition, the officer and his unit (3 other men) were in a precarious position to say the least. Oh, I forgot to mention – an estimated 35 Taliban militia were fast closing in on their position. With the odds stacked firmly against them and with no reinforcements to call upon, a natural and understandable feeling would be one of panic. Not these guys. Their natural instinct was automatic; developed through years and years of training – an instinct that would find a way to deal with the situation as best they could – survival. Without recounting the story in its entirety, the officer and his unit managed to construct some artificial sound effects that resembled gun fire from their spent ammunition, preventing them from being outflanked and keeping the militia at bay, and in doubt for over two hours until the cover of darkness provided some respite, and eventual escape. It goes without saying that sheer grit and a refusal to give up saved their lives that day.

Turning the focus to a sporting context, can you think of a time when either you or your players were in a precarious position in the game? A position that looked almost hopeless, with no foreseeable change in fortunes? When I think back to some of elite sport’s collection of heroic performances a few spring to mind in particular; Roger Federer’s scintillating backhand returns in 2008 at Wimbledon to defy Rafael Nadal not once, but twice at Championship point on his way to battling back to a fifth set. South African cricket captain Graeme Smith returning to the crease to help his country battle for a draw after breaking two fingers against Australia in 2009; Liverpool and Manchester United’s memorable Champions League victories after coming from behind in 2005 and 1999 respectively also fit the bill. More recently, English Rugby’s dogged determination to claw a series whitewash in Australia and Wales’ frantic defending against Belgium in the European Championships demonstrate a strong willed mindset to achieve in adverse circumstances.

Graeme Smith was regarded as a notoriously gritty character - one of the best in the cricket era.

Graeme Smith was regarded as a notoriously gritty character – one of the best in the modern cricket era.

Whilst a level of technique proved essential to all of these sporting moments – a world class level at that – a certain characteristic can be found in all of them which has already been mentioned thus far: grit. As psychologist Angela Lee-Duckworth explains grit is “passion and perseverance for long term goals. It’s about having stamina and sticking with the future, day in day out not for weeks or months, but for years.” Indeed, when you look back over some of those sporting examples in the paragraph above, or when recollecting any memories of your own that spring to mind, you can imagine a young 12 year old Federer practising to save match point in his back garden, or a young Jonny Wilkinson dreaming of kicking the World Cup winning drop goal before surrendering himself to an obscene amount of practice hours in years to come. Ultimately, it’s about how much grit these guys have both behind the scenes, and then on the field in front of the whole world.

You might say, ‘hang on a minute – these examples are guys which are extremely talented in what they do’. Of course they are; there is little point denying it. But the relationship that talent and grit share is perhaps not what you might expect. A study conducted in the United States into rookie teachers showed that those working in rough neighbourhoods displayed higher levels of grit than those working in more affluent areas; another study investigating scholars at West Point Military Academy showed that the ones highest in grit were actually those who were perceived as less talented. In fact, the large majority of studies into grit and hardiness convey that talent doesn’t make you gritty at all; on the contrary grit tends to be inversely related to talent. I’m sure most of us have come across the athlete that appears naturally gifted with certain attributes, but their attitude prevents them from unleashing their full potential, just like we’ve come across the player who is not quite the finished article but ensures that no stone is left unturned to improve.

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Roger Federer has shown many times throughout his career tremendous resilience and grit when the odds are against him. 

Hopefully the importance of having grit in sport, and indeed life in general has been established by now. That’s all well and good, but how do we build grit? How can we coach it? Essentially it comes down to a few simple things – establish some strong goals with clear aspirations of where the individual or team want to get to; identify what is required for these goals to be achieved in terms of performance be it a certain qualifying time for an athlete, a number of runs for a cricketer, or a certain rating as a tennis player. Work back to the skill based element now, and think how these times, runs or ratings can be achieved. What technical improvements are required to give you best possible chance of achieving your goals? Along the way cognitive and physical challenge is inevitable but if you’re adaptable, and prepared to work as hard as is necessary everyone has a chance.

Lots of you will have heard of Carol Dweck’s growth mindset theory – ultimately grit is at the forefront of it. After the Welsh football team made history earlier this month, manager Chris Coleman was asked what message he would have for the next generation. He summed up the power and importance of grit perfectly by saying, “Dream! Don’t be afraid to have dreams! Because four years ago, I was as far away from this as you could imagine. If you work hard enough and you’re not afraid to fail. Everybody fails, I’ve had more failures than I’ve had success, but I’m not afraid to fail.”

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Welsh manager Chris Coleman spoke about perseverance in the face of adversity.  

So next time you look around your group of players, ask yourself (and them most importantly!) – how gritty are you? How badly do you want this? You might get a variety of responses, no doubt many hands nonchalantly going up as if it’s an easy question, without understanding what hard work really means. It doesn’t really matter, because you’ll be able to see who the gritty ones are – they are the ones who are usually the first ones there and the last to leave. They are the ones who have the potential to make the jump from good players to outstanding players.

And, who knows…..grit may or may not be the difference between losing your life and keeping it. It certainly was the case for the SAS officer and his unit.

Paving The Way: The Foundations of Good Coaching

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As the curtain comes down on a captivating Premier League season, it seems an appropriate moment as any for coaches to reflect upon their season; the successes, the challenges, the processes and the lessons learnt. En route to a fixture last week a colleague and I found ourselves discussing such things from a coaching perspective despite the cricket season being in its infancy. I had a topic all lined up for this month’s post but on the back of our conversation I wanted to share some of its content with you. The most interesting question he asked me was what I perceived to be my five most important traits, or characteristics that coaches need to be successful? I’ll admit I had to give this some considerable thought, for coaching is far too complex and ambiguous a phenomenon to be reduced to a mere five attributes – nonetheless I eventually offered the following qualities that, from my experience, should underpin good coaching practice across the sporting landscape.

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1) THE KNOWLEDGE BASE

There used to be a time when the coach was perceived as a fountain of knowledge; an omniscient figure whose job it was to have the answers to every problem, both small and great. Indeed, there remain some coaches out there who naively believe that they are exactly this, and interact with their players and staff from a pedestal that reeks of power and arrogance. Hopefully in most cultures that perception is distant memory; for the modern day coach needs to understand, and be comfortable with the fact that one cannot know everything there is to one’s field.

Most certainly it is a coach’s duty to acquire a sound and comprehensive underpinning of the game, encompassing technical and tactical elements in a meticulous effort to facilitate effective performance. The best coaches however, understand that they are as much a learner in the process as their players are – they will not attempt to protect their reputation if they don’t have a concrete solution to a problem; instead they will utilise their resources (players, physiotherapists, support staff, psychologists etc), and actively pursue an appropriate course forward.  Adopting this open and active approach to learning not only stands the coach in good stead for future development, and the acquisition of further knowledge, but it conveys to their players that it’s ok to perform at a high level and yet still not be perfect. Ultimately it is promoting a lifelong desire to learn.

With regard to the debate of past playing experience and top level coaching, if Matthew Syed’s recent ‘Coaching as an Art’ article in The Times doesn’t already illustrate, the skills one needs to be a successful coach at the elite end of the spectrum require intense study, and an acquisition of behaviours that are not simply transferrable from a successful playing background. The likes of Alan Shearer and Tony Adams provide notable examples in support of this with neither experiencing much, if any success at the top level despite being outstanding players. Mike Hesson (New Zealand Cricket Head Coach) and Andre Villas-Boas (Chelsea, Porta & Tottenham) on the other hand, with no professional playing credentials whatsoever provide weight to the argument that coaching in itself is a discipline that is not so easily acquired.

2) THE PEOPLE’S PERSON

2016 has seen some terrible sporting tragedies with Matthew Hobden, Tom Allin and James Taylor among them. If there’s one thing that these stories have reaffirmed from a coaching perspective, it is that the relationships you build are the foundation of everything. Having seemingly known both Tom and Matt relatively well on a personal level, it was with more than a touch of sadness that really, upon hearing accounts by loved ones, I didn’t know them half as well as I should have done.

People say that man management is one of the hardest, yet most important attributes a coach can have, and its inclusion in my top five signifies that. Not only is it about getting the best of your players by instilling confidence and trust in them, it is about learning to know them as people. It’s about understanding the ways in which they operate – their motivations, their inhibitions, their philosophies. Yes, there are times when you might have to say what needs to be said, even if it isn’t particularly nice to hear at the time; and you should be wary of making decisions based on pleasing people, or to be liked. That said forming good relationships enables you as a coach to empathise with your players, convey your decisions in a straightforward and honest manner with respect, motivation and mutual understanding very much intact.

Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp talks to Liverpool’s Adam Lallana after the English Premier League soccer match between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool at the White Hart Lane, London, England, Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)

3) THE PHILOSOPHER

We all have a coaching philosophy, an idea of how things should be done, how players should be developed and the most appropriate means and processes for this to happen. Indeed, some of us have a clearer idea of our philosophy than others and waste little time in looking to implement it. The hard bit is being smart enough to know how and when to make it happen. It is difficult for example, to enter a new environment and immediately stamp your philosophy on all aspects. Often one has to slowly implement it over time, with a clear idea of what needs prioritising.

You might favour a player-centred approach for instance, but expecting this to just fall into place and happen immediately might be unrealistic, and could be construed by players as you simply passing the baton over to them. Recognising that you need to lay the foundations to this first is vitally important; only then once they’ve seen how you operate can they begin to display the values and characteristics that you’ve demonstrated. The philosopher inside you as the coach needs to be pragmatic and understand that philosophies can be slow-burners before they take full shape.

4) THE VISIONARY

Whilst we all want those instant results, the wins that in some small way are tangible proof that our coaching is working, a large part of coaching is about considering the bigger picture – the future. Whilst we should take great care and attention to detail in preparing our players and teams for the numerous oppositions they will shortly be facing off against, we should always keep in mind decisions that will be of benefit six months, one year, or three years down the line. It might be exposing a young player to more games to accelerate their development, or releasing a player that has reached their peak and in a year’s time will be of significantly less value than what they are now.

There might be some decisions that are difficult to make, and that on the surface may surprise onlookers, but the best coaches are constantly planning, constantly evaluating and constantly building for a bigger, better, more polished finish to what they have. Preparation is paramount in just about every industry to maximise performance. If you are not a coaching visionary, then prepare at some point, for you and your players to come up short.

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5) THE REFLECTOR  

My final attribute is one which so often gets overlooked by coaches – the ability to reflect. Why is it so important? Because without it you will never advance further than where you currently are. You will never learn from your successes or indeed your mistakes; instead you will be clutching at straws, repeatedly making the same mistakes time after time, obtaining success by chance rather than through your coaching abilities.

The very best people in any industry are able to be self-critical; they leave no stone upturned in their quest to be better and as a result rarely make the same mistake twice. If they do you can almost guarantee that the lesson will have been learnt by then. What’s more is their attitude to failure – they embrace failure as an opportunity to develop and improve. So many times we see people covering their tracks to hide their errors, burying the chance to ever improve and learn. Be an active reflector and welcome the chance to learn how to get better!

Matthew Syed Article 

http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/matthew-syed-coaching-is-an-art-and-wearing-a-suit-and-tie-will-not-turn-terry-into-a-gaffer-26nhqwfg7

Shaken Not Stirred: How James Bond Can Help Coaching Practice

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It’s been an enthralling few weeks for even the most passive of sports fans, with the race for the Premier League hotting up, the pulsating World Cricket T20, and the tense Masters Golf to name a few. After the hugely popular post last month on the film Moneyball, this month’s article makes another link from the film industry with regards to coaching – Ian Fleming’s very own James Bond. A daring, audacious and heroic agent of the British Security Services Bond has given readers and viewers tremendous entertainment since the 1950s. Whilst it may not initially seem obvious, we as coaches can draw some interesting parallels to sport and coaching from some of 007’s classic titles; some of which permeate the surface and really challenge the cornerstones of our practice.

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Diamonds Aren’t Forever

Contrary to the belief of Bond’s nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld, diamonds do not live forever. Have you ever had a player on your team that you would associate the word diamond with? Intricate, expansive, and high in quality – the person that has the capability to take your team onto bigger and greater things, as they can single-handedly win games, even championships on their own? Certainly there are many examples in elite sport from Lionel Messi and Lewis Hamilton, to Kevin Pietersen and Dan Carter. But what happens when your diamond falls out of congruence with your coaching values and expectations? What happens when they disrupt the dynamics of the team? Lots of coaches claim to promote the no one is bigger than the team mantra, but when a situation arises I have seen many occasions where the star player is provided with an alibi or escapes punishment so that they can continue to play a key role. The impact of this can very quickly become the beginning of the end for the coach, as the message conveys to the rest of the players that you are prepared to lower your standards.

Last month Southampton FC’s key man Sadio Mane was dropped from the starting line up by manager Ronald Koeman for being late. Ignore the fact Southampton were on a poor run, and that Koeman was under considerable pressure to deliver a win; no one, not even Mane was excusable for such a lapse of professionalism. The outcome? Southampton ironically lost 1-0. Whilst the result did not do any favours for Koeman in the short term, Southampton’s form has since improved dramatically; even more importantly, the standards expected of players hasn’t been lowered. Ask yourself as a coach how willing are you to uphold your standards, even if it is to the detriment of one performance? Consider the bigger picture when making your decision, and remember that whilst your diamonds don’t live forever your ethos, standards and discipline can.

Goldeneye

Whilst Goldeneye in a coaching context does not refer to a financially crippling weapon as the film depicts, it provokes some thought into our ability to capture key moments, interactions and behaviours from an observatory perspective – in essence how much can we as coaches have a Goldeneye? Of course we can look out for certain things we want to see, or expect to see but this can come at the expense of missing other details we aren’t looking for. This challenge reiterates the need for us as coaches to be skilled in the art of noticing. We should strive to be like an HD camera lens which has the ability to pick up as much clear and rich information about an environment and the interactions within it. Ask yourself, how wide is your camera lens? Is it too narrow – are you missing key moments, or is it too wide and you’re struggling to notice anything specific? The key is finding that balance that enables you to use a nice wide lens whilst also focusing in on smaller details when required. Who knows? Perhaps you’ll notice that one player that comes into a session looking like they’ve had a hard day, or the other player that cuts a corner when he thinks you’re not looking. Either way, having a well-trained Goldeneye can make a huge difference to your coaching.

Die Another Day

If there’s one thing James Bond does tell us through Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig (to name a few), it’s that you should refuse to accept when you’re beaten. Even when your last hope has been extinguished, like when Marco Reus scored Dortmund’s third goal last week against Liverpool, there is always a way to be found if you’re prepared to look for it. Roger Federer defying Rafael Nadal during the epic Wimbledon final of 2008 springs to mind as another example, as does New Zealand’s opening performance against India in this year’s World T20. These are teams and individuals that have tenacity and resilience engrained in their DNA;that will to keep fighting and fighting, to the point where their opponents begin the feel the pressure because they understand this is no normal adversary. Diego Simeone, coach of Athletico Madrid recently admitted to ignoring any players he considered to be weak or not up for the fight; whilst not all coaches have that luxur y, it does again reinforce the need to harness that resilience and determination for our players to replicate, and ultimately Die Another Day.P160414-169-Liverpool_Dortmund-600x325

You Only Live Once

I went to a music concert last month for the first time in five years. The band were pleasant enough on a music level, and seemed to revel in the atmosphere that their considerable fame had earnt them. I was struck by one thing more than anything else though – the amount of people in the crowd recording the songs on their phones. It is the same everywhere you look these days; people scrabbling around for their phone, desperate that they won’t have the opportunity to record the moment, or have the opportunity to take a picture or selfie. When was the last time we actually enjoyed the occasion and the moment for what it was? Let’s be honest the recording the next day, next week or ten years down the line will never be able to capture the moment, emotions and feelings as accurately as when we stood in it. So why not enjoy it for what it is?

Whilst the benefits of utilising cameras and technology are extensive in a coaching context, few things can beat the Goldeneye that I alluded to earlier. That is observing in the moment, experiencing feelings and emotions in the moment, and having an appreciation that things occur once! We don’t live twice according to Bond, so it would seem logical to place more emphasis on events that occur in the present.

Casino Royale  

Poker for some people is a game of luck; for others it’s a game of skill, much like when competing in sport. Rarely does one find themselves with the unbeatable hand of a straight flush, just as performers rarely have that magical performance which they strive so hard for. Yet somehow the better performers or poker players usually come out on top. Team mates, supporters, media and coaches often attribute a run of poor performances to a lack of form or a dip in confidence, reassuring their player that it is a matter of time before that form returns. How about this – form doesn’t exist. It’s a myth. It’s a dangerous phenomenon which is readily available to provide players with an excuse.

Good poker players, and indeed good sportspeople focus on basics rather than worry about form. If they have strong basics and are able to consistently execute those basics under pressure then they will most likely perform well. Being under pressure often requires the ability to improvise and react to the situation, be it a bluff or an adapted version of basic skills. Either way, 007 will encourage your players not to think of performance in terms of form, but in terms of how strong their basic skill base is; in doing so poker and sport become less about luck, and more about skill.

Thanks again for the continued support and feedback from the recent articles. If you have an interesting topic you’d like discussed then email m.thompson.uwic@me.com or tweet _CoachesCorner_