Much has been written about ‘leadership’ in sport in recent weeks. Maybe it is time to consider what we really mean. What is the purpose of leadership? If it is, and this seems reasonable, to work with others in an agreed purposeful way in order to achieve stated goals, then we should be able to arrive at a decent understanding.
‘Working with others’, be they fellow coaches, those who are coached, or those who employ the coaches, implies a certain amount of agreement and empathy, yet this is where many coaches go wrong.
Most coaches will say that they want ‘their’ players to be responsible, to be good decision-makers, and to take some sort of ‘ownership’ of their situation. Yet, these same coaches are highly likely to take control of just about everything in their particular environment.
I started learning about this many years ago when I was the coach of the English Universities Rugby XV. For several seasons, I had been frustrated that when we asked our selected players to be at our meeting place in London, say, by 8pm on the Wednesday evening, ahead of a match v French Universities on Friday evening, there were always some who said they could not make it until later that night, or even before early the following morning. Despite my protestations, I never resolved this problem. So one year, at a final squad practice ahead of selecting the team, I sent the players off in groups to discuss a range of things connected with a possible code of conduct. On the matter of being at the meeting at 8pm on the Wednesday, they were all united- ‘If they cannot be there by then, don’t pick them’. Thus it was that we never had the problem again. The reason was that the players had ownership. Because of this, they stuck to it.
We often hear talk of leaders, and of the need for good followers. The best environment is where the followers are also seen to be leaders- as the All Blacks say- ‘One captain, fifteen leaders’. Any coaching environment, from school to elite level professional sport, should work in this way. We should hear coaches saying-‘What do you think?’ ‘How do you feel? ‘What should we do?’. Players should feel confident that their responses are important. Players should take charge of some sessions. How else can we expect them in due course to make all the right decisions on the field? Players should not look to the touchline for instructions. Should coaches go on the field of play as ‘water-carriers’. Who should do most of the talking at half-time?
Players views are important. It was said that the ECB disposed of Kevin Pietersen because he was disruptive in the dressing room and the other players did not want him. The player himself apparently is now saying that the right decision was made. So how did England’s rugby players feel about whether Stefan Armitage should be eligible to play or not? Were they asked, and if so, by whom? If the players wanted him, should that have been enough? Quite possibly. If they did not, that is the end of the story.
In the primary school, youngsters devise their own games in the playground, select their own teams (always trying to have an even contest), decide the rules, and they act as their own TMO. We spend the next 20+ years taking all of this away from them. A different approach is needed to coaching, at all levels. A stated purpose of the coaching environment should be to develop leaders.
Such leaders can become leaders in and of sport, and in the real world beyond.
Director, Foundation for Leadership through Sport
President, Rugby Football Union 2013/14