Learning to Lead

The majority of sports coaches, when asked about their purpose, would say something like ‘to improve players (or teams) and to be successful.’ Some coaches of youngsters might add ‘to have fun’. Few would refer to improving them as people or developing leadership qualities.

I know, because I have run many workshops for coaches and asked the question.
I follow this up by asking whether, if leadership development was a stated purpose, would it require them to coach differently. Most agree that it would. We then go on to consider this more deeply, often beginning with examples of leadership being found wanting in high level sport that we witness.

We are not very good at producing leaders in our major sports. If we were, we may not have so many foreigners in leading coaching and administrative roles. It all goes back to how teachers and coaches operate, from school to club to country.

Coaches are leaders. They are instrumental in bringing about change. They are experienced and knowledgeable. They are important. Far too often, they coach using didactic methods, whereby the athlete is a passive recipient of information and instructions. The coach does most of the talking at half time, injury breaks, team talks and in practice sessions. The typical coach is very good at developing a group of willing followers.

Of course, when thought of in this way, it is clear that most coaches need to change. They should coach in such a way that players become more skilful in decision-making and understanding their sport. How is this achieved? In a nutshell- by asking and listening. Encouraging players by asking them what they think, what needs working on, and even getting them to run sessions, is a start.
It sometimes needs a brave move on the part of the coach. Stuart Lancaster, a fine man who in many ways did a splendid job with England Rugby, was once asked what proportion of the practices were coach or player led. He said it was 70-30 coach led. When asked why the players did not do more, he said that the coaches did not think the players were ready for it.

I organised a conference las year on coaching sport to develop leaders. Brian Ashton made a fascinating contribution. He showed a picture of some youngsters in the 1950’s, satchels over shoulders, kicking a football on the way down the street to school. He said he had done that, and whenever possible, he and his pals would organise a game, in street or playground. They would select their own teams, decide on the rules, whether it was a goal or not, and make changes if it was not a good game. At the age of 6, Brian said they were organising their own sport, and then, tellingly, that over the next 30 years, people took that away from them.

I hope this sets you, the reader, thinking. In future articles, I hope to go a bit further into how to coach to develop leaders. It is important.

Bob Reeves



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