I’m really excited to share this blog post, combining my thrown together ideas with the brilliant mind of Gordon MacLelland from Working with Parents in Sport.
We have been chatting ideas around understanding what good coaching looks like for parents and where we might see examples in HP sport for parents to watch and reflect on. This discussion has coincided with the English Premier League concluding for another year; the last weekend seeing Manchester City become champions and the top 4 are now set for Champions League Football next year.
However, the strange part of this conversation is that the most successful team in the Premier League era, Manchester United was part of none of these conversations; not fighting for top four or the league title come the final weekend.
So, Gordon and I shared ideas and opinions and shall follow on with a podcast conversation considering what has gone wrong at this extremely successful club and was their clues along the way?
Late November, Ole Gunnar Solskjær was sacked as Man United head coach after losses in Champions League and 5-0 loss to Liverpool, their worst result to their rivals since 1925. In an interesting move by one of the premier clubs in the soccer world, they announced an interim manager, Ralf Rangnick. Rangnick is regarded as the “godfather” of modern German football and is credited with developing Gegenpressing, whereby the team, after losing possession, immediately attempts to win back possession, rather than falling back to regroup together with evolving player’s spatial coverage by increasing memory space and processing pace. Rangnick has said that a parental seminar about “raising kids with love and consequence” influenced his relationship with people he works with, something that certainly seemed needed at United yet what did he bring and offer to this side for us to consider as coaches or parents?
Possibly ruining this blog post by stealing the ending headline, for me coaching is all about relationships and there was a number of red flags during the year where Rangnick was neither showing compassion or control for the group of players he was working with. Just this week, in preparation for the season’s final league game, he said:
It has got to do with confidence, team spirit and togetherness. This is my biggest disappointment that we didn’t establish that team spirit.
This comes after reports of an internal investigation was launched by the club and it would seem as if they have found the culprit, allowing Manchester United hierarchy to report as confident that dressing room leaks will not be an issue Erik ten Hag has to contend with next season.
My question around that is how safe an environment is this to openly speak your mind as players or leaders to identify areas of improvement? If the players feel they cannot speak up or a sense of unease from their practice environment, are we facilitating an environment to grow and improve?
Following on from this, after another loss by Man United, Rangnick was quoted as saying a few weeks ago:
It’s obvious quite a few players will leave and there is a need for top-quality players. I strongly believe that if everyone works together we can bring Man Utd back to where we need to be.
As parents of athletes or grassroots coaches, what can we see is lacking here?
What areas of concern are flagged by these comments and attitudes from the interim coach?
The main area we want to learn from this example for our young athletes is the idea of offering and developing a psychologically safe environment. Psychological safety is about removing fear from human interaction and replacing it with respectful and accepting behaviors. Psychologically safe environments in sport and all walks of life, have been identified as group environments where there is a shared belief that team members are safe to take interpersonal risk without fear of being ridiculed, punished or rejected. Research by Prof Sophia Jowett and others recently investigated and found that coaches whom attended athletes concerns and needs, empowering and inspiring athletes to achieve more and encouraged to work towards their identified goals created psychologically safe environments, aided and supported by connected, stable and cooperative relationships. Negatively, the lack of these quality relationships can weaken interpersonal relationships and even augment exploitation, intimidation and humiliation in interactions which can effect the involved athlete’s wellbeing. Taking this into consideration, you can see my confusion around Rangnick’s actions and comments regarding the playing squad versus his philosophy of coaching with love and consequence….
Looking at understanding or creating psychologically safe environments first, there could be a seemingly obvious juggle between balancing performance markers and being a caring and considerate coach. However, when investigating social and task cohesion between sporting team members, research by Prof Sophia Jowett (2003) found a stronger relationship between social cohesion (which is the degree to which team members like each other) to performance markers than task cohesion (cooperation to common goals). This research strengthens the importance of creating a psychologically safe environment in HP sport, to both allow and encourage interpersonal risk taking for athlete well being and subsequently creating an environment to encourage and enhance performance improvements, an area which has possibly been identified by Rangnick too late by his comments around team spirit.
The best predictor of athlete’s positive developmental experiences are transformational behaviors as a coach; these ideas include individual consideration, articulating a vision and individualized support. To gain these ideas, I believe it is achieved and built on by understanding your athletes, understanding them as players and as a unique person standing in front of you.
What ideas could have Rangnick introduced or developed to help create a psychologically safe environment, which in turn would develop into a high performing environment?
We could start by adopting a transformational leadership style, which helps develop effective relationships by focusing on positive developmental relationships. This leadership style (which can also be seen as shared leadership) is defined as where a leader works with teams or followers beyond their immediate self-interests to identify needed change, creating a vision to guide the change through influence, inspiration, and executing the change in tandem with committed members of a group. Again, research shows that this style of leadership reduces conflict, increased learning and develops a psychologically safe environment. The positive relationship properties in 3+1 C’s will offer high levels of team or group cohesion; basically, understanding and acknowledging fellow coaches and players has more correlation to performance than understanding what technical and tactical elements could make up elite performance.
Sticking with the ideas of transformational leadership and using examples from the EPL to help parents or coaches identify positive, effective coaching, is there current examples of coaches at the highest level coaching with care, connection and this focus on relationships for greater impact and success? Interestingly, some of the best examples come form the league’s current top two sides yet Gordon and I shall have a podcast conversation later this year to discuss current and previous examples further. Let’s start with Gordon’s beloved Liverpool and their charismatic leader, Jurgen Klopp. Back in 2020, Klopp outlined his ideas and methodology to his leadership style, where he discussed the importance of relationships and meaningful actions:
All we do in life is about relationships.
As a football team, we have to work really closely together. Each of our players knows the name of each person who works at Melwood.
It’s not for me to create an atmosphere in a room – each person in our team is responsible for that. It’s worked out well. We all win for each other; we do it for (kitchen staff) Carol (Farrell) and Caroline (Guest), because we know how important it is for them.
That makes it more valuable, more worthy. If you have a bigger group to do it for, it feels better for yourself.
Turning out attention to Man City’s manager Pep Guardiola, earlier this year he was interviewed and asked what his best characteristic was as a manager. Even being seen as a tactical genius with current club, Man City and displayed at former clubs, Bayern Munich and Barcelona previously, his response: I’m learning to be more patient. Before, I was too anxious, I was not a good manager. Now, I’m better, more patient.
The Catalan tactician also revealed that he has changed his intense ways during his career as a manager and his knowledge of players and when he discusses a result with the squad in the aftermath of a game. With these comments in mind, I want to focus on the aspects of relatedness that a good coach-athlete relationship offers, supported by comments made by Klopp and Guardiola.
All coaching environments need to adopt and offer players ingredients for genuine motivation; mastery, autonomy and purpose. These ingredients are echoed within research conducted in sports coaching involving study of self-determination theory, which addresses innate psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness. Amorose supported that “the more athletes felt autonomous, competent and have sense of relatedness, the more reasons for participating were self-determined in future” (Amorose, 2007); tying in the point of psychological safety, it would be safe to suggest that the environment created by Rangnick did not allow players to feel connected or building competency due to his actions and comments. Prof Cliff Mallet researched and explained that “self-determination theory underscores the role of environment in fuelling people’s perceptions of (autonomy, competence and relatedness) in contexts of sport” (Mallett, 2005).
We understand drive in most sporting participants is found from intrinsic motives; their internal desire to master their sports and challenge themselves through committed engagement in highly repetitive activities.
So parents, do we understand where coaches fit within developing these motives and keep perspective in a culture where performance and winning are seemingly the most important outcomes?
The challenge of successful coaching is acknowledging social interactive dilemmas within individual and team goal setting and development, offering suitable scenarios and choices with all members’ involvement and collaboratively dealing with matters as opposed to eradicating them. Klopp’s understanding of Mane’s decision and Pep’s acknowledgement of Sergio’s influence on the club speaks volumes of the players as people as opposed to solely athletes. Past research by Mageau and Vallerand regards the “actions of coaches as (possibly) the most critical motivational influences within sport setting”. Coaching should be recognized as an educational dynamic relationship, where the coach can satisfy player’s goals and development but both sides have an investment of will capital, where human initiative and intentionality are both dedicated to show commitment towards goals and relationships.
The role of performance coach for age grade athletes is highly important; coaches are “preparing athletes for consistent high-level competitive performance” (Côté, 2009a) through effective tactics such as integration of professional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal knowledge and developing player’s specific competence, confidence, connection, and character needs on regular basis. Both Klopp and Guardiola have openly discussed their roles in developing the player as a person and not solely as an athlete.
These autonomy supportive practices allows coaches to act as mentors for instances highlighted by Klopp and Guardiola, focusing on relationships between coach and athlete while supporting players to develop meta cognitive skills where the athletes are aware of and take responsibility of appropriate practices and thinking strategies.
This method positions coaches as mentors where they shift from knowledge expert for athlete as in early stages of development to learning manager or facilitator (Carnell and Lodge, 2002), offering constructive feedback for the player to investigate further. Understanding, not ignoring, the importance of a coach’s role in the wellbeing of their athletes as people as well as players is crucially important to create positive developmental experiences.
I feel asking the right questions can both build relationships and close the gap through understanding athlete’s motivations, areas of importance for their development and how can the environment be structured to suit their needs. I believe sports coaches of athletes of all ages should adopt comprehensive and holistic roles in the moral development of their athletes through their adopted and shared practices, languages and beliefs.
Like described by Klopp, if coaches are to develop wholesome, knowledgeable athletes who are willing and able to make decisions, capable of performing learned tasks when under pressure and not under direct instructions, I believe this shall require collaborative transfer of knowledge or greater ownership by athletes of their development, with support from the coaches as “more capable other” in an involved yet scaffolding style approach to their athlete’s development. Research by Kidman (2001) addressed ideas such as coaches developing player’s complex skills and tactical knowledge through encouraging abstract thought processes by asking high order questions, which require athletes to apply, analyze and synthesize information.
Parents should be aware of and encourage this transformational style of leadership where the coach is steering as opposed to controlling decisions and actions, encouraging player discovery through evolutionary planning and organising of tasks whilst keeping sight of overall objectives and showing empathy to get the best from the athletes. This may require some transparency from coaches to offer rationale for processes. It may also require negotiation of processes with players to meet individual and collective performance measures of those being coached whilst matching evolving circumstances for learning and development against attempting keeping sight of overall objectives but shall eradicate many of the areas of athlete burnout and develop strong interpersonal relationships for development.
Coaches: asking questions using the linked document as a start, understanding the answers and whom they’re coming from will give you a snapshot for your athlete’s needs today yet this needs to be continually addressed and worked on, understanding people, personalities and environments shall change. The art of coaching is knowing how and when to communicate, and how this varies for each individual. Work on empathetic relationships and having a better understanding of your athletes or players as this will allow you to modify your environment or approaches for greater impact and understanding. As suggested, this focus on empathy and close, meaningful relationships between coaches, players and parents alike offers meaningful impact and actions by the players. Players drive their own development and reflect on personal and collective performance to allow the coach to offer closeness and desired commitment to their relationships through autonomy supportive practices.
As mentioned, Klopp and Guardiola focus on relationships, empathy and player-centered approaches led them to strong finishes this year but has set behaviours which shall strengthen and develop their squads for years to come.
Likewise, we as coaches should reflect and build our interpersonal skills to allow us to take time in future to better know and understand our athletes to gain a holistic view of involved players and we as parents should understand and appreciate this shall be a long, “messy” process in building these connections.
The art of coaching is knowing how and when to communicate, and how this varies from individual. Work on empathetic relationships and having a better understanding of your athletes or players as this will allow you to modify your environment or approaches for greater impact and understanding. Know your players, know their story, know their context and then put it into practice and parents can certainly help you with this.
Jonny McMurtry has been involved in high performance age grade rugby programs across Australia for over 10 years and has recently completed research in conjunction with University of QLD and Rugby Australia, investigating age grade player’s engagement and understanding what motivates, engages and drives players’ participation.
He is also working on sharing coaching concepts and findings in written format via blog and practical format directly with coaches in other sports such as soccer, swimming and golf.