Over the course of three fascinating evenings in March, the Premier League hosted an online coaching summit, hearing from 10 outstanding speakers.
Gaining knowledge and insight from experts across top level football, other sports and beyond, those in attendance were hooked by conversations that centred around leadership, communication, and the art of managing in a highly pressurised environment.
Breaking down some of the content discussed across this successful conference into bite-sized pieces, here are some of the highlights…
On leadership as the manager…
A top coach has to be a leader, and they must to be able to transmit their ideas, values, energy and beliefs throughout the club. That for me is the most powerful capacity and quality that a manager should have.
You have to be able to engage people, you have to make people believe they can become better with you, that they can have an important role with you, and you really have to be able to unite people. When you can do that, everything is easier.
A club can appoint a coach, but a leader is appointed by the people within the group, and they have to see one.
On introducing talented youngsters into the first team…
With young players at the outset it’s about having an open and clear conversation about what we expect from them in the first team and explaining the reasons why they are part of the first team.
They have exactly the same rights as everybody else. And for them to develop they have to open themselves up so we can get to know them too. We encourage this openness in the way they communicate and to be themselves on the pitch.
They need the trust and confidence of older players and the staff because when that happens a lot of those initial fears turn into confidence for young players. Confidence is maybe the biggest element a young player requires.
They need to know their back is covered, and that they are allowed make a mistake. We are not going to judge you for that and you are entitled to do that because it is part of the process.
Our aim is to bring the pressure down for them and let them show initiative and freedom. We want them to see the opportunity and be motivated without the fear of failure.
As coaches we also have two obligations. Number one, try to take a young player in the direction and path that we want, and number two, to then manage the speed of their development.
When you first take your driver's license, and you go at 150 mph you are probably going to crash. We have to manage that speed by thinking about how we communicate with them, by the roles we give them, the minutes we let them have on the pitch, by the messages we send to the media, and the expectations we create.
In football we can expose them too early, too soon, and that’s not beneficial.
Ian Foster (Head Coach of the All Blacks rugby union team)
On the importance of a player leadership group…
In my role the thing I work the hardest on is our leaders and the culture we operate in.
I want our players to make lots of decisions. So, my job all week is to train and build an environment so that the players go out onto the pitch light, bright and clear in their minds, and empowered to make their own decisions.
If we want that on the park, we have to have get that off the park too. That’s why we have a strong coach led but player-driven environment. My job is to supply the direction and to lead it. Their job is to drive it through our environment.
On what makes a good leader on the pitch…
A leader has to be totally committed to their core job and they have ability to not be distracted from it.
We try to grow great decision makers, so a leader for us has to go out onto the park and make great decisions. There’s not much point being a great preacher off the park if you don’t do what you preach on it.
I also want my leaders to show a great degree of vulnerability because it’s the stubborn side that can cause the most grief and it can make some players become the un-coachable ones, and we have all had some of those.
So coachability and a commitment to grow their own game on the park is so important. T
The final thing is that they must be able to listen. The only way you are going to be a good leader for the team is if you are able to listen to the players you are supposed to be leading. It’s a highly understated skill set that we spend a fair bit of time on.
On leaving his players space…
Leaving space for them to lead is important. In the past if there was a void, we as coaches would fill it, in training or on a matchday. There’s every chance that one of my leaders, who may have wanted to contribute, then began to sit back.
So the philosophy at training now is that if things aren’t going well I am going to shut up for 30 seconds (not an easy thing to do!) and I now allow them that window to address the issue first. If they don’t address it, I will.
Afterwards, I may pull my leaders aside and say why did you make me do that? That was your chance to own the performance and quality of the work we are doing.
It is one thing to develop leaders, but do you give them the opportunity to jump into that space and test themselves?
On staying at the very top…
When we wake up in the morning, people expect us to win. We were always the favourite and did struggle with that expectation. We have had to learn how to embrace that pressure.
How can we get excited by it rather than overawed? Now we use those high expectations as a powerful driver on how we train. We train to dominate rather than just training to win.
We believe in our core principles, but we are also always looking for a new idea, whether that’s a tactic, the way we educate players, or in how develop our schoolz programme.
One thing I would say is that if we have a good idea, a good way of doing new things or something fresh we believe in, and we think it can give us an edge, our philosophy is that we believe it will give us that edge for about a year. No longer.
So, with that in mind we try not to get heavily reliant on a single idea or difference-maker.
On the importance of senior players…
Sessions are only as good as your players. A coach can put on a fantastic session but if the players are not up to it, or in the mood to do it, they can ruin it.
To drive on sessions and to keep the tempo high it’s important for senior players to step up. It can make a massive difference to coaches and I have seen it many times myself. That’s why so many managers keep experienced players around.
On reacting to a bad performance…
In my experience the best managers get over bad results and performances quickly. They stay positive and quickly turn their attention to the next game. Obviously, it’s important to look back and analyse why you didn’t play well but the best coaches don’t dwell on it. That tends to get the players on board.
You can’t get every decision or formation right, and nowadays you’ve got everyone around the world on social media having an opinion. if someone has a bad game you have direct access to any player in the world via social media and you can say what you want seven days a week till the next match. That is sometimes really draining.
The best managers have rhino skin and don’t care about what anyone thinks, and they do what they feel is right for the team.
On Sir Alex Ferguson’s man-management…
Sir Alex knew how to how to deal with each player as an individual. When you’re not playing it can be upsetting but he’d always put an arm around that player and tell them how much he needed you in one, two or three weeks’ time for a certain match. He seemed to know his team weeks and months in advance. His man management skills were incredible.
That said if someone was not pulling in the same direction for him, you were soon out of the club.
On being tested by Antonio Conte…
Conte will pick players out and he won’t care who they are either. He just wants to get a response to see whether you can deal with the mental side of things, and he will test you.
Players that couldn’t deal with those tests and survive them, whether it be pre-season, the way we trained, or the amount of running we had to do, you would not last long. He wants players that are willing to fight as much as he did as a footballer, people who are prepared to go on and succeed, and of course win.
Jock Clear (Driver Coach, Ferrari F1 team)
On pressing the right buttons…
I have learned to recognise that everyone’s mental processing is very different and that is crucial.
What does this person need? Can I identify what it is that matters to this guy? Which bits of information does he find important? Those little details matter, and we as coaches need to recognise that.
By creating an environment where the driver understands what’s being given to him, and is able to process that information very quickly, helps to put his talent in a place where he has a better opportunity to deliver.
I’d like to think I can help these drivers find a comfort zone. To find an area where they are comfortable with the information being given to them, where they feel like that information is supportive not damaging, and they simply find it easier to perform on the day.
Paul Nevin (West Ham United and England assistant coach)
On creating a consistent process…
High performing environments all have a ‘plan, do, review’ set up.
Whatever the level you are working at, you need to plan well (micro/macro), then you have to act on that and deliver in an effective manner. Then come a hugely important part and that is the review, where you feed it back to the players and discuss their performances.
Results will go up and down but performances are driven by good processes that people believe in.
Sergi Oliva (Assistant Coach, Utah Jazz in NBA)
On the value of trial and error….
To find pockets of efficiency we have an explore and exploit mentality.
We are always trying to add more plays (set piece moves) but we understand at the same time that we need to measure which things are being effective and which things aren’t. Because of the NBA play offs its easier for us to look at the season representing growth towards an ultimate goal, so there has to be a point of exploration.
Sometimes we do things for the sake of just seeing what is working and what is not. So, because we get the feedback on all this, towards the end of the season there is a deliberate reduction in the number of plays we work on. In that key period we only focus on the plays that worked best and try to make those even better.
Kevin Taylor (former hostage negotiator)
On treating communication as a skill…
Whenever you ask coaches in sport how often they practice technical skills they tell you it is hours and hours and hours. If you start to look at how often you practice communication skills, it’s often negligible. It’s getting the mindset around accepting that communication is a hard skill and something that must be worked on.
On understanding yourself…
If you were to ask a changing room full of players to describe what leadership is I guarantee you’d get 15 different answers because it means something different to everybody.
If you go in with the attitude of its my way or the highway, you switch so many people off. The skill is to be able to flex your style, but to do that you have to understand who you are at a very deep level. It’s an uncomfortable trying to do, but hold a mirror up to yourself and have a close look at who you are.
What are your values and beliefs, what motivates you, what are your fears, what is it about other people you like, or importantly what is it you don’t like? When you know, this will help you communicate better with other people.
Gemma Morgan (Leadership coach and ex-Army Officer)
It’s often the last thing that someone says to you that is the most important. So often we shut the notebook, we put the pen down because the session’s finished but if you just listen those extra few moments, it’s often the last thing that somebody says as they are walking out of the door that you should take in.
Communication is such a critical skill. If we really focus on it and attune to it and notice it, we can all become better at it.
On giving out tough messages…
If we invest time in getting to know people, building that trust and dynamic, that rapport; if we show that willingness to be vulnerable with each other, and people believe we have their genuine best interests at heart, then they will take and accept the tough message.
We need to have invested up front in order to be direct.
For people to follow and believe in you, the magic has happened beforehand when building the relationships.