Reflection on leadership and development in youth sport (Part 1 of 3)

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Over the last two years I have been studying towards an MA in Education (Early Years) at Birmingham City University. The exposure to literature that highlights priorities in play, early years development and motivation has had a significant impact on my role as a coach and coach developer.

In my second year of study, my focus has been on that of leadership and mentoring. The assignment focused closely on my work with aspiring Swedish football coach Tova Olsson and the leadership approaches I took when supporting her development and first steps in to coaching.

I believe that some of the reflections and writing from the assignment may be of interest to the wider coaching community, so would like to share an adapted version of the assignment over three parts:

Part 1 – A critical reflection on my development as a coach, coach developer & leader

Part 2 – Transformational Leadership & Effective Mentoring

Part 3 – Implications for coaching and coach development

I hope that reading and reflecting on the piece prompts you to think about the influence you have in your coaching world and inspires you to find out more about leadership, mentoring and the impact of great coaching.

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Part 1 – A critical reflection on my development as a coach, coach developer & leader


“The relationship between Bobby and Gazza was extraordinary in many ways. It was like a father and son but a very frustrated father a lot of the time! He used to absolutely take Bobby to his wits’ end a lot of the time. They had that kind of lovely father and son relationship that was a lot of joy and a lot of love but also a lot of tellings off!” (Fawbert, 2020). From the accounts of England forward Gary Lineker, the consistent influence, motivation and consideration that Sir Bobby Robson showed for Paul Gascoigne demonstrated the core elements of transformational leadership. The impact created a psychologically safe environment for Gascoigne to fulfil his potential as arguably one of the worlds most talented players of a generation. In his own words, Gascoigne stated, “When I saw Bobby, I knew I was safe” (Fawbert, 2020).

This reflective piece evidences and critically reflects on the journey of learning and development for Tova Olsson, a young (in experience), Swedish football coach developing her coaching craft through a programme of leadership and mentoring support. The approach taken to support Tova on her development journey utilises the fundamental structure of transformational leadership (Bass, Riggio) and effective mentoring (Olsson, Cruickshank, Collins).

The methodology I have applied to this assignment considers a range of questions and examines specifically my approach to coaching, mentoring and leadership. I will critically reflect upon my own approach to leadership, epistemology and coaching philosophy with the aim of understanding more about my leadership skills and how I support the development of coaches. Considering this I will aim to answer the key question:

  • How can effective leadership and mentoring support the development of a young (in experience) coach?

I will employ a divergent approach, exploring a number of strategies to support Tova on her coaching development journey, helping her develop her coaching craft, relationships and impact on individuals at a micro level, but also consider wider meso environmental factors that will impact on her longer term aspirations as a contemporary, influential and inspirational coach.

Based on my critical reflection of this assignment I will consider wider implications for my professional role as a coach developer and consider what this could mean for others supporting coaches through their journey of development as a mentor, leader or coach.

Critical Reflection of approach to leadership, my epistemology and coaching philosophy

To critically reflect on my own approach to leadership and coaching it is appropriate to consider the wider environmental factors affecting my overall development as a football coach and leader. I will seek to understand more about the evolution of football coach education in England, key influences, events and experience through my development pathway and reflections on the impact of my approach to leadership. To add structure to this approach of critical reflection I have utilised an adapted model of concentric circles as developed by Lyndon, Bertram, Brown & Pascal (2019). The authors draw attention to the use of concentric circles to support pedagogically mediated listening practices while supporting children in early years to reflect on important experiences and events, “The children were given three concentric circles drawn onto large rolls of paper; this offered four spaces for their responses with the centre smallest circle being for their best experience.” (Lyndon, Bertram, Brown & Pascal, (2019). The adaption of this approach has been particularly helpful to help visualise and prioritise impactful moments of learning.

Figure 1. Formal and Informal Influences on leadership & coaching knowledge, skills and experience

When embarking on my coaching journey I gained The FA Level 1, 2 and 3 (UEFA B License) coaching qualifications between 2000 and 2005. During this period the coach education system in England had a strict competency-based assessment framework that in my experience gave preference to the coach holding knowledge and the coaching ‘being done to’ the players in the practice. The nature of the coaching awards created an environment where the coach set, managed and led all aspects of coaching practice. As a novice coach and someone keen to learn and develop my own coaching craft I aspired to satisfy the needs of the qualifications. Without academic validity it was difficult to appropriately challenge the status quo of what good coaching looked like, but on reflection it never felt ‘right’ to me coaching in this way. Coaching practices felt sterile, contrived (in assessment situations) and sometimes not always appropriate for the needs of the players. Based on my instincts and values as a person I wanted to ask questions of the players in my practice, innovate and be creative with practice design and delivery.

When looking back I appreciate that I didn’t have the knowledge or self-confidence to embrace vulnerability. In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown notes, “Perfect and bulletproof are seductive, but they don’t exist in the human experience.” Brown continues, “we must dare to show up and let ourselves be seen. This is vulnerability. This is daring greatly” (Brown, 2016). At this stage in my journey as a coach and leader I wanted to think differently, put people first and experiment with my coaching, but I was (unconsciously) looking for the right environment to start fulfilling my potential.

From 2007 until the present day I have been working in full time professional roles in football and sport and have led projects and teams as well as being exposed to a range of leadership styles that have contributed to the development of my epistemology and impact as a leader.  Early on in my professional career, as an enthusiastic and proactive coach, I thrived on connecting with and learning from others. Looking back, I can understand how my development was established through large amounts of social learning, whereas at the time I always felt that learning took place in formal settings and was applied in practical context.

When being given leadership responsibility for the first time I was placed in charge of a group of three professional coaches in a county-based coaching team, part of a national participation programme. Unconsciously I was keen to be transformational with my leadership style, however with a lack of consistency and poor communication skills on my part the leadership experience became unconstructive and problematic. Looking for relief and support I sought assistance from within the national coaching programme and upon reflection clear expectations were set for the team with evident rewards or consequences for meeting the success or failure of tasks. Bass and Riggio explain the principles of management by expectation (MBE), “In active MBE the leader arranges to actively monitor deviances from standards, mistakes and errors in the follower’s assignments and to take effective action as necessary.” (Bass and Riggio, 2014). This approach was not comfortable for me, my feelings about leadership wanted to see positive qualities in others and give them time and space to change and develop their behaviours.

As time passed and my role changed, it became apparent to me that my motivation to innovate, think differently and make a difference had been challenged and over time. This was an opportunity to take agency in my approach and I engaged in learning more about leadership. Without doubt, the discovery and later implementation of the principles of self-determination theory gave me a reference point on what would be valuable for the people in my team, and that I felt unable to display some elements of these principles in my day to day role. In a recent paper considering the foundations and future of Self-Determination Theory, Deci and Ryan explain “Research on both intrinsic motivation and internalization led to consistent findings of the functional importance of supports for autonomy, competence, and relatedness in enhancing these processes, and frustrations of autonomy, competence, or relatedness to derail them” (Ryan and Deci, 2019). The research had reinforced my beliefs and values as a person and given me the confidence to make a difference when the next opportunity arose. Through this process I had started to develop the skill of resilience. In a TEDx talk Raphael Rose explains, “Resilience means you face life’s stresses and challenges and you bounce back and recover and in doing so, you can enrich your life.” (TED, 2018).

Moving to a new organisation (Arsenal Football Club) and with a fresh challenge I had the opportunity and autonomy to build a coaching team, a coaching programme and create an environment where every team member could contribute towards the creation and completion of a common mission. From my previous experiences, reflections and learning I wanted to shift from this being ‘my team’ to an environment where this was ‘our team’. When recruiting new members to the group as well as their coaching qualifications, other skills were considered and promoted. Teamwork, communication, innovation, curiosity and risk taking were qualities that were important to the creation of a cognitively diverse group, who I intended to think differently and trail blaze in our area of player development. I wanted to bring coaches into the team based on their capabilities of what they could do in the future, rather than what they could do now. In a recent podcast former England Rugby Union Head Coach Stuart Lancaster describes what a leader means to him, “A real essence of a leader is creating a vision for people to follow, you want to create that in vivid detail so that they will follow you, not because they are paid to but because they are inspired to.” (Abrahams, 2020).

With this approach in mind utilising appropriate insight from the context of women’s football I created a clear mission for the team, and utilised their skills, experience, knowledge and ideas to work out what we would need to do to achieve this. Peter Fagan, a member of the coaching team recounts his experiences of being part of the group, “I really loved the environment that we worked in.” Pete went on to explain, “There was a lot of peer to peer learning, and I think that was something that you [Tom) really valued and created an environment where there were lots of opportunities where we could experience that. I really enjoyed and thrived in the environment where you gave a lot of responsibility to us. We had room to make mistakes, try things and discover as we went.” (Fagan, 2020).

Figure 2. Arsenal Women Participation Vision

The opportunity to lead a team and apply principles of self-determination (consciously) and transformational leadership (unconsciously) allowed me to develop my leadership and emotional intelligence skills, while creating an environment where members of the team were able to experiment with their coaching and innovate and evolve their coaching craft. Throughout this journey of development and learning I had the opportunity to flex my skills as a leader and challenge the status quo for what I felt good coaching and a good environment for learning was for the young players in the care of the team. Above all, when in a position where I was able to demonstrate my qualities as a leader and coach, I was able to inspire others to do the same.

More recently, my scope of learning and followership has widened, and I have actively searched on the fringes of my world as a football coach and leader to gain insight, knowledge and resource to support my personal development and the development of people in my sphere of influence.

The process of critically reflecting on my leadership, epistemology and coaching philosophy has highlighted several events and experiences that have impacted on my journey and development as a coach and leader. Author Simon Sinek utilises the use of what he calls the ‘Golden Circle’ to illustrate the importance of considering why you do what you do before developing what you do and how you do it. Sinek explains “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it” (TED, 2010). With this approach in mind I have utilised my critical reflection to highlight what is important to me as a coach and leader, and what actions, behaviours and activities result from this. On my journey as a coach and leader I believe that I have cared to make a difference, and through resilience, consistency and believing in my values as a leader and person, have made a difference.

Figure 3. Golden Circle based on critical reflection of leadership, epistemology and coaching philosophy

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