Reflection on leadership and development in youth sport (Part 2 of 3)

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This week the second part of the article will provide focus on the literature surrounding mentoring and transformational leadership in a sports setting and how this has had an impact on the development of my craft as a leader and it’s impact on Tova.

The piece of writing falls as the middle section of the article, following week one’s critical reflection on my development as a coach, coach developer and leader. In the final part of the article, next week I will explore the implications for the role of a coach developer.

Effective mentoring and leadership support

As set out in the introduction to the assignment the key question I am seeking to answer considers how effective leadership and mentoring can support the development of a young (in experience) coach. Tova Olsson, the coach who is the primary focus of the support reached out to me in Autumn 2019 with the view to gather new information regarding coaching practice to support the development of her coaching skills. Tova coaches an Under 14 girls football team with a Swedish grassroots club, IFK Grimslov and is also president of the youth section at the club. Tova wanted to seek out more information on a coaching approach that was child-centred and allowed her to develop and demonstrate her own personal coaching style.

The initial contact created an informal relationship where Tova and I connected on a regular (bi-weekly to monthly) basis. The frequency, type and nature of the support has evolved over time due to Tova’s aspirations as a coach and my studies as part of the MA in Education (Early Years). With this in mind, the nature of the relationship has become more structured, representing a more formal mentor – mentee arrangement, but the style of communication and leadership has remained person centred and environment appropriate.

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Effective Mentoring

There is a limited amount research documenting an effective approach to mentoring, it’s impact and how learning is applied to practice by the mentee and how a mentor can actively reflect on the support they provide. Research relating to mentoring practice highlights this across a variety of environments. In a paper relating to professional learning of new teachers it is noted, “In the literature on mentoring there appear to be relatively few studies of what mentors actually do in practice during their mentor meetings” (Harrison, Lawson and Wortley, 2005) and in literature related to sport mentoring aimed at ‘making mentoring work’ the authors comment, “the underpinning theory and mechanisms by which mentors can develop mentee expertise are poorly understood.” (Olsson, Cruickshank and Collins, 2016). On a paper aimed at understanding more about what works in coach learning (that I will bear closer reference to when reflecting on implications for my professional practice) Stodter and Cushion state, “Understanding the learning and professional development of sport coaches is a relatively young yet growing area of scholarship.”  (Stodter and Cushion, 2017). The rifts in research and knowledge provide an opportunity for the relationship and support with Tova to experiment with a range of support methods that deconstruct Tova’s coaching craft, effectively reflect on its principles and co-construct new ideas and a meaningful coaching philosophy, impacting on Tova’s coaching craft, her underpinning coaching philosophy and influence on other coaches in her network. This approach is drawn from the work of Loughran (1996), “reflection is not simply ‘learning in the raw’ but is a process of making ‘what we learn’ make ‘sense’, so we better understand it” The authors of the paper go on to explain, “evidence from practice may be examined and explored (i.e. previous practice is deconstructed), personal theories may be found adequate or not and alternative understandings may be formulated (i.e. practice is constructed)” (Harrison, Lawson and Wortley, 2005).

When Tova initially reached out for support her experience of coaching was limited, but her aspirations for developing her coaching practice to enhance the training environment and learning experience for the girls in her team was clear. Tova first asked for support by sending an email to myself at Arsenal FC highlighting that she was at the start of her coaching career and wanted to be a role model for the girls in her team. Tova explained that as a coach who wants to learn, she wanted to impart the best experience of the girls in her team.

Initial discussions represented a series of question and answer conversations where Tova openly asked a range of questions that directly related to the context of her practice and the challenges she was faced with. To support Tova’s short term challenges the discussions formed a pattern of ’copy and paste’ support, where my answers provided Tova the opportunity to try new practices and approaches to coaching with her players. I was aware that this was not a long term solution to aid Tova’s aspirations, “coaching is not behaviour to be copied but a cognitive skill to be taught” (Abrahams and Collins, 1998) however I wanted to build an environment of trust and an opportunity for Tova to build her confidence as a coach ‘daring greatly’.

To add structure to the relationship and provide a context for our mentor – mentee discussions I asked Tova to answer a series of questions relating to her coaching craft and philosophy. The responses from Tova provided a foundation for the next stage of support, where I was keen shift the dynamic in the relationship and reduce or remove the perceived hierarchy creating an environment for open, honest and authentic discussions about coaching.

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This approach is supported in mentoring literature, “As a logical first step, it is clearly important that mentors and their mentees define and map out the long-term objectives of their working relationship. Through this, the mentor will sensibly identify the mentee’s ultimate aims (e.g., to develop into a forward-thinking, creative lead coach) and preferences on the nature of their relationship moving ahead” (Martindale & Collins, 2005), however I was keen for the support and nature of the relationship to be co-created as outlined here, “it is something done with rather than to mentees” (Jones, Harris and Miles, 2009). Based on Tova’s long term coaching objectives I wanted to develop a range of support and development strategies that put Tova’s aspirations at the heart of every collaborative intervention. When considering an approach to rewiring epistemology of mentee coaches it is highlighted, “as mentors are being asked to help develop more expert coaches, we now consider various routes by which the rewiring process might operate. “(Olsson, Cruickshank and Collins, 2016). Following the approach outlined by the paper my approach to mentoring operated at the levels of Micro-level action: One-on-one mentoring, Meso-level action: Communities of practice (CoP) and Macro-level action: Formal coach education.

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Transformational Leadership

When exploring a range of leadership approaches, and while reflecting on my strengths as a coach developer I utilised the framework of transformational leadership (Bass and Riggio) to use as a model to shape the support offered to Tova. “Transformational leaders do more with colleagues and followers than set up simple exchanges or agreements. They behave in ways to achieve superior results by employing one or more of the four core components of transformational leadership.” (Bass and Riggio, 2014). Transformational leadership is part of the full range leadership model which outside of the four I’s of idealised influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation and individualised consideration, highlights a range of leadership styles including transactional, management by expectation, laissez-faire, neutral, and toxic.

Bass and Riggio provide definition around the four I’s (Bass and Riggio, 2014):

  • Idealised influence, whereby leaders gain trust by modelling prosocial behaviours, treating group members fairly, and following a consistent set of values.
  • Inspirational motivation, which is when leaders spur on goal pursuit by holding high expectations and forming a clear vision of the future.
  • Intellectual stimulation, which is when leaders provide opportunities for followers to feel autonomous and to contribute creative ideas.
  • Individualised consideration, whereby followers have opportunities to form individual relationships with their leader that demonstrate unique expectations and concerns.

For Tova to achieve her ambitions about becoming an inspirational coach having a transformational impact on the players in her team and other coaches in her club has the potential to be important.

In recent years the work of Cote and Turnnidge has utilised the full range leadership model and in-particular, transformational leadership, to develop a range of sports coaching specific coach behaviours that directly link to transformational leadership. “Recently, researchers have explored the utility of TFL theory in sport with promising results. Studies suggest that transformational coaching is associated with positive individual and group-level outcomes, such as athlete satisfaction, effort, performance, and group cohesion.” (Turnnidge, Evans, Vierimaa, Allan, and Côté,2016) and in their paper outlining leadership behaviours Turnnidge and Côté highlight, “that TFL can positively contribute to performance, well-being, group cohesion, and personal development outcomes.” (Turnnidge and Côté, 2019). Transformational coaching has incredibly close links to the leadership approach that I feel is important for me to develop as a leader, that I believe will have a fundamental impact on Tova’s coaching and support my professional role as a coach developer.

When examining transformational leadership further, Bass and Riggio draw attention to the four I’s that create a framework for transformational leadership. In the table below I have highlighted each of the transformational leadership qualities, a description offered by Bass and Riggio and comments on how my leadership approach to working with Tova has been realised.

Transformational Leadership components adapted from Bass and Riggio 2014:

Utilising the full range leadership model and the qualities of transformational leadership, Tova was introduced to the transformational coaching behaviours and together we discussed and worked to understand better how specifically these behaviours would look, sound and feel in Tova’s coaching context. Through a process of isomorphism Tova created examples of what she might find herself saying and doing with her players to bring these behaviours to life. This was also a useful process for me as I was able to draw comparison to my role as a coach developer and better understand what transformational coaching could look like from the perspective of a person supporting coaches before, during and after practice.

When reflecting on the regular conversations and coaching discussions with Tova it became clear that transformational leadership was not just about the words you used to support others, but the consistency and frequency of that support. “The importance of describing and interpreting moment-to-moment leadership behaviours is underscored by Granic and Patterson’s (2006) proposition that everyday interactions represent the “raw material of development” (pg. 124) which when repeated over time, can foster developmental outcomes.” (Turnnidge and Côté, 2019). By understanding more about the qualities of transformational leadership and latterly transformational coaching my leadership approach offered to Tova became intentional and consistent. In more recent discussions with Tova we recorded a podcast to reflect on the learning and development that had taken place as part of our ongoing coaching relationship.

Developing an understanding on the full range leadership model and engaging in frequent, open and consistent discussions with Tova, putting her interests and aspirations at the heart of each interaction has been vital for fostering an important and developmental relationship. The combination of transformational coaching and leadership has highlighted the positive consequences of good leadership for Tova, me and the players that she looks to support within her club.

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