There are hundreds of examples, across all sport – from soccer to rugby to Gaelic football to hurling – of once great players who go into team management but for one reason or another are far less successful than they were in their own playing careers. There are also numerous cases of coaches who have all the qualifications and buckets of technical expertise but whose teams, year after year, season after season, fail to reach the heights expected of them, just as there are many instances of teams that are made up of groups of highly talented players but which never seem to achieve what they should.

Why should this be the case? Are sporting talent, personal experience and technical expertise not the key requirements for success in sports coaching and management?

I’ve often wondered what it is that defines a good coach or manager of a sporting team. It can’t be about winning or results, because some teams won’t have the players to realistically challenge for honours. Is it possible to boil it down to a single question, the answer to which will show whether someone has done a good job in leading that team?

The best that I can come up with that fits this requirement is as follows:

Did the coach get the best out of the players available?

Simply that – the role of the coach, captain or manager is to enable his players so that each of them performs to his or her maximum in helping the team.

What does this definition imply then for leadership in a sporting environment?

  • Firstly, it implies that in sport, a leader needs to really listen to his or her players. Nothing sustainable will be achieved in an environment in which the most important people (the players) feel that they have no voice. Issues can arise within a team that a coach will only know about by listening to the players – and crucially the players must feel that they can express themselves without fear of repercussion.
  • Secondly, a successful leader needs the ability to be flexible and innovative. It cannot be about imposing the coach’s favourite playing framework on the team. The real leader needs to have sufficient empathy to understand his or her players, individually and deeply. This understanding allows him or her to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the people available and build a game plan that maximises the strengths and minimises the weaknesses, (even if the end result is not a playing style that the coach would ideally choose given other players).
  • Thirdly, no coach will get the best out of his or her players unless those players respect him. Respect is earned, and it is primarily earned by the coach’s actions not his or her words. He or she must act honestly and with integrity. He should clearly be accountable and take responsibility for his or her mistakes (nothing will sour a dressing room more quickly than a coach who is seen to cover his own failings by blaming the opposition; the referee; or worst of all, his or her own players).
  • The successful sports leader must also be willing to put the work in to get the team performing to its utmost. Players are more likely to commit 100% effort if they see their coach doing the same.  This means constantly seeking to learn more and upgrade their qualifications; preparing fully and carefully for each training session and match; and treating each game, whether won or lost, as a step on the road towards improvement.

So perhaps this is the role of the sports coach or manager then – to get the most out of the players available. While experience and technical ability are clearly important, the most important factor is the coach’s ability to connect with the players, so that they respect him or her sufficiently that they positively want to perform for the team.

As is so often the case, whether in business or in sport, it all comes down to people.

David Hession is a co-founder of LIFT Ireland, an IRFU Stage 3 Youth Coach and an IRFU Certified Conditioning Coach.