The Structures and Conditions of Effective Team Leadership: Taking the Mystery Out of Coaching Successful Soccer Teams
Gung-ho and green. That’s how many young soccer coaches early in their careers start out. Time in the ranks serves to feed the enthusiasm of the good ones; on the other hand, as they mark their years, hopefully, only the grass remains green. Smart rookies pay attention to admired veteran coaches and often copy training sessions, systems of play, and even what they interpret as leadership behavior. However, effective soccer coaches are a diverse lot—some funny, some fiery, some cool tacticians—and it can be a difficult task to choose whom to emulate. A word to the wise newbie: academic thought regarding leadership suggests that the structures and conditions of effective teams may be more important than copying the behavior and personality traits of successful coaches. In soccer, the leader is ultimately the coach, and there is evidence that supports the age-old wisdom that someone can be successful and “be themselves.” There is a growing body of knowledge that suggests leaders can increase the likelihood their team will succeed by establishing a handful of replicable conditions and structures—vision, composition, culture, and credible leadership (Markette, 2011; Senge, 2006; Hackman, 2002; Janssen & Dale, 2002). Therefore, rookie coaches who spend less time emulating the styles of admired coaches and more time analyzing the conditions they create for their teams will—more than likely—create their own winning team…using their own style.
Imagine taking a team to an out-of-state tournament. For the new coach as well as the established soccer road warriors, there is a vision for the upcoming event. The movie in the coach’s head plays the clear destination for the weekend. If there is any problem with the directions, the hotel, or the starting lineup, the good coach wastes no time rectifying the situation and staying focused on the vision. Vision is such a powerful tool that it actually drives behavior, and interestingly enough, any feedback contrary to the vision results in a sense of urgency to fix the situation (Kotter, 1996). Spurring team members to find solutions, a strong vision generates creative tension. Research suggests that the destination actually becomes more important than the method, which pushes that creativity (Senge, 2006). According to team leadership expert and Harvard professor J. Richard Hackman (2002), vision energizes and orients a team’s behavior.
Not only does vision guide behavior for entire teams, but it also affects the behavior of individual players within the team. For example, in the 1999 World Cup, Brandi Chastain inadvertently scored an own goal for the Germans in a mix-up with goalkeeper Brianna Scurry. However, it was also Chastain who later scored the tying goal in that game and the ultimate World Cup Championship penalty kick. U.S. soccer fans witnessed a similar phenomenon in World Cup 2011 when Abby Wambach exploded from a slump to score on Brazil in one of the most poignant goals in U.S. Soccer. Vision can be credited with how entire teams as well as individual players find ways to make the picture in their mind match the results. One might argue that Chastain and Wambach experienced a disparity between the situation which resulted from the own goal and the slump, respectively, and two connected visions—the vision of being a member on the winning team as well as the vision of being one of the greatest female soccer players in the world. The power of vision may be what impelled both players to rectify both tensions.
How does such a powerful vision take root? Sure, individual players can work on this condition themselves, but an effective coach must actively build the vision within the entire team in order for the true power of it to yield the most valuable results. Let’s be clear on one point though: a vision shouldn’t be confused with goals. Goals are those milestones along the road to reaching the vision. While a vision should be clear, consequential, and challenging (Hackman, 2002), goals are the stepping stones for the greater, over-arching vision. Additionally, the vision must be communicated consistently and repetitively through multiple mediums (Kotter, 1996). Coaches must be creative in how the vision is communicated. Team meetings, training sessions, and individual meetings are obvious times to repeat and rephrase the vision so that players not only hear it but fully embrace it as the expectation and backbone of the program – a paradigm of thinking not just a cliché “we’re-the-best” platitude.
A vision is not simply the catchy phrase painted on the locker room wall; no, it must be much more dynamic than that dried paint. While slogans—painted on the wall or otherwise—are powerful and important, the effective leader consistently leverages a plethora of forums to reinforce the vision so that it is as alive as the game itself. Potential forums to inculcate participants with the vision include the team cheer before and after training and games (Kotter, 1996) as well as signs, slogans, mascots, quotes, and t-shirts. Don’t forget, Coach: the vital point to remember is that the vision requires the same attention as the tactical and technical topics covered in training. When coaches start hearing players remind each other of the vision often and without prompting, there is the proof that the vision guides the program. Playing excellent soccer requires repetition, and building a vision is no different. Conduct complete training sessions; integrate the vision message.
Now that we’ve covered what to do in terms of players, let’s turn our attention to perhaps one of the most powerful forums for communicating the vision: the behavior of the coach and coaching staff. Good coaches are keenly aware that followers are more likely to do as the leader does and not as he or she says. For this reason, the coach must be willing to “walk the talk” if they are going to fully engage a team to buy into a vision. A coach that asks his or her players to come early and stay late to refine their game must model a similar attitude. The Japanese Women’s Soccer Coach Norio Sasaki seemed to imbue confidence with his smile immediately before Japan went on to surprise the U.S. WNT in penalty kicks.
Few behaviors can undermine the performance of a team than a coach who makes demands on his team but shows up to training unprepared or without a clear purpose for the training. Athletes in particular are extremely sensitive to inconsistency.
A coach, however, cannot build and sustain a vision alone, and it is therefore necessary to build what Kotter (1996) refers to as a guiding coalition. This may vary from team to team. In a club environment, a coach may enlist a few respected leaders on the team. In a college or high school setting, the coach may develop and enlist a senior class council to help sustain the vision. Every team is unique, and the coach must use his or her judgment in building the right guiding coalition of players. The guiding coalition is important because it facilitates a fully embraced vision so that it transforms from just the coach’s to the players’.
Think about your team. What are the personalities? Who are the stars and who just has stars in their eyes? Where are the strengths and weaknesses in ability? Effective teams balance team-size, experience, personalities, strengths, and weaknesses in the most efficient manner possible. One way of looking at a soccer team is as if it is a human molecule. As in science, a component of the human molecule—the team—cannot be added or removed and still have the same molecule. The challenge becomes how to best build and maintain a healthy molecule.
This is where a clear, compelling vision informs and impacts the team composition. If the vision includes developing and playing a certain style of soccer and there is time to develop that concept, a coach may align his or her team in a certain manner. In contrast, if the focus is on winning, a coach could align the team in an entirely different manner. Factors like positioning, playing time, systems of play, playing style, team size, and cutting players all can be used to build an effective team composition.
The important element is to structure the team in a manner that is consistent with the vision. A youth coach, who espouses developing players and a well-rounded style of play, cannot limit playing time to only 11 players and expect positive results. Likewise, a coach who has nurtured a vision of being competitive at the highest levels will have to manage training and games in a manner that supports that direction, or the coach risks losing the buy-in of the team leaders.
Similarly, be sure to consider personalities carefully. Some people simply do not belong on teams (Hackman, 2002), and some simply do not belong on a particular team. Before adding the talented star, an effective coach must weigh what the addition of the player will do to the chemistry of the team molecule. In one example, a competitive high school-aged girls youth team added a fantastically talented young woman who had a reputation of being difficult for past teams. However, optimistically, the coach added the player with the misguided notion that he could manage the situation. Soon the team began to struggle: various girls began coming to the coach with interpersonal concerns, stories emerged about the young woman’s personal exploits away from the field and classroom, and one solid player left the team for a competing club.
Concurrently, parent unrest began to percolate, and the coach realized that his once strong and unified team faced major hurdles. When the coach made the tough decision to cut this particular talent-on-the-field, the team membership exhaled with a palpable and almost universal sigh of relief. The team, the coach, and the troublesome young woman all could have been spared the strife if the team composition had been properly considered.
Other composition factors that can support or betray team performance is team size. Youth teams with membership over 18 players can actually serve to demoralize players and undercut team dynamics. Of course, injuries can affect a team adversely as well, so coaches must astutely balance these two dynamics. Let’s take a little math lesson from Steiner (1972) to better understand that ideal teams may be smaller than larger as he suggested in his seminal work. Logically, we know that adding numbers to the group increases the possible lines of communication exponentially. This can be characterized by a simple mathematical formula: (n (n-1))/2 wherein n represents the numbers in the group. Thus a group of 15 members has 105 possible lines of communication--(15 x (15-1))/2 = 105. However, adding only three members increased the possible lines of communication to 153 or roughly by 46% – (18 (18-1))/2 = 153.
Certainly team size must be considered in light of several factors, but in addition to Steiner’s (1972) work, other research also suggests that bigger is not always better. A youth 8v8 team may do best with a smaller number, and a professional side may fair best with a large roster and a separate team of reserves. There is no hard and fast recommendation coaches can apply to their teams, but it deserves reflection beyond “the more the merrier” and “this is how I have always done it.” Coaches must view their team molecule as a dynamic and ever-evolving organism.
Culture explains how and why teams do what they do. U.S. WNT coach Pia Sundhage paid homage to the idea of culture with her comments immediately following the U.S.’s victory over Brazil when she said, “There is something about the American attitude to find a way to win.” Values, norms, and culture help explain what actions and deeds are both acceptable and unacceptable within a team context and can be explained through artifacts, espoused values, tacit assumptions (Schein, 1999). Artifacts in soccer include anything tangible that reflects the mindset of the team and the coach (Schein, 1999). Artifacts include but are not limited to the appearance of game uniforms, training uniforms, dress code, field surroundings, and locker rooms. A program where the players train in identical kits with their shirts tucked in, socks up, and guards on may be insight into a team founded on discipline. In contrast, a team that is not dressed as uniformly or approach training in a more informal manner, may be a reflection of a team culture that values creativity and individual flair.
Espoused values are the ideas about team norms that players and coaches consciously report to be important (Schein, 1999). Tacit understandings are more difficult to identify and they are the deeply held ideas about the values and norms of the culture that may be understood but not discussed (Schein, 1999). Remember that culture is not necessarily good or bad, but the artifacts, espoused values, and tacit understandings should be aligned in order for the most powerful impact. In fact, a recent research study of a non-athletic team suggests that vision and culture are inextricably linked (Markette, 2011). Teams can soar when culture is aligned with the vision and the team composition, but the opposite is also true. Problems arise when culture is not considered and the culture of coaches, players, and a team clashes.
Coaches must be emotionally intelligent to create a culture that fits their organization, their players, and their vision. Moreover, coaches must be cautioned against believing “their way is the right way.” Soccer history is replete with examples of contrasting cultures finding success and failure in the game. One only needs to contrast the French meltdown in World Cup 2010 with the amazing display by the Spanish team when the French camp reportedly failed to keep vision, team composition, and culture aligned.
Coaches must monitor, nurture, and protect their team cultures. If done properly, the culture becomes linked with the vision and takes on an organizational inertia. Anson Dorrance’s Competitive Cauldron is an example of a tool he used to support the vision at North Carolina. The culture he nurtured was one that rewarded and honored competition and winning. Experienced coaches understand the value of aligning activities and rewards in a manner that are consistent with the culture and vision.
If a program espouses to value academics but rewards players who do not take their studies seriously presents potential problems for a team. In one glaring example, a high school (American) football star, wearing his football jersey, stole an item from the local mall and was caught. Instead of being suspended or dropped from the team, he played in the big game later that night. Ironically, the espoused value of that team was Victory with Honor. Obviously, there was some conflict between words and actions not only by the player but also within the coaching staff. While a discrepancy like this on any team may not result in short-term disaster, they can create lasting hurdles for teams—in this case the team lost that night, and the coach was ultimately replaced.
Therefore, coaches must be keenly aware of what behavior is rewarded and what results in consequences. Coaches must take care to cultivate and reward behavior that supports a culture that is aligned with the team vision. When alignment of artifacts, espoused values and tacit understandings is done properly, there is evidence that culture and vision can work to create a powerful organizational paradigm that guides behavior beyond the watchful eye of the coaching staff (Schein, 1999).
Credible coaches are those men and women who form relationships with their players and lead through service. The coach, through this relationship, serves followers by helping them to achieve mutually beneficial goals, improve as human beings, and grow into leaders themselves (Spears & Lawrence, 2002). Dr. Greg Dale suggests that coaches often begin their careers focused on accomplishment—wins and losses—but grow into credible coaches when their focus shifts to their players. Not surprisingly, there is an emerging body of research that indicates that when leaders lead through service, results improve.
Coaches who lead through service must possess moral elements and factors (Bass, 1985), but should not be confused with—as Showkeir (2002) calls it—a “touchy-feely” type of leadership (p.155). Leading as a servant is tough and requires tough coaches. While the idea of “making the world a kindler gentler place” (Showkeir, 2002, p. 155) is appealing, the strongest argument in favor of a servant leadership philosophy may be that it works (Showkeir, 2002; Winston, 2004). In a study of teachers, using a servant approach profoundly affected both students and teachers (Hays, 2008).
There are specific activities of credible coaches that produce a more rewarding experience for players and coaches alike. Credible coaches listen to and show empathy toward their players. They are aware of what is happening on the team and adjusts as needed. Coaches have foresight and use persuasion to help their teams conceptualize how and why the vision is important. Finally, coaches who lead through service are committed to the growth of their players and to long-term stewardship (Hayes, 2008).
These behaviors—listening, empathy, foresight, persuasion, conceptualization, growth and stewardship—are very consistent with establishing an effective culture that supports a compelling vision. Moreover, these behaviors form the basis for a self-evaluation and accountability for coaches. Understanding and practicing these concepts requires discipline and focus on the big picture—it is easy to lose sight of these practices in the heat of the season. However, coaches who lead consistent programs and build their players to succeed beyond their teams, work to hold themselves to the same high standards they require of their players. A credible coach is a man or woman whose aim is to serve the team and its players.
So where do we go from here? Sure, we can acknowledge that research suggests coaches can improve the odds for team success by focusing on a handful of replicable conditions and structures—vision, composition, culture, and credible leadership (Markette, 2011; Senge, 2006; Hackman, 2002; Janssen & Dale, 2002), or we can keep the status quo. However, a credible coach is willing to continually evaluate his or her methods to best serve the team. While tactical and technical expertise on the field is critical, expert coaches work to support a compelling vision into most of their coaching activities. Likewise, effective coaches balance their human molecule--team-size, experience, personalities, strengths, and weaknesses—in the most efficient manner possible. Culture—values and norms—are given special attention to ensure that the artifacts, espoused values, and tacit understandings support the team vision. Culture can be powerful forces that support or betray team performance. Finally, the credible coaching leader knows that a path to better performance lies in service—the coach that serves is the coach that leads. So go ahead and paint that catchy slogan on the locker room wall. Go ahead and build a solid technical foundation. Go ahead and teach strong team tactics. Just be sure that the vision, culture, team composition, and credible coaching are aligned. Your players deserve it.
About the author:
Dr. Nicholas Markette, Grand Canyon University, coaches for the Legacy at San Tan Soccer Club, Hamilton High School Boys’ Varsity, and the Hamilton High School Soccer Academy in Arizona. Dr. Markette holds an NSCAA Advanced National Diploma and Advanced Goalkeeping Diploma.
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