Leadership is aimed at influencing and motivating members towards group goals. We know that different coaches and team managers have different leadership styles.

Autocratic Philosophy

Some leaders can be very autocratic with an “old school” didactic “I say, you do” relationship with their players. Such coaches trade on a transactional leadership style where outcomes, rewards and praise are afforded to those that live by the rules as ruled by the coach. It tends to be a coach centred approach where the coach has all the power and the players are his play pawns.

Those that have such a leadership style often try to generate an “us V them” siege mentality as a motivational tool to get the group to overcome a perceived sense of injustice or dislike when playing opposing teams. Frequently, this works in the early stages of the coach athlete relationship but it does so at a cost. Players often buy in to such leadership style early on but the motivation is found to be unsustainable in the longer term as players grow tired of the autocratic and often negative style. Players tend not to enjoy such a dynamic and find the climate de-motivating after a period of time. Very often, disagreements over imposed rules leave the coach to deal with disciplinary issues that could have been avoided. Some will leave through disagreements over desired behaviour and very often others will suffer from mental burnout as they find it hard to constantly be in the frame of mind to get one over on their next enemy.

Giovanni Trappatoni would have been known to have such an autocratic style with the Irish Soccer team. They qualified for the European championships in 2012 and went to Poland and Ukraine for the tournament. They lost the three group games to Croatia, Spain and Italy respectively scoring one goal and conceding nine goals in the process. Later players reported not to enjoy much of the trip as coach’s stringent rules and regimental philosophy took from their enjoyment of the experience. There were tight restrictions with regard to the players’ free time and access to family during the tournament. Some even felt that the “old school” dynamic manifested itself in the players being unable to express themselves on the pitch – resulting in poor performance.

Leadership is a behavioural process so the leader’s actions are more important than their status or name or what they have achieved previously. The leader must have good interpersonal skills, such as being able to effectively communicate their message and being able to show empathy and understanding towards others. He or she must hold the respect of the players in the manner in which he carries himself on a general basis. If he doesn’t have this respect, his days as a coach with the immediate group are numbered.

In this regard, Jose Mourinho would have lost a lot of respect for the manner in which he publicly lambasted his doctor in September 2015 as she set about doing her job as a professional. The media furore that followed wasn’t helpful, but Mourinho’s refusal to apologise when he was obviously in the wrong would have shown him in a negative light to his players. That, allied with his efforts to construct a siege mentality among his players wouldn’t have helped as constant blame for recent losses were laid at the hands of the majority of referees in the country.

After a surprise 2-1 loss at Leicester he lay blame at the players in public suggesting that players had “betrayed” his work – He maintained he had identified that defenders needed to watch out for left wing crosses and left foot shots that provided their two goals. He could have made his point to the players in a private capacity in the dressing room without washing the dirty laundry in public, driving a bigger wedge between himself and the players.

The manner in which he carried himself with bullish belligerence and little humility would make it harder for players and staff to warm to. He had history with such behaviour also as at Real Madrid there were numerous rumours of infighting and player unrest before he moved on to his role at Chelsea.

Empowerment Approach

Others are known to be more open to dialogue and empowerment of players. They foster a player centred approach where players feel their opinions are valued and respected. They are not always told. They are questioned and given a voice and learning is occurring which brings a sense of mastery and self-improvement. This empowering approach is in itself very motivating and makes for a much more enjoyable environment where players have a sense of ownership over their own development.

In such cases, managers often show a lot more humility and are low key in the media. They tend to apportion all the plaudits for successes gathered to others (players, coaching staff, previous managers etc) and away from themselves.

From a GAA context, Dublin manager Jim Gavin springs to mind. In stark contrast to Paul Caffrey’s time as manager, Dublin have moved away from the brash siege mentality they played to in the late 2000s. Gone is the intense managerial media play and the staged posturing to the hill and kissing of the crest. It may have had its reasons at the time but the team constantly buckled under pressure and performance anxiety and couldn’t win the All Ireland that they craved despite dominating their province.

Jim Gavin

Gavin has adopted a player centred approach where player self improvement and ownership of progress is facilitated by coaching staff but driven by the players. The mindset shift means that he has a squad of 30 highly motivated people all addressing their weaknesses individually and rowing in the same direction for the greater good of the squad. The results are showing his way is working.

Joe Schmidt has done a similar job with the Irish Rugby team and has won the last two six nations championships.

Both ways (autocratic & empowerment) can garner results but certainly the latter (empowerment approach) is more productive longer term with much higher levels of sustainability and enjoyment by virtue of an improved motivational climate.

The autocratic siege mentality “old school” approach has its best chance of success in the earlier stages of the coach athlete relationship but can result in significant player mental burnout as the relationship develops. A classic example of this would be Ger Loughnane’s Clare hurlers of the mid nineties. They won two All Irelands in 1995 and 1997 with the average age of players in their early twenties. The siege mentality that was brought about by Loughnane and his media outbursts could have weighed heavily on the team as they never fulfilled their potential when in their prime years. In fact a lot of the players had stopped both county and club hurling by the time they were in their early thirties – many likely to be through mental burnout.

Ger Loughnane 32263c1a
25 July 1999; Clare Manager Ger Loughnane. Hurling. Picture credit; Damien Eagers/SPORTSFILE

Clare hurling manager Davy Fitzgerald with a similar approach if to a lesser degree had huge success in driving his team to an unforeseen All Ireland title in 2013 – his second year in charge. Since however, his team have under-performed, winning only one championship game in the following two years and were relegated from the top tier of the league in the process. Changes appear to be afoot with a significant overhaul of his backroom team.

It will be interesting to see if the approach changes somewhat next year with the incorporation of the new backroom team and the avoidable negative media exposure generated during the course of the past year.

Chelladurai, P.; Saleh, S. D. (1978). “Preferred leadership in sports”. Canadian Journal of Applied Sport Science 3: 85–92.

Keith Begley is an accredited sport psychologist with the Irish Institute of Sport.

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