The benefit of a different point of view in football: Conflict and innovative coaches.

I have experience working within teams as a player, coach, manager, sport scientist, sport psychology consultant and through numerous leadership roles in education. Over a number of years, those success stories that I have witnessed have resulted from collaboration between people and units within teams, which have been largely facilitated by leadership behaviour. As my knowledge of group dynamics strengthens it is apparent that football managers and coaches shouldn’t always encourage highly cohesive units as it seems that conflict is a necessity for teams to function effectively.

Research on transformational behaviour of leaders highlights the ability to create a vision, to support followers in buying into that vision, and to encourage challenge throughout the process. What is less evident in the research and what I tend to focus on in my applied work is the creation of conflict. Questions when used correctly are potential change agents and have the ability to impact cognition and behaviour of coaches and players. Indeed, when coaches value questions that criticise their own and the performances of others, healthy conflict can be created. Consequently, through questioning coaching behaviour, the viewpoint of others is more explicit and a more transparent process is developed.

In a number of talks that I have delivered on leadership and specifically the importance of questioning behaviour in football, I highlight the example of the, ‘why’ questioning culture of Toyota. A former executive Vice President of Toyota who was responsible for the successful production system in the 1950s, encouraged his workforce to ask, ‘why’ five times about every matter. Although this was focused on production problems it highlights the benefits of persistent enquiry that helps to identify the root cause of problems and impact upon decision-making. Conflict however is not straightforward and sometimes difficult to create and/or maintain, particularly when coaches perceive this as part of a punitive process. Therefore, coaches need to be educated and aware of the potential benefits that this (developmental) culture may have on their subsequent individual and more importantly, collective behaviour.

I tend to encourage healthy conflict in team settings to try and get coaches more committed to buy in and decision-making. In the past I have observed consistent agreement during team meetings that either suggests that there isn’t a level of trust within the group or that coaches have limited ideas and are not innovative enough to move forward collectively. The development of a positive climate that is critical but constructive is something that I reinforce in order to further challenge the coaching process. For example, I encourage coaches to remain passionate about their thoughts when discussing issues and voice their opinions even if this leads to disagreement. A (rational) personal voice is something that can enhance respect and value and has the ability to strengthen trust within the group. During meetings coaches should be confident to highlight the most important and difficult issues, which should be confronted and discussed in an open and honest manner. It is here that coaches should challenge each other about how they arrived at their conclusions/opinions. An objective approach where subjectivity is minimized will obviously lend itself to a more productive discussion. And finally, if and when conflict does occur, then coaches should resolve the issues before moving on – close the loop.

The above seems quite simplistic but from my experiences not every coach is comfortable with conflict, which can be the result of their personality or past experiences where criticism has threatened the esteem of the coach or the coach feels awkward pointing out individual deficiencies. If the process is facilitated competently, then coaches should see that this is something that can support development and can be a welcome part of a rigorous process. Coaches should reflect and debrief, so the framework is already in place. Introducing a questioning culture into that framework that can raise awareness and provide information over and above what we only see and hear as individuals will undoubtedly challenge coaches but also get them to focus on areas that will enhance the collective identity of the group that they are working within.

Working with coaches who are not used to conflict or asking critical questions is something that I have found interesting in my applied work over the last few years. I often ask coaches to think about what and how they contribute to the process on the grass and then reflect on their performances off the grass, specifically in team meetings when discussions take place between coaches and support staff. Unsurprisingly, there is a big gap between the two and coaches quickly recognize that they are offering little added value to the process by not challenging coach behaviour and decision-making. In this aspect of my applied work I have been influenced by work in group dynamics and organizational effectiveness where conflict seems to be embraced at the top level.

I recently worked on changing the mindset of a professional club coach through alternative questioning so that he was confident to put forward his point of view in a non-threatening manner. Previously he had either avoided situations where he needed to be critical or when his point of view was aired it was perceived to be too controlling. Examples like, ‘have you thought about any other way to do it?’, ‘what are the options available to do it any other way?’, ‘what would it look like if you did it this way?’, ‘what do you think the impact is on the players?’, ‘how does this transfer into the game or next session?’ are open-ended questions that helped the coach engage in a dialogue with other coaches that raised awareness but also helped with cooperation in decision-making. Additionally, it prevented the coach entering into a conversation that was largely negative and focusing on the outcome (i.e., poor coach behaviour or a poor session). Instead, it started to address the process, so the ‘why‘ became the focus of the questioning rather than the, ‘what‘.

Dealing with questions from other coaches about your own behaviour can also be a challenge so it is critical for coaches to embrace conflict rather than become defensive towards it. A questioning set that is pre-planned will help coaches switch the climate to one of a challenge rather than a threat. Recognizing the importance of conflict in a coaching environment is key to performance enhancement although coaches need to think carefully about when to use or avoid it. Understanding the climate and the people that will be involved in the process is vital and coaches will need to adapt and understand why conflict can enhance the collective performance of a coaching team. This will obviously take time and an evolving process but one that can enable a point of view to be positively considered in a particularly demanding environment.

Ian Mitchell

Twitter: @ianmitch9