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

Next action culture in football coaches

Working alongside coaches

Back in 2002 I introduced the concept of reflective practice into my applied session on effective coach behaviour on the UEFA Professional Licence in Wales. At the time it was a basic idea of getting the coaches to actually think about what they had delivered and more importantly, why they behaved in certain ways during their delivery. My initial plan was to get the coaches to think about their performances and look at behaviours that may have influenced key messages at certain points in the coaching session. Basic post reflection yes, but something that was very new and challenging to most of the coaches. The coaches would receive a DVD of the coaching session that they had delivered and were asked to watch and listen to themselves in relation to the main session objectives that they had provided in their detailed plans. I provided a framework for them to reflect, which was based upon Gibbs’ reflective learning model. In addition to this I asked the coaches to fill out a personality questionnaire that may help them to understand some of the surface behaviours that they would see through the footage of the respective session.

Twelve years on and I still encourage coaches on Professional and Advanced licences to engage with this process although there is a higher level of focus on something that I think is key in order for the coach to become more competent in his/her behaviour – action. This is something that I feel that has not so much been overlooked, but probably the most challenging aspect for coaches in the process. Coaches who I currently work with seem to be more used to getting filmed and listening to what they say to players and other coaches, on and off the grass. But closing the loop (which is the key part to the process) at times is left unattended. The interesting thing is that I see this not just in football, but across the many organisations that I work in, including the area of academia. Very good discussions take place, solutions are recommended based upon the issues that have been presented, but for some reason, similar observations and conversations take place at some point down the line. I see coaches engaged with part of the process, but if these observations and conversations occur again, then something is missing and learning becomes hampered. From my own personal experiences, this seems to be an issue associated with the cyclical nature of the reflective process. Thankfully, my observations were reinforced by a colleague of mine, Dr Brendan Cropley (@BrendanCropley) during a conversation at a conference in Atlanta. Brendan is an excellent applied practitioner and passionate about the role of reflection in the professional practice of coaches. He agreed with me and reiterated my thoughts that as coaches we tend to focus on describing the context and associated feelings, evaluating and analysing our behaviour and reaching a conclusion, but the actual plan of what to do next is often overlooked or not fully addressed.

Reflective practice seems to be more prominent than ever in applied work with football coaches at the moment, and rightly so. For over a decade, encouraging reflection has been central to my applied work with players and coaches, particularly as it underpins principles of identity leadership when developing the understanding of a team’s culture. I have used a number of strategies to develop a next action culture for teams that I work with in addition to providing coaches with a logical framework for action planning. The key messages I reinforce during the development of individual action plans are:

  1. The process will improve capacity of understanding for learning
  2. The process will highlight when and how you are learning
  3. The process will allow you to monitor, reflect, evaluate and plan
  4. The process will force you to take responsibility for your own learning and development.

The plan itself, as with any other related coaching plan, requires attention to detail with a focus on process-related information. The action plan therefore needs to be fully integrated and strategically aligned to the coaching process – too many plans that I have seen emphasise outcome driven targets that are far removed from the day-to-day business of the coach. I encourage coaches to develop plans that identify a set of interconnected activities such as:

  • Planning – in relation to the achievement of objectives or general change in behaviour
  • Doing – gaining experience with a greater level of self-awareness
  • Recording – provision of evidence of learning that has taken place
  • Reviewing – striving to make sense of things
  • Evaluating – making some form of judgment.

An action template itself can be easily developed and should be chosen to suit the individual needs of the coach. This is a basic example that could be used by a coach:


What will I do to action this?

Possible barriers

How will I know that I’ve achieved it?

Target/review date

What I have found useful during this process is the development of a ‘context’ brief that I work through with the coach before finalising the actual action plan and committing to what is written down. The brief focuses the coach on behaviours and generates critical thought towards the process in order to provide opportunities for learning to take place. A context brief can include the following questions:

  • Think about any previous (related) experiences – what have I done as a coach?
  • Focus on current experiences – where am I now as a coach?
  • What are the opportunities for change – where am I going as a coach?
  • What decisions need to be made – how will I get where I want to be as a coach?
  • Goal setting and review – how will I know if I’m moving forward as a coach?
  • Next action – what do I need to do as a coach?

That next action mindset at a club or organisation seems to be key and driven alongside an effective questioning culture, has the potential to change behaviour. A few years back I was influenced by David Allen’s book called, ‘Getting Things Done’ where he talks about making good front end decisions in relation to individual productivity, but he also highlights ‘next action steps’. Within the context of individual action plans to change or modify certain coach behaviours, I have found that identifying the next physical action to move a coach forward can be productive and we should pay particular attention to the ‘hard edges’ that characterise next action behaviour. When encouraging coaches to become more efficient I tend to focus on transformational behaviour and present a model of change that highlights a visible framework for them to identify with. John Kotter in particular provides a process that has worked for me with regards to getting coaches to change their next action culture. I like this framework as it is transformational and underpinned by the emotion of the coach. You will be able to view Kotter’s work if you are interested in this although the following is a selection of key points that I have adopted in my applied work:

  1. To maintain momentum, highlight the importance of urgency of the next action and where it will have potential impact. Talking about a problem or issue (can be group or individually-related) makes coaches aware that something needs to be changed.
  2. In order to get coaches to talk about change, an open and honest environment is crucial. Encourage trust and a supporting climate and coaches will start to face issues that a more conventional approach in football may overlook. Once coaches talk more openly about behaviour, windows of opportunity will be recognised and the next action becomes more explicit.
  3. Action plans will help coaches see that the issues that have been raised can be dealt with. As mentioned above, if process-related information has been highlighted then a coach can see a more probable outcome.
  4. Get coaches to convey (next action) success stories and empower others to take action or help to fulfill the next action.
  5. Provide feedback to coaches to acknowledge achievement – small wins have the ability to change effort.
  6. Successful next action changes provide the opportunity to share values amongst coaches and team members. Through this a climate of visibility helps to maintain positive next action behaviours of coaches and learning becomes fully embedded within the coaching process.

As a coach you may be able to identify with some or all of these that I have mentioned. I find that when I work with coaches to help them with their next action, they must engage with a robust dialogue – with themselves or with others. This process will start to enhance clarity on the process and provide accountability – two important aspects of their learning. It is the perception of additional work and a previous lack of transparency and accountability that makes this a challenge for coaches although the experiences that I have from working through a full reflective process that includes next action has helped coaches to maximise the opportunity to develop.

Ian Mitchell

Twitter: @ianmitch9

Providing some insight into the psychology of performance

I’m hoping that I will be able to start posting regular updates on some interesting experiences that I have as an applied sport psychologist working predominantly in professional football. I would like to think that I can provide insight into some interesting topic areas and also discuss relevant experiences of others who like me, manage their time between academia and the real world of performance.