Coaching & Development, Leadership & Culture, Performance | Feb 14, 2020
In this increasingly athlete-centric era it is essential for leaders to create an environment for their charges to thrive.

A Leaders Performance Institute article brought to you in association with our Partners

As we enter the 2020s, high performance sport is as athlete-centric as it has ever been but it is incumbent upon leaders – head coaches, general managers, directors of performance – to create the environment for athletes to thrive. 

By John Portch

It is not, however, a one-person show. Diverse skillsets and ways of thinking are needed to navigate the modern sporting landscape. “It’s really important,” Toni Cumpston of Hockey Australia tells the Leaders Performance Institute. “It’s probably my role to make sure that we are hearing diverse views because what happens is that people often just go with what the head coach wants, she says of the nation’s men’s and women’s teams, who will be medal favourites at the Tokyo Olympics this summer. 

In 2020, even those coaches whose personalities fill the room point to the input of their staff – at least the most successful ones listen with open ears. “The mindset of the head coach is a critical success factor,” says Dave Reddin, who formerly served as Head of Team Strategy & Performance for the Football Association [FA], when discussing their ability to listen. 

He worked closely with Gareth Southgate who, as Head Coach of the England men’s national team, leads one of the favourites for this summer’s Uefa European Championships. Amongst Southgate’s strengths, Reddin describes his all too rare desire to listen. “It’s not common but Gareth is an example of someone who naturally respects the opinions of others. Some can feel threatened by that or consider it a waste of time but you’ve got to persist until it becomes the norm; until it becomes the culture. The head coach has got to believe that everyone can make a contribution; that there aren’t any stupid ideas. They’re prepared to listen and give people time to speak who will, inevitably, get it wrong.” 

As performance and coaching staffs proliferate and the performance environment becomes ever more complex, the figurehead needs to be pre-disposed to using the resources at their disposal. It shows in England’s results over the past four years but, beyond the headline-grabbing uncontrollable outcomes, there is a sense of cohesion and purpose emanating from behind the scenes. 



The same can be said of the Brisbane Lions, who had not been to the AFL Finals Series in six seasons when Chris Fagan took the reins in 2016. His diligent work away from the oval gradually helped to create the conditions for the playing group to express their ability and, in his third year, the Lions reached the AFL semi-finals. 

The aim for Fagan, as it is for Southgate, who led England to the Fifa World Cup semi-finals in 2018, is to go a step further. Fagan and the Lions can point to numerous critical success factors, as Reddin might put it, but listening was his chief concern on day one. He began his tenure with open ears as he interviewed every member of his playing group and support staff. “There’s 46 players so it took a long time, plus every single staff member,” he recalls. “I wanted to know them as people so I listened and asked a lot of questions; I wanted to find out about their personalities, their families, their backgrounds. 

“I also asked them all three questions; 1) What’s good about this place, what are the positives? 2) Where do we need to grow and improve? 3) If you were the senior coach what would be the two or three things you would concentrate on to make this club successful? I did this for a couple of reasons; I wanted to build the relationships, I wanted to get some trust. I believe in empowering athletes so I took a lot of things they said and put them into practice. There were things I was going to do anyway but the fact is they mentioned them and they saw that put into action. I think it gave them a lot of confidence that they were going to be listened to.” 

Fagan freely admits it was not always easy. “It took a while for us to become a good footy side and there are times when my approach was tested, but I’m a big one for stability; standing for something. We stuck at it and, fortunately, it started to come into fruition in 2019.” 



Paul Gustard of Harlequins wished he had taken that approach sooner upon his appointment as the club’s Head of Rugby in 2018. He was appointed to help shape Quins into regular title challengers after an indifferent spell but needed his trusted lieutenants. “While I think emotional intelligence is one of my strongest skillsets, I probably didn’t take time to pause,” he concedes. “I think the first thing is to pause and try to seek the advice of others.” 

Reddin and the FA are firm believers in cognitive diversity, the notion articulated by author Matthew Syed in his 2019 book Rebel Ideas. Syed defines it as the inclusion of people with different ways of thinking, different views and different skill sets, as ably demonstrated by organisations such as Google or Amazon. Syed is in no doubt that cognitive diversity has its place in the modern sporting landscape and Reddin concurs“One very simple, practical thing we do is try to create an environment where anybody can have a voice on any topic. In other others: don’t stay in your lane. 

“It is practically challenging as an organisation because it evolves; you don’t have a homogenous group of people. I’ve found in football in particular that there’s a traditional, hierarchical power base; what you find in such circumstances is a reluctance amongst staff to be seen to challenge out of their lane or area of expertise. You’ve got to try and create some safety around that. 

“I guess the easiest way of doing that is from the leader themselves,” Reddin adds, returning to the idea of mindset. “They welcome that input and they value the difference in perspective. Once you’ve got that verbalised and role modelled, then I think it’s about having the right people in the room.” 

Reddin’s FA colleague Kate Baker voices similar views. “The FA has diversified its workforce over the last four to six years,” she says. “From a data perspective right through to a physical preparation and psychology perspective, we have practitioners from all sorts of sporting backgrounds – I came in from the Olympics and then professional rugby prior to that. 

“The more ideas we’ve got at the table the better we are able to challenge each other and make the work better.” 



Gustard firmly believes in providing a forum for his staff. “Firstly, you have to allow them the space to operate,” he says. “Allow autonomy, allow them to make decisions for themselves, allow people to fail; with failure you get growth, you learn lessons. Give them trust and have faith in what they do.” 

Such an approach can be rewarding for the head coach, as Arsenal Women’s Joe Montemurro extols. The Women’s Super League-winning coach says: “It’s probably one of the most important things in my style of leadership; the ability to trust your group, the ability to give them the leeway to run with their department. I think it’s one of the most beautiful and giving things in what we do. 

“One of the phrases I use a lot with my group is ‘it feels good to give’.” 

What else does a winning team need in 2020?

This article featured in our latest Performance Special Report: The High Performance Manual: Winning in 2020, which features sports organisations as diverse as Red Bull, the Brisbane Lions and the Royal Military Academy discussing the pertinent topics across Leadership & Culture, Coaching & Development, Human Performance and Data & Innovation. Download it now.

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