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We called them Serial Winning Coaches (SWC), and in the period between the London and Rio Olympiads, we were extremely privileged to, thanks to the International Council for Coaching Excellence, closely study 17 of these super coaches (10 sports; 10 countries) and 23 of their athletes. We wanted to understand not only what they do, the tip of the iceberg, but most importantly why they do it; what sits under the surface. We wanted to get an insight into the types of personalities and motivation that lead to this continuous overachievement, and we wanted to get a sense of the type of leadership that facilitates this enormous success. In short, we wanted to know who these legends of coaching are deep inside, what drives them and why.
If truth be told, I had my preconceived ideas about what to expect. An overdose of American sport movies, and the mythical and mystical kind of admiration these coaches tend to generate in fans and pundits had somehow led me to believe that they would be a cross between Dracula and the Wicked Witch of the West. I expected ill-tempered, egotistic, perhaps even immoral and selfish individuals that would sell their soul to the devil to get their hands on the coveted silverware.
What we found was somehow different. We did see some of those traits, but we really saw was that, in the main, the SWC operated along a leadership continuum that we termed Driven Benevolence
Over the course of this article, I will try to explain what Driven Benevolence means and in doing so give you a glimpse of the kind of personalities and motives we discovered in these SWC. Before I do, however, please let me give you a health warning: although the themes I am going to present might suggest a rather simplistic overview of coaching and leadership, I would like to stress both the complexity and diversity of elite coaching experiences. There are no ‘magic recipes’. Identifying a stereotypical profile of a serial winning coach is impossible. No two coaches are the same and no serial winner behaves the same way in two different situations. What we hope to provide is a framework to inform your own views on leadership and perhaps help you critically reflect on your current practice.
Let’s start then with the definition of Driven Benevolence:
The relentless pursuit of excellence balanced with a genuine desire to compassionately support athletes and oneself
Yes, the SWC have a passion for excellence and works tirelessly and relentlessly to achieve it. But, this ambition is compensated by an overwhelming desire to do good by others and a genuinely compassionate attitude towards their athletes and, perhaps more importantly, towards themselves.
Yes, we found no lone wolves, nor maladjusted individuals; all but one was married with children. Okay, we couldn’t establish if they were happily married, that would probably make for another great study, but we did establish that they led fairly normal lives and have relatively stable psychological profiles (the latter was corroborated by their athletes through the completion of personality tests).
And we found athletes who spoke very fondly of their coaches, that thought of them as mentors, and in some cases as surrogate parents. We found coaches that were as comfortable pushing athletes beyond the boundaries of what is humanly possible day in day out and holding them accountable for their performance and behaviours, as they were sitting down with a cup of coffee to discuss their athlete’s love relationships, job prospects, family feuds and finances. We found coaches sitting halfway between the authentic desire to make their athletes happy and the stern belief that the happier the athlete, the better the performance, and the higher the chance of a successful outcome; literally a WIN-WIN.
We found coaches sitting halfway between the authentic desire to make their athletes happy and the stern belief that the happier the athlete, the better the performance, and the higher the chance of a successful outcome.
In sum, we found coaches that seemed to be able to seamlessly move along this Driven Benevolence continuum to suit the needs of the people they are working with and the requirements of the context and each specific situation. No one-trick ponies in sight.
It is time we explore in detail what goes into being a Driven Benevolent coach.
The Coach’s Philosophy as the Starting Point
‘I always knew that my coach had my best interest at heart and that he would always stick his neck out for me when I needed it’ (Dutch Athlete – Multiple Olympic and World Champion)
Speaking to coaches and athletes, we realised that the behaviours of the SWC were firmly anchored by a philosophy of life typically humanistic, a set of strong values and beliefs which guided and informed every decision made by the coach; some kind of internal GPS system that keeps the coach grounded.
As part of this philosophy, three elements appear to stand out:
Now that we know the philosophy that underpins the SWC’s ‘modus operandi’, let’s explore the specific components of Driven Benevolence. First we will see the five major components of ‘drivenness’ to then focus on the three basic themes of Benevolence.
Drive: where there is a will, where is a way
SWC want to win. There is no two ways about it and nothing else will do. And they want to win all the time. And nothing else will do either. We found five main traits that typically represent this no-compromise attitude to coaching.
1. Unwavering High Standards: this constant demand for ‘nothing but best’ translates into the creation of a ‘lived high performing culture’ that is apparent and clear the moment you step into it. This much I noticed clearly when I visited their training bases. The key to this palpable culture, according to the athletes, is a coach that leads by example: first to arrive, last to leave, always thorough and prepared. The key, according to the coaches, to always raise the bar once a certain height has been reached. A zero-complacency zone. And one clear maxim: ‘Mistakes YES; Blunders NO’. What can be perfect, should be perfect.
2. Elevated Sense of Purpose and Duty: SWC expressed a clear notion that what they did was much bigger than themselves. The pride to represent a nation, even if not that of your birth or passport, was not to be played with. An extreme case is that of an older British coach who carries in his pocket a £10 note to, when necessary, remind everyone whom they work for. He took the note out of his pocket, waived it in front of my face, pointed at the portrait of the Queen and said to me in no uncertain tone: “This is who I work for, Queen Elizabeth, make no mistake”.
This sense of purpose and duty, however, goes beyond country pride. The SWC also spoke about how they felt responsible for their athletes’ hopes and dreams. A very famous German coach explained it like this: “We are talking about young people giving their best years to the sport. I feel duty-bound to help them and do my best for them. They only have one chance; I will have more”.
3. Pathological Desire to Win. “I don’t quite know why, but I need to win, and I need to win today, not yesterday or last year”. These were the words of one of the most successful Canadian coaches of the last 15 years. To understand this compulsive need to win, we have to look in a number of places.
To start with, all but one of the SWC had been national or international athletes, yet only a couple of them had tasted success at the highest stage. For the others, a raw sense of underachievement and bitterness lurked. The reasons for their not reaching the top ranged from missing out on the Olympics due to the 1980 Moscow boycott, having to retire due to injury or car crash (up to four coaches had had traffic accidents) or feeling hard done by and unsupported by their national federation as athletes. Making amends as a coach was their way to cope.
Interestingly, and another big surprise of the study, coaches displayed what we called ‘Serial Insecurity’. Despite having conquered so many medals and titles, these coaches still got up every morning thinking along the lines of “not sure if I can be successful again”. As the Canadian coach put it “my whole career has been a fight trying to prove myself, I have been driven by my constant insecurity”. The thing is though, rather than hindering their efforts, this insecurity seems to be the main reason why they continue to strive day in and day out after in most cases 20 to 30 years of coaching. It protects them from complacency.
4. All-In Commitment: SWC do not deal in half-measures. They have taken a leap of faith into the abyss of high performance sport and there is no turning back. That is why they give it everything, they throw the kitchen sink at it every day. And this also has an impact on their approach to decision-making and execution. A well-known Serbian coach was blunt about it: “The best decision is the decision you just made. Don’t second guess and sabotage yourself. If you do, your athletes will know you are doubting yourself and won’t buy it.”
This all-in attitude makes them also relatively prone to risk-taking. A sort of “you can’t keep doing the same thing and expect to win”. This ‘calculated risk’ propensity at times translated into what from the outside seems like ‘outrageous craziness’. For instance, right at the beginning of his career, this Dutch winter sport coach thought that the best way to become a better coach was to take a job in a smaller nation in the Caribbean. Yes, Cool Runnings I hear you say, exactly like that. But he explained it: “I couldn’t coach properly yet, I needed to go somewhere with low expectations where I could make lots of mistakes I wouldn’t get crucified for.” And so he did.
5. Vision 20/20: this German coach met me in his office right after winning gold in London. He was categorical: “This is easy. We know we have to peak on the 12th August 2016 at 3pm in Rio, and we know that we need to be five seconds quicker than in London to have a chance to win again. We just have to work out where the five seconds are going to come from and get to work on it”. Low and behold, they did and he added another gold to his illustrious career.
Now, there may be logic in this working backwards from dates and goals, but there is nothing easy about it. SWC are able to look into the future and see what needs to happen to give themselves and their athletes a fighting chance to succeed again. But this is not a simple process. Elite sport is laden with complexity and uncertainty. Simplifying this complexity to try and understand what pieces are more important to get right whilst maximising the existing resources is probably the hardest job of the performance coach.
Only once this ‘road map’ has been created can we get to work. As the German coach explained it: “I know where I’m going and which motorway takes me there. I know I may have to come off the motorway to fix a tyre or put petrol in, but I always know where the motorway is.”
So that’s the Driven bit, let’s look in detail now at the Benevolence side of this equation.
Benevolence: No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.
In the past we have been led to believe that the only way to succeed in sport is through military-like discipline and complete athlete submission. The SWC and their athletes break away from this tradition and propose an alternative, more balanced way. In our research we found three key components of the benevolent approach:
1. People First: in general, SWC operate from a position of full respect for the athlete as a human being. Athletes repeatedly talked about the importance of feeling cared for and respected by their coach, the security and motivation provided by the knowledge that the coach is protecting your interest and serving your individual needs. A carefully crafted, albeit fragile balance between the high demands of performance sport and the needs of the athlete as a person seemed a necessary condition for sustained success. Don’t get me wrong, SWC crack the whip when needed and are tough to live with because of their unwavering high standards, but they also understand where the limits are and respect the personal needs of their athletes. SWC are ruthless, but not heartless.
2. If you want to be understood, first seek to understand: the imperative need to know your athletes was strongly emphasised by all SWC. What drives them? What worries them? What makes them happy? The basic principle here is the requirement to understand the person you will be asking incredible things of, the people driving their bodies through incomprehensible pain and suffering. And this requires the coach to abandon a ‘I know it all’ attitude in favour of a more open-minded and collaborative one, the ability to suspend judgement until the views of the athlete have been heard, a disposition to put yourself in the athlete’s shoes. Again, do not think that SWC make decisions by committee, or always seek consensus. They are paid to make the tough decisions, but they, whenever possible make sure to consider all angles and points of view and their consequences. Athletes respect that.
3. The sun will rise again: becoming a performance coach, let alone a SWC, takes years of hard labour. Even worse, it requires a superhuman ability to overcome obstacles and setbacks, to take big falls, dust yourself off and get up again to have another good crack at it. Understanding that no matter how hard the defeat, the argument with an athlete or the disagreement with the governing body, the sun will rise again the following day and you will have another chance to fight. A thick skin and an elastic heart are an absolute must for elite coaches. Keeping a relatively flat emotional tone through both the good and the bad times was also a recommendation from an Italian coach: “you can’t be drinking champagne all day when you win, and in mourning for a month when you lose. Get rid of your personal pride, learn from failure and move on as soon as you can.”
The advantages of Driven Benevolence: cognitive and emotional flexibility
Those that have no experience of high performance sport may think that the life of the coach at this level is one of luxury, exotic travel and five-star hotels. Nothing is further from the truth. Life as a coach in the big time is demanding, uncertain and stressful. For this reason, a Driven Benevolence type of leadership style has many advantages. From our research, we identified two major areas: cognitive and emotional flexibility.
Being able to seamlessly move along the continuum between driven-ness and benevolence affords coaches a flexibility of behaviours that turn them into true chameleons, changing colour to fit the needs of the athlete, the context and the situation on a minute by minute basis. Not an easy thing to do. SWC showed enhanced awareness of their surroundings, their athletes’ needs and their own behaviours. Self-awareness and self-control are therefore very important attributes to have in the performance arena. An internal desire and belief that we can modify and choose our behaviours to fit the situation is a necessary pre-condition. Qualities that come easier to certain individuals, but that can be learned and improved in all of us if we put our mind to it. It is worth trying since we know that increased self-knowledge also leads to more and faster learning. What’s not to like? As an Australian coach said: “A great coach is a predator of opportunity.” And what better prey than learning more and quicker.
The other side of the flexibility coin is the emotional component. Driven Benevolence helps SWC survive in this unforgiving world where success and failure, happiness and despair co-exist with surprising familiarity. The Drive provides the much needed ‘humph’ to get up every day and voluntarily expose oneself to the rollercoaster nature of the coaching job. Failure is not an option for these coaches, it may happen, but they belief that with the necessary work and time, the elusive fragrance of success will come.
On the other hand, Benevolence brings into play the required empathy and love towards both ourselves and our athletes to buffer the impact of defeat on our self-esteem. It protects us from entering a downwards spiral of negative thinking and emotions that will not only affect performance, but the personal wellbeing of the coach, and by association, the athletes. Happy coach = happy athletes = increased performance.
Therefore, cognitive and emotional flexibility allow us to reach a fragile, yet optimal equilibrium needed to navigate the rough waters of elite sport, the uncertainty, the extreme joy and the lowest depths of disappointment. It keeps us stable so we can focus on the task at hand and continue to support our athletes to the best of our ability.
Now we are in position to complete the analogy of the iceberg we used at the beginning of the article: under the water we have the humanistic philosophy providing the foundation for a leadership style which we have called Driven Benevolence. Driven Benevolence, in turn, facilitates the development of the cognitive and emotional flexibility needed to, now above the water and under the sun, display fit for purpose adaptable coaching behaviours to successfully deal with the challenging reality of day to day practice. As always, the bits underwater are far more important that what the naked eye can see.
So, who are these Serial Winning Coaches deep down then?
As we have already said, it’d be foolish to try and paint all coaches with the same brush or to say that they all conform with specific ways of doing things or that they all are personality clones. SWC come in all sizes, colours and shapes. However, it is my job to attempt to make sense of all this information and to offer a composite picture of their personal narratives. I hope these profiles help you reflect on your own personalities and practices. I will use two well-known archetypes. Bear with me…
Quite a few of the coaches resemble what we called The Righteous Adventurer. A bit like Indiana Jones, these coaches are on a personal crusade for redemption, trying to right the wrongs of the past, making amends for their shortcomings as athletes or for the critical life-events which threw them off course. They also enjoy the thrill of the adventure and, although they may have a potentially blinding ego, they tend to be on the side of the good and do the right thing. But of course, no adventure is risk-free and these coaches demonstrate a tendency to take risks when the opportunity arises in order to achieve their goals.
By contrast, some of the SWC, whom we called The Higher Purpose Altruists, told a story more akin to Ghandi’s. They tended to believe that their actions were a mission aimed at fulfilling the needs of others powered by a higher purpose and the greater good. This higher purpose means that they don’t mind experiencing some personal suffering, loss and pain to achieve these higher objectives. It is part of the game. Therefore, they exhibit a certain ruthlessness and steely determination to achieve their goals which is, for the most part, non-violent and altruistic. And they use their high levels of emotional intelligence and self-awareness to convince and persuade other to follow them. Where possible they leave no casualties behind.
However, there is a third character we must consider when looking at the SWC’s personalities and narratives: Homer Simpson. Doh! Why? Very simple: because whether they lean more towards Ghandi or Indiana Jones, most of them have a side that we called The Grounded Realist, an element of their story and personality that protects them from the inherent stresses of the profession. HP Coaches live in a very different world to most of us so being able to keep a sense of perspective and normality, and achieving a relatively positive work-life balance is key to maintaining their sanity and to achieve coaching longevity, a fundamental requirement to becoming a serial winning coach. Like Homer, they all have their own equivalent of ‘doughnuts, beer and baseball’ to stay afloat. Next time you feel low, think about Homer and find your home-comforts to stay levelled.
In the end, I don’t think it is so much about being Indiana, Ghandi or Homer. Whilst all SWC have a preferred ‘action mode’, what really distinguishes them from the rest is their chameleonic ability to match the needs of the environment. Flexibility is the new strength!
 The Serial Winning Coaches study was financed by the Innovation Group of Lead Agencies of the ICCE and co-lead by Sergio Lara-Bercial at Leeds Beckett University (UK) and Cliff Mallett at University of Queensland (Australia)