Coaching & Development, Human Performance, Leadership & Culture, Performance | Jun 9, 2021
The first day explored themes including athlete feedback, leadership styles and personal wellbeing.

Brought to you in association with our Main Partners

We have reached the halfway stage of Virtual Leaders Meet: Evolution of Leadership and now take a moment to reflect on the first day’s proceedings.

By John Portch

On day one, Leaders Performance Institute members from across world sport logged on to listen to best practice insights from English Premier League side Aston Villa, the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and Chicago Bulls, as well as the NHL’s New Jersey Devils and the English Institute of Sport.

With in-person events still off the table in the short term, the Leaders Performance Institute worked with our Event Partners Science in Sport and Aspetar, as well as Main Partners Keiser, to create a virtual event that delivered the same levels of shared knowledge and insight to which you grew accustomed in 2020.

“Yes, we are back, and here over the next two days to create a world which enables the global high performance community to come together virtually to target every aspect of high performance,” said host Michael Caulfield live from the Leaders studio at the start of the day.

“Over six sessions – pieced together with you firmly in mind – we’ll aim to connect ideas, share stories, hear fresh perspectives and help each other to see beyond our usual horizons as we target every aspect of high performance.”

Whether you were able to attend or not, we hope these takeaways will help you to begin to achieve that aim.

Session 1: Premier League Leadership – Giving Feedback and Influencing People

Speaker: Dean Smith, Head Coach, Aston Villa FC

Host: Michael Caulfield, Sports Psychologist Consultant

We kicked things off with Dean Smith, the Head Coach of English Premier League Aston Villa, who delved into his development as a coach.

Smith has led his boyhood club to year on year improvement since taking the reins in October 2018. He took a club languishing in 14th place in the English Championship and guided them to Premier League promotion via the Play-Offs in 2019.

Villa survived their first season back in the top flight despite the Covid disruptions and, at the end of the 2020-21 season, Smith guided the Birmingham-based side to mid-table security, while claiming a series of big scalps – most notably champions Liverpool following a 7-2 thrashing in October 2020.

  • As a coach, Smith believes himself to be an accumulation of a decade of experience spent coaching in English football. He freely admits that if he’d had the Villa job as his first then he wouldn’t have lasted even six months. He has made sure he is aligned to the owners’ expectations and aspirations while learning emotional regulation in his own coaching style.
  • The Covid restrictions have brought home for Smith how important both visibility and listening are for a leader. He believes that players need to see the head coach out on the training pitch, listening to players and understanding their motivations and concerns.
  • Key to his approach is enticing his players to play with freedom and without fear. “When I first came into coaching, I said to myself ‘if I become a manager, I want to be a manager who I would have wanted to be managed by.’ I live by that statement every day. One of the biggest things I want to be is consistent with the players. They need to see consistency from the person making the decisions.”
  • When Smith sees a player’s motivation start to wane, he favours a “good old-fashioned one to one talk.” He says: “It is important to ask the player ‘how can I help? What do you expect from me? Is there anything you feel you need?’ I’ve never been afraid to ask players that question and I’ve never been afraid to get the reply.”
  • Greater input leads to better decision making. Smith needs his support staff to be able to challenge him – “I don’t want people saying ‘yes’ to me all of the time” – that comes from trust built over time. “There has to be one decision-maker at the end of it but you want everyone’s opinions in order to make better decisions.”


Session 2: Leadership Book Club – Lessons from the Top of Sport

Speaker: Scott O’Neil, CEO of the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils

Host: James Emmett, Editor-at-Large, Leaders

For the next session we took a virtual visit to the office of Scott O’Neil, the CEO of the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils, as he discussed what he has learnt about business and sport through three books that have shaped him as a leader.

They are:

1. Leadership & Self-Deception by The Arbinger Institute

O’Neil said: “It’s simply about treating people as people.”

“I first read it when I was out of work, out of luck, out of money… I was struggling physically, emotionally, spiritually and intellectually. My wife handed me this book and she said ‘You need this one’.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever sat on the plane next to someone who is crying. It’s not great because you don’t know the person and you don’t want to engage. But I was that guy and it set me on a path to rediscover who I was, who I am, and who I aspire to be.”

Therefore, his staff have a direct route to him. “There aren’t too many opportunities when you come into an organisation that you get to speak to the CEO one on one. I don’t think that’s lost on people when they come in.”

2. The Psychology of Money: Timeless Lessons on Wealth, Greed, and Happiness by Morgan Housel

O’Neil is wary of any of his players across both the Sixers and the Devils ending up in financial ruin. This book has informed his attitude and approach to the topic.

He said: “I talk to a lot of our players about how important it is to make smart, prudent, financial decisions and how their wealth is generated at such a young age. They have an incredible opportunity to build wealth over time because they have the ‘X factor’, which is time.

“This is the one book that I’ve read that encapsulates all of the lessons and messages that you need to know, could know, and should know about building wealth over time.”

3. Be Where Your Feet Are: Seven Principles to Keep You Present, Grounded, and Thriving by Scott O’Neil

O’Neil’s third and final book is the one he published in early June in which he ‘offers his own story of grief and healing, and shares his most valuable lessons in what keeps him present, grounded and thriving as a father, husband, coach, mentor, and leader.’

Thriving is important but so is being present and grounded. Indeed, ‘where your feet are’ means “phone down, head up,” as O’Neil puts it.

“The world is chaotic,” he continued. “How much time do we actually have with our loved ones? If we can carve out 45 minutes a day to have meaningful conversations with our children, partner or whoever matters to us, I think that will keep us grounded.

“And why grounded? For me, grounded is about finding your authentic self; and I think we’re at our best when we find out who that is and it helps us to be more aware. Also the world is suffering right now… we’ve been in isolation, our businesses have been suffering; anxiety and depression are up.

“When you’re on a Zoom call, notice who has their video off; notice who’s voicemail is full; notice the friend who hasn’t texted you back in a week. There are people that need us right now. We need to reach out, we need to connect and we need to take care of each other.

“We need more connection and more life. And that’s on us.”


Session 3: Personal & Team Wellbeing – Looking After ‘We’ and ‘Me’

Speakers: Dr Wendy Borlabi, Head of Performance & Mental Health at the Chicago Bulls, and Dr Kate Hays, Head of Performance Psychology, English Institute of Sport

Host: Dr Dehra Harris, Assistant Director of High Performance Operations, Toronto Blue Jays

The final session of Day 1 explored what wellbeing, psychology and mental health looks like at the Chicago Bulls, through the eyes of Dr Wendy Borlabi, and Dr Kate Hays at the English Institute of Sport [EIS].

Borlabi has been with the NBA’s Chicago Bulls for more than six years but took her latest role, as the Head of Performance & Mental Health, just weeks after the regular season was suspended in July 2020. Her appointment signalled that mental health and wellbeing would be key components of the Bulls’ ongoing rebuild.

Hays has been instrumental in delivering the EIS’ psycho-social service provision since the beginning of the pandemic. This process includes the collaborative efforts of the EIS’ Psychology, Mental Health and Performance Lifestyle teams to enable the phased return to action for athletes across the 40 Olympic and Paralympic sports with which the EIS works.

  • It is important to stabilise an athlete’s confidence. Confidence, according to Borlabi, will: “ebb and flow but, essentially, it is always inside”. Hays concurred. She also said: “Confidence is multi-faceted – people can have different types of confidence. People can be confident about different things and derive confidence from different places. When we try to encourage people to develop a robust confidence bank, what we’re trying to do is ensure they’re pulling their confidence in from many different places.”
  • Constraints-based learning is a useful tool when working with athletes to transfer their skill from training to competition. Hays said: “If an athlete’s skill is not transferring in certain contexts there is likely a difference in the behaviour, emotions or the cognitive thought processes that are taking place. The best way to prepare anyone for something in life is to prepare as many environments and as many different contextual constraints as you can.”
  • It is not just female athletes that crave an emotional connection with their coaches – prioritise the providing of safe spaces when building skills and confidence. “It’s more age-related as opposed to gender,” said Borlabi. “There is a shift in athletes wanting coaches have the credentials to take you from point A to point B – that was the priority in the past. Now I see more of the connection with the coach; they want to have the relationship. In my opinion, that’s to do with age. They’re coming into the NBA at 17-years-old; they’re babies, they need that nurturing and someone who’s going to take them under their wing, ask about them or visit them and their family at their house. When that trust is there then the coach can expand and ask them to go out of their comfort zone and challenge them because there is trust built on those social aspects and emotions.”


Head here for takeaways from Day 2.


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