Team leadership lessons from football coaching

Today some of my colleagues and I were lucky enough to spend some time with Ian Bateman, one of the Football Association’s youth coach educators, Assistant Coach for the England Futsal squad and Head Coach of England’s partially-sighted Futsal squad. One of our awesome Quality Coaches, Jose Lima, organised Ian’s visit to Redgate Towers as an opportunity for us to learn about coaching and leadership from outside of the software development “bubble”. Previously I have blogged about what team leaders might be able to learn from one of the greatest football managers of all time, Brain Clough, so Ian’s visit was right up my street!

Ian spent an hour or so chatting about his experiences and answering questions about his approach to coaching and leading teams. I thought I’d share some of my takeaways from that time, points that could provide some inspiration for how we could better support our teams at Redgate.

england-futsal-line-up-ahead-of-their-second-meeting-with-sweden-in-two-days
England’s Futsal Team

Even in a team sport, it’s all about the individuals

  • Despite coaching a team, it is key to understand and engage with team members individually.
  • Motivating people is an individual thing; it is different motivating an experienced team member than a brand new graduate. Treat people as individuals and explore what it is that specifically drives them – shape a challenge that delivers this.
  • What’s going on with people outside of their working life is important to understand and affects what they need from you. Someone with a crisis at home needs to feel understood and may need special treatment in order to get them through it.
  • Keep the group engaged. Don’t just rely on your best performing team members by giving them all the opportunities or important work (even though, they may do it best). Give opportunities to less experienced, less capable team members. They will grow to be the best performers in the future, unless you lose them through disengagement first by not giving them opportunities!

Create coaching opportunities

  • Make yourself naturally, casually available to people and they will open-up and share if they need to.
  • If you are hoping to support and coach someone, be where they will be. Hang around near the coffee machine or near a common thoroughfare. Don’t expect team members to come find you in a far corner of the office. If you are hanging out where they hang out and they see you when they are in need of a person to chat to, they may well come and talk!
  • Spread the load of getting closer to people in the team. In Ian’s case, the head-coach, coaches, physios, doctor have closer relationships with a small number of individuals. Overall, everyone in the team has someone they could open-up to. One person – the head coach – cannot do it all alone.

Have achievable short-term goals

  • When the situation is difficult or overall victory seemingly unlikely, make shorter-term, achievable goals that contribute to overall improvement. Ian gave an example of where a team is facing a team they will certainly lose to “first half, if we can be only 0-2- down we will have done well”. Achieving that goal, builds towards a day where the team can challenge this level of opposition.
  • Call-out simple, short-term goals for individuals where possible – “get on the ball and don’t give it away” – that, again, contribute to overall direction but are achievable for the individual.
  • Have pride in what you are good at and don’t let your standards drop. If you team is known to have a strong work ethic, place emphasis on that.
  • Everyone should know the key aims and the teams approach… if you ask a team member and they don’t know, then you are in trouble. How can you expect a team to take this approach in times of pressure if they can’t remember it?

Build towards longer-term goals

  • Have a long-term goal and a strategy for meeting it. Don’t always subordinate to a shorter team goal that is not, ultimately, as important. So, in Ian’s world, accept a likely defeat in a friendly game in order to practice new tactics and blood new players for the bigger tournament next year.
  • Understand the gap to great. A football team does this by playing the best opposition they can, not a team they can easily beat. So, even though they are good players compared with others, they can always see someone better or a more effective team. Focus long term strategy on closing the gap to great. It’s interesting to consider how this might apply to development teams, when we don’t, at least so literally, compete directly with an opposition!

Leadership at all levels

  • Leadership from within the team is vital. An emergent leader from the team, when aligned with the coaches views, can be such a strength for the group; helping to reinforce the leader’s message and aims for the team.
  • Leadership from within the team grows the next generation of leaders; people want to step-up to follow a good example.
  • As a leader, it can be a lonely… make sure you have someone to confide in. Someone that will spot you are struggling and say “Hey, you ok? Do you want to go for a walk?” or even better “Hey. We’re going for a walk!”.

As a football fan, Ian’s insights were fascinating. As a team leader, the challenges he faces seem all too familiar and his approach in the context of football coaching offered up a new perspective and some new ideas. I could have called out in this post how I think his lessons should be applied to software development teams, but I think it is more effective and interesting if you have a go at that yourself 🙂

Thanks to Ian for spending time with us and Jose for organizing the visit!

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