The Key to Engagement


Why do Grassroots clubs with volunteer, unpaid coaches, helpers, committee members and parents have massive levels of engagement while current businesses who pay substantial salaries with great benefit packages, making good profits suffer from low levels of engagement?

As Simon Sinek says, let’s ‘Start with Why’ In our club and most community grassroots clubs there is a clear ‘Why’ These why’s might vary to some degree with some clubs reason for existence being to win trophies while many follow the development route. Our over-arching WHY is we want to nurture and develop our children both as people and players. As Whitney opened her classic song with:

“I believe the children are our are future
Teach them well and let them lead the way
Show them all the beauty they possess inside
Give them a sense of pride to make it easier”

Now I have put that song in your head, you will be singing it as you read this!

At our club we see ourselves as guardians to the many kids under our influence. Having this clear WHY allows us to try and create the best possible environment for our players to develop. Do we always get it right? Of course not, but if we always revert to this meaningful WHY then we have a chance of getting it right more often than not.

While over in the workplace, research has shown that industry has the most disengaged workforce in history. One survey reported levels as high as 85% of employees being disengaged.

So how do we deal with this apparent paradox?

As demonstrated, our club and many others have a clear WHY, while many businesses struggle with articulating their WHY. They have clear mission and vision statements stating what they do and how they do it but rarely delve into the WHY. Most employees go to work to earn a salary to pay bills, support families while trading their time for a pay cheque. This is all fine but it doesn’t happen at GR clubs. We give our time for free with no expectation in return.

So having a clear WHY would be a start in any business in addressing this paradox. There a few and Simon Sinek explains it far better than I ever could but companies like Costco, John Lewis and Southwest Airlines spring to mind. There is one thing that needs to be stated that this WHY needs to be authentic and lived by the people, there is no point on it being handed out by higher management. Enforcing a WHY just won’t work. It needs time to develop and form, just like at a GR club the coaches, helpers, and players will be the standard bearers and it will then slowly diffuse throughout all parts including the surrounding community.

I truly believe we all want to leave a legacy in some way. I have said before ‘Your Influence Is Never Neutral’  so I want to leave as positive a legacy as possible. In whatever field you operate in, I believe legacy is important. In James Kerr’s classic book ‘Legacy‘ which features the New Zealand All Blacks leadership lessons, he states ‘True leaders are stewards of the future’ We need to put things in place now which will bear fruit in years to come. This is the joy of coaching, you may not always see it mature but the seeds you plant today will ripen and flourish sometime in the future. We can make a difference in people’s lives through our coaching but remember it is long term change and not short term results!

Just to further reinforce the point on the differences between a grassroots clubs and businesses, I would like you to consider the following paradoxes and then consider why one gets barrel-loads of engagement while the other struggles. I will leave you to work out which ones work and which ones don’t!

Grassroots Club Business
Minimal Rules Rules for Everything
Principles Policies & Procedures
Values from Players Values from Management
Direct Communication (face to face) Indirect Comms (email, presentations)
Self-organised Teams Hierarchical Structure
Action Planning
Working Together Working in Competition
Long term Development Short term Results

So, how can we learn from each other. I am heavily involved in both these areas and I truly believe a legacy can be left in both if we can break down the barriers and really delve into what creates engagement in both. I have spent my career trying to simplify things, therefore here is my attempt in 3 simple steps:

  1. Define your ‘WHY’
  2. Engage all the people
  3. Just get on and do it.

There are literally hundred’s of Simon Sinek quotes but here is a favourite of mine to sum up and finish.

simon 2

The Key to Engagement

Stranger Things

Stranger Things

The latest Netflix blockbuster TV series which is taking the world by storm is ‘Stranger Things’ Hopefully this is not too much of a spoiler but it is a supernatural, horror series involving a bunch of kids set in the 80’s. This struck a chord with me and the unlikely analogy with grassroots football.

Firstly, our last scent of soccer success was back in the 80’s where we regularly qualified for World Cups and Euro championships. In a pre-digital age when VCR’s, cassette’s, Chopper bikes, rubik’s cube, pacman and big hair were all the rage off the pitch. On the pitch, tight shorts, 4-4-2, the long ball, slide tackles and big hair (common theme here!) were even more popular. I was brought up in this era with my formative years spent on dodgy pitches (mostly red ash) and then graduated to grass pitches but not as we know them today (and yes I had a mullet!).

However, Stranger Things being set in the 80’s is not the main point. It is a tale of kids finding their way into an underworld, toxic land which has monsters, psychokinesis, government agencies all wrapped up within a plot of teenage angst and development. Is it starting to sound familiar yet? Yes, we have now found our own grassroots football in this alternative dimension.

Our environment has now turned noxious and harmful just like ‘Upside Down’ In Upside Down it is dark and virulent, being a mirror image of what is above ground where decay and death has poisoned the environment.

The septic elements of Upside Down are in our game and shown up as:

  • Shouty coaches practicing joystick coaching
  • Parents abusing players from the touchline
  • Coaches feeding their own ego at the expense of their players
  • Line drills, training without a ball, practices by rote
  • Win at all costs mentality

These practices represent the demagorgons, demadogs and Mind Flayer of Upside Down.

But I have my own strategy to defeat these dark forces!

What about this for a true ‘Upside Down’ approach. We need to play to learn instead of playing to win. Tim Gallwey of ‘Inner Game’ fame introduced a tennis tournament where the loser advanced to the next round. Crazy, you say! but let’s think about this. By trying this different approach then the focus on winning is removed and kids can play freely and experiment with no consequence of the result.

We know kids create their own pressure by feeling the need to win (usually driven by parents/coaches). Pressure is created by the kids thought process which we know is not good for them but we continually allow them to live in this pressure chamber.

Another ‘Upside Down’ idea from me is to look at how we play. Currently we have traditional defenders and attackers where we appoint good solid, big defenders who can win tackles but little thought for playing football. At the other end we put players who have different attributes of maybe speed and agility or a ‘good finisher’ Pep has taught us to turn this thought ‘Upside Down’ I want my full back so be so advanced the wingers are marking them. My centre backs can play and be creative. My forwards can defend. All this can be done if pressure is removed.

Maybe one day we’ll get a grassroots game that is supported, funded and provides a solid base for our beautiful game underpinned by values such as respect, integrity and honesty. To achieve this, we will need to fill in the tunnels of Upside Down and close the gate to stop the forces of Upside Down ruling our world. We need our own heroes such as Hopper, Will, Mike, Lucas, Dustin, Nancy, Steve and Jonathan to fight the ‘bad men’ In particular we need an ‘Eleven’ to lead the way to the promised land. So here is my Eleven. There are many more in the squad and we need to strengthen but here’s my Grassroots ‘Eleven’ to take the fight on.

  1. @TEGK1
  2. @PeterPrickett
  3. @Salisburyrovers
  4. @markstkhlm
  5. @renegadestyle
  6. @Coach_Reed
  7. @markproskills
  8. @insidewrite1957
  9. @GAZT7
  10. @10Simmer10
  11. @ContactCounts

Apologies, as there are so many others but follow these guys and they will lead you to many more who can change our game. These are warriors who can lead us to the promised land. Progressive coaches who are turning it ‘Upside Down’ We need to escape the harmful, base current environment which pervades our game and get above ground where the the air is clear and the future is bright allowing ALL players to flourish and not just the lucky few.

We may well need the powers of ‘Eleven’ to get us out of the fog and see the truth which lies within it. We need to escape the monsters who are fed with ego.

I believe we can escape and we will be better for it. More inclusive, more tolerant, more expansive and most of all, more caring.

Stranger things have happened!


Stranger Things

I Had A Dream

I had a Dream

It was just like any other night as I made my way up to our training pitch. There was a light swirl of rain reflecting off the glowing floodlights on a cool autumnal evening. As I unpacked my usual bag of balls, bibs and cones and put on my ‘old school’ black Puma Kings, I sensed something very different. As I walked towards the pitch I heard some very different noises. It was the laughter and sense of fun that was emanating from all parts of the pitch.

The pitch was split up but there were no cones. Teams were split up but there were no bibs. Balls were flying about all over the place in a football version of ‘Chaos Theory’ Yes, it was ill-disciplined and unstructured but somehow it felt like a perfect orchestra playing. As I walked through the gates there was a 4 v 4 going on involving boys and girls aged between about 9 and 11. There was another 4 watching and cheering as one of the players did a beautiful panna on his opponent. This move was finished off by a lovely ‘sweaty’ goal. The trigger for the losers to go off and the watching 4 to restart the game.

Just next to them were a group of about 6 or 7 having a game of ‘World Cup’ in the main goals. 3 teams of 2. Not sure of the age but varied between about 11 and 14. There were no bibs but they knew who their team mate was. The intensity was amazingly high.

In the corner beyond this game were a group of boys and girls doing a rondo. There were about 7 on the outside with a couple working hard in the middle. The tricks, flicks and touches were sublime as the ball was zipping about like a pinball machine.

As I averted my eyes up to the halfway line there was a young group playing crossbar challenge. They could only be about 6 or 7 as they struggled to lift the ball to hit the crossbar. The cheers when one achieved their target was like a high-pitched scream which could be heard from well down the road.

The last group I observed were just a bunch of boys and girls with a ball each as they practised their keepy-uppies and were waiting patiently to join in one of the games set up around the pitch. Left-right-left-right. The tap, tap, tap…. was like a military two-step in accordance. I then heard a shout “The first to make 1,000′ wins” The concentration on their faces intensified.

So that was the whole of one half of the pitch being taken up with a variety of games and practices. The other half entailed a full game across the way. It was a bout 8 or 9 a side with goalies and teams with ages from 14 to 18. The pace was incredible and reminded me of a video I saw of the ‘cage’ at Man United’s training ground. You had to earn the right to be on the pitch no matter your age, size or gender. It was full on with continual players joining and leaving. Great play, great goals, great defending it had everything and never stopped. No throw-ins, the ball was straight back in play.

I then left the field with all this activity going on as I was about to take my usual stroll across the car park to go the school entrance I was halted in my tracks. Firstly, I noticed there were no cars! They were replaced by games going on all across the car park. The light was sufficient to produce 3v3 and 4v4 games. Small goals and jumpers were being used for goals. As my detour took me around the car park I noticed two young kids who must have been pre-school playing ‘kerby’ and was immediately transported back to my earliest memories with a ball.

As I entered the school and made my way to the gym hall where a large number of kids were enjoying futsal. The tricks and moves were amazing and again the noise and laughter was resonating around the hall.

After all this activity involving over 100 boys and girls from 4 to 18, I sat down in a quiet space just off the main reception and reflected on what I had just witnessed. The passion, the joy, the intensity, the fun, the laughter, the sheer exuberance of it all put a massive smile on my face and then it struck me. There wasn’t an adult to be seen anywhere. The kids didn’t need any equipment and more importantly they didn’t need any adults to tell them what to do. They worked it out for themselves and they fun and learning they had in doing it was plain for all to see.

As I sat there, I gently roused. I wasn’t in the school after all but had fallen asleep in my car (The long hours clearly taking its toll!). I got out of my car and noticed that various training sessions were going on. Some good stuff, however many line drills and kids waiting to be told what to do. Adult voices bellowing instructions with compliant kids dutifully following. I couldn’t help but think and wonder.

My aim is to challenge our norms and way of doing things. What would you consider to be the best environment for learning, experimentation and development? We all need to ask these questions of ourselves.

There is a common misconception in football that it is a team game and that the players are brought into a club/team to make that team better. I really think it should be the opposite. What can the club do to help the player get better. If we approach it that way then we will see development across the board with everyone getting better. A rising tide lifts all ships!

Could the environment I dreamed of really exist? Can we make it happen? Can we lift all ships?

I leave you with this video. This is my dream. To get Scotland back to a World Cup by building from the ground up. Well we can all dream…..

I Had A Dream

Project Braver


Last week I attended the SFA annual Club and Coach Development Conference at Stirling University (#clubdev17) with nearly 200 club coaches and leaders. There were great speakers providing great insight into the game. It was kicked off by the Aberdeen duo of Gavin Levey (Head of Academy at Aberdeen FC) and Steven Sweeney of the Aberdeen FC Community Trust giving a great presentation on their academy and development programme. Great examples for coaches on being creative and developing talent. The subsequent presentations from Michael Beale on his experience at Sao Paulo; Stuart Ferrier from the Scottish Institute of Sport on developing and applying your principles (my personal favourite) and finally Paul McGuinness and Jim Ryan on their experience at Manchester United developing talent were all given at an extremely high standard.

As a coach, there were loads of takeaways and ideas to implement back at our grassroots club. There was only one big problem and it was mentioned by quite a few coaches. The audience was probably about 80% grassroots coaches however the presentations all came from the professional game. Consequently, there was a link missing and possibly this was a metaphor for some of the problems in our game.

Project Brave is the SFA flagship programme to change the current system. While I am sure there are loads of good parts that make it up, there is a fundamental problem. Again, it is aimed at the professional game where talk of number of academies, funding, elite status are all important but not sufficient. Again, the grassroots game is being ignored, yet that is the base of the pyramid and an area that the likes of Germany and Spain invested heavily in during their barren years to kick start the conveyor belt of talent that will eventually reach the top flight. Also, we know the success story that is Iceland and how they started quite literally at the bottom.

Reflecting back on the conference and the post-event discussions there was an acknowledgement that the current system is not producing enough quality or participation. There are many grassroots volunteers who want to help and who are keen for change. I am sure every one of us want Project Brave to succeed but I think most of us are cynical that self-interest and ego will win and we will continue on our current road to nowhere.

We just are not producing players with the technical and tactical ability for the modern game. I include my own club here. Having watched many games over the years, I still see players who, despite being with the club for many years, still can’t do the basics of control, passing, dribbling etc. I know a lot depends on the player but the system we have is just not giving them the chance to develop properly. I still see goalkeeper’s at u13 continually kicking it long and losing possession. If the top coaches like Pep are telling you this is the quickest way to lose possession then why do grassroots coaches continually encourage this?

So here is my manifesto for Project Braver

Starting at the Children’s level, I would build on the work which has already been done. The SSG at 4’s, super fives and 7’s is all the right thing to do. SSG’s with lots of touches. This is the age when the basics are learned and thus needs to be done in an environment of no pressure from coaches, parents and the scoreboard. Equal game time should be implemented for all as there is no way at this age that you can determine who will develop as professional footballers (I could give a hundred examples of late developers who went on to make it in the game).

At this level, we have the kids natural exuberance and we need to harness this in developing a love of the game in a stress-free culture. Basic skill and technique should be the priority rather than wins and losses. At this age scores or league tables are not kept but some coaches persist in keeping their own ‘fantasy league’ table. I heard one children’s coach saying ‘we would have won the league if there was one’ I would encourage mixing teams up to equal teams or even better let the kids pick teams. At this age, it is time with a ball that is most important and we need to do everything to foster this. No lines, no complicated drills but player and ball in perfect harmony. Lots and lots of it. At this age, at the moment, there is generally one ‘match’ per week at the weekend. At best they might get 40 minutes of ‘game time’ We need to mix this up. We could still have these games but more events/festivals where players just come along and play with friends or against them where they can try things to develop. There is no risk here in my book and only upside.

As we move into the high school years and youth level, it will get more organised and competitive but at least it should be built on a solid foundation of skill and ball mastery. I loved Jim Ryan’s ‘Intimidation by skill’ ethos. Rather than physical intimidation which is still seen weekly throughout the age groups, the emphasis is on having the tools to intimidate by skill.

Post-conference created a great discussion on the structure of this level to address the dichotomy of competition and participation for all. A great suggestion was having a regional and community level. The regional level would consist of well run clubs who good facilities, qualified licensed coaches (A licence preferable) who could create a competitive environment where players learn and develop (best v best). There are many existing clubs who would qualify to meet this criteria. To name but a few who may already be there are Cumbernauld Colts, Spartans, East Kilbride FC, BSC, Hutchie Vale who have the pathway to the Lowland League but there are many other clubs who would have similair set-ups to bring real competitiveness and enhancing the players playing. Clubs like Syngenta, Cantera, Harmony Row, Gartcairn, AM Soccer and many more could be invested in to provide possibly 5 regions of 8 teams plus inter-regional competition.

The above structure would be very much still development football but due to the nature there will be selection and rejection issues as we strive to continually move the most developed players into this environment. This will help build resilience and work ethos as it is the clear route to the professional ranks. I would run this format up to u19’s or even u21’s as there will be late bloomers working through the system.

Below this level will be a large base of community clubs (like mine). These clubs would be fully inclusive and would allow everyone who wants to play, the chance to play. Coaches would be qualified (L2 or above) with development and inclusion being the key metrics and not points, leagues or cups. Playing with friends is key to developing that lifelong love of the game. My best memories are not winning Scottish Cups at a young age but the games where I played with my friends with no pressure but to go out and enjoy it. Wins and losses should be irrelevant. If we can achieve the joint objectives of producing players who can step up to the next level (when they are ready) at the same time as keeping everyone playing that wants to play then we have achieved our objective.

My Project Braver has now created a pathway to the professional game through the grassroots game where we have invested in the grassroots by improving coaching and participation to develop the basic skills before being able to move up to the next level to test your developmental progress.

My final plea is to the SFA to get involved and be braver. Listen to the grassroots coaches as we see it every day. Implement the good ideas that are out there. Remember, we are perfectly designed to get the results we are getting and unless we change the system then nothing will change.

If you love the game as much as I do and can see that such suggestions could really make difference then we might have to start the revolution at grassroots level. My hope with this blog has always been to raise awareness but now we need to see action and the brave ones stepping up to the plate. Please get in touch if you think we could be braver together and make the changes that are required?

POSTSCRIPT: I had already written this blog but was just about to publish during the Scotland v Slovenia game. No matter the result the issues would still have remained but yet again another tournament is missed. The sad thing, yet again, is we lack the players with genuine technical ability in all areas of the pitch that can hurt opponents. The Slovenians with a population of 2m against our 5.5m showed better technical ability all round.

Project Braver

Your Influence Is Never Neutral


The words of Dr. Jerry Lynch kept wringing in my ears ‘Your influence is never neutral’ as I  reflect on some recent events. I would urge you to check out Jerry’s website wayofchampions  for a deeper dive into some fantastic content.

So, with Jerry sitting on my shoulder, the penny dropped a little further for me at a recent match. For readers who know me and have kept up to speed with this blog then you will appreciate that I like football to be played the ‘right way’ For me, that is getting the ball down and passing, good individual technical ability and movement. One of my pet things is to see full backs get forward at every opportunity to help support the attack. At a recent match in the first half, we (the coaches) were ‘encouraging’ our right back to go forward every time we had the ball. He was on our side of the park so it was easy to ‘tell him’ This worked to great effect with loads of overlaps and underlaps causing chaos for the opposition. At the same time we didn’t say anything to our other full back as he was on the opposite side. In the second half the roles were reversed as we ‘encouraged’ our left back to go forward at every opportunity. The effect was the same with the left back rampaging forward causing chaos while on the other side the right back hardly ventured forward once. After the game I spoke to the right back and asked why he never got forward in the 2nd half. He actually couldn’t explain it despite some promptings!

This little lesson was profound for me. After a discussion about decision making it is clear that it is not the player who is at fault. This is my failing and it is a big one. I realised that all the technical work is meaningless unless we work on the mental side at the same time. The players are still relying on these ‘shouts’ from the sidelines. I hate to say it but at 15yo we haven’t created that environment yet where decision making is integrated. I have taken a hard look at myself and now looking at teachings on awareness, self-responsibility, purpose and emotional buy-in. My last blog Breaking the Command and Control Chains talked about how we do this but it’s not that simple or easy. The only way to do it is small incremental steps and that is how I am approaching it.

I suppose my failing is not stating a clear style of how I would like the team to play and evolve. This is definitely ‘work in progress’ for me. So what is that style? For me, it is players comfortable and confident on the ball; quick passing; every single player involved in the game no matter where the ball is; playing out from the back; good transitions etc etc. My own team is very much a WIP on this but I need to help them understand the how and why.

As well as my own u16 team, I have watched quite a few other games lately involving older teams. There are certain themes evident in all the games. I have taken in matches up to adult level. Mostly, defences are made up of strong physical defenders who are good in the air and don’t take chances. I listened with interest for the shouts from the side of the park such as ‘clear your lines’ ; ‘No chances’ ; and the loudest shout I heard from a coach was ‘Great kick’ when the GK launched the ball the length of the park. On the same day I heard this I read a statement from Brendan Rogers following some impatience expressed by some Celtic supporters. It was summarised as:

“Or you can play Scottish football. Just smash it up the pitch. It hasn’t got you anywhere for 20 odd years”

Brendan is oh so right. The problem is that this way is still evident throughout all our age groups and is therefore the MO for Scottish football. I even see it in our youngest players. The cultural thought process is that if the ball is at the other end of the park then the opposition can’t score. Yes, we still live in the dark ages while other nations know that this is just giving the ball back to the opposition. I have watched matches that have seen both teams do this ‘no risks’ football. It actually more resembles a game of rugby where teams kick for position. To paraphrase Nigel Owens:

This is not rugby.

My own failings rear their ugly head again as I have both played in and coached teams doing this sort of thing. Well, it needs to stop. I need to work out how to get it across to players that they have a choice every second they are on the pitch. They need to start thinking for themselves rather than listening to the nonsense that comes from the side of the pitch (myself included).  I actually asked a player to ignore me if I shouted something to him during a game. It is not about me, it is about the players. We need coaches to think differently and not always do it the same old way. We can make a difference but only if Jerry’s words are wringing in everyone’s ears!

So, I’ll say it again. Your Influence Is Never Neutral

Postscript: Thanks to Jerry, John O’Sullivan and Reed Maltbie Changing The Game Project for their continued inspiration on this.

Your Influence Is Never Neutral

Grassroots Tax


This is another guest post from Dave Buglass after his extremely insightful and popular previous post. Dave hits the nail on the head with this one and should be posted ‘first class’ to the football authorities. I’ll let Dave carry on……..

Please sir…………can we have some of that?

The transfer window slammed shut at 11pm on Thursday after a frantic deadline day, with the 20 teams in the English Premiership paying out more than £210m on the final day of business.

English top flight English clubs spent an absolute fortune over the past couple of months as they scrambled to improve their squads for the long campaign ahead.

Premier League sides splashed more than £1.4bn on recruitment, with a total of 265 players joining new clubs.

Wow… if only we had even a fraction of that in grassroots.

This is my 3rd season at Syngenta Juveniles now coaching at U17s with a great squad of committed players, coaches and parents. As a club, we’re like any other grassroots club always looking for funding support, sponsors etc etc to buy new kit, balls and equipment. That’s then before having to pay for the use of school let facilities and astro parks.

However, as a club we’re lucky that we’ve struck gold with a new 25-year lease for pretty much exclusive use of the Little Kerse facility in Grangemouth which boasts five pristine grass surfaces, one refurbished astro park and the announced-on Thursday a second astro park for the use by Syngenta players. Fantastic news however it’s been far too hard to achieve this and the funding required.

So taking into account the money splashing around in the transfer window in both England and Scotland, why couldn’t we introduce with the help of the government some form of Grassroots Sport Tax how would that work?

Idea 1: For every £1 spent on a transfer a 1% levy would be applied to a transfer fee that is paid into a central fund that would be governed by the relevant bodies selected.

Perhaps the Scottish Football Trust who’s impact on our game is growing at a pace. So basically, for every transfer in Scotland that takes place at one of clubs, the levy is charged to the club and then paid into the central fund.

This summer alone, over £12m was spent between Celtic and Rangers so that’s £120,000 alone into a fund.

Idea 2: Much was written about the launch of Juan Mata’s (Manchester United) decision to pay 1% of his wages (£140k a week) into the Common Goal charity run by StreetWorld Football. His idea was ‘sign up’ a Common Goal First Eleven doing similar. All funds raised would go to a range of charities.

So why with the help of the PFA in Scotland (and maybe England) couldn’t we consider a Grassroots Tax on professional salaries for all players?

Businesses up and down the UK are being charged for the new Apprenticeship Levy, which is a tax calculated on their PAYE. So why couldn’t we consider something similar?

Players putting back into the funding of facilities across the country, creating the next set of heroes and giving something back.

We shouldn’t be struggling to get funding to put teams onto the pitch on a Saturday and Sunday morning, but sadly we are. With the outcomes and outputs due to be presented on the now infamous Project Brave, are we likely to see how more funding can be directed the way of clubs to continue?  How many of the Performance Schools had new astros or the appropriate facilities provided for their launch?

If Project Brave is due to slash the number of ‘pro youth’ and ‘club academy’ sides up and running, 1000s of boys will pour back into boys club to continue their development. Are we ready for them and will we be able to continue their development or will they be lost to the PlayStation or Xbox?

One thing is for sure with the money continuing to spoil our game at the top level, funds need to be filtering down into the grassroots game.

The big guys should be doing far more to grow the next generation of Scotland stars.

Grassroots Tax

Breaking The Command And Control Chains


So here we are at the start of another season. Already having played a number of friendlies, our hopes and expectations are high. We are refreshed after the summer break and look forward to expansive, open, free-flowing football. If only the reality matched this positive outlook.

In our pre-season friendlies I have already witnessed more of the same old nonsense. Two instances, funnily enough sum this up. Both involved goalkeepers and coaches while playing the ball out from the back. I love to see goalkeepers play the ball out and start moves by playing this way. In one instance, the goalkeeper gave a goal away by being caught on the ball and in the other the goalkeeper refused to play the ball out to the full back and instead chose to go long. Both situations resulted in an argument between the coach and player (quite heated in both cases). Both arguments were ended by the coach saying “Don’t argue with me, I’ll tell you what to do”

So we are again being ‘Joystick coaches’ and using command and control thinking and behaviours to coach our teams? I am not immune, as I found myself telling a player what to do in the same game which resulted in him stopping to look at me and ask a question while the game was going on. Crazy and my fault!

The system we are all in means it has always been done this way therefore we battle this demon in every game (I certainly do). Unfortunately, the demon wins more often than not especially when things are tight and that little demon is whispering in your ear or sometimes even shouting at you to get involved. It brainwashes you into thinking you can control the uncontrollable.

So, as coaches, why are we displaying command and control thinking and behaviour when we know this is not the best way to optimise the performance of our players?

I have been a systems thinker for years but still feel I am very much still a learner. A duty of any system thinker is to work on the system. Our system is the team and club in which we can exert an influence. I would like to look at this through the lens of a movement which is gaining momentum within organisational life which I believe will make a massive difference of how we work and live. Teal organisations and Integral thinking is gathering pace and I believe gives hope to the future of work. Frederick Laloux’s book ‘Reinventing Organisations‘ is an amazing treatise on this subject and would recommend it.

Without going into details there are 3 main principles which when applied move us away from a mechanistic, command and control (Red/Orange) environment to a living system (Teal). The book provides evidence of companies who have made this change to great effect.

In terms of our clubs and football in general, I can see benefits of applying these principles and getting away from the mechanistic way we have always done it, so here goes:

  1. Self-management – As a club, we are already partly there. Each team or age group effectively works as a self-managed team. No-one is telling them what to do. We are all volunteers so there is no need to. However, these ‘self-managed teams’ could really benefit by implementing the Advice Process. This allows any person (coach) to make a decision but they need to have sought expert advice from the people who have to live with the decision (players). This means good decisions on all aspects of play will be achieved collectively where the coach checks with the players and the players check with the coach. If we were to pick this idea up then just think how much the players will be involved in their own development.
  2. Wholeness – In traditional organisations we all wear a ‘mask’ We have a professional image to maintain and the mask will not be dropped. However, we know we have a much deeper part which carries risk if we reveal it. This is who we really are against wearing a mask that is career-driven and the ego rules. If we drop the mask as coaches and give our authentic self, our real self, then we will show up fully and our players will respond positively to this.
  3. Evolutionary Purpose – We need to have a higher purpose. Beyond the next win or trophy. We need to listen more to our players, what do they want to get out of their game? Great coaches have a different perspective, a different outlook. They have a calmness that instills trust and confidence. They understand that trying to control people just doesn’t work and they try and develop the ‘whole’ person.

So there you have it. Principles that allow us to get deeper and more meaningful in our coaching. I feel strongly about breaking the chains of command and control. Unfortunately we are surrounded by this cartesian, mechanistic, newtonian, deterministic world and will be a massive challenge to break out of it. However, once we break them we will never look back as we will be free. It will mean we will live with purpose, meaning and substance and will ever wonder why we wore the chains for so long.

Once we break our own chains, our players chains will automatically fall away. It will be liberating for everyone and just think how good it will feel?

Breaking The Command And Control Chains