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There’s a TV documentary in two episodes called The Class of 92 about a football club taken over by celebrity ex-players, and its journey from a lower level to a higher one. They sack the coach and appoint two new ones, who have a firm and clear approach to the task at hand.

Ashley was told to leave. The club and the team clearly meant a lot to him, and he arrived in his kit all ready to play. They coaches met him for what they might call a one-to-one conversation, although it’s a two-on-one, and they could be talking to someone with little need for respect.

Coach 1 (pointing a finger at Ashley’s chest): You’re not in the squad. Were leaving you out of the squad.
Ashley: Why’s that?
Coach 1: We’re picking someone else over you
Ashley: Why? I should be playing today.
Coach 2: In your opinion
Ashley: Yeah
Coach 2: You honestly feel that since we have been here (in the club) you have done well enough to stay in the team.
Ashley: yeah, definitely. If I was in your plans, and I was, I am good enough
Coach 2: If you were good enough you’d be starting (in the team today). Forget the excuses.
Ashley: I was good enough (in that last game)
Coach 2: You were poor. I thought you was poor. I thought we were definitely poor as a team. You’ve been at this club all season and you’ve not been pulling any trees up. If you were honest you’d be telling yourself (that), you’ve been given free games mate, some players haven’t had that chance. You’ve had your chance.
Ashley: But I don’t think I have done anything wrong.

Ashley got confronted, defended himself, and that was that. He wasn’t just dropped for the game, but sacked, for good. “I just want to go home and die in (my) room sort of thing….”, he said later. As Coach No 1 says, “Its not a democracy”, suggesting that there are only two ways for coaches to function: you either tell people what to do, or you make the mistake of taking on board their views.

Then there was a two-pronged attack on a player in the changing room at half-time, in front of his teammates:

Coach 1 to striker: I don’t know what you’ve done for 45 minutes. I think you’ve touched the ball twice. Like a lost little boy, that’s what you look like, lost.
Coach 2 to their striker: Listen to me yeah, all you’ve done for 45 minutes is blame every other fucker. In my opinion the game’s gone.
Striker: What’s the help with that fucking attitude
Coach 2: That’s not my attitude, my attitude at the beginning of the game was .. do what you’ve done for the last three weeks and you’ve not…..
Striker: That’s not (the best way) to gee people up, to single someone out.
Coach 2 (interrupting): Single yourself out……Stop doing all this with your hands. Throwing your hands about ……
Striker: That’s to get myself up and going
Coach 2: Oh to blame everyone else gets you up does it
Striker: I’m not arguing
Coach 2: No we’re not arguing. We get it straight. At least I know now where we move on from this.
Striker: I just said it to not single any person out
Coach 2: I’m not singling anyone out, I’m just saying do your job. You do your job let me worry about anybody else’s.

The coaches no doubt have a plan in mind, as coaches must in this competitive environment. How they speak with players however, is open to question. Their style is consistently confrontational: do as we say or you’re done for. Engaging with a player is not given priority at any point. What effect does this have on the players’ motivation and behavior change?

Confrontation evokes resistance
The coaches have some points to make at half time, yet seem unaware of the difference between the message content (e.g. “you could be playing better” or “try not to blame others on the pitch”) and the style used to convey it. For them, they are merged into what is sometimes called the “hair dryer treatment”, widely used in military settings, where a dose of humiliation is assumed to breed conformity. As it turns out, the striker fails to acknowledge the message, and starts to criticize their coaching style (“That’s not (the best way) to gee people up, to single someone out”). The style in itself evokes resistance. He was hardly likely to say, “yes I agree, I am behaving like a small boy, I’m sorry, I’ll be a big man now and not blame other players”. He defended himself instead.

Are these coaches aware of a trap they fall into, that when a player resists their message, because of the style they use, they mistakenly assume that he doesn’t really grasp the content, and then blame him for being any of a wide range of things, like stupid, arrogant, and so on? If they shifted their style, they would certainly get a different reaction.

Their striker saw through it all: “I thought he was making a show of me really”. The coaches on the other hand, were still caught in the trap: “I asked him a question at halftime, and he tried to go around the houses….”

This approach to lifting motivation is not uncommon apparently e.g.,


Are there more effective methods? These coaches show no evidence of an ability to reflect upon their own style, and adapt accordingly. Might this be a marker of what being a good coach involves?

“The Game”: How far can you take it?
There was a system for treating people with addiction problems in the US in the 1960’s that took this all a step further. “The Game” involved a group of fellow addicts and their leader all focusing on someone and humiliating them. In the Synanon organisation women were “obliged” to shave their heads, men to have vasectomies, and violence towards others was actively promoted. It was based on the idea that confronting others with the folly of their ways was the best way to promote change. This idea reached into the addictions field for decades, like a sticky glue, and endured, despite a lack of evidence for effectiveness.

To confront means to come face-to-face with something, clearly necessary sometimes, for both individuals or a team, especially when they are losing. The goal seems clear enough: to help individual players to change, to lift their motivation, and to come “face-to-face with” a new perspective about their game. Ideally, its something that happens within someone. Its not unique to sport, let alone football. Parents, teachers, doctors, managers in organizations all know the experience, “I’ve got to help this person to see things differently”.

The desirability of coming to a new perspective is often confused with how a coach does this with his or her players. Quite a wide range of approaches could be used to help a player do this. Quiet contemplation, a helping hand of encouragement, a focused one-to-one guided discussion about change, and so on. These are all routes to improving motivation and performance; as is the use of fear, which these coaches seem to rely on.

Inducing fear
Striking fear into people is a well-oiled strategy in many settings, with some evidence in social psychology apparently suggesting that it can be helpful. Doctors, teachers, prison warders, sergeant majors all use it. Footballers sometimes report positive reactions, which might be because they have developed the resilience to respond well, or perhaps because they also have a particularly good relationship with a coach that allows for a full-frontal approach to lifting motivation. Engagement and trust might be important. However, it would be a bold coach who would argue that striking fear into players works for everyone, let alone that this should be a cornerstone of club culture.

Doing this in a group must be a high-risk strategy, unless the only goal, like in a military exercise, is to ensure immediate conformity to a simple plan that everyone understands. People react differently to threat. The striker struck back, his teammates recoiled and shut down. Is there a Plan B, which does a better job of helping players to new insights and for lifting their motivation and performance?

Detecting deficits
It is one thing to acknowledge that a coach must analyse, solve problems and direct strategy, particularly at half-time with a group of players, quite another to observe leaders with no other way of helping players to improve.

It follows the logic of their approach that, since these coaches apparently know everything, or at least should appear to, then players don’t, which is why the latter need “the truth” pointed out to them. Its what doctors, teachers and parents do when they try to “make” someone change. One becomes an expert at noticing deficits. Correction is the obvious solution, something that’s been called the “righting reflex” in the health care field. Its also what they were trying to do in “The Game”. The response is not uniformly positive.

These coaches were expert deficit detectives. With blind conviction they noticed what was wrong, and corrected it. Its like they are wearing set of goggles through which they see only deficits. They would probably say that they are motivating the players. In truth, one cant really motivate people through coercion, instill this into them, like lifting a lid on their heads and stuffing the motivation into them. Put another way, only people themselves can change their behavior and improve their performance. Coaches can scream, cajole, threaten and induce fear, and then its up to the player.

A switch to different set of goggles, one that filters and focuses on player strengths and internal motivation would lead to some quite different strategies in the changing room. For example, praise, or its older sister affirmation would be much more widely used. Players themselves would be seen as people with the strengths, insight and willingness to say why and how they can improve. You’d hear football coaches affirm players’ new insights about how to improve performance. The French polymath Blaise Pascall put it sweetly thus, “People are better persuaded by the reasons they have themselves discovered then by those that come into the minds of others”. There’s not a whiff of this wisdom in what’s on show in and around this changing room. Again, there seems to be no Plan B.

But time is short
There’s a paradox on show here in the heated atmosphere of the half-time team talk: the faster the coaches rush, the slower is their progress. Precious time was spent in a largely fruitless exchange with the striker, and the coaches looked rushed, like they were thinking, “I need to get as much information as I can from my head into theirs”, and off they went, like a corner man in boxing, who has only 60 seconds to provide feedback. What followed was a shower, a potentially toxic mixture of confrontation, fear-induction and deficit correction. How much do players absorb, retain and act upon? How much time is wasted as a result and could be better spent another way? Would a few carefully chosen words be worth more than many mouthfuls of busy talk?

Its well-known in health care settings that patients can forget most of the information they are given, often confined to the first and/or the last things they are told. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serial_position_effect). A colleague told me recently that a boxer he knew discovered that his corner man was giving him the most important information first, as he reached his chair, but he soon forgot it, because it was last thing the coach said that the boxer remembered before going into the next round. They adjusted the process. Leaner information, carefully delivered.

And its effective?
There’s a striking lack of research on sports coaching styles and their impact. In health care they run controlled trials on communication styles to explore what works best. Just because a team improves after an all-out verbal attack at half-time does not confirm the effectiveness of the approach. The nuances of this kind of biased and faulty logic are well described by the cricketer and writer Ed Smith (www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/945535.html). Put bluntly, a lot of other things can lead to improvement, not only within the team selection and performance, or in the poorer play of the opposition, but also by chance, with luck and because of something even more perverse: people and teams hover either side of their average level of play, and there’s a natural tendency to swing back and forth. A poor performance is statistically highly likely to be followed by a better one, and vice versa.

In the absence of research, and the presence of this complexity, the best approach sounds like a willingness to learn from one’s coaching mistakes, to reflect, to develop a range of strategies, and critically, to observe how players react moment-to-moment in one’s conversations with them.

A club culture emerges

The Class of ’92 presents the emergence of a new club culture, as old as the military rituals that seem to fuel it. Norms are established, and the conversations follow suit. They were not that far off from teaching the players to march. It’s like a traffic light system, with green and red lights flashed in front of panting players.

This simple approach to motivation and behavior change has been roundly criticized in school education, primarily because the drivers are external to the students, when many teachers know that the challenge is to inspire, model and elicit internally-driven motivation to change. Good relationships are seen as the foundation for all else in the effort to approach, withdraw, reconsider, and start new conversations that seem to be really helpful. Ricky Ponting, emerged from his cricket captaincy into retirement and said,

“The biggest part of captaincy for me was understanding personalities. We all know how important communication as far as captaincy or leadership is concerned. But you can’t communicate well with people until you UNDERSTAND how to communicate well with them. I could sit in a team meeting and deliver the greatest tactical speech of all time but half a dozen guys would interpret what I would say in different ways, so I had to understand the personalities to get deep inside them to get the best out of them.”

And here, in this emerging club culture, the young men absorb the rules and try make headway. They learn to shout back, yell at and criticize each other, just like the coaches do with them. Perhaps not surprising then to find that the coaches’ main criticism of the striker was that he was criticizing his teammates on the pitch. James Baldwin captured this well: “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them”.

Some questions to answer

If this is a model of good practice in coaching, the subject of bullying might need attention. Bullying is commonly defined as a repetitive physical, verbal or social act intentionally designed to be hurtful, in a relationship where the perpetrator is in a superior position. Celebrity co-owner Ryan Giggs seemed to notice this: “They are aggressive and close to crossing that line”.

Exploitation also raises its head. Another co-owner Phil Neville notes, “They (the coaches) wanted everyone to run through a brick wall for them…. I think we’re at the ruthless end of football… if you don’t play them (in a match), you don’t pay them, you don’t have to give them contracts…. There’s no security whatsoever…. You’re just a piece of meat.”

Players or people?

Perhaps this all comes down to another choice of lens: are they viewed as players or people? The latter is probably closer to the front end of current coaching wisdom than the former, and carries as responsiveness to individual needs visible in The Class of ’92 only very occasionally, and not from the coaches themselves. Yet.

Lifting motivation

Some of the strategies on display in this documentary, like confrontation and fear induction, might well be used by coaches elsewhere with skillful timing and perhaps with a stronger emphasis on engagement beforehand. As for alternative approaches to confrontation, their breadth is as wide as the decades coaching wisdom, associated stories and textbooks will allow. What unites them is probably at least an emphasis on building relationships and on using a wider range of communication styles in response to diverse players’ needs.

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#MI #motivational interviewing #stephen rollnick #football coaching


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