Paul Green, Johnathan Thurston’s final coach at the Cowboys, offered some insights into what makes him a great player, person and leader:
We understand drive in most sporting participants is found from intrinsic motives; their internal desire to master their sports and challenge themselves through committed engagement in highly repetitive activities. Players when adopting a mastery mindset akin to Thurston shall be driven by constant and consistent desire to improve, focus on learning goals and have incremental theory towards sport specific knowledge and skill level. Players with mastery mindset will find intrinsic motivation and drive for the pursuit. JT’s displayed a growth mindset where he embraces challenges, put in maximum effort all the time to perfect his craft and worked hard with the players around him to share collective success, frequently putting his body on the line for team success such as his final game for Queensland.
Former teammate Matt Bowen says “Johnno was a natural leader from the start, a young guy with loads of skill. And, man, was he competitive. You could see that by the way he launched himself into training drills. He had to be the best, even though it was days away from game-time.” Vealey (1986) recognised sports confidence as “belief or degree of certainty individuals possess about their ability to be successful in sport”. Within competency, previous research has showed success as determined by improvements from technical to tactical to performance based skills. I believe progression or development of skills to performance adaptation requires character growth, enabling athletes to adopt a mastery outlook, evaluate their performance and areas for improvement made possible from player confidence. Positive effect and player enjoyment was regarded as most important for the athletes; coaches should pay attention to this theme within player development. Positive effect and psychological impetus are regarded as drivers for enjoyment, which in turn would offer greater engagement to programs and sports.
Cowboys coach Paul Green seemingly fit into the equation and offered environments to push himself in by understanding JT’s personal strivings, motivations and typical tendencies, subsequently offering consistent, critical yet non-controlling feedback and offer support and praise for effort, strategy and exploration of skills and abilities. Coaches need to offer and monitor accountability and feedback of control offered and adopted by players whilst encouraging player autonomy in learning and tasks, as autonomy leads to engagement, which results in drive for mastery. Coaches such as Green, Meninga and Henry’s involvement in Thurston’s success should not be ignored; studies recognised high levels of individual’s intrinsic motivations when coaches exhibit a leadership style that empathised training and instructional behaviours while exhibiting democratic behaviour rather than autocratic leadership styles (Amorose, 2007b). Applying Galinsky and Maddux’s research to sporting context would recognise that “taking perspective of (player) produced both greater joint gains and profitable individual outcomes”. In a sports context, this could be seen as improved coach-athlete relationships, regular player involvement in decision making processes, honest and accurate goal attainment for coach, player and playing group as a whole and personal development from all stakeholders. However, I believe a coach’s ability to use contrast principle, offering clarity by adding context, honesty and reasoning when offering perspective for dynamic and interactive coaching scenarios experienced and athlete relations shall reap long term gains and reciprocal commitment and closeness from athlete in return. My beliefs are echoed in past research including investigations by Mageau and Vallerand (2003); they believe coaches need to offer players opportunity for choice, acknowledge player feelings and perspective, limit controlling behaviours while valuing initiative, problem solving and involvement in decision making (Mageau, 2003).
Leadership and ability to inspire other is another skill which help made JT a legend of the game. Even as a very young player, JT had an innate awareness that a team game often demands personal sacrifices, giving away his first Premiership ring to club captain Steve Price offering signs he knew this was the start of the journey for him, not the climax. Other NTH QLD Cowboys players such as Ethan Lowe and Kyle Feldt have come out and said how Thurston helped them overcome setbacks on the field and be part of the team’s success. Leadership defined is seen as the process whereby an individual influences a group to achieve a common goal (Loughead, 2005); leaders within team environments have been seen to drive and coordinate 3 main areas or functions being task related, social functionality and external obligations (Longhead, 2006). Northouse studies also advised of the components within leadership included processing and occurs in group context while involving influence and goal attainment. Thurston displayed a transformational leadership styles, which is seen as the ability to inspire and motivate followers to exceed performance expectations by shaping follower’s beliefs and attitudes. This form of leadership can be developed by inspiration or motivation to team members, through creating a vision of common goals, idealising influence through modelling behaviours or values, individualising consideration, through allowing for other’s needs and feelings and intellectual stimulation through encouraging creativity. This style is created by idealised influence by leading by example, showing optimism regarding team collective goals and setting high standards while acknowledging the needs of others and gaining cooperation through sacrifice (Bass & Avolio 1994).
Even to the end of his career, his champion mindset, skills and attitudes were recognised by many inside and outside of the rugby league community. His last Queensland coach, Kevin Walters said:
As we sadly watch the last NRL finals JT could have been a part of without his Cowboys side, I believe this shall not be the final time we see this champion player, leader and person.