It's all about love, "six" and relationships with EPL top coaches....

The ticker tape has settled and Liverpool are champions of Europe again. Two of England’s top clubs played out the final of probably the greatest series of matches played as part this year’s Champions League trophy. As the city of Liverpool celebrates, the dust settles on a campaign that saw unparalleled drama in the guise of impossible comebacks, a fairy tale run and a major shift in the fabric of European football. However, in midst of drama and excitement of the season’s finale, Klopp and Pochettino’s focus on relationships, empathy and communication potentially catapulted them to the final and strengthened their squads for years to come.

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Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino seems to intuitively understand the importance of social inclusion, relatedness to his athletes and displaying emotional intelligence through supportive actions:

You have to feel things the way they [young players] do, show empathy. Nowadays the more human leader is the one that is successful. The iron fist is a thing of the past.

Via recent reported interview, Klopp outlined his ideas and methodology to his leadership style, where he discussed the importance of relationships and meaningful actions:

All we do in life is about relationships.

As a football team, we have to work really closely together. Each of our players knows the name of each person who works at Melwood.

It’s not for me to create an atmosphere in a room - each person in our team is responsible for that. It’s worked out well. We all win for each other; we do it for (kitchen staff) Carol (Farrell) and Caroline (Guest), because we know how important it is for them.

That makes it more valuable, more worthy. If you have a bigger group to do it for, it feels better for yourself.

I want to focus on the aspects of relatedness that a good coach-athlete relationship offers, supported by comments made by Klopp and Pochettino. All coaching environments need to adopt and offer players ingredients for genuine motivation; mastery, autonomy and purpose. These ingredients are echoed within research conducted in sports coaching involving study of self-determination theory, which addresses innate psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness. Amorose supported that “the more athletes felt autonomous, competent and have sense of relatedness, the more reasons for participating were self-determined in future” (Amorose, 2007). Mallet researched and explained that “self-determination theory underscores the role of environment in fuelling people’s perceptions of (autonomy, competence and relatedness) in contexts of sport” (Mallett, 2005). 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. So where do high performance coaches fit within developing these motives?

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The challenge of successful coaching is acknowledging social interactive dilemmas within individual and team goal setting and development, offering suitable scenarios and choices with all members’ involvement and collaboratively dealing with matters as opposed to eradicating them. Past research by Mageau and Vallerand regards the “actions of coaches as (possibly) the most critical motivational influences within sport setting”. Coaching should be recognised as an educational dynamic relationship, where the coach can satisfy player’s goals and development but both sides have an investment of will capital, where human initiative and intentionality are both dedicated to show commitment towards goals and relationships. The role of performance coach for specialising athletes is highly important; coaches are “preparing athletes for consistent high-level competitive performance” (Côté, 2009a) through effective tactics such as integration of professional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal knowledge and developing player’s specific competence, confidence, connection, and character needs on regular basis. Both Klopp and Pochettino have openly discussed their roles in developing the player as a person and not solely as an athlete on many occasions.

Studies have shown that athlete satisfaction is related to the degree to which athletes understand their role and responsibilities within interactive sports teams. (Eys, 2007). The main aspects of influential and successful coach-athlete relationships revolve around ideals such as mutual trust, respect, support, cooperation, communication and understanding of each other and impact of each other within the relationship. Both performance enhancement and physiological well-being is deeply ingrained within the coach-athlete relationship. Coaches need to acknowledge and recognise the effects of positive, interdependent relationships, which are dynamic and interlinked with cognition, feelings and behaviours to achieve common recognised goals (Jowett, 2007). Therefore, a coach’s ability to acknowledge and develop positive interpersonal connections, driven by interpersonal skills and united sense of purpose and achievement, can offer solid base for positive group climate. Like stressed by Klopp, deep understanding and relationships with harmonious passion between coach and player are extremely important for athlete development.

Attunement is “the ability to bring one’s actions and outlook into harmony with other people and context you are in”. (Balduck, 2011). Recent studies recognised high levels of individual’s intrinsic motivations when coaches, such as Liverpool’s or Tottenham’s top bosses, 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.

Research by Dan Pink (2010) acknowledges empathy as important as it can build enduring relationships and defuse conflicts. These ideas are supported by Jowett’s research, which recognises 3+1 C’s (closeness, commitment, complementary and coordination) (Jowett, 2007) being critical for successful coach-athlete relationships. 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).

Like suggested by Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino, coaches should forget the “iron fist approach” and assist players to identify problems, offering ideas and assistance for how to think and act as opposed to offering solutions. As Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi’s research addressed, creative people are driven by discovery and creation of problems as opposed to superior skills or ability. Therefore, coaches could adopt ideas from Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), where this theory has the coach standing as a recognised more capable other to the athlete with their requirement being to engage in contextual collaborative and learning relationship with athletes to ensure optimal psychological functioning for maximal sporting performance. This theory encourages players to ask questions and adopt sub routines; therefore, the players are taking over the structure of tasks and practice while acquiring performance or transfer of performance. These autonomy supportive practices allows coaches to act as mentors, focusing on relationships between coach and athlete while supporting players to develop meta cognitive skills where the athletes are aware of and take responsibility of appropriate practices and thinking strategies. This method positions coaches as mentors where they shift from knowledge expert for athlete as in early stages of development to learning manager or facilitator (Carnell and Lodge, 2002), offering constructive feedback for the player to investigate further.

These studied theories are supported by Entwistle and Smith’s research (2002); this allows an athlete to explore personal understanding of subject or sport in question, assisted with relevant, timely and challenging feedback from coach or mentor. These theories promote the ideas of both learner/athlete and educator/coach to act, reflect, evaluate, plan and experiment prior to acting and starting the cycle over again. These processes offer both players and coaches security to adopt and test skills in preparation for competitive environment, understanding that all involved parties can reflect and plan new strategies if required. As opposed to a coach led or directive approach, it offers players autonomy to internally understand sport expectations and how they may offer new solutions or scenarios to develop mastery approach or elite status, approaches identified within Pochettino’s comments.

As suggested, this focus on empathy and close, meaningful relationships between coaches, players and all stakeholders involved offers meaningful impact and actions by the players. Players drive their own development and reflect on personal and collective performance to allow the coach to offer closeness and desired commitment to their relationships through autonomy supportive practices. As mentioned, Klopp and Pochettino’s focus on relationships, empathy and player-centred approaches led them to the final this year but has set behaviours which shall strengthen and develop their squads for years to come.

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