Coach Kerr at his very best: Peer and athlete leadership versus coach leadership in action

Coach Kerr at his very best: Peer and athlete leadership versus coach leadership in action

Coach Kerr autonomy supportive tactics strengthened team cohesion, acknowledged and encouraged player responsibility, defined leadership amongst the group while strengthening his beliefs and alignment as we charge towards the All Star weekend

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"Be yourself skilfully": Notes from Brisbane Tens coaching summit


In the build up towards Brisbane Global Tens event, I was fortunate to attend a series of key note presentations from some involved coaches including Robbie Deans and Scott Robertson, as well as featuring current Wallabies national coach Michael Cheika. The discussion was led by Rod Kafer and he echoed recent studies and investigations towards trying to understand what the players of the future are looking for from their coaches. Former Wallaby coach, Robbie Deans started proceedings and addressed "why" being the most important question you can both ask and answer. While he stated that technical and tactical skills can be easily found with access to information nowadays, understanding and caring for player's needs shall massively assist your quest to find your side's point of difference against the rest of the competition, echoing the importance of personal strivings research I have completed with current crop of Australian Rugby players. Deans encouraged the coaches present to grab all chances for informal communications to connect with players, echoing players must know you care about them:

"Players don't care what you know until they know you care"

Discussing coaching styles, Deans referenced ideas including encouraging effort, offering players choices or ability to make decisions and preparing your group to encourage them to take ownership and responsibility, encouraging ideas such as peer modelling and 360 degree feedback. He echoed another strong statement from the day of ignoring the focus on shape and structure, encouraging more and different opportunities for decision making at training, reminding coaches of the importance of clear communication and terminology as the areas and terms you empathise shall be what the players follow and adhere to. This point was echoed further later by Michael Cheika by him believing that "players become more like you the more you show belief".

Simon Manix was next to address the group; current head coach of Pau in the Top 14 having previously worked as backs coach for Munster and Racing Metro. Mannix played one test for the All Blacks versus France in 1994, an area he touched on immediately. His sole cap tormented him with a feeling of failure and shaped his coaching philosophy going forward. He immediately looked to leave NZ, embracing the culturally challenging yet rewarding atmosphere of French sides, having been involved in the structurally rigid and historically steeped atmosphere of Munster. He underlined the importance of challenging players and stressed his ideals for his players are to play with enjoyment and excitement for prolonged motivation and passion, areas he finds as extremely important.

2107 Super winning coach. Scott Robertson was next to address the group regarding culture and how he assisted building this within Canterbury Crusaders' organisation; he admitted this was both challenging and effortless, having 16 Crusaders' centurions, plenty of All Blacks within the squad yet working out how to show his personality in group also . He worked with Kiwi anthropologist, Michael Henderson looking at all factors relating to culture; he addressed the group through questioning how sounds, symbols, stories, sequence, smells, stage, space and significance all tie in to how players or groups "buy into" the culture. He empathised the strong, personal relationships he had with playing members and especially his team leaders including Sam Whitelock. He talked how he would assist setting the plan and goals yet really came down to the players to implement and drive improvement. Ideas to review and improvement are always shaped through solution based meetings and positive interactions and conversations, using constructive not destructive language. Honesty was another theme within his philosophy - players identifying their role and "doing the right thing" right through to honest mentoring from other coaches such as Rob Penney.

Closing out the day, Michael Cheika and Mick Byrne (ARU National Skills Coach) addressed the room, offering background to their history and passion towards the game. Cheika admitted he started coaching as "a way to travel"; now, as head coach of the Wallabies, he sees his strengths as being an authentic leader, offering honest feedback and capable of building a strong team atmosphere, including surrounding himself in good coaches to support his generalist outlook to team coaching, having quality people supporting and looking after the finer details. His brashness towards comments of current and departed Wallabies was evident; he believes the current crop of players involved in Australian squads are as strong as ever and is weary of the "excuse culture" for players heading overseas. This was strengthened by Byrne's attitude that Australian Rugby needs to work harder at all aspects of the game. Both coaches talked of their desire to have strong Super sides, backed up with individual hard work and being physically ready to compete but both are excited by the depth of talent coming through. They also thanked all present for the encouragement from the community and the support (and dedication to improve) grassroots rugby.

Cheika summarised one of the overall themes of the day very well (although I paraphrased his point); Winning is a consequence of getting the other things right. All coaches highlighted the importance to stop prescriptive coaching and too much focus on shape and structure and exhibit greater concentration on gaining a better understanding of your current crop of player's skills, capabilities and motivations. All coaches, including the Wallaby representatives, stressed that player belief supersedes confidence, all being built from accountability, persistence, encouraging effort and understanding players needs as opposed to technical and tactical overload. The powerful message stamped down by all: Build the person's motivation and skills through understanding "why..." and you shall make a better player. As I have stressed before, find their passions and help them double down on their strengths; keep looking for problems to fix and all you shall see is problems.

Millennials: Can we as coaches and leaders give them what they want and need?


Millennials on the sports fields and in the workplace are getting coaches, managers and business leaders alike to re-think both how we approach and encourage the pursue of the boundaries of their sporting and innovative potential. However, like my current research is evolving and other suggestions from behaviorism researchers, do we actually know or understand fully what these young athletes or workers want or need? I have recently offered an analogy of young leaders today against leaders or managers from years past that you can "pull from your pocket"; see your iPhone as leaders or athletes working today. They look the same, work under the same conditions yet with new iOS software loaded in, the expectations and advancements are getting greater by the day. Tony Robbins referenced "the brain being old hardware, previously used for fight or flight responses; now we are looking to choose fulfillment over achievement". Simon Sinek famously recorded stating how Millennials are chasing purpose and impact yet lack the patience and effort required to find these desired emotions. Angela Duckworth has defined grit as "passion and perseverance", something can could be perceived as lacking from this generation of leaders and athletes coming through. What does this mean for us as coaches and leaders in how we should act?

In sport specific research I have read around, Pelletier found that changes to people’s perceptions of competence and self-determined motivators should increase intrinsic motivations and identification while decreasing introjection, external motivators and amotivation in athletes (Pelletier, 1995). Also, results from Pope and Wilson’s studies showed athletes who perceive coaches to be supportive of decisions, provided with clear feedback concerning goal pursuits and engage with them in genuine and empathetic manner report greater need fulfillment, more self-determined motives and more perceived effort in sport (J. Pope & Wilson, 2012).

Theories around self-determination such as Basic Psychological Needs Theory (BPNT) addresses the degree to which people’s behavior in a domain is governed by self-determined motivators (Adie, 2010). The areas addressed as basic needs requiring fulfillment include competence, autonomy and relatedness. Vallerand and Mageau’s research has shown that intrinsic motivations and self-determined extrinsic motivators are necessary ingredients for athlete’s optimal function (Mageau, 2003). Deci and Ryan’s research investigated that intrinsic motivation is experienced as consequence of feeling competent and self-determined. Intrinsic motivation leads to greater persistence, improved performance and enhanced well-being in a physical setting; this would help support Duckworth's research of grit whereby working towards singularly important goals being the hallmark of high achievers in every domain.

While intrinsic motivation stems from innate physiological need of competency and represents the prototype of self-determined behavior, self-determined extrinsic motivators, which are extrinsic motivators which have been internally rationalized with oneself, become activities which are being carried out as are important and concordant to one’s values (Mageau, 2003). Self-determined forms of motivation also result in optimal behavior, resulting in peak performance and persistence (Deci and Ryan, 2008).

Basic Psychological Needs Theory (BPNT) looks at offering and fulfilling involved people's autonomy, competency and relatedness or connection. However, perceived autonomy has emerged as a large predictor of motivation while competence and relatedness has served as small to moderate positive predictors (J. P. Pope & Wilson, 2014). Again, what does this mean for our current leaders and coaches? The importance of offering autonomy to our young leaders and having autonomy supportive leaders to have and offer a number of attributes. These include acknowledging and providing choice within specific limits and rules, providing rationale for tasks limits and rules, inquiring and recognizing other’s feelings, allowing opportunities to take initiatives and complete independent work, provide non-controlling feedback, avoid over control, controlling statements and tangible rewards and prevent ego involvement from taking place. This shall help start to offer the engagement, purpose and impact these millennials are desiring and searching.

Like explored by Dr Michael Gervais, is there a commonality connecting how the best performers in the world currently use their minds to explore the extent of extensions of their potential? Gary Vaynerchuk encourages young people today to "double down on what we are awesome at and what inspires us". What does this mean for us as coaches and leaders in how we should act or inspire? Encouraging young athletes and leaders to adopt a mastery approach to competency would encourage them to positively perform the task to the best of their ability and to self-regulated standards while attempting to continually learn and improve on an interpersonal level. An example of athlete’s pursuit of competence in theoretical stance would be achievement goal theory. Achievement goal theory “implies that people are goal directed individuals, participating in achievement settings with a view to demonstrate competence or avoid demonstration of incompetence” (Adie, 2010). Ultimately, the goal of action within achievement goal theory is the demonstration of competence; however, there is differences how the perceived competence is displayed and perceived by athletes and young leaders.

Players aligned with task involvement goals, whom judge their competency through self-referenced targets or goals, are recognized as evoking high effort to obtain mastery and continually improve personal performance. Their ability and effort is not differentiated by others and the perceived ability is self-determined and success only realized when mastery is achieved. Ego involvement or orientation shows athletes more concerned with their evaluation against normative standards and recognize success as measurement against others, which is now infinity more conman in the world of social media, when performing as equal as others with less effort; therefore, not displaying striving for mastery or being focused on task. These players have ego based goals and they differentiate their effort and perceived ability, based on social aspects surrounding them, again displaying the lack the patience and effort required to find these desired emotions like suggested by Sinek.

Relatedness or connection can be seen as establishing and maintaining secure attachments with others to feel recognized, acknowledged and belonging to environment as opposed to isolated and ignored. Past sports research has provided results showing “the more athletes perceived their coaches to be caring and involved, the more self-determined in their motivations towards sport” (Pelletier, 1995). Hollembeak and Amorose also “found autocratic behaviour had a significant negative relationship with feelings of relatedness” (Hollembeak, 2005). As studied by Mageau and Vallerand, athlete’s perceptions of relationship with coaches is assumed as essential for intrinsic and extrinsic motivations (Mageau, 2003). Therefore, it can and should be recognized that coach-player relations or leadership within the workplace effect can influence performance, welfare and motivations of people and athletes of all ages.

Again, what does this mean for us as coaches and leaders in how we should act? To look at relatedness, leaders and coaches should start by raising expectations for what is needed and expected from connections to others. Meaningful connections is key here; using the iPhone analogy again, put your phone BACK IN YOUR POCKET. Engage on a significant and sincere level and teach our young athletes or leaders to do likewise. In sport specific research, Chan and Mallett recognized that high performing coaches require additional skills including ability to facilitate functioning leader-follower relationships, revolving around emotional intelligence and empathy, beyond the standard technical and tactical skills (Chan, 2011). Jowett’s research into coach-athlete relationships looked at the interrelated emotions and behaviors captured through constructs of commitment, closeness and complimentary, tied in later studies with coordination (Jowett, 2004). In this sports research, commitment within coach-athlete relationships is recognized as intention to maintain a loyal, long term relationship while showing closeness as mutual trust, respect and appreciation for roles played in partnership. The coach’s and athlete’s ability to have mutual relatedness, common ground in beliefs and actions while having stress-free interpersonal behaviors displays coordination and complimentary aspects for successful coach-athlete relationships.

Both performance enhancement and physiological well-being is deeply ingrained within the development of meaningful relationships. All leaders and coaches need to acknowledge and recognize the effects of positive, interdependent relationships, which are dynamic and interlinked with cognition, feelings and behaviors to achieve common recognized goals (Jowett, 2007). The main aspects of influential and successful  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. Within team sports like rugby union, the relationship between team cohesion and sports performance is an important and positive connection; Carron’s studies recognized that social cohesion has a stronger relationship than task cohesion on performance. Recognizing the benefits of promoting autonomy in team atmosphere for self-determined motivations, democratic coaching styles vastly improve team task cohesion when accounting for commitment, closeness and complementary within coach-athlete relations (Jowett, 2004). LaVoi’s conceptual model recognized the importance of human’s need to belong and feel connected and close within relationships; this can be accomplished through key characteristics in relationships including authenticity, engagement and empowerment between the coach and athlete (Jowett, 2007).

Part of the importance and difficulty of good working and sporting relationships stem around the perceived passion towards the sport, echoing Duckworth's research into grit being made of PASSION and PERSEVERANCE. However, an equally or unequally obsessive passion towards common interests or goals can result in externally regulated motivations taking control, with players, leader or coach being more controlled by outcomes which are regulated or recognized by others than those within relationship. Both parties having harmonious passion towards similar interests and goals should be positive for all dimensions for leader-follower relations and result in understanding of importance of pursuit of mastery yet not over whelming in each other’s identity. High quality coach-athlete relationships, which are optimized by harmonious passion, result in higher subjective well-being within player (Lafrenière, 2008), an area which is critical for age grade player retention and development of self-determined motivations and mastery mindset.

So again, do we actually know or understand fully what these young athletes or workers want or need? Exactly what we want in return; passion, commitment, meaningful communications and relationships, support to choose and make decisions, following instinct while offering honest feedback on performance and support for a growth mindset; all things we must educate, support and train to others.  Hopefully this application of sport specific studies being applied to general working environments has offered food for thought.....

Leadership: integrity, honesty and accountability; all components of trust

To all my Southern Hemisphere coaching and global business friends entering a new year and season, remember in earnest; if every member of a team doesn’t grow together, they will grow apart.  As we prepare for a new rugby season, pre-season should be the time for remembering that we as leaders are responsible for setting the tone of the environment needed in order to be at our best. Therefore, understanding and solidifying why we are coaching, leading and teaching is the thing that inspires us and inspires those around us. Use this time at the start of 2018 to ask ourselves and communicate with others what our purpose or beliefs are, establishing or reaffirming connections through trust and authenticity which is vital to an organization or sporting team's success and become better leaders through recognition and celebration, coaching, and communication skills.

A small group of inspired and engaged employees or players can have a positive impact. Players today want to feel that they matter, that their work or efforts matter and that they are contributing to something bigger than themselves. Together, you and your teams can create a positive and productive environment where trust and cooperation are the norm, not the exception. However, for people to follow you and identify you as their leader, it starts with integrity, honesty and accountability; all components of trust. When you clearly understand our own why, you can display a greater sense of purpose within our teams and organization and are able to contribute the best of who you are. When you are at your best, contributing to the vision and the long-term progress of the teams or businesses we are involved in, the natural result is greater fulfillment for all involved.

Once you've established why you are leading or coaching, here's some leadership tips for managing young workers and players in today's environment:

  • Lead by example; show heroism and leadership in their daily lives for examples to follow.
  • Teach them leadership including sharing ideas on how to give and receive feedback for personal growth.
  • Accept "failures" as part of growth mindset: Acknowledge failures are helping the person and program grow if we learn and grow from mistakes made.
  •  Teach and empower them to search and solve their own problems, encouraging new and innovative ideas for ever-changing environments.


"Just helping athletes be the best they can be": Pete Carroll


After listening to a 2016 podcast with Pete Carroll, I needed to dig further into what he does and why. Extremely successful, Carroll is one of only three football coaches who have won both a Super Bowl and a College National Championship and is the oldest head coach currently working in the NFL. However, his attitude to relationship-based coaching, focusing on being present and recognizing moments and helping others optimism and drive made me want to compare further ideas against athlete led versus coach led approaches, something he touches on in this "Finding Mastery" podcast. It is believed that it is beyond the capacity of any coach (or person in senior management or leadership roles in my opinion) to achieve full, predictable control over leadership and development processes. Therefore, coaches need to learn to cope with ambiguity and difficulty of their role, overcoming a sense of legitimacy or validation and the perceived expectations of others. 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. Jones et all (2004) quotes coaching as “inherently fluid and multifaceted, militating against clean treatment, typified by pre-specification of a cumulative sequence of precise objectives and monitoring their achievement” (Jones et al, 2004). Other research noted expert coaches could be recognized as highly adaptive in nature and adopt flexible planning strategies, relative to the context offered, quoted by Cote as “coaching expertise requires flexible adaptation to constraints” (Cote et al, 1995).

Sports coaches of athletes act as pedagogues and adopt comprehensive and holistic roles in the moral development of their athletes through their adopted and shared practices, languages and beliefs. If coaches are to develop knowledgeable athletes, capable of performing learned tasks when under pressure and not under direct instructions, I believe this shall require bidirectional transfer of knowledge or total ownership by athletes of their development, with support from the coaches as “more capable other”.

Having coaches adopt supporting roles, such as an orchestrating role, allows them to support their “leading actors” through methods such as offering practical guidance with limited control, focusing attention on aiding development through decision making for players and practices from observations, evaluations with positive and honest feedback whilst displaying understanding and care towards players, something regarded as highly important by Carroll. Kidman’s research (2001) addressed ideas such as coaches developing player’s complex skills and tactical knowledge through encouraging abstract thought processes by asking high order questions, which require athletes to apply, analyse and synthesize information. This style of leadership has the coach steering as opposed to controlling decisions and actions, encouraging player discovery through evolutionary planning and organizing of tasks whilst keeping sight of overall objectives and showing empathy to get the best from the athletes. Coaches acting as orchestrators whilst attempting to create a successful pedagogic setting requires coordination of activities to investigate, monitor and respond with honesty to players. This may require some transparency from coaches to offer rationale for processes. It may also require negotiation of processes with players to meet individual and collective performance measures of those being coached whilst matching evolving circumstances for learning and development against attempting keeping sight of overall objectives.

Wallace (2001) looked at shared leadership through “promoting cultural transformation for followers through articulating vision of desirable future state, empathizing dialogue, team work and mutual support”. Therefore, coaches shall look to incorporate a greater degree of follower power, gaining an overall system of collective relations between activities, agents and objectives. Therefore, as defined by Gibb (1954), this form of leadership would be recognized as collaborative, “accomplishing group tasks with leadership as fluid (state) as opposed to fixed phenomenon”. This should enable intrinsically satisfying experiences for all involved, enable personal development through informal and incidental learning opportunities and increased levels of skill and knowledge retention due to increased input into leadership.

However, as indicated, this suggests that group or team consensuses may not be reached by team or informal leaders or contradictory or conflicting beliefs developing amongst players shall result in conflicting micro-politics with players selecting personal over collective interests (Hargreaves, 1994). With these ideas in mind, coaches could acknowledge and support their team as a community of practice or local learning system to teach players within athletic environment socially appropriate cultures of practice, related to their sport. Within this, players can develop shared repertoire, where routines, tools, gestures and concepts become adopted and pat of standard practice by playing members, creating joint enterprise within teams through mutual engagement, therefore finding common goals and reasons for participation in groups. Therefore, like discussed by Carroll in regards to his relationships with players and other coaches, a realistic conceptualization of shared leadership in sports team scenarios would see coaches promoting shared leadership with benefits to all stakeholders while setting boundaries and taking ownership of decisions when disagreement between players arise.

Issues surrounding the ideas of shared leadership appears to stem around coaches attempting to take the “lead role”; these ideas were discussed by Carroll looking at former coaches approaches having heavy military themes and being one of the moments "he knew he had a different vision for coaching". Actions such as controlling behaviors as opposed to self-rule for decisions in fear of becoming redundant, coincided with coach-athlete relationship not being treated as interactive or dynamic in nature could result in poor coach-athlete relations. The argument remains that the perceived democracy of athlete-supportive coaches only offers players an illusion of empowerment; the official focus and directions as determined through group or team goal setting originate with the person or people of most authority, which is inherently the coach. However, coaches forcing ideas and issues in forceful or authoritarian manner, alongside lack of information or honesty between all involved stakeholders shall result in absence in effort or damaged relationships.Autocratic styles, being prescriptive in nature with unidirectional transmission of information results in athletes or players feeling undervalued due to lack of opportunity to voice ideas and experiences with coach and other athletes. Therefore, this disengages players and reduces chances to collaboratively learn and resourcefully develop decision making, problem solving and creative skills.

Coaches attempting to control every situation creates an understandable strain on responsibility and accountability; therefore, under a “backstage” leadership style of mentorship or athlete led learning, the coach is required and called upon for detailed observation and analysis whilst offering little direct leadership. Offering player or athlete autonomy “positively corresponds to a number of desirable (player) outcomes” (Gagne et al, 2003); these include task perseverance through developed intrinsic motivation and physiological well-being. Protrac (2000) investigated ideas of coaching unobtrusively which allows players to informally focus on the exercise and objectives with the activities, games or skills being worked on acting as the “teacher”; ideas such as democratic leadership and integrating TGfU (Teaching Games for Understanding) would support this transfer of control whilst offering greater opportunities for decision making and athlete centered cognitive development.

Coaches can still have impact through supporting athletes through suitable use of expert power. They can offer meaningful rationale for completing tasks, offer support for choices made and empathy and acknowledgement as part of feedback, as explored by Mageau and Vallerand (2003). Cognitive development is a social, historical and cultural process, where higher mental functions such as problem solving, planning and communication, are developed through interaction and collaboration as opposed to direct instruction. Direct instruction results in slightly extended form of recitation as opposed to genuine cognitive development. Coaches should recognize and acknowledge that there should be a “dynamic power relationship between the athlete and coach for effective education (and development) to occur” (Jones et al; 2004). I believe coaches can only call upon influence in expert or legitimate power, having no control over social domains of players. Therefore, coaches whom try to “lead” through controlling the education process have a reliance on expert or specialist knowledge, which in turn enhances or negatively reinforces legitimate power.

As previously mentioned, we recognize coaching as acknowledging social interactive dilemmas within individual and team goal setting and development, offering suitable scenarios and choices with all members’ involvement and collaborative dealing with matters as opposed to eradicating them. Lemert (1997) discussed that coaches “define themselves and their role by their perception of what it means to be a coach with the influence of occupational socialization and subculture, which provide a sense of others expectations”. However, as explored through previous research mentioned in this article, it is believed coaches whom relationships with players respect their knowledge or expertise in athletic or sports based contexts, cultivate learning without exercising legitimate power and do not influence social aspects or relations can lead to new shared understandings with their athletes. Akin to Carroll's coaching philosophies, Jones and Standage discuss the ideas that “empowering athletes by transferring decision making to them is gathering momentum” yet I believe within rugby union from my research conducted, we need to speed this up for concepts including higher levels of player retention, greater satisfaction at all skill and development levels whilst being committed to develop better people when offering scenarios to create better players as a wider community of practice. I believe a shift in player autonomy like expressed in early stages of Carroll's coaching career shall allow self-rule in athlete actions, offering greater consideration and allowance for their decisions. This shall make the shift by coaches from “being an authority as opposed to in authority” (Bergman Drewe, 2000), gaining closer, more impactful relationships with their players whilst creating player volitional control and self-determined and intrinsically driven actions for expertise in their sport, all working towards Carroll's beliefs of always competing and helping people be the best they can be.