Paddy Upton

Last week, a talented and dedicated young athlete gave up on a rising career. He did so despite loving the sport, and having invested years of time, effort and discipline into it. 

The reason? 

He eventually had enough of his coach and trainer bullying, abusing, criticising and belittling him. When he spoke up, they said he was a pu$$y, and that he (and the rest of his team) needed that treatment to toughen up. This happened in a prominent school. 

This is yet another case in an age-old story of perpetuating an obsolete coaching/leadership approach. Despite a huge amount of scientific research on just how ineffective, demotivating and performance inhibiting it is, harsh, critical, judgemental, micro-management, overly authoritarian leadership still happens. 

A school sport study in the United States showed that of 40 million kids who start playing sport at school, 70% give up by the age of 13. Those 28 million kids didn’t quit because of the sport, but rather because of their experience in the sport. “It’s not fun anymore”. The two main factors driving their quitting was 1) parents and 2) coaches. 

Of some concern, 34% of (likely well-meaning) parents undermined their kids sport participation. I’ll cover this topic in my next post. And it won’t be a comfortable read for one in three parents.  

It’s not just sport that suffers from leadership shortcomings. Pre-Covid studies2 showed that 74-84% of employees wanted to leave their jobs. The main reason cited was ‘because of my boss’. 

People leave bosses, not companies. 

And then Covid changed the corporate game even more as it drove people away from the 9-5 grindstone. Employees are moving off in search of more meaning, better balance, different values or a better lifestyle. This shift away from 9-5 has recently been dubbed ‘the great resignation’. And it’s putting even more pressure on some already pressured businesses.  

There’s a flip-side to that coin, available to proactive leaders and organisations, that I call the great retention. It refers to the fertile opportunity for some leaders to step even further into a kind, supportive, engaging and collaborative approach. One that sees them working alongside employees to co-create even more engaging, empowering, learning environments. 

Sport calls this an athlete-centred approach. It’s one where the athlete’s agenda (their reason for playing) is considered alongside the coaches and organisations agenda. 

One underlying assumption is that not everyone is there simply to win or make as much money as possible.  

The fact that the kid I referred to above has let his dream go due to a bully-boy coach is sad. And annoying. Most sport coaches, especially school coaches, are tasked with growing young people, alongside teaching them to play better and win games. 

School sport coaches have significant influence. At times, they may even be the most influential person in a child’s development. Afterall, parents spend a lot of time policing behaviour (get off your phone, do your homework, tidy your room, etc). Some teachers have influence, but not too many kids love a classroom like they do the sports field. For this reason some kids may listen to their coaches more than parents and teachers. 

The coach of this kid who quit last week spent his invaluable time and influence modelling a disempowering and obsolete leadership approach. 

He failed his athlete badly. If any of his charges happen to follow his lead, they too are likely to fail.  

Below, I invite your collaboration in building a list of leadership/coaching dos and don’ts. 

What are your 2-3 leadership/coaching behaviours you’d recommend, and 1-2 key ones to avoid?

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