Coaching for Success: 5 Lessons from International Football

Victory or loss; pride or shame; glory or regret, there’s no doubting the power of sport in whipping up an intense desire to outperform expectations. Football is no exception. In the international arena, 211 countries battle through qualification rounds and vying for a place in the finals to bring home a trophy coveted around the world evoking passion and determination on a global scale.

Over a month of intense competition, the teams arrive back home in dribs and drabs – some to a rapturous arrivals lounge; others to a sea of blameful journalists. What happens next? Analysis. Debate. Searching questions. Regrouping. Short- and long-term goal setting (excuse the pun).

The conclusions and feedback will shape how each national team prepares for future performance. And at the heart of it all? A coaching function that takes responsibility for getting the best from individuals for the greater good of the team.

Let’s reflect on some of the drama and consider what leadership and coaching lessons can be learned.

1. You’re only as good as your team. Point in case: Argentina. The situation: Despite having arguably the best player in the world, Lionel Messi, Argentina remains unable to advance deep into international tournaments. The lesson: You can have a world-beater, that can score goals for fun, but he needs space to do his best work. He also needs the other 10 team members to give him the ball, and to keep working, so if HE can’t score, he can help someone else to. And the whole strategy should not be focused on one person.

2. Leadership is based on respect and empowerment. Point in case: England. The situation: Gareth Southgate leading his team with a measured and humble approach “If a player feels you respect them, they are more likely to follow you.” The lesson: Strong leaders earn their followership. By using (and acting on) words such as support, communicate, discuss, listen and empower, the England manager seems to have earned the trust of his (mostly young and inexperienced) team. He seems to embody the principles of ‘open source’ leadership. He acknowledges that decision-making takes place ‘in the moment’ on the pitch, by his entire team; not just in the dressing room by the coach and captain. He is also openly respectful that each player has a preferred style of communication and different motivators that drive their performance. And perhaps there’s just that little bit of vulnerability too … more on that below.

3. Resilience gets results. Point in case: Belgium. The situation: A remarkable comeback to beat Japan in the final seconds of a game they were expected to win. The lesson: Often it can be harder to perform under the burden of expectation. It takes resilience and self-belief to continue on the path you have chosen; and not buckle under the pressure. Belgium’s coach put his team’s success down to “the personality, focus, the never-give-up attitude of players.” Interestingly, he also opined that “the setbacks set the team free”, perhaps enabling them to shake off expectation and focus on their performance. Leaders and managers take note. Resilience is a tough nut to crack, but the benefits are transformational and can take you from survival mode to innovation and growth. [Read more here]

4. Plan, coach and adapt. Point in case: Germany. The situation: Germany finish bottom of their group and fail to advance. The lesson: The continuum of plan, coach, adapt is imperative to thrive in a world of where nothing around you stands still. Compare the approaches of England and Germany. England, perennial under-performers, finally have a manager who uses insight from research and data to meticulously plan each match. Germany, a stalwart of international play, showed up and played the same football as four years ago. They failed to adapt to the new rigours of the competition and went home early as a result. Leaders should not forget … ‘you fail to plan, you plan to fail’. Spotting the strengths and gaps on your own team and coaching/developing around those is crucial to a good performance.

5. It’s not all about the winning now. Point in case: Multiple countries have shown us that leadership moments are everywhere. Lessons learned:

Celebrate the small victories. Until this tournament, Panama had never scored a goal in the world cup finals stage. Even after losing 6-1 their fans were delirious with their first goal. Even when results go against you there are reasons to celebrate.

Show decorum. Japan left their changing room spotlessly clean after their heart-breaking loss to Belgium, and included a “thank you” note. Grace is a valuable leadership trait.

Appreciate effort. Iceland, South Korea, Colombia and a host of other teams went out trying; and have been applauded for it. Effort gets you noticed. You don’t get results if you don’t put in the effort. Great leaders know this.

Adopting technology is a game changer. Video Assisted Refereeing (VAR) has contributed to fairer, somewhat less contentious football. VAR has also highlighted those who would attempt to gain unfair advantage. As technology develops, leaders will have powerful tools to drive performance, productivity and transparency.

A final thought … we learn from not winning every time. In 1990, England’s current Manager, Gareth Southgate missed a spot kick in a penalty shoot-out, which eliminated the team. He never forgot that feeling. In 2018, he trained and coached his team in penalty taking. England finally won a penalty shoot-out. Even in victory, Gareth went straight to the Colombian players that missed penalties to console them – BEFORE he congratulated his own team for winning. That 30 seconds of penalty miss, almost 30 years ago, ensured success and humility in the present.

Back in the workplace, we also call on leadership skills and behaviors every single day. Are you interested in applying some of these lessons in your organization?

Ask us about our popular leadership development programs, accessible through the AchieveForum Alliance platform membership and Everyday Coaching micro-lessons that are ready to be integrated into your LMS.

Leave a Comment