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Serial winners - Leeds Beckett study gets to the bottom of why some coaches get to the top... and stay there

Winning is not the Holy Grail of sport, winning consistently and repeatedly is. Even this week, José Mourinho, in the wake a poor start to the season, openly questioned his Chelsea players at a press conference for not being ‘serial champions’.

What it takes to win repeatedly at the highest level of Olympic and professional sport has been the concern of our recent project, the Serial Winning Coach. The study was commissioned by the International Council for Coaching Excellence and supported by world-leading sport organisations such as UK Sport, the Australian Sport Commission, INSEP (France) and Trainerakademie Köln (Germany). They were all looking for new and improved ways to recruit and develop Olympic coaches.

Sergio Lara-Bercial, Leeds Beckett’s Senior Research Fellow, and University of Queensland’s Associate Professor Cliff Mallet led the project. They interviewed 14 Serial Winning Coaches and 21 of their athletes from 9 different countries and 11 different sports in search for that elusive holy grail. Between them these coaches’ athletes had won over 130 Olympic gold medals and major championships over the last 40 years.

As expected, every coach is different. There was no single magic recipe for success. Yet, a number of personality traits and behaviour patterns were evident. These were central to the powerful role that these coaches played in securing continued success. How these elements manifest for every coach and sport varies and is highly context-dependent.

Some of these ‘golden nuggets’ may seem trite, some might be a surprise. Here is our top 10:

  1. Get the right people on the bus. Having the right athletes and staff is central to serial winning at the highest level. This is not only about sport prowess but also about right characters and organisation-person fit.
  2. Be athlete-centred. Everything begins with what the athlete needs to improve and to perform at the highest level day-in, day-out. The coach is a tool to the athlete, not the other way around.
  3. Partnership not Dictatorship. Long gone are the days of ‘my way or the highway’. Successful coaches work with their athletes and teams to – where possible – reach consensus. Within those parameters, athletes respect that the coach will make unpopular decisions at times but always in the best interest of the team or athlete.
  4. Emotional Intelligence matters as much as Sport Intelligence. Managing and motivating athletes and staff, and staying cool under pressure take huge amounts of emotional intelligence. Having a high level of self-awareness is important.
  5. Thick Skin is a must-have Accessory. Everything you do, good or bad will come under scrutiny. Allowing criticism (and even praise) to wash over your head is paramount to survive each day and every result.
  6. Work-life balance matters. Serial winning coaches see themselves as performers in their own right. Thus, they work to be in good physical and mental shape. They prioritise time with family and friends, exercising, hobbies and anything that allows a bit of normality into a fairly crazy lifestyle.
  7. Serial Winners suffer from serial insecurity. Winning once is not enough.  Serial winning coaches are on a lifelong quest to prove themselves they can win ‘the next one’. This keeps them grounded and motivated to keep striving.
  8. Clairvoyant skills help.  The coaches and their athletes talked a lot about understanding what it will take to win next time.  Lack of innovation was taken to signal going backwards. They worked hard to create a simple picture of the future, so they could establish priorities and to focus resources.
  9. Develop belief in others. The belief was that even the best coach in the world would not be a serial winner if athletes and staff around do not believe in (i) you, (ii) themselves and (iii) the group.
  10. Take risks. These coaches understand that success is to be found at the edge of chaos. They are prepared to take calculated risks and, at times, make leaps of faith using informed hunches.

If you want to know more, please contact Sergio Lara-Bercial on s.lara-bercial@leedsbeckett.ac.uk.

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About the Author

Dr Sergio Lara-Bercial

Sergio is a Reader in Sport Coaching. A former Team GB coach in Basketball, Sergio has extensive international experience in the development and evaluation and coach education systems. He has also conducted research into High Performance Coaching and Positive Youth Development.

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