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Sport Leaders Have Hard Conversations Too

Sport needs to give itself a pat on the back. Not only has sport provided millions of people with virtues of purpose, growth mindset, self-confidence, and teamwork capabilities, it has also fostered some of the greatest leaders in our society. Throughout my PhD journey I have been reading and studying what creates effective leadership and to be honest, most of the emerging leadership research is predominately in business, education and health sciences. And I can not help but wonder why sport leadership is not the one leading the leadership field. Leadership has always been an integral part of sport. Sport has not always got it right, but there are also many instances that it has.

Take athlete centred coaching for example:

Definition: “An athlete-centred approach focuses on the coach empowering the athletes to gain and take ownership of knowledge, development and decision making that will help them to maximise their performance and their enjoyment.” (Kidman & Lombardo, 2010, p. 13).

This is not too dissimilar to the current rise of servant leadership:

Definition: “altruistic-based form of leadership in which leaders emphasize the needs and development of others, primarily their followers.” (Barbuto et al., 2014, p. 2)

Are we missing something here? Are we not giving sport enough credit to use what has already evolved and to lead the way in leadership?

As a business owner, educator and PhD student, we have delivered numerous leadership workshops in the public sector and the corporate world and in particular, how to have courageous conversations. I am quite surprised to see in all the workshops we have delivered, there is an absence of sporting organisations. Does society think that sport leaders do not have hard conversations? More importantly, do sporting organisations not put priority on developing these skills where other top organisations do?

As a past international athlete and coach, I can for one, confirm that sport leaders are having these ‘hard conversations’ all the time. When I was captaining my country, I was given the task of having a post selection discussion with the players that were not dressing for the upcoming test match. I dreaded each conversation. For some of the players, this was the second or third time I had to have this conversation. How do you have an empathetic conversation with a person who has dedicated four years to this event, has family that have flown in to see her not play and won’t even look you in the eye? Back then, I thought this was part of my role as a captain and that I needed to ‘suck it up’ and nurture the player through yet another hard conversation. I do not blame the coach for putting me in this situation, he did not have the tools to know how to deliver such a hard conversation and his default defensive behaviour became ‘avoidance’. I still think this happens today. Coaches are constantly having conversations with their board members, management staff and athletes and many struggle with how to have them. The good news is that how to have these conversations are dramatically evolving and evidence-based tools are being taught. The worrying news is that sport leadership may be falling behind on this movement.

Having courageous conversations are not easy. It takes integrity, honesty and sincerity to overcome defensive behaviours like ‘avoidance’ in the example of my coach. As sport leaders, we often correct skills through deconstruction and practice, yet when it comes to the vulnerable side of sport leadership and having those hard conversations, we often go in too hard, or too soft or in some circumstances, avoid them all together. There are effective evidence-based ways to have these conversations that empower both sides of the relationship and create a mutual understanding. Sport leadership has a chance to embrace this knowledge and lead by example. Courageous conversations are not hard when you have the tools. It is about practicing the basics until you get it right, and that is something that sport is already familiar with. Now, it is just about owning it.

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