How can clubs develop dressing room 'leaders'?
‘We don’t have enough leaders.’ It’s a call you’ll hear from fans, managers and pundits on a regular basis. But what defines a dressing room ‘leader’ and how can clubs develop what some coaches are now calling ‘cultural guardians’?
It’s an issue that divides opinion. On the one hand, it’s tempting to point to images of talismanic performances (think David Beckham against Greece in 2001) or dogged resilience (Giorgio Chiellini’s immovable presence springs to mind).
But, in much the same way that Leo Messi’s introversion seemed to deter many commentators from rightly lauding the Argentine’s leadership qualities, this is surely an arbitrary, outdated simplification of traits traditionally associated with dressing room ‘generals’.
Fortunately, many clubs have moved on from viewing leadership purely through the prism of ‘guts’ and ‘bottle’, despite football’s ongoing battle with hypermasculinity. Wycombe assistant manager Richard Dobson described the team’s leadership group as ‘cultural guardians’ when I spoke to him in late 2021 (you can listen to the full conversation below).
Made up of Adebayo Akinfenwa, Joe Jacobson, Jason McCarthy and Dominic Gape, the four players each brought different qualities to a unit described by Dobson as ‘the future of our club and the people that will guide us in the right direction.’
For example, Akinfenwa’s social media presence (the former Wycombe player has amassed over 1 million followers on Instagram) meant that he was well-placed to talk to teammates about dealing with online abuse.
The idea of a leadership group is far from novel, of course. Andy Robertson recently spoke about his inclusion within a cadre of senior Liverpool players including James Milner, Jordan Henderson, Virgil van Dijk, Alisson Becker and Trent Alexander-Arnold. Graham Potter referenced the role Cesar Azpilicueta, Jorginho, Thiago Silva and Mateo Kovacic played in informing his approach to arresting Chelsea’s recent slump in form.
A recent study by Gina Haddad and Donna O’Connor, two University of Sydney academics, illustrates the extent to which the concept of an ‘athlete leadership group’ (ALG) has permeated Australian sport - and how far some clubs have to go in developing these groups.
‘Developing players for athlete leadership groups in professional football teams: Qualitative insights from head coaches and athlete leaders’ is based on interviews with 16 head coaches and 14 players, drawn from 17 teams across four professional leagues (Super Rugby, National Rugby League, A League and Australian Football League).
The research highlights the responsibilities associated with leading elite sports teams, which stretch far beyond motivating teammates and influencing officials. Indeed, players are who part of leadership groups can be expected to disseminate messages from coaches, help in determining training routines and tactics, as well as playing a role in selection and recruitment.
It’s a tough set of tasks that place an onus on an athlete to go well beyond the ‘day job’ of performing on the pitch, employing techniques such as conflict management to deal with complex group dynamics.
If you think that’s a set of challenges which players should be taught to deal with, rather than simply confronted with, you’re in sound company. In a survey referenced by Haddad and O’Connor’s research, 90% of US coaches said that formal training should be part of a player’s progression to a leadership role. Unfortunately, only 12% were in a position to say they provided education.
Whilst the picture in Australia might be slightly better, with most teams surveyed laying on classroom-based teaching for ALGs, the research reveals that clubs are generally failing to supplement this with different types of learning (such as including leadership groups in managerial meetings or encouraging them to visit other coaches).
“I haven’t put enough effort into exposing the leadership group to different philosophies and ideas of leadership, structured, formalized development which would allow them to better understand and establish their leadership style,” said one of the managers interviewed as part of the study.
The benefits of designing a more strategic programme, which could include identifying and supporting ‘emerging leaders’ two years before they’re brought into an ALG or providing regular feedback on a team briefings and meetings led by the leadership group, are clear. As one player put it:
“By them teaching us more about ourselves, about who we are, what type of person we are, what type of leader, we’ve got more self-awareness in terms of being able to know our effect or impact on players around us…how we can get the best impact to get a desired outcome with a particular player…it’s just empowering.”
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It's an interesting question! Traits, behaviours, emotions and cognitions of leadership (amongst other things) have been studied extensively to account for creating something akin to a "leadership group". So in short, leadership can take many forms...some more observable to the average fan, than others. This paper (Eberly et al., 2013) explores some of the dynamics involved in generating integrative leadership processes. I think the references in the paper to "event cycles" (interpersonal interactions as points of reference, contact and influence on leadership) (Morgeson and Hofmann, 1999) could be particularly relevant here and in other team sports.
“With collectives, multiple leaders and followers interact with the other loci, which then determine how leadership develops. The context may also interact with the group/collective to redefine leadership.” (Eberly et al., 2013, p. 434)
Eberly, M. B., Johnson, M. D., Hernandez, M., & Avolio, B. J. (2013). An integrative process model of leadership: Examining loci, mechanisms, and event cycles. American Psychologist, 68, 427–443. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0032244