Hired to be fired ...?
Following the popularity of Martin Leclerc's article, we decided to start sharing our writings - here is the first article.
As is the case every year, following a shaky start to the season where results fall short of expectations, some National Hockey League head coaches are fired. It is not uncommon for a coach's contract to be dismissed with only a few years remaining. When a firing occurs, the media interviews former athletes, coaches, and executives to get their impressions of the change in leadership of the team. The comment that surfaces most often is "It's normal, because a head coach is hired to be fired”. A comment that I heard again on my local radio station this morning. Isn't it time to lay the groundwork for a new perspective to support coaches in a way that would be conducive to the success of our sports teams?
Since 1999, a number of scientific articles have supported the importance of psychological safety in teams. The steady increase in mentions of the concept reflects the growing recognition of the importance of psychological safety in performance environments. Whether leading a project team in the office, caring for patients in a hospital ward, or coaching a hockey team, the concept keeps rising to the surface.
Psychological safety refers to the shared understanding between you and your team that it is safe to ask questions, experiment with new ways of working, and speak your mind without fear of being judged, silenced, ignored or rejected. Research shows that teams that feel safe engage better, learn better, and perform better.
So it's quite a contrast when we think of head coaches who are "hired to be fired". A diminished sense of security causes anyone to fall back on what is known, their comfort zone. The same is true for coaches. Without psychological safety, creativity, risk, and innovation go out the window. In other words, “to hell with performance and lasting results!” Coaches who are under fire do not usually take time to develop new tactics or strategies and fall back on what they have always done. Slowly but surely, they will fall behind, because they must not make any mistakes, otherwise their position would be in danger.
Not only is psychological safety a barrier to performance, the work on coaching effectiveness in sport (done by Jean Côté and Wade Gilbert) is key when thinking about this contradictory perspective. The research points to 3 types of knowledge that are essential to perform as a coach:
Professional knowledge: This refers to the technical and tactical knowledge of one's sport. In hockey, this is the knowledge associated with skating, passing, shooting, and tactics used to defeat the opponent. This area is certainly important in a sport and even more important in a department associated with player development.
Interpersonal knowledge: This type knowledge refers to the work environment, the relationships between the athletes on the team, and between the coach and the team members. These are the pedagogical and leadership skills that underpin the team’s culture. The best coaches will be those who have the ability to change leadership styles according to the context and the maturity level of the group. Easier said than done, you may think, but not impossible if we look at some organisations that have a coach at the head who has been able to put these elements in place.
Intrapersonal knowledge: This is the knowledge that is neglected by most professional sports teams. We are talking about the coach's ability to take time to reflect, to introspect, to be curious about different working methods. A part of intrapersonal knowledge is reflective practice, which is the fundamental mechanism for progressing as a coach. While the head coach of a team acts as the captain of the ship, there is no one in the organisation to support him, guide him in his journey and invite him to think differently. Many coaches claim to have 25 years of coaching experience, but in retrospect, it's quite different. We are talking more about 25 times the same year of experience.
You will understand that athletes who become coaches overnight, come to the job with a good command of professional knowledge. Having been an athlete in their sport gives them sound technical and tactical knowledge. However, without working on the other types of knowledge, they remain partially effective coaches. Currently, teams are putting coaches in place who only have one third of the knowledge needed to be effective. It's like buying a car with only 1/3 of the controls working. Would you like that?
A recent study also shows that changing coaches in NCAA football results in 0.5 more wins after 5 years ... It's like thinking that the most important thing to do after getting a flat tyre is to change the driver of the car. In some cases, wouldn't it be better to keep the same coach in place and invest in his professional development?
Former head coach of the Montreal Canadiens in the NHL, Claude Julien was fired in February 2021. He will be paid $5 million during the current season. Alain Vigneault was fired by the Flyers recently with $12.5 million remaining on his contract. Several European soccer teams have recently taken an interest in coaching support by now surrounding their leaders with people to support their work, making them think and increasing the inter and intrapersonal knowledge of their coaching. In deciding to terminate a contract that will cost the organisation $12.5 million, imagine if the team decided to invest even one tenth of that amount in supporting the coaches?
The perspective is changing elsewhere in the world. Coaches are now hired to be ironed, not fired. If athlete performance is a reflection of coach leadership, when are we going to invest as much in coaches as we do in athletes? If sustained peak performance is demanded of athletes, coaches must be supported accordingly. Who will have the courage to start this revolution in our country?
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Côté, J., & Gilbert, W. (2009). An integrative definition of coaching effectiveness and expertise. International journal of sports science and coaching, 4(3), 307-323.
Newman, A., Donohue, R., & Eva, N. (2017). Psychological safety: A systematic review of the literature. Human Resource Management Review, 27(3), 521-535.
Trudel, P., Gilbert, W., & Rodrigue, F. (2016). The Journey from Competent to Innovator: Using Appreciative Inquiry to Enhance High-Performance Coaching. International Journal of Appreciative Inquiry, 18(2), 39-45.
Tsitsos, W., & Nixon, H. L. (2012). The Star Wars arms race in college athletics: Coaches’ pay and athletic program status. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 36(1), 68-88.