The power of storytelling in human evolution and development is often overlooked in sport. PDP Editor and UEFA A licensed coach, Dave Wright discusses how the stories we share and our ability to change the narrative can shape the future of player development.

At the time of writing, Player Development Project is almost four-years-old. During our time as a team and an ever-growing network of contributors, we have been fortunate enough to interview and connect with hundreds of experts in a variety of fields in player development across sports, all of them with a different story. One of those is Al Smith, Co-founder of myfastestmile. In one of our first ever webinars, Al spoke about the importance of the ‘Sporting Narrative’ and how coaching, culture and sport is shaped by stories. This conversation with Al shifted my own thinking about how I approach coaching. I write this piece in the middle of the FIFA World Cup where drama, upsets, theatrics and heroics have been on display, so it’s a good time to reflect on the dominant narratives at play.

Before I elaborate on how stories impact on player development and to provide some context, the idea for this article came about when I recently began reading the book, Sapiens – A Brief History of Human Kind. In this book, author Yuval Noah Harari outlines the shift in human existence around the time of the cognitive and then the agricultural revolution.  On the cognitive revolution, Harari writes: 

“Many animal and human species could previously say, ‘Careful! A lion!’ Thanks to the cognitive revolution, Homo Sapiens acquired the ability to say ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe’.  This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique aspect of Sapiens language.” – Yuval Noah Harari

In the current information age where social media can create movements in minutes, we now see the dangers of this in terms of how stories – both true and false – can influence behaviour and outcomes. Think Trump, Russia and Cambridge Analytica as a modern starting point. Harari explains that the human ability (when compared to other species similar to us) to tell stories and pass on information which is subsequently ingrained in the fabric of society, is in fact perhaps the primary reason why humans have become the dominant life form on earth. Examples of these could be companies, religions, the institution of marriage, beliefs or other rituals.

So what are some examples of these stories in sport?

To use a couple of the above examples as reference points, lets start with win-at-all-costs. Firstly, I’ll say that I love to win. As many people do. I am fiercely competitive when playing any game and always have been, but with age and experience I have realised that when it comes to developing young people through sport, this is only a small part of a much bigger equation and winning (or success generally) needs to be defined for each individual within a collective.

I recently observed two youth football teams playing in Melbourne. Both teams were deemed to be ‘the best’ in their league as they were positioned first and second in the competition. My initial observation was that (funnily enough) both sides were big, physical and strong. As the match kicked off, the coaches sat on the benches…for about three minutes. As things started to heat up, chances were created, refereeing decisions went against them, and goals went in, the change in coaching behaviour was there for all to see. Now, if we’re honest we are all guilty of this in our coaching, and anyone who says they haven’t been affected by the scenes in front of them and the emotion of the game is kidding themselves. We are human after all.

This ‘top of the table’ clash was clearly of vital importance to both teams, but perhaps that’s because they are socially conditioned that the result at the end of the match is how we measure success. This conditioning comes about through environments adults have set throughout the players’ respective childhoods, dominant narratives and social constructs.

With both sides pushing for a win, the aerial ping pong began. Coaches telling players to ‘go long’, a lone striker being asked to run in behind against a back four, balls being lumped over the sideline to protect a lead, coaches appealing and yelling at the teenage referee and parents chiming in with sarcastic abuse.

While this was unfolding, midfielders ran around getting next to no touches on the ball, while immediate turnovers were high. A small player, (in fact the physically smallest in both teams) was substituted onto the pitch and entered the land of the giants. After no more than 15 minutes and two touches, he was substituted again and sat down to watch his big friends play football. His opportunity to develop was stifled because the result was on the line. His face was one of disappointment. The story that was unfolding was one of win-at-all-costs, a tale that is all too common. The cost? Development of players and positive sporting experience turned into frustration.

The coaching I witnessed was driven by ego and adult expectation. It was obvious that none of the players involved in the game had any form of individual challenges or plans, ownership of the process nor was there a clear style of play. Youth development was pushed aside in the name of a result on the day. Everything unfolding in front of me was a common sporting narrative. But, why? Was it ego? Or was it just the fact that the coaches involved perceive coaching to require a certain type of behaviour and know no different? After all, this may be the only story they know. I tried to sum up my observations shortly afterwards on Twitter:

If we talk about victories as a narrative, then an easy example is the 1966 World Cup and the expectation culture that goes with the England team every four years. 52 years later, this is still the highlight for international football in England and a story that is passed from generation to generation. Whilst many of us hope that the 2018 team can change this story in the coming days in Russia, this legendary tale of Bobby Moore, Sir Geoff Hurst and Sir Bobby Charlton guiding the three lions home is ingrained in English folklore.

Legacies or dynasties are another example of how inspirational performances can result in a narrative that inspires. For me, two of the best examples are the All Blacks and of course the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s. These teams capture the imagination and reiterate society’s need to see serial winners or watch a sporting genius like Michael Jordan. If we take diving as an example, we only have to look at Neymar’s recent World Cup antics and the resulting memes to understand that culturally, it could be suggested he puts a higher value on trickery and winning (or beating the establishment) than playing with integrity. More on this topic can be read here.

For me, one of the most interesting narratives is that of coach and player behaviour, particularly when players reflect us as coaches, when diving or cheating becomes acceptable because coaches or perhaps leadership groups aren’t brave enough to draw a line in the sand and decide that the integrity or spirit of the game take pride of place over winning at all costs. Game management or gamesmanship are one thing, but diving, feigning injury and abusing the referee is a line that should not be crossed in my opinion.

Coach behaviour can be any of the below:

  • How we carry ourselves on the sideline
  • How we communicate with our players
  • How effectively we listen
  • How or whether we facilitate group discussion
  • Whether we encourage player led sessions or player ownership in the environment
  • Reactions to adversity in the form of bad decisions or players making mistakes

If we look at sport as a vehicle for social good, in the form of health, well-being, learning environments, positive experience, social interactions, competition and life lessons, then we as coaches have a responsibility to change the story that is ever so common around the world and ensure a positive sporting experience. I highly recommend this research review from PDP Professor, William A. Harper to provide further context.

“Ego is often about looking, feeling or simply being perceived as ‘better’ than others. The focus on others breeds social comparison and we define our success based on societal norms, which means we conform to societal norms.”

James Vaughan, Lead Researcher, Player Development Project

The quote above from James Vaughan is telling and impacted on me when he and I had this conversation as I was constructing a previous article on ego. A societal norm in coaching might be the body language or posture with which we carry ourselves when we don the tracksuit and go into coaching mode. It may be the need to impose ourselves verbally on players, or the feeling that if we’re not telling, or providing the answers, then we’re not coaching. Alternatively, it may be the way we deliver our team talks, and while we’re at it, do we ever question if the team talk is for the players, or for us, the coaches?

Referring back to the All Blacks example, a wonderful story emerged from a team that began a journey to back-to-back World Cup wins under the leadership of Sir Graham Henry in 2004. When legendary All Black Captain, Tana Umaga challenged then coach, ‘Ted’ Henry with the above question on team talks in 2005, Henry (a man with 30 years of coaching and teaching experience at the time) put his ego aside and never gave another pre-match team talk after that conversation. This decision defies convention and tradition and is an example of how behavioural change can be implemented when the environment is open, honest and built on trust. Perhaps the coaches in the youth football example above don’t have the same trust in their young players or fear the outcome if they do?

So how do we change the story? For me, it starts with redefining success for young players and going back to why they play, and why we coach. Coaches have an opportunity to shift the narrative for young players through leadership and modelling. Self-awareness is critical in this process, understanding your own strengths and weaknesses as a coach is arguably as important as knowing those of your players.

Key ideas and questions to consider when you next coach your team:

  • What messages are you promoting within your environment?
  • How does the club or sporting culture you are working within affect the way your team and individuals play?
  • Are you willing to defy convention and put your players first?
  • Are you challenging every individual in the group to improve based on strengths or help weaknesses?
  • Are you coaching from a manual, or are you creating practices that look like the game and meet the needs of your players individually or collectively?
  • How are you communicating with your players?
  • How are you behaving when your team/players have success, and when they fail?
  • Are you managing the session or affecting individuals?
  • Are your players reflecting your behaviour?
  • What stories and legacies are you leaving for those to follow?
  • What are the values you and your players believe in?

If we are going to change the story in youth development, we need to understand the power of the sporting narrative, the messages passed down through tradition, clubs, families, teams and the impact they have on young people. Personally, if I was one of the youth players I observed recently and had three coaches shouting at me, parents screaming at the referee, being told to lump it long, I would have become disenchanted, because it wasn’t fun, and I wasn’t improving. It’s easy to forget, today’s players are tomorrow’s coaches. By removing the autonomy from the environment, players become pawns in a game of high speed chess for adults. Consider the impact you have on your players with your demeanour, communication skills and behaviour. You are after all, involved in shaping the story of a childhood, so it’s on you to do all you can to maximise the experience and contribute positively to that journey.

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