In a week of sporting brilliance, after displays from sportspeople including four-gold-medal winning English gymnast, Jake Jarman, and 10,000-metre runner, Eilish McColgan, literally running in her mother’s footsteps, it is hard to determine which superstar deserves the most attention. Perhaps, however, that is a good thing, as it’s often the unsung heroes in the team behind them, or one motivating coach, that is the key to their success.
Let’s just forget the Commonwealth Games for a while and focus on the highpoint of English sport during the past week. The women’s English football team brought home what the men have failed to do since 1966 – a top footballing title. What all members of the team would say, however, is that they did so thanks to the leadership and management style of their manager and coach, Sarina Wiegman.
This was déjà vu for Sarina, who also won the Euros with The Netherlands, last time around. That cannot be a coincidence, so what is it that makes her such a successful team boss?
The answer is that Sarina realises it is a team she is heading up, not a group of individuals thrown together for a tournament. From day one, she has focused on building the team spirit and boosting their confidence, instilling belief in every player and getting to know them inside-out as people. Hannah Hampton has talked of Sarina having built “one massive family” – a team that shares values and goals. Beth England has called her “a very good people person.”
Sarina’s team has gained such confidence in her that they feel they are able to express themselves and make mistakes, learning from those as they develop and grow together. They know she will not punish them for being human; just seek to enhance their skills so mistakes are ultimately eradicated.
She is said to have turned one room at team headquarters into a massive firepit, filled with beanbags and hot chocolates – an environment in which she built bonds with and between the players, allowing them to share their stories, to create deep connections. They were no longer just passing the ball to each other but relating to each other at a personal level, discovering what made each person tick and all their similarities and differences.
As Baroness Sue Campbell said, “she’s built a collective, not just among the players but the team around the players. I’ve not seen anything like it in all my time in sport.”
Building connections and respect
Sarina has not just created the concept of the ‘team’ being bigger than the individual in her players’ minds but done so in such a way that she has been able to carry them along with her when the tough decisions needed to be made.
Dropping captain, Steph Houghton, from the squad could have torn the unit apart but Sarina had already established such respect and trust that it didn’t. Similarly, throughout the tournament, her ability to make the tough calls with team selections and substitutions was greatly lauded. She read the game brilliantly but also didn’t have to worry about team players sulking or feeling offended. They all believed in the greater good and had mutual respect.
This situation has come about through her open approach to her players. As she says, she has no secrets. It has been said she really feels what her players need and they feel able to say anything to her. This openness is tied to her creation of a team rather than individual, vision. As Millie Bright has said, “she takes all the emotion out”. She also says that if Sarina has to criticise a player, that player knows that it is not about her as a person, but her as a footballer, and that it is being said in the spirit of what is good for the team.
Establishing authority, trust and respect has enabled Sarina to carry her team with her and still dole out the necessary instructions and critiques. Beth England says, she is “not shy to be savage and brutal when she needs to be.”
Sarina Wiegman has channelled her calmness, using her cool head to bring absolute clarity to the Team England mission. Every player fully understands what is expected of them and knows their role. They recognise they are dots in the bigger picture but also see that their part of the picture is crucial to the overall vision. Sarina’s directness and fuss-free approach has made it easy to see where the team is, where it is heading and where it ultimately wants to be – arguably, winners of the World Cup. Clear communication has been key.
The players have bought into Sarina because she consistently displays her values – honesty, sincerity and hard work. She stays true to herself by divorcing herself from the hype and all of the distractions of the outer world. She has also shown a caring and human side, however, so is not remote or divorced from her team. The post-match hugs clearly demonstrated this, even being delivered by players who had not kicked a single ball throughout the tournament.
Sarina is also a great observer and note-taker, evaluating player performances as they are revealed before her and assessing where changes can be made and improvements achieved. Her team, on her watch, will not rest on its laurels but enhance performance, make marginal gains, evolve and adapt to changing circumstances and styles of play.
Sharing the load
Anyone watching Sunday’s match will have noted Sarina insisting on bringing all of her backroom staff together for a team photo of their own, following the player shot. This signalled her respect for individuals who support her leadership, from the kit people to the physios, the psychologists and the administrators. The indication was that the team behind the scenes has been made just as tight-knit as the one that takes to the field.
Calm, cool leadership, the ability to deliver a clear vision and the capacity to meld a group of individuals into a team in which the sum is bigger than the individual parts, makes Sarina a role model for anyone wishing to build a successful team or become an inspiring corporate leader. The same principles she has brought to England team management can be introduced into any workplace and are totally transferrable.
But back to the Commonwealth Games. Sometimes, the team’s fortunes are not all plain sailing, as Adam Peaty found out when he didn’t win a medal of any colour in the 100m breaststroke event he has dominated for eight years. After finishing a dismal fourth, looking out of sorts, rueing a broken foot and time off for dancing, and seemingly throwing in the towel in a post-event interview, he roared back to win the 50m event.
It was what he did next that was so notable, however, taking off his gold medal and placing it around the neck of his coach of 15 years, Mel Marshall. As Rebecca Adlington on commentary had already told us, “Mel is Miss Motivator. If you are going through tough times she is that person you want by your side. She’ll have built him back up.” So it proved and the “dream team” that Adlington also described came through.
As Mel Marshall said, “come hell or high water, we find a way.” Sometimes, that is what great coaches have to do, to get their team to where they want to be. It’s about finding the way to win, even when times are tough.