Learning lessons from sporting champions

The aftermath of the 2014 Ryder Cup was dominated by arguments over Phil Mickelson’s criticism of US skipper Tom Watson, as well as the fulsome praise that has been heaped on European captain Paul McGinley.

Some golfing greats such as Sir Nick Faldo have described Mickelson’s actions in rather colourful terms and many leading figures in the game joined the chorus of condemnation.

By contrast, European star Rory McIlroy described McGinley as “the most wonderful captain” and ,McIlroy’s fellow Northern Irishman, Graeme McDowell called him a “standout leader”.

The whole affair has raised the issue of what constitutes high-quality, effective leadership for sports teams, and by extension for teams in areas such as business and education. It is an interesting question and there are a number of ways to approach it.

There is some research that shows winning teams can benefit from their own cycle of success and feed off the momentum of confidence generated from previous victories. Europe’s recent dominance of the event (losing only one Ryder Cup in the last 15 years) would certainly seem to support that; however, judging by the very public comments of players, including McIlroy and McDowell, this 2014 European team was clearly highly motivated and benefited from something else, that has powerful effects on optimising team performances.

In an opinion column on the BBC Sport website, Graeme McDowell revealed more details about how his captain shaped the European group. McDowell cited Paul McGinley’s meticulous attention to detail, great communication skills, ability to delegate, positive attitude, creativity and the ability to inspire.

It was also interesting to read that McGinley had spent a great deal of time ,and racked up thousands of air miles, visiting and consulting with potential team members in the months before the Ryder Cup. The European guys obviously had plenty of opportunity to give input into how their team would operate when they faced the USA.

It’s clear from all this that McGinley created what is known in psychological terms as a Self-Determining Environment, which is recognised as the key to generating robust motivation. There are some key principles that coaches, captains and leaders can implement to foster such an environment and it also seems pretty clear the European Ryder Cup captain used many of these.

Firstly, leaders should provide their teams with autonomy, that means giving them choices and opportunities to contribute to factors such as the core values and the behaviour that the team will adopt and adhere to.

Provide your teams with relatedness. This involves showing them you care about their welfare and how they perform by regularly meeting and communicating with them.

Also, support individuals within a team to develop and maintain their sense of competence. Do this by building their confidence with praise for positive contributions and actions (for every one negative, you need to give at least three positives).

It is also important to really show that you are taking notice of what your players/team members have to say. This can be done by using a performance profile document, in which you ask them to show in detail what they think about their game. When you have mapped out a profile together, the team member and the leader/coach can become equal partners in deciding which training and preparation is required.

And if you need somebody in the team to do something which they might not want to do – such as making a change to their pre-tournament prep or ,dare we say , sitting out a Ryder Cup match – it is really important to rationalize that decision with them.

It seems to me that whilst we will never know exactly what went on before and during the event at Gleneagles, the European team benfited from a self-determining environment and it gave them the enduring motivation and collective confidence to win a third consecutive Ryder Cup.

Key tips to help you lead and motivate your teams

Provide your teams with autonomy – give them choices and opportunities to contribute.

  1. Provide your teams with autonomy – give them choices and opportunities to contribute.
  2. Providing them with relatedness – showing them you care about their welfare and performance.
  3. Support team members’ sense of competence – build confidence by praising their positive contributions (for every one negative, you need to give at least three positives).
  4. Focus on the role of hard work, and how that can lead to improvements – if they work hard they can and will get better.