Leadership Lessons From Sport

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Mark Francis - Uspire Director of Learning

Aduke Onafowokan is founder of the Sister Sister Network and host of the Arise Summit, at which she asked me to share my top five leadership lessons from sport.

The theme which pervades all five tips is that talent alone is never enough, and that helping individuals believe in their world-beating capability is the key role of management.

I have had the pleasure of playing and coaching at international level in rugby and it’s from that sport that my first tip comes:

Dream Big

I worked with the Scottish Women’s rugby team from formation in 1993 to being Champions of Europe 5 years later. On day one I asked the fledgling player group what they wanted more than anything and to a woman they said ‘Beat England’. I knew then I needed to stretch this thinking beyond the parochial and instead I asked what real excellence would look and feel like.

From that question we created a vision of being ‘Cheered by the crowd wherever we play because of the way we play’. Notice how the focus changes from a one-off victory, ‘Beat England’, to a higher intention of quality performance which even gets opposition fans cheering us.

Train the way you mean to play

I’ve spent time with gold medal winning Olympians Linford Christie, Daley Thompson and Denise Lewis; what struck me as exceptional was their focus and work ethic in training. They all embraced training as a joyful not routine part of their job; famously Daley used to train hardest on Christmas Day, inspired in the knowledge that his rivals were taking the day off

Make ‘state of mind’ tangible

I helped AFC Wimbledon gain their professional league status in 2011 by seeding two states of mind with the players; Be a lion at the start of the game – proud, big-chested and confident and then in adversity be a dog, scrapping for every morsel as well.

The team purchased a huge cuddly toy Lion and woolly St Bernard Dog to have with them in the pre-match warm up and on the coach travelling to the games. In the semi-final the team won by a record margin 8-1 and in the final they won through on penalties.

Establish everyone as a leader

When I coached Richmond Women’s rugby team in the 1990’s we set a goal of becoming European Champions. In the first few seasons I was a talkative coach before, during and after matches and we were good, but not great. When I learned to give space for each individual to play a distinct role for the team, the performance level changed dramatically. We had plenty of natural talent but once everyone knew that proactive decision-making during games was everyone’s remit, the team became unbeatable. We won four consecutive European Championships.

Train your mind as much as your body

I was asked to help an injured Canadian basketball player cope with a long period out of the game. Instead of just chatting and feeling sorry for ourselves, we set up a daily visioning routine in which he pictured himself scoring 3 pointers – these are especially difficult shots from long distance. In the American professional leagues the average success rate of this type of shot is 35% and Tony’s average before injury was just 27.5%. When he came back from injury, his 3-point average was an incredible 42% having not played for 14 months.

Have a think about how you can apply these insights in pursuit of your big dreams too!

Mark Francis
Director of Learning at Uspire  

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