Lessons in Leadership Straight from the Sports Field

An Image of a Sports Field

You have just been on the end of an absolute pummelling. Players around you are breathing hard as you sit shivering in the changing room at half time. On paper, you were always going to get beaten, everyone expected you to be behind at the half way point. So what are you going to do about it? You look around at your team mates with their heads down, looking at the floor. Where has the belief gone? Where is the hope? Whatever team you lead or are a part of in school, your role is essential in helping them to overcome any barrier. I have been in difficult situations on the football pitch but I have also been fortunate enough to play with team mates who have inspired me so that I felt ready to take on the world when I returned to the pitch after half time. And there is much, I think, that can translate from the sports world directly into school leadership.

Leading by example

I am a strong believer that the best way to get people to buy into you is to practice what you preach. This is no different whether you are on the field or in a classroom. I like to think that I lead in the same way that I play on the pitch. I see myself as equal to everyone in my team and I gain buy in from staff by demonstrating the behaviours I expect from my team. There is nothing worse than a leader who implores you to do something but does something different themselves. But what I have also learnt is that leading by example doesn’t mean expecting everyone to do things in the way you would do it. To me, leading by example is about having high expectations and expecting the same of those around you, but at the same time understanding that there are many different ways of achieving the same result. The balance is always going to be in guiding and supporting people, whilst at the same time allowing them the freedom to take risks and think for themselves about the way they want to lead.

Failure can enhance the future

In 2012, the nation watched an emotional Andy Murray finish as runner up in the Wimbledon tennis tournament. The loss clearly left him devastated but he found the strength to say that he was ‘getting closer’ to that elusive Grand Slam title. A year later, hard work, perseverance and determination paid off as Andy Murray was triumphant in winning the tournament. Failure is always difficult to deal with, but through failure, leaders learn many valuable lessons. We learn to be more self-aware, more reflective and ultimately more resilient. In education there are so many unknowns that there is always going to be some degree of failure. The introduction of the progress 8 measure, life after levels, new specifications and the simple fact that we live in the most over stimulated generation in history, all leads to a constant battle of reestablishing our ground. Resilience is mentioned regularly in schools, and one thing that I am absolutely certain of, is that sport helps people to become more resilient. It is disheartening as leaders when something we have put blood, sweat and tears into ultimately doesn’t quite work the way we want it to, but what we take away from such situations is valuable experience. In my mind, there is always room for improvement and therefore is always something to learn.

Hard work

No leader who has achieved something special has done so without hard work. Cristiano Ronaldo is not one of the best footballers in the world simply because he was born with the physical attributes that gave him an edge in the footballing world. In his book, he talks about the fact that he is consistently the first person into the changing rooms before a game, and is always the last player to leave. There are many theories that suggest 10,000 hours of practice are needed to master a skill and it is no surprise therefore that people such as Cristiano, who work hard, are viewed as some of the best in their field. For leaders to be successful there is no substitute for hard work, and many of the best leaders I have met value hard work above all else. But I am also clear this doesn’t mean just the number of hours they work. Working hard has to also be about working for impact. Cristiano knows what to practice and when. A great leader isn’t one who just puts the hours in. A great leader ensures that the hours they put in translates into something meaningful for students and staff.


As a leader, there are always times when we question what we believe in; we doubt ourselves and our capacity to fulfil our role. Sometimes it is hard to stay positive when everything seems to be going wrong. It is also difficult to stay true to our beliefs in the onslaught of pressure. Every leader feels pressure and the best advice I can give for dealing with pressure (again from my experience in the sports world) is to keep your focus on the variables that you can control. If you think about any situation in leadership there are things you can control and things you can’t. For example, you can control how you prepare to deliver training, the delivery of the session and the resources that go with it. You can’t control how people will interpret the information or whether the key message will resonate with your team. Just the act of being mindful about what you can and can’t control can make a pressured situation seem manageable. In 1978, Michael Jordan went home and cried in his room after seeing that he hadn’t made it onto the varsity roster but his close friend, Leroy Smith, had. It was extremely rare for Sophomores to make Varsity. Whilst Jordan has been prone to self-aggrandizing, the message here is clear – although his confidence took a big blow, he never lost the belief that he could go onto to be a player that dominated the sport for the next two decades. The point here is that leaders need to be clear about their core beliefs, and consistently remain true these if they wish to be viewed as an authentic leader. With so much noise about education on various social media sites, beliefs can be challenged radically. There is no doubt this challenge is beneficial, but leaders also need to filter out and use that which is applicable to their vision.

Everybody can be a leader

Never doubt the influence you can have as an individual. In 2001, David Beckham stood over the ball in what would be the last kick of the game against Greece. At the time the free kick was awarded, England were set to be leaving the competition. He struck a curling free kick up and over the wall to the keeper’s right – and that one kick sent England through to the finals of the competition. Any one member of a team can at any time contribute to something truly special. Actions no matter how big or small can have a significant impact on bringing a vision to life. In schools, many of the unsung heroes are the classroom teachers who consistently lead the way in developing high quality teaching practice ultimately helping students to make rapid progress. Although I lead learning and teaching across my school, I am very conscious that first and foremost I am a member of the teaching staff. I welcome and encourage feedback on my teaching practice as a member of the department within which I teach because that is what I want for everyone else. In this situation, I am part of the lesson feedback cycle just as much as anyone else. I don’t promote regular feedback because it is my job to do so. I promote it because I believe in it.

Uniform and Presentation

It takes just 2 hundredths of a second to form a first impression. In the changing room, just by looking at who has cleaned their boots and who hasn’t, you can tell a huge amount about how someone will perform. In the midst of a uniform drive, I have had plenty of discussions with students about the importance of uniform. In terms of leadership, someone who turns up with a dishevelled or slovenly look is never going to initially evoke trust in those they lead. I made the point to students, that in the world of sport, they are expected to wear a specific kit. Let’s look to the All Blacks. When Ritchie McKaw, arguably the greatest rugby player ever to play the game, was first handed his all black jersey, he placed it over his head and just sat there for a period of minutes whilst he took in everything that the jersey means. Wearing a uniform with pride denotes a certain attitude and link to the desired behaviours of your team. High expectations should permeate every aspect of leadership – right down to presentation.

Vision and Expectations

Despite the pressures, fluctuations in desire and drive, highs and lows, an outstanding leader somehow manages to maintain perfect discipline. What I mean by that is absolute clarity regarding the expectations of staff. Vince Lombardi once said, “I’ve never known a man worth his salt who, in the long run, deep down in his heart, didn’t appreciate the grind, the discipline.” Discipline doesn’t have to be enforced in an authoritarian fashion when leading, but I know that to fulfil any vision, every member of the team must be absolutely clear on the non-negotiables. Deviance from expectations can cause everything that has been built to become fractured and damaged. One way in which I have approached ensuring a clarity of expectations is to ensure that the learning and teaching priorities permeate all elements of school life. All teachers have a placemat on their desk which has the non-negotiables for each priority as well as practical strategies. I also regularly send out ’12 solutions’ for implementing each of the priorities. The idea behind this is not that everyone teaches in the same way, but that everyone is aware of the non-negotiables and adapts what works for them within this.

Sometimes the bigger picture is what is important

Not necessarily a lesson in leadership but a final reminder of the power of sport. In a time where two countries and thousands of soldiers occupied trenches separated by a muddy field strewn with bodies, on the eve of Christmas 1914, something special happened. British and German soldiers climbed out their trenches, laid down their weapons and played a game of football with people who hours earlier were firing bullets at them. Anything that has the power to momentarily stop a war and cause soldiers to halt all hostilities, is something that has plenty to teach us.