Sport psychologist Dan Abrahams examines a different way to do your team’s end of season assessment and start planning for the next campaign
The month of June – that time of year when next season’s planning starts to kick in. Not that it’s been an ordinary year. On the contrary, with empty stadiums, player absences due to Covid, and enormous uncertainty across the footballing pyramid, it’s been a tough one to navigate.
Putting aside the uniqueness of what we’ve all been experiencing, seasonal reflections so often lean towards the negative. It’s the natural human thing to do – to question what wasn’t good enough, to ponder what didn’t go well, and to look towards the inadequate and the less than satisfactory. And, admittedly, a study of the negative may be a great way to conduct an assessment of a season, and to look forward to the next. But it’s not the only way.
In 1987 a management academic called David Cooperider wrote an article on a process he called ‘appreciative inquiry’. In it he introduced the world to an approach to improve individual and group understanding, visioning and change. Traditional management models can tend to explore what’s
going wrong, what’s weak and what’s not working. In contrast, Cooperider’s model was designed to emphasise strengths, areas to celebrate, and successes that already exist within the team or the organisation.
It’s a positive approach that can set in motion improved performance by reinforcing relationships and culture, creating a common vision and direction, promoting learning and innovation, and energizing collective action.
The great thing about appreciative inquiry is that you can engage with it in the quiet of your mind on your own. You can do it with a fellow coach or a group of coaches. Or you can do it with a number of key stakeholders.
There are a number of steps within appreciative inquiry, but there are two that I recommend every coach engages with – discovery and dream.
Discovery requires coaches to brainstorm what’s been good and what’s been working. This first energising step allows participants to explore “the best of what is”, identifying the club’s and team’s strengths, best practices, and sources of excellence, vitality, well-being and peak performance. If you have larger numbers in a room, this can be done in small groups, bringing participants together to share findings and discuss experiences. This step alone is a fantastic way to help coaches manage the emotional temperature of the organisation (and can be a useful weapon to use mid-season or during a slump in form).
This first step allows participants to dig for positives and search for clues that are left when success happens and when positive emotions and feelings are experienced. They provide a sound foundation for the kind of habits and behaviours that need repeating in the future, and can be used to improve the culture and environment further. When I’ve engaged teams in this process, example answers have included:
- “Cross departmental communication is strong, honest and open.”
- “During a five game unbeaten run some of the players remarked it was the most they’ve enjoyed playing in their professional careers.”
- “The overall feeling around the club is that players feel cared for, and so do staff members.”
Such collaborative responses provide a positive platform to move forward from. It’s as much about setting a tone of positive feeling as it is anything else. Of course, uncovering concrete behaviours that produce high performance and strong results are important, but directing coach attention onto the “good in what we do” lays a foundation for the season ahead.
If step one utilises memory, then this next ‘dream’ step taps into imagination. As human beings, one of our greatest assets is our imaginative capacity. We can imagine the best and we can imagine the worst.
In this ‘dream’ stage coaches give themselves the space to envision a future they really want – a future where the team, the coaches, the staff and the club are fully engaged and successful around its core purpose and strategic objectives. This is now a discussion around next season – how do we want our leaders to behave? What does exemplary coaching look like? In what ways are our players competing? What resources can we draw from? Who can help us? What does our physical space have to look like?
Just as in step one, exploration is encouraged. Participants can have fun in the dream stage, sharing ideas and stories, as mundane or as wild as is possible. Psychological safety is encouraged so that all participants feel like they can be involved, and so that nothing (however big or small) is left off the table for the vision of next season.
The paradigm of “overcoming weaknesses” may not be the optimal one to use when reflecting on the past nine months and considering next season. Discovering untapped strengths and dreaming of future successes can be twin engines that drive effective solutions to next season’s challenges.