The Southampton FC Academy is focused on turning potential into excellence – but it’s not just the skills of their young players they are investing in.

Southampton FC Academy coaches are under real pressure. Not only are they working hard to develop some of the finest young footballing talent in the country, they must also communicate effectively with a wide range of stakeholders - including the young players they coach, their parents, other coaches and professionals on the Southampton FC staff.

Due to the high stakes involved at all stages of the Academy process, much of this communication is highly demanding. For example, it’s never easy having to tell a player’s parents that their loved one isn’t going to make it to the next level.

Having recognised these numerous challenges, the Southampton FC Academy asked Management Futures to help their Academy coaches to develop their core communication and influencing skills.

It’s an opportunity we embraced and over the past two seasons we have delivered a series of short, sharp sessions which have focused on the fundamentals of good communication in a variety of scenarios.

Kicking things off 

Our first step was to ensure we had a detailed understanding of what the coaches were required to do – assessing the demands placed upon them and then clarifying the context in which they were operating.

What soon became apparent was that the coaches were dealing with numerous demands from several fronts in what is a ferociously competitive, elite sporting environment.

While they are all highly accomplished in their technical skills, our discussions highlighted how important it is that they can communicate, influence, lead and negotiate to a high level as well.

Building on solid foundations

During our initial sessions, we concentrated on foundation skills such as rapport-building, in-depth listening, summary and good questioning.

As confidence grew we fed in more advanced skills and further input on the mindset and behaviours of effective leaders and communicators – all with an emphasis on practical, flexible, real-world techniques applicable in a variety of situations in a high-paced environment.

As Edd Vahid – Head of Coaching and Learning at Southampton FC Academy – explains, this real-world element is hugely important: “The coaching helped highlight the need for our conversations to have real purpose. In a dynamic and varied environment like ours we need the skills to make sure this happens whatever the scenario – be it in a corridor or over a water bottle.”

Getting the tactics right

Alongside the real-world application, the success of our work with the Southampton FC Academy can be attributed to five key principles:

1. Making repetition a virtue
While it can be tempting in a long-running programme to simply keep adding content, we focused on making sure that the fundamentals were fully embedded and ‘in the muscle’ – meaning coaches could use their skills confidently and spontaneously.

Edd commented: “We had conversations with Management Futures where we felt that we’d repeated some of the content within the programmes but actually we found that this reinforced the core skills required to be effective.”

2. Reflective practice
Every session would end with action-planning. The coaches would commit to trying out their skills between modules and on subsequent modules we would thoroughly review their experience to reinforce key learnings.

3. Challenge and testing
The coaches responded especially positively to sessions where they put their skills to the test – often trying out their coaching ‘live’ and receiving feedback on the spot about their skills.

4. Flexibility
By working closely with the Head of Coaching and Learning to plan and review every session we have been able to tailor content to meet specific needs – keeping the modules current and relevant for the coaches throughout the programme.

As Edd confirms: “We have found Management Futures to be very respectful of the context we work in and they have based the coaching around our specific needs, how our staff work and making every session applicable to that. They are responsive to the individual group’s needs and flexible in their approach.”

5. Partnership
We have co-created this programme every step of the way in partnership with Edd. This has included initial design, all the review discussions and some co-delivery. Edd’s ownership and endorsement of the programme, plus his active participation, has been a key to success. It has ensured we have always focused our attention on the right issues and has sent an important message of commitment to the coaches themselves.

Results are everything

The coaches have made real progress throughout the programme – evidenced by their willingness to put their learning and new skills to the test.

As the sessions progressed, confidence grew and we heard more and more positive feedback about the benefits of their learning. Typical examples included stories of potentially daunting conflict situations being diffused by active listening, summary and recognition of underpinning values.

As Edd explains: “With sport there tends to be an emphasis on marginal gains and we can be guilty of neglecting the fundamentals like relationships – Management Futures put a premium on these which has been so important to the group’s development.”

It has also been notable how much the coaches’ skills and confidence have advanced in the sessions themselves. During the second season, we pushed much harder and challenged them to go for an even higher level of excellence.”

Kicking on

Just as the Academy coaches push their young players to keep developing, we are keen to ensure we maintain momentum in the coaches’ development too.

The next stage of the programme will see the Southampton FC Academy coaching staff undertake the ILM Level 5 Certificate in Coaching and Mentoring with Management Futures.

As Edd explains: “The core group has been engaged in the programme for two seasons now and we wanted to push them further so that they can take on more accountability for their own development. We also wanted to give them the recognition for the level at which they are operating. The qualification offers that recognition. They deserve it – the group have been very committed to the programme and we just want to give them the opportunity to progress even further.”

We can’t wait to see what the new season holds.

“I’ve noticed a real difference in the guys I work with. Their ability to communicate, ask better questions, give more insightful responses, listen more effectively and process a better level of information has really improved. They handle themselves more effectively in difficult conversations or conflicts and now have the skills to confidently manage these scenarios.” 

Southampton FC’s Head of Academy Coaching, Edd Vahid