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Five coaches who led their teams to victory, against the odds

By: Lydia Bird

Management is a delicate art. The best coaches in the business have an enviable knack of balancing the egos of their players, as well as relentlessly pursuing the objectives that mean success to their team.

Once in a while, though, someone will come along and completely change the game, showing how a brilliant coach can make a team more than the sum of its parts. As the renowned American football coach, Tom Landry, said of coaching: ‘it’s getting players to play better than they think they can.’

This is what sports executives must aspire to do – taking what they have to work with and delivering something extraordinary. In the process, they can demonstrate how impactful leadership can transform sporting outcomes. Here are five inspirational examples to take your cue from.

1.Claudio Ranieri, Leicester City, 2016

The ‘tinkerman’ was at the centre of perhaps the most astounding and unexpected win in sport, let alone football. Leicester City’s 5000-1 Premier League victory took the world by storm, and is possibly the best ever example of Tom Landry’s famous quote.

The interesting thing is that Ranieri did it all without tinkering with his line-up too much, abandoning the trait that coined his moniker in favour of consistency and rigour. Indeed, Leicester used the fewest number of players of any team that season.

This shows that flexibility and having the wherewithal to get the maximum output from the tools at your disposal is crucial in sports. What you do with what you have makes all the difference: a lesson for any executive looking to leverage value from their content.

2.Tracey Neville, Netball Commonwealth Games, 2018

In the world of netball, Australia’s dominance is well known. The Diamonds, as they are called, have won 11 world championship titles (out of a possible 14), three Commonwealth Games golds, and are one of only two teams to have topped the world rankings since they were established in 2008 – the other being New Zealand.

The 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games final was the first in the sport’s history to not feature both Australia and New Zealand, with a maiden appearance for England, who went into the game as clear underdogs. After a decent start, England fell behind and it looked to many as though Australia might just win on home turf.

However, in the dying seconds of the match, Helen Housby scored to win and stun their opponents, the fans, and the sport as a whole. The mastermind behind it was Tracey Neville, a committed and dedicated coach, whose ‘world class both on and off the court’ approach helped her team to create sporting history.

3.Michael Vaughan, The Ashes, 2005

Back in 2005, the Australian cricket team was about as feared as a side gets. For that reason, very few people expected Michael Vaughan’s England side to take the coveted urn at that summer’s Ashes series.

After the opening Lord’s test, it looked as though they might be right, as England fell to a 239 run defeat. What followed, however, was one of the greatest series in the history of the game. Led by a resourceful, creative and natural leader, the England team won the hearts and minds of the nation in a gripping summer of cricket.

Vaughan demonstrated the value of leadership – but he also showed how a sport that has never rivalled football for popularity could exponentially grow its audience base by generating huge excitement among sports fans.

4. Joe Schmidt, Ireland vs New Zealand, 2018

‘Ruthless cyborgs’ is rarely a term of endearment. Yet that is how Joe Schmidt’s Irish team were described by a New Zealand journalist in 2018, after their second rugby union victory over the All Blacks.

To understand why the victory meant so much, we have to go back to the 2016 Autumn international match that ended 40-29 in Ireland’s favour. Before kick off, Ireland had not beaten New Zealand in 111 years, and their opponents were on a run of 18 consecutive wins. Experts did not give Ireland a hope of victory. What happened next was one of sport’s greatest underdog stories.

Their win was credited to Joe Schmidt, a coach famed for his attention to detail, clear advice and actionable insight – things all leaders should aspire to. This victory was also attributed to his belief that winning comes from a process of building a smart structure and system, then sticking to it.

5. Ross Brawn, Formula 1 World Championship, 2009

Jenson Button was always a driver with a lot of potential and a great deal of skill, but he was not a regular winner. In early 2009, things looked bad for him. His Honda team were on the verge of extinction, with a car that they could not test, yet which they knew could be great.

Just short of a month before the season began, Ross Brawn bought out the team and began one of Formula 1’s few fairytales. Brawn had interpreted the significant 2009 rule changes better than anyone else, giving Button a car that dominated the season, and with which he won the world championship.

Button’s role was undeniable. Yet a large part of the success was down to Ross Brawn’s technical expertise, forward-thinking approach, mastering of tools and technology, and love of innovation.

Take inspiration from sports’ winning leaders

The moral of the story is clear. With the right leadership, even the most underrated underdogs can seize victory. However, this doesn’t just apply on the pitch – with innovation and the right management, the effectiveness of sports content can also be transformed.

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