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AGC #014 - Lessons in leadership from Belgium Hockey

4 top tips from the best sports team most people haven't heard of

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The rise of the Belgian men’s field hockey team is worth studying for coaches trying to build elite programs in any sport.

Ranked 14th in the world in 2004 and without a major championship medal to their name, the Red Lions finally broke their duck with European bronze in 2007, and followed it up with a first Olympic qualification in 32 years a year later.

But their body of work in the last decade has been remarkable, ascending to the top of the hockey world.

An Olympic silver in 2016 was their major international breakthrough, and in 2018, Belgium entered its golden era, winning first gold medals at the World Cup (2018), the European Championships (2019), and the Olympic Games at Tokyo 2020.

Their achievements have also inspired others, with the country’s playing population swelling from 10,000 to 58,000 in less than 20 years.

The true secret to their success wasn’t just tactics, technique, or tenacity.

It was their people management.

Here are four key lessons we can learn from the rise of the Belgian Red Lions.

1. Inspiration from visualization

New Zealander Shane McLeod is closely associated with Belgium’s golden era, having been the side’s head coach from 2015 to 2021, and recently returning as an assistant coach.

Describing himself as “the keeper of the vision”, McLeod regularly referred to the imagery of a mountain and his team’s long journey to the top of it.

Visualization played a part in other ways. McLeod filled their team room with inspirational images of Belgium playing against, and succeeding against the world’s top teams, such as this example from their maiden victory over the Netherlands:

“Being bombarded with images of their dominance against the countries that had always held such mystique started to change their mindset,” McLeod said.

“We demystified those nations and the players started to believe they could beat them.”

2. Plan for failure

McLeod’s mountain metaphor also helped him plot against weaknesses in the team that might ultimately lead to failure.

He asked himself what avalanches might happen en route to the summit, identifying how his players individually responded to setbacks, and the various domino reactions that would reverberate around the team if, for example, they went a goal down:

This helped the players better understand their tendencies and become likelier to recognize them happening in real-time, as well as ensuring players and coaches all had frameworks to support each other when things got difficult.

Furthermore, McLeod and his staff were very specific as to everyone’s roles and how they would contribute on the leadership side of things: “Everyone wants to help, but do we know how?” he asked.

This concept went even further into solving various situational problems, defining which players were responsible for knowing when and how to waste time and run the clock down if they were holding a narrow lead in the final minutes.

These little details yielded big results for Belgium, aiding their game management to get them through with Olympic, World, or European gold medals on the line.

3. Leaders create leaders

When Thomas Briels was asked by McLeod to take over the captaincy of the Red Lions, nobody was more surprised than Briels himself.

“It was never my intention, it was never my goal,” he told the EuroHockey Institute Podcast. “I didn’t really see myself as a captain.”

Briels didn’t seem the most obvious choice to outsiders either. He wasn’t guaranteed his spot - he was named as a reserve for Tokyo 2020 despite being captain - nor was he an obvious, loud leader.

But the management figured Briels’ leadership attributes were far more subtle, yet no less effective.

“One of the first lessons I learned is you can be a leader in so many different ways,” he explains.

“You don’t need to say everything, you don’t need to know everything, you don’t need to be the best player. You need to be yourself and be the leader you are.

“I was someone that was in the middle of the group, and it was important that everyone in the group felt good. I tried to be a connector in the group.

“I also learned how to share responsibility - you don’t have to do everything yourself, and you can be vulnerable and ask for help. People want to help - and it will stop them thinking about themselves.”

Examples included asking Arthur Van Doren - a two-time World Player of the Year and Belgium’s best player, but a quiet guy - to use his voice more in team meetings and at half-time, as Briels knew that when Van Doren spoke, the whole group listened.

He also encouraged Loick Luypaert - a naturally more extroverted character - to give the pre-game speeches to hype the team up, as Briels recognized he was better suited to that job.

This aligned nicely with McLeod’s leadership style of empowering others.

“You can squeeze an orange and get a lot of juice out,” said the New Zealander.

“A dictator coach gets results in this way, but they are very short-lived. I like to grow an orange grove.”

The best leaders create other leaders, and Belgium had all the avenues covered heading into the 2020 Olympics.

Briels went on to play in seven of the eight games in Tokyo and ended his international career in fairytale style as captain of the Olympic gold medallists.

4. Learning stuff is less important than learning about yourself

Australian Adam Commens has been Belgian hockey’s high-performance director since 2016 and is tasked with ensuring a steady supply of talent into both the men’s and the (rapidly improving) women’s national teams.

He also oversees the country’s coach development, and his take on how to go about doing this nods firmly in the direction of caring more about the John and Joes than the Xs and O’s.

“My job is all about accelerating people’s development,” said Commens.

“It all comes down to who you are, knowing yourself, being conscious about your strengths and weaknesses.”

He believes an increased focus on coaches knowing themselves and their players - and not just learning more about their sport - has yielded big dividends.

“When I work with hockey coaches they quite often were really interested in improving tactical knowledge, conditioning, data analysis, so on.

“Notably, they were rarely interested in looking at what makes them who they are, why they are strong in certain areas, or why they connect better with certain players.”

“That’s personal development rather than professional development.

“Knowing that, coaches could connect and understand the individuals they worked with - and that was the key in the step from silver to gold.”

Whenever you’re ready, here are a few ways I can help you:

1. Efficient Practice Design: My multi-step system for creating practice plans that will flow smoothly, stretch your players appropriately, and save coaches of all team sports dozens of hours a year, on and off the field.

2. Premium Practice Planner:  A Notion template to help sports coaches plan, deliver and review their sessions with maximum efficiency - then smartly archive everything.

3. Coach’s Dozen: An ebook of 12 small-sided games with diagrams and animations to help you train goalscoring in field hockey, co-authored with Mark Egner.