August 08, 2023

Performance Coach, Author of “Game Changer: The Art of Sports Science”

Dana Bernardino

59 Lessons
1Huddle Podcast Episode #105

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Dr. Fergus Connolly, keynote speaker and author of Game Changer: The Art of Sports Science. He has worked as a performance coach for Liverpool FC, Boston Bruins, San Francisco 49ers, and the Carolina Panthers.

Fergus is a unique guest, he’s one of the world’s top experts in team sports and human performance, has worked full-time at every major league in the world, and has written three more books on his experiences.

On this Episode of Bring It In, season four, Dr. Connolly and Sam discussed the importance of evaluating good results and bad results. Whether it be in sports or sales, the process of analyzing results is what distinguishes managers from coaches.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.


Below are some of the insights Dr. Fergus Connolly shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “When somebody says somebody’s unskilled, they’re not. They’ve got a lot of skills. You just haven’t recognized which ones.”
  • “We also occasionally can coach ability out of people.”
  • “Younger generations bring some beautiful things that are gonna blow us away in time..”

Sam Caucci: So maybe to kick us off, Fergus, I guess what brought you from your start to. Where you’re today. Can you give us a little background? Don’t start all the way at the beginning. I don’t want to age you, but, you know.

Dr. Fergus Connolly:  Actually I was just texting with someone,you know the very first sport that I was involved in was swimming Dara Torres on. She was a hero of mine way back because of her longevity, but that was the first sport I was involved in. But playing sport in Ireland, the accent gives that away, but yeah I was just always interested in sport, but never saw that as a career. So I actually, my first, my primary degree, my first degree was in construction, woodwork teaching, and, I went on, I did a PHD in IT, but my passion was always sport.

And I never thought that I’d end up working in the tech space, so, fast forward. 20 years later, and a lot of my work is in the tech space with leaders, just like you’re doing and helping, align teams, optimize teams,  but taking a lot of the experience from sport, just like you have done, just like, Jerry Lynch others, you take those principles because what you’re trying to do is get a group of really, really talented people, they already can do their job well, create cohesion, create a vision alignment, and have everybody rowing in the same direction. And the principles are the same in any group. Doesn’t matter whether it’s a NFL team, whether it’s a tech company or it’s a sales group or whether it’s a group of military officers, it doesn’t, the principles are gonna be the same ’cause you’re still dealing with a human.

Sam: You said working a lot in tech. What are the biggest challenges that organizations you’re seeing have, right? I mean, we just have this great resignation, quiet, quitting, boss loss. I mean, every week is like a new phrase around what’s wrong with work? What are those organizations struggling with? 

Fergus: I think you’re right, it has changed quite a bit. At the beginning, it was quiet quitting, and then all of a sudden there were layoffs. I think in a lot of cases, what you have is you’ve got, again, you’ve got really talented, capable people, but it’s the management and the leadership of those people becomes challenging because you need to ensure that people are facilitated, that you’re facilitating them to do what they do best.

Now, you need to be able to support them, but you also need to have a vision and alignment. So, you’ve got plenty of teams and groups now who perhaps, have lost some people and so now there’s a restructuring reorganization, there’s a vision needed, there’s alignment needed motivation, Yes. And then getting everybody back on board.

So that’s being very topical, that’s what’s happening right now, the end of January, beginning of February because of what has happened over the last few months, but that’s the immediate challenge for people. In the long run though, it’s really about supporting those people because winning is a people business and you need to be able to support your greatest asset, the staff that you have.

Sam: What do you, if you were to identify what maybe the best organizations that you interact with are doing versus the others that maybe are struggling and not moving so quickly? I guess what is the difference between, and you make a great point, we’re in a potential recession. Tech firms are laying a lot of people off, they’re peeling back, happening in a lot of other industries. I guess, what are the best organizations doing slightly differently than everybody else? 

Fergus: I think the biggest difference between, let’s say, good and bad, if you will, are the better organizations recognize that, you know, I’ve hired somebody in to do something. They’re already very qualified, very experienced. They are an expert, and I use that term, they’re an expert at what they do. 

So rather than micromanaging and jumping in, which is our first gut reaction, is taking a step back and going, okay: what do I need to help them do their job better and support around them as opposed to getting in and interfering and allowing them to grow?

Because what you end up doing in the long run is you get frustrated. You’re pointing out errors. But you’re enabling poor behavior then, because if you overdo that well then, and you can’t do that for everybody, of course, and now then the team leader becomes exhausted, overwhelmed. Your staff are going, would they ever just let me do it, I get it.

So it’s, it’s creating that balance between leading and facilitating, leading them in the right direction and facilitating, creating the environment that they can go and do the one thing that they are very, very good at. Now, of course, occasionally, there’s training needed and from that perspective, but it’s really about empowering the person to go and do their job rather than enabling per behavior.

Sam: Your book, 59 Lessons, I mean, it was awesome. Right. You talked about all your experience with coaches and special forces and, and the whole nine. Is there any one lesson that you come to or that resonates most for that you share with coaches and leaders today of the 59?

Fergus: Well, the one that comes to mind is actually around the topic we’re talking about now. It’s an old Irish phrase, don’t buy a dog and bark yourself. If you’re gonna bring an expert in and you’re gonna train, you’re gonna invest in them, encourage them to go and do the thing that they’re good at rather than interfering.

So the best coaches, the best leaders that I’ve been around are the ones who, they gently challenge, but they take pride in having their staff do a job well and supporting them. That becomes key when you’re trying to build a team that can work well together. And it’s also about sharing the wins and, and losses.

One of the best lessons that I ever learned from an English rugby coach was, “Don’t treat wins and losses any differently” from a cold perspective. You want to investigate your losses. Sure. But you also want to investigate why were we successful? I wanna replicate that because sometimes, you know the way it is, you get, somebody has a great sales week, sales month, whatever. Well done. Clap on the back, celebrate. But there’s no analysis of, well, what did they do well, what did I do well to support them. And that’s where the magic happens because you wanna be able to, to replicate that. And occasionally you want to look at losses, but don’t overanalyze those because again, there’s a careful balance. If you put too much emphasis on it, people become fearful. I don’t want to do that. It’s like telling somebody, I don’t want you to think of a pink elephant. Well, you know what I mean? That’s what they’re gonna do. So you wanna really emphasize the things that they do well and support them to fix the things that they can do better.

So you’ve got strengths. You’ve got strengths and opportunities. You don’t, I don’t see th’em as strengths and weaknesses. They’re opportunities to improve. 

Sam: Just even hearing the words you’re choosing and given the level of detail  in the books, The words that you’re choosing as a coach are obviously very important. When you’re coaching an athlete through a movement or through a drill, every word matters. And I just, do you see that same correlation when you think about the work environments you’re going into? And again, I’m gonna, I’m gonna say “managers” in quotes or “leaders” in quotes because just because you have the title doesn’t mean you’re actually it. Talk to me about those types of systems. 

Fergus: Yeah, that’s a great point as well. And, it works both ways as well, because if some people that I work with, you want to encourage them to develop leadership qualities before they have the title, so there’s a balance.

But you’re absolutely right. The language that you use is so important. I would even, as well, I took a step back as well in terms of listening as opposed to then, the first job is to listen carefully and to observe, then choose your cues or your words carefully then in terms of how, because it’s about eliciting a response from someone, we all see it.

You see the coach on the sideline that points out the obvious error to the player. Well, the player knows, but can you point out the precursor? Can you perhaps suggest something before they do that? That’s what you’re looking for, and so choosing to intervene and then choosing your words. So, so important.

Absolutely. Particularly with the more skilled person in any, in any walk of life. Because if you’re dealing as well with people who are very driven and motivated, which most people that are listening to this have, they’re already going to start to critique themselves. So you don’t wanna state the obvious. You want to be able to coach them to improve, empower them. 

Sam: That word coach is interesting because it definitely feels like in the last bunch of years the word coach pops up a lot more in business talks. And, I mean, there’s so many books now that are on the shelves about being a coach instead of a manager.

And  it’s almost like everybody is trafficking in the word coach. And I’m interested, you as a coach. When you hear the word coach thrown around as much as it’s thrown around now in business settings, how do you define what makes a great coach?

Fergus: So the difference, let’s say, between a coach and a manager, is in, and this is largely to do with the explosion of skills, so, with the technology revolution, so to speak, now that you have, you’ve got so many people who will end up working for you or that you will lead who are far more talented than you. So you can’t technically manage them, tell them exactly. You want to coach them to continue to do way better than you could do.

More so today as well. The greatest progress is a cross Paradigm. So even in your organization or people are listening to this, you’ve got multiple departments or multiple skill sets that are cooperating and collaborating to produce a result. So you’ve got all of these experts. Really, your job is to coach them to continue to perform greater than you ever could.

Gone are the days of standing over someone showing them how to improve on a particular task. So that’s what a lot of it is, and a lot of it as well is, encouraging your staff to continue to learn, to inspire them to learn, when somebody comes into the office. And says, Hey,  I’ve just been reading this book, or I’ve got a great podcast that you’ve never heard of. Brilliant. That’s what you want to encourage that culture of continuous development, continuous learning.

Sam: The one quote that stood out to me in your book that I really liked was I think it was, “You can’t be half pregnant.” 

Fergus: Yeah, these are just, just to explain, these are, some of these are Irish, colloquialisms. Yeah. So just give the context. Just in case somebody takes it out of context. But, yeah. You have to be completely committed to the event. Now, what’s really interesting as well is as people go through their career trajectory, what you have to help them do very often is to switch on and switch off.

 So when they are committed, they’re fully committed. So, back to sport again. The quality of execution is elite, but then when they switch off, that’s done so the quality can be maintained. What you see occasionally with people, particularly when they become anxious or they’ve got poor leadership or poor management, is the quality will start to deteriorate over time because you’re not helping them switch on, switch off, they’re dragging the stress with them. And now over time, that performance starts to deteriorate. So helping managers and leaders understand how to keep the quality at its highest, that becomes very, very important.

 Sam: Is it harder to develop coaches and coaching traits today? Is it getting harder given connectedness, the environment, I’m happy because I was a millennial, so everybody stopped complaining about us. Now they complain about Gen Z and, hopefully, Gen Alpha next. 

But, I had a conversation with an author the other day who wrote a book called A Nation of Wimps, talking about a generation of young people who were raised in a environment that maybe produced a mindset that isn’t gritty or tough enough to succeed. So again, I wanna ask, is it harder than ever to coach?

Fergus:  Well, the  first point I always make when people talk about those things is we are the ones who’ve created the environment for that generation to come into. So it’s our fault  if there is any fault, I don’t know if it’s more difficult, I just view it as different.

So for me, I’m always looking at what’s the solution? You could argue perhaps things are more comfortable, whatever, you could make that argument. But because things are different, it’s about finding, okay, what keys do I need to press? What things do I need to expose people to so they understand where we’re coming from?

But there is no doubt that different generations will view things differently. And so helping people understand even yesterday morning, I was prepping someone for a meeting, and it was largely around those generational differences. Hey, here’s some things that you should consider before you go in?

Because that person may be looking at it from this perspective. And what you have is, I call it a backroom bandwidth to take a sporting analogy, you might have a very senior manager who’s perhaps in their fifties,  you could have a very young staff and you might be a leader in the middle of that.

And so now you’ve got three generations that you’re trying to take from manage up, manage down, or manage left and right, whatever way you want to look at it. So I think it’s important to be aware of it. I think with this new generation coming, the younger generations bring some beautiful things, expressions that are gonna blow us away in time.

And I think it’s more helpful to look at it in a positive sense and go, okay, how can I harness that? And to be honest, that’s what you are doing with your work is you’re ahead of the curve in the sense that you’re harnessing that interest and enthusiasm to teach. So I think that’s a more positive approach to coaching and to education, to leadership.

Sam: I talked to some, I don’t think this is just any group, I don’t think it’s Human Resources or it’s managers, but there is this knowledge gap today inside of organizations around how learning actually works. How do you actually develop workers? How do I take a new hire and develop them from the back of house to the front of house?

And I feel this way because I hear the words. They’ll use these terms when they talk about certain workers. They’ll say, Fergus, this worker is low-skilled. Or they’ll say they’re unskilled. Or, they’ll say something to that effect, which, if words matter, I mean, obviously, it’s not maybe the words you should be throwing around. I can’t help but read Game Changer and come away from just the methodology that’s there.

But also you start by talking about, kind of, coaching from the game first. Not so much from fitness, which is, coming from the sports performance world, we always think of the other, a lot of organizations and environments and also in the workforce. They think about teaching this way first and then transfer is automatic, I guess, how do you think about that methodology? What principles are critical? If you hired me tomorrow to be your partner in crime. Like, what would be the methodology most effective to get me up to speed? 

Fergus: Yeah, it’s, it is a brilliant question and it’s a brilliant space because one can argue, never before have we had so much information available, yet there is this information gap or knowledge gap, and I think we also occasionally can coach ability out of people. We coach intuition out of them.

I think one of the biggest challenges that we have today is that we do have, in some verticals or in some areas, we have a workforce that has only been exposed to a standard structured academic experience, and particularly around, DEI, for example, you’re only exposed to a demographic that’s largely similar to you, now you go work in, you go out into the real world and you’re exposed to now completely different backgrounds, expressions, et cetera.

So, I think that’s what you’re, that’s part of the puzzle that we’re dealing with. But, taking that phrase, work from the game backwards when somebody says somebody’s unskilled or whatever, no, no, no. They’ve got a lot of skills. You just haven’t recognized which ones. You can optimize and then you then support again and provide auxiliary support.

We can all improve. But you have to recognize, first of all, what that person is bringing to the table. One difference, going way back to coaching, many coaches had a qualification outside of sport or a career outside of sport before they got involved. You know, if you go back to Bill Walsh, et cetera, but that it wasn’t necessarily the education, it was experience dealing with people.

Very often. Now, very often now you’ve got people who’ve maybe spent seven or eight years in one academic institution without exposure to lots of different experiences, what’s that? That’s something that you have to support and encourage to create this robust, resilient, person who’s going to thrive under your leadership.

Sam: So I have a five-year-old daughter, coach, and she is, my wife played college soccer. I was okay. I was not, I was a long snapper. So, pause there. She just started playing. We just signed her up for, kind of about a year ago, to her first round of soccer, and I stood as far away from the field as I could, as a sane parent, and stayed out of the coaching and out of everything.

What recommendation and advice do you have for me as a parent as I am trying to develop a young person into, not the next great professional athlete, but into, again, to a great person, in the community. Any advice for me as I navigate the coaching fields from the other side?

Fergus: No. When I go to watch my friends, sons and daughters play a sport, I do the very same thing. I stand back and certainly stay quiet and watch, observe, and honestly, for me, it’s largely watching the reaction and Supporting very often, to be honest with you, it’s balancing, the comments, some of the coaching cues or the shouting that you’ll hear and it’s supporting them so that first and foremost, particularly at that age, they enjoy it.

And that’s the same at work. People, listen, they’re going to be tough days, but you don’t want people dreading coming to work. You don’t want your daughter dreading going to sport. You want them to enjoy it, 5, 6, 7, 8. It’s way too young to form an opinion about the sport other than to be able to go and express themselves and enjoy it. So I think I would be very proud of you, the way you’re starting, on her career.

Sam: Fergus. I appreciate it. I got one final question for you. What is your hope for the future of work?

Fergus: Hope for the future of work? I think that what I enjoy the most and what I enjoy seeing in the people that the leaders that I work with is seeing them recognize the beauty and the talent that people are coming in with as opposed to, as you alluded to earlier, looking for the things that are missing and allowing those grow with, with support. 

And, if I have a hope, it’s that more and more leaders will start to do that. They’ll start to recognize this person is bringing something truly unique and I can do something with that. I can harness that and I can develop it as opposed to looking at what’s missing. And, today is Thursday. What was it? Was it yesterday morning? The great Tom Brady retired. 

You could sit there and look at Tom Brady coming out of the University of Michigan and point out all the things that he wasn’t able to do. But again, you, the coach, Bill Belichick was able to spot the things that he was really good at and develop those, again, facilitate greatness.

Sam: Sure. Fergus, thanks for your time. Thanks for joining us. 

Fergus: Thank you very much for having me.

Topics Discussed: Future of Work, Skills, Work, Coaches, Management, Leadership, Training

Dana Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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