Having all players healthy and ready for competition is one of the main training objectives in top-level football. The monthly economic cost that a player injury has on a team playing in the Champions League is €500,000.1 We must also, of course, consider the negative consequences an injury has on the team’s performance.
Researchers and clubs are trying to identify which factors can increase or decrease the likelihood of a player suffering an injury. The behaviour of a coach can influence this outcome. We know that changing a coach increases the number of team muscle injuries.2 The frequency of muscle injuries is 2.3 times higher in the two weeks after the arrival of a new coach, and 1.9 times higher one month after.
A recent study3 has also shown that the leadership style of a coach correlates with injuries and the ability of players to train and compete. The study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2018, is based on an analysis of 36 elite teams from 17 different European countries between 2012 and 2016. At each annual meeting held at the end of every season, the head of the medical services from each club evaluated the leadership style used by the coach with their team using the Global Transformational Leadership (GTL) scale.4. The head of each medical team answered seven questions about their perception on how democratic the behaviour of the coach was using a 5-point Likert scale, from “rarely or never” (score = 1) to “very frequently if not always” (score = 5). Higher scores suggest a more democratic leadership style, and lower scores suggest the opposite. The seven scores were used to establish an average score for each coach. The teams were classified into three groups depending on the score that the coach received in terms of the democracy of their leadership style: low (score of 1-2), medium (3) or high (4-5) level. Doctors also described the frequency and types of injuries suffered by their teams during the season and while the players were participating in training sessions and competitive matches.
The results suggested four major conclusions:
- There is a correlation between leadership style and the incidence of a serious injury in players during training.
- Coaches who tended to use a democratic/participatory leadership style had a lower incidence of serious injuries among the members of their team. The correlation between both aspects explains the 6% variation in the frequency of serious injuries.
- Players had higher training session attendance when coaches encouraged and recognised the efforts of other members of the coaching staff, supported innovative thinking, encouraged confidence and acted as role models. Participation was 4% higher in teams with coaches who had a high level of democratic behaviour compared to those who demonstrated lower levels (81% vs. 85%, p<0.05).
- The incidence of serious injuries was 29-40% (p<0.05) lower in clubs where the coaches conveyed a clear and positive vision, supported the other members of the coaching staff and encouraged and recognised player achievements.
Practical applications suggest that coaches can adopt a series of actions in order to reduce the risk of injury:
- Focus on the team’s training.
- Leave team training in the hands of their assistants. They should be the ones who improve physical condition, reduce injury risks, improve recovery after matches or help increase the athletes’ levels of self-efficacy.
- Ask questions and show interest in individual work. Coaching assistants will feel more valued and the players will be more involved in what they do.
- Include content from individual training in team planning, this includes training load.
- Individualise player training as every athlete has different needs. There are different sports cultures, specific positions, histories of injury, ages, motivations, etc.
In any case, despite the benefits of a coach’s democratic leadership style, opting for a more authoritarian or laissez-faire leadership model may be advisable under other circumstances. This will depend on other factors such as, for example, the age of the players, the point they are at in their sports career, the time available for training, whether or not the situation to be resolved is controllable, or the club’s sports culture. Adapting the intervention style based on the needs of individual situations is possibly one of the greatest skills a coach can have in order to be successful in top-level sports.
Carlos Lago Peñas
1 Ekstrand, J. (2013). Keeping your top players on the pitch: the key to football medicine at a professional level. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 47:723–724.
2 Donmez, G.; Kudas, S.; Yörübulut, M.; Yildirim, M.; Babayeva, N. and Torgutalp, S. (2018). Evaluation of Muscle Injuries in Professional Football Players: Does Coach Replacement Affect the Injury Rate? Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine.
3 Ekstrand, J.; Lundqvist, D.; Lagerbäck, L.; Vouillamoz, M.; Papadimitou, N. and Karlsson, J. (2018). Is there a correlation between coaches´ leadership styles and injuries in elite football teams? A study of 36 elite teams in 17 countries. Br J Sports Med 2018; 52: 527-531.
4 Carless, S.A.; Wearing, A.J. and Mamm, L.A. (1990). A short measure of transformational leadership. J Bus Psychol. 14: 389-405.