Euro 2016

16/06/2016  -  4.05

Dr Christopher Sellars (CPsychol) is Deputy Director of the Institute of Sport

As Euro 2016 excitement reaches fever pitch, Dr Chris Sellars at the University of Wolverhampton and examines how inspiration and inspirational leadership in sport has a dramatic impact.

Many of us will have experienced ‘inspiration’ at some point in our lives, perhaps as a result of a piece of music or seeing something in the media, or perhaps as a result of someone else’s actions (such as a co-worker or someone in a leadership position). So we have some experience of what it feels like. But by what processes does inspiration have its effects? And what are the consequences of this inspiration, what are we inspired to do?

Of particular interest to myself, and collaborators at Chichester University was the notion of inspirational leadership in sport: how do inspirational leaders in sport inspire others and what are the consequences of this inspiration? For example, to what extent was the much talked about Leicester FC winning of the Premiership football title due to the inspirational leadership of Claudio Ranieri, the Club’s manager? And what was that Ranieri did that inspired players?

Surprisingly, within sport, there is not much research looking at inspirational leadership. Our research has drawn on psychological research in areas such as business and the military to explore how sports people experience inspiration and what it is that inspirational leaders do to inspire others. We undertook interviews with over a 100 athletes from different sports about their experiences of being inspired and leaders they perceived as inspirational. 

In line with other research (e.g., Thrash and Elliott, 2004) we conceptualised inspiration as comprising three main components: evocation (inspiration is evoked by something or someone outside of the self); transcendence (whereby individuals gain awareness of possibilities beyond where they are now); and approach motivation (people are energised and directed towards these greater possibilities).

What causes inspiration and, in particular, how do leaders inspire others? We found that a number of factors acted as sources of inspiration in sport which grouped into three main categories: personal performances, especially unexpected ones, thoughts and accomplishments; the impact of role models; and, demonstrations of leadership (of particular interest).

Performers performing unexpectedly well, overcoming particular challenges such as injury or illness, or beating more highly fancied opponents lead to feeling of being inspired. Therefore, recognising our successes and progress and our ability to overcome adversity are potential sources of inspiration. Projecting ahead and foreseeing success (and the factors required to achieve this success), as well as the feelings associated with such success can also be inspirational. This supports the value of such techniques such as imagery, whereby one creates or recreates images of successful performance.

Seeing and being around role models who demonstrate exceptional training behaviours, skill or dedication, for example, were also sources of inspiration, especially if these achievements were attained in pressurised or challenging circumstances. Role models’ behaviours that resulted in overcoming adversity, rising to challenges, and achieving exceptional things became sources of inspiration for those observing these behaviours. These role models may be peers (fellow performers), captains or coaches.

Leadership seemed a frequent source of inspiration for those sports people interviewed. This often took the form of specific communications (especially at challenging moments) and other behaviours associated with training or competition environments. Many participants described the way inspirational leaders led by example, either in their coaching behaviours (e.g., dedication, attention to detail, understanding of performers’ needs) or previously as performers themselves. Some participants also reported being inspired by leaders’ general demeanour as ‘a person’ (e.g., how they handled themselves in the media, displays of family values, loyalty and consistency). Displaying empathy was also seen as inspirational, leaders’ appreciation of what performers were experiencing and the provisional of associated support. Leaders also evoked inspiration by communicating beliefs about what might be possible and how such aspirations could be achieved. Displays of faith in participants’ ability and future were also seen as inspirational.

Leaders were perceived as inspiring via both moments of inspiration (e.g., the inspirational half-time talk) and via a more pervasive and consistent demeanour and behaviours. Inspiration was also more likely to be experienced during times of adversity (e.g., a loss of form or confidence, time of injury or goal non-attainment). Inspiration was also associated with clarity of communication (between leader and followers), involving communication that was personally relevant (i.e., was perceived as addressing individual needs) and which conveyed elevated belief in the individual or team.  

What were the consequences of being inspired? Being inspired leads to more positive thinking, about oneself (e.g., in terms of achieving goals, overcoming challenges) and the future. In group situations, individuals being inspired resulted in perceptions of greater collectiveness and team spirit, increased trust in others and motivation to support your team-mates. Increases in positive feelings and emotions were also described. In team situations this can be contagious, resulting in growing positive feelings within the group. In sports where high energisation was valued (indeed ‘aggression’ in some cases), inspiration was perceived as facilitating such feelings. Behavioural change (e.g., effort put into training, greater positive team communication) were also reported. Trying up to the final whistle, going the extra mile and never quitting were seen as behaviours associated with being inspired.

The current Euro 2016 football tournament will no doubt have pundits and analysts alike making reference to the role played by inspirational coaches and players. There will be reference to talks on the training pitch and in hotels between games, the half-time team talks, the picking players up after poor results and moments of inspirational strategy and team selections. From the above we can see that leaders will have an impact on performances and results - their vision, energy, empathy, role modelled of behaviours and evocation of ‘what might be’ will inspire some players to places they have never been or imagined they could go. Such is the power of the inspirational leader, on or off the pitch.

Inspiration is a powerful agent for change and leaders (in the guise of coaches, captains or peers) have the potential to offer inspiration to those who surround them. Ongoing research will attempt to offer greater clarity on this topic and provide guidance on how inspiration can be facilitated.

Recent publication associated with this research:

Figgins, S.G., Smith, M.J., Sellars, C.N., Greenlees, I.A. and Knight, C.J. (2016) ‘You really could be something quite special’: A qualitative exploration of athletes’ experiences of inspiration in sport. Psychology of Sport & Exercise, 24, 82-91.