Reflections from behind the whistle

Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson is a facilitator for Crelos’ Sport as a Vehicle for Change experience. He is Director of Coaching for the Academy programme at Reading Rockets basketball club where he has led the U18 club side to four Final Fours winning once and, along with his domestic achievements, Matt has coached at England U18 and U16 and is the assistant coach for the GB Under 20 women. Here he shares his experience in using sport to highlight the positive and negative dynamics of inter and intra-group competition and collaboration; to experiment with behaviours that enable groups to be effective and to understand the direct consequences of authoritarian versus coaching leadership styles and how they can accelerate behavioural and organisational change.

The word 'transformation' relates to something moving from one identity to another. My experiences working with the NVS Women's Leadership Program (EFLP) can safely and honestly use the same word.

At first sight the chance to work with a group of eager, motivated yet sports-nervous business women in an environment that would be punctuated by the participation of the company CFO (Harry Kirsch) seemed somewhat ... interesting! However, what happened over a very short period changed many people's perception of the power of sport. It highlighted the intensity of messages delivered in a form participants are unfamiliar with and grew into something far beyond what our lowly preconceived imaginations could anticipate.

The principal of taking people quite literally out of their comfort zone is clearly not a new one, in fact it has been a staple diet of change management for decades. This comfort zone though is somehow different.

The programme is a progressive journey that takes each woman to a place where they see their own barriers, get reacquainted with the person that they sometimes do not like and get to beat that person into submission by conquering voices that had previously told them they couldn't, shouldn't or wouldn't.

We start with practices that are aimed at individuals and their own skill level. Working on your own has so many unenviable challenges of misguided self deprecation and voices of negativity. The early part of the session was such a thrill to see what type of people we are working alongside and, in many cases, the mountain ahead seemed very high!

The following section involved group work, working to other people's rules and working as a team in an environment we are not entirely sure about - a complex, yet understandable, situation and one in which the sports arena can bring physical manifestations of unease felt within any boardroom across the world.

Throw into the pot the involvement of the company CFO and one of only two males in the Sports Hall (more intimidating for us men I can tell you!) and you have all the ingredients for a firestorm of learning and change!

The final section involved competition against other groups, self-reliant leadership, determination to succeed and an opportunity to express unbridled emotion for the benefit of the team.

From behind the whistle 'transformation' is not too strong a word to use.

In the short time working together with this group there was some very powerful and uplifting moments that will stay with me for the rest of my professional coaching career. To be in a room where people confront a very fearful moment, to look themselves in the face and tell themselves “you can” when they are used to saying “you can't” is a precious time for any person.

I have been a privileged co-driver in a programme that has the ability to allow people to see the real them, make some adjustments and walk out a new 'real’ them.

The vehicle of change is sport; often slandered, mainly overrated but always powerful.

If you would like to learn more about using sport as a vehicle for change please contact