Improved performance lasts through ‘self-coaching’

Foppe de HaanI’ve long believed that managers and business coaches can learn a lot from the approaches adopted by their counterparts in sporting codes. And this week I was reminded about it again!

As a recent Ajax Cape Town convert, I got to watch Foppe de Haan’s approach to managing and coaching his team. He is said to provide structure, without curtailing individual talent. And very successfully so, with Ajax one of the hot favourites to win the Premier League this year.

De Haan is better known for his success over two decades at Dutch club Heerenveen and winning two successive European championships with the Dutch under-21 team. Now, at 67, he applies the same approach at Ajax which he used at Heerenveen to convert a young Ruud van Nistelrooy from a mediocre midfielder to a super striker.

Since De Haan’s arrival in Cape Town about 18 months ago, he’s been refining young talent to become regulars in the Ajax starting line-up. But in the years to come, young players like Thulani Serero, Sameehg Doutie and Terror Fanteni are sure to make their mark way beyond the Ajax team sheet.

According to a report in today’s Sunday Times, De Haan is using a “self-coaching” technique on players like Doutie. This is the same technique which propelled Van Nistelrooy into performance on the highest level.

He says: “After every game I give Doutie the DVD of the match, and ask him to write a report on his performance, and come the next day and we talk about it… He makes a drawing of his movements, and on the next page he notes how many ball contacts he made, how many crosses and shots he managed. And then sets new targets for the week… I did the same many years ago with Ruud, and it worked. When players tell their own story, the improvement lasts for a longer time than if you just tell them what needs improving.”

Ajax goalkeeper and captain Hans Vonk says De Haan’s patience, clear and repeated message, and honesty with the players leads to good results on the field. “It’s very simple,” says Vonk who also played under De Haan at Heerenveen for eight years.

So, what can business managers and coaches learn from De Haan’s “very simple” approach? Here are my six observations:

1. Recognise and inspire talented performers.

2. Explore the right “position” for the performer to excel at his/her “best game”.

3. Shift the responsibility for success fully to the performer.

4. Repeat the clear message of what works and what does not work.

5. Build trust relationships based on honesty.

6. Be patient and supportive.

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