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The Happy Academic

The main lesson academics can take from watching the World Cup

The career-long coaching that players receive holds lessons for reaching your own work goals.


One billion people will watch the 2022 men’s soccer World Cup – and Canada’s national team was finally there. Watch it and you’ll see players who, even in their teens, have devoted a career to developing their skills with and without the ball, honing their responses to every desirable and undesirable scenario, and performing their best. To do that, especially when it matters most, each player has been intensively coached for decades.

To be coached, as the Canadian leadership training organization Roy Group’s approach captures, invites a person’s finest self to make their finest contribution:

“Coaching is the intentional positioning of others to perform at incrementally higher standards, to learn more from their experience as it emerges, and to be increasingly engaged in their endeavours.”

Unlike mentorship, coaching encompasses the non-directive — supporting others to self-discover and responding to their challenges, from their values to their actions.

We’ve written for over a decade on our double passions — the complexity of academic work and soccer. Both are complex, neither simple nor complicated. Outcomes are often unpredictable, context always matters, and success is influenced by a myriad of known and unknown factors.

Yet, coaching is as unusual in academia as it is ubiquitous in soccer. While many academics are quick to give and seek mentorship advice, the availability and use of formal coaching and coaches are rare. While there’s a growing number of academic coaches, most are accessed only after and during “career emergencies,” and remarkably few academics seek or harness coaches regularly.

What if the two worlds of academia and soccer were to swap their approaches to coaching?

What if academia informed soccer?

If academia gave soccer its blueprint, coaching would be short, sparse and sporadic. This is not because we or our workplaces care any less about success than in soccer, but because academia’s perceived determinants of performance and success are so narrow. As such, any coaching efforts would be slowed by a preoccupation with past successes and supposed talent and weighed down by alluring but ultimately hollow decontextualized “tricks and tips” that assume the work is either complicated or simple, but not complex.

Coached in this way, soccer players would dramatically overestimate the value and contribution of their early talent and hard work to sustained and sustainable success. They would be deluded that few skills really matter for success, that strong egos help rather than hinder potential, and that your strengths matter far more than your weaknesses. Only luck would provide them with the opportunity to understand how much success is linked to:

Many of the players in the World Cup would perform much worse under this non-coaching model, relying far more on the fewer slighter strengths they had as the talent prodigies of past years. Capacity to adapt to adversity or the unpredictable would be much reduced. In the face of complex and pressurized work, this neglect of coaching harms both individual and team success and performance and may even foster poor mental health, unrealistic expectations, and frustrated perfectionism. Sound familiar?

What if soccer informed academia?

Coaching in soccer over the career is viewed as necessary because it adds value to personal and group performance and success — the most pragmatic of priorities. Yet, in academia, coaching not only adds value but also expresses the values of academics and teams: it shows personal care by reflecting and respecting the psychological, physical and relational complexity and potential of academics—and the complexity of their shared purpose and craft in work. If success was just about turning up and didn’t demand such a range and depth of skills, then coaching would not be needed, necessary, or valuable.

Consequently, coaching is not only seen to be valuable but is an essential and integral cultural element of both people and workplaces. Coaching is necessary to better realize each academic’s potential in doing complex work. This respects and recognizes the complexity and demands of academic work at a professional level, but also that talent and hard work themselves are necessary though insufficient for truly realizing potential in such complex work.

Coaching is necessary to foster commitment and practice in learning and improving skills, both in yourself and in relation to other people, not only in areas of strength but especially in areas of weakness. It builds mental and practical capacity to bring agility and responsiveness to all situations — not only when things are going well, but especially when challenged and under pressure. It can build agility and anti-fragility, fostering growth under pressure rather than just being resilient under stress. To avoid or withhold coaching can be damaging and can set people up for failure, both by failing to respect and respond to the complexity of the work and not valuing those doing the work.

Would an academic or university that fully invested in the coaching used more in soccer be ultimately more successful? Research increasingly outside of sport suggests so.

How to get serious about coaching

While many in academia rightly bemoan the harms of institutional under-funding and systematic inequities, we need more coaching to address the complexities of academic work and to fully realize our personal potential. To do so, we can learn a lot from soccer’s approach to coaching.

If you have sufficient resources, consider working with an accredited or experienced academic coach. Many are available on social media or through organizations that support academics and can provide support remotely. Coaches are educated to work on what your needs and priorities are and can help you pinpoint areas and skills to work on even when you don’t realize these yourself. If you or your institution don’t have the resources required for this but you do receive benefits in your job, you may be eligible for support from a coach funded through your institution’s health and wellness benefits plans or professional development fund.

Consider participating in professional development courses more systematically and routinely, for example to learn coaching skills so that you can better support peers or students. And, if funding is tight, look for peers or others who have some coaching experience but who may be looking to gain more by offering coaching without charge.

Enjoy watching the rest of the World Cup, and as you do, remember to think about how you too could benefit from coaching — not just when times are tough, but always, to sustain your career success.

Bailey Sousa & Alexander Clark
Bailey is associate vice-president of planning, quality and assessment at Athabasca University. Alex is president of Athabasca University. They are both founders of The Effective, Successful, Happy Academic, and the authors of "How to Be a Happy Academic" (Sage: London, 2018), they share a passion for effectiveness and aspiration in academic work.
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  1. Anshuman Khare / December 21, 2022 at 21:45

    I can see where the idea of “coaching” comes. At Athabasca University’s MBA program we have taken that “coaching” approach for last 25+ years. Life long coach for life long learners or just friends for life supporting each other as and when needed. End of the day I always reflect on how much I have learnt as a coach while interacting with the students. There is nothing more satisfying than that.

    You are right. There are lots of sacrifices needed from a traditional academic to transition to a coach role. In hockey players are better than the coach in skills, speed and puck awareness. Same in the classroom.

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