Managing a sports team can have a lot in common with managing a company, especially in terms of managing stress, team spirit, competition and crisis. At the head of a team of experts, Claude Onesta, the general manager of the French national handball team, has won it all. His success brought him to the attention of Renault and Total, who realized his managerial and leadership insights could be applied across the board.
Leaders League.You have represented France in major international competitions. Does pressure influence your style of management?
Claude Onesta. Managing extreme pressure goes far beyond questions of managerial style. The answer comes from the engagement of the players. It’s up to the whole team to draw from the responsibility of their position a positive pressure and harness it to reach their objectives. Some maintain that the main role of a coach is to galvanize his players. This is an outdated image of the world of sport. If, at the start of my career, my team talks relied on emotion, I am now convinced that during a major competition my role is, above all, to create the conditions that allow the players perform to their best and to give them the responsibility to make their own in game decisions.
Has your style of management changed since taking over the national team?
The French team has some of the best players in the world. Taking into account their talent and experience, I would say that they have a great deal to pass on to me. I very quickly understood that their individual experiences could bring added value to the collective project. A project which, in the beginning belongs to the coach, can become that of the whole team. For the players to adopt the project, you must let them have a say in it. It’s up to me to facilitate this discussion and to take on board what is said. When the players understand that the project belongs to them, it’s becomes much easier to mobilize the whole group when their backs are against the wall. This form of delegation and listening in no way constitutes a loss of authority or leadership because decisions continue to be taken by me and me alone. These choices are simply based on group discussions. Cooperation of this kind generates togetherness and gives the project a collective dimension.
What do you say to the team when you choose to leave a player out or punish a very popular member of the team?
Generally speaking, what’s said between a player and a coach in this situation, stays between the player and the coach, unless the player wishes otherwise. When you put the players in a position of shared responsibility, what goes for one goes for all. I would add that the punishment, when it is deserved, is often expected by other members of the group. They need to see that the boundaries set have been respected. A manager who is not brave enough to mete out punishment endangers the integrity of the group.
Managing competition between players is an important element of life in a sports team. How do you deal with this in a way that doesn’t negatively impact the interests of the team as a whole?
Some problems in the group are down to the fact that teams are built on competition. Setting individuals against one another, in order to see the best and most productive emerge, bears fruit in the short term. But if it becomes the norm, this type of contest weakens the individual. Feeling their place perpetually threatened, players try above all not to get hurt and are less willing to take risks. My way of coaching, on the other hand, strives to put some of that responsibility on the players. Just as for a business, it is impossible to build a team when the reward mechanisms are solely based on individual performance. The very idea of a team is to have all its members participate in the adventure, and for all of them to benefit. If bonus payments were only given to goalscorers, there would be no one passing them the ball and we wouldn’t win any matches!
Translated from the French article of Aurélien Florin by Simon Mc Geady
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