“Always ask for advice, but never ask for a favour.” – Lee Johnson
Lee Johnson, head coach at Bristol City, chose to embark on a career in football coaching at the age of just 24. He was still a player at the time and remained so until the age of 31, but he recognised that making the switch from player to coach was not going to happen overnight – he needed a plan.
Thirst for Learning
Influenced from a young age by his dad, a coach and former manager, Lee grew up with a hunger for football and a thirst for learning. He describes growing up in a family “invested in football” and he not only made the decision to embark on a career in football coaching when he was 24, he sat down and planned how he was going to do it.
At the time, Lee was playing for his dad, and he was very conscious of wanting to make his own contacts in the sport. He spent the next few years developing independent connections and earning the respect of those with shared values and morals in terms of the way they viewed football. Through this process, he created “an armoury of top, experienced professionals” as mentors that he could call on for advice to help him build his own coaching career.
Is There a Quicker Way?
Developing an armoury and gaining respect was a process that Lee was invested in for six or seven years. This was not a fast-track coaching course, and it’s more important than ever in the modern-day culture of always looking for hacks to consider the need for long-term plans and the commitment it takes to see them through. Instead of asking, “Is there a quicker way to be a great coach?” being ‘a great coach in the making’ means being prepared, planning, and then being relentless in the pursuit of excellence.
Lee puts it this way: “I have a natural thirst for learning and once I’ve decided on something, I’m focused on achieving that something, but you need to be prepared to put in the hours. When I was still a player, I’d use holidays to travel and learn from coaches at clubs all over the world. It was my way of getting ahead of the game… I had to win an interview with these great coaches. You can have a huge name, you can be a fantastic player, but you’ve still got to make contacts to build a coaching career from the ground up.”
Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from Lee’s approach to learning is that asking for advice is always good. No one makes it to the top of their game on their own, so having access to the knowledge and experience of others you admire is a key element of achieving excellence in your own career.
However, as Lee states: “Always ask for advice, but never ask for a favour.” For a mentor to truly invest in you in any field, not just football, you must earn their trust – asking for free tickets or an autograph or any other “favour” takes away a mentor’s interest in helping you to develop your career.
Building a Career
Growing up with a football coaching dad gave Lee a “front-seat” view of how to build rapport with people from all walks of life. He believes this gave him a better understanding of the importance of developing his communication skills and the need for authenticity, not only in the way you speak, but also in the way you behave. To build a network of mentors you need communication skills. Communication is not just talking, it’s also listening, and communication skills include emotional intelligence and empathy. These skills are learned skills that can be developed, but, once again, just like developing a physical skill, it takes time to develop a mental skill – and it takes a plan.
The skills that will help you to learn and improve as a coach are the skills that will help you to communicate with your players and, in turn, improve their performance as a team. It’s a win win. As the lockdown continues to stop play, Lee offers the following food for thought:
“Now is an opportunity to reflect. It has been nine years for me on the hamster wheel, trying to win every week and every minute of every day, so it has been nice to be present with the family and to reflect, re-assess, and hopefully come out a better person and a better coach.”
Take this time to reflect on the skills you need to improve as a coach, make a plan, and then be relentless in the pursuit of excellence.
Don MacNaughton is a High Performance Coach who for the last 17 years has worked in Sports and Business helping develop individuals and team to get the most of their potential
To listen to Lee’s full interview click here