Top 20 Tips For Coaches Who Want To Be Leaders From Don Talbot & Bill Sweetenham

Bill Sweetenham, poolside, and Don Talbot, inset and top left flanked by Ilsa and John Konrads - Photos Courtesy: Wayne Goldsmith (main image), Bill Sweetenham and ISHOF

Top 20 Tips For Coaches Applying For Leadership Roles – from Don Talbot and Bill Sweetenham 

When Bill Met Don … several years ago, John Atkinson, now the performance head of Swimming Canada, posed a question to leading figures in the swim coaching community at a gathering of mentor minds. It went something like: what do we need to think about as coaches if and when the time comes that we find ourselves contemplating applying for a job as a National Head Coach, a Performance Director or any other leadership position at a national sporting organisation or sports body?

The question so intrigued Australian coach legends Don Talbot and Bill Sweetenham that they put their heads together to see if they could produce some best-advice guidance based on their  long years of experience. Men with a combined count of  22 Olympic campaign experiences across many countries (an effort requiring an adaptive mind, to say the least), their immediate response to some of Atkinson’s suggestions was, in Sweetenham’s words: 

“John – both mine and Don’s knowledge (as opposed to opinion) would agree with your approach to this … we’ll get back to you.”

Their aim was to draw up an awareness list of Top 20 Tips For Coaches  that talk to “never…”, “always…”, “what you’ll be taking on” “what to avoid” and “where never to compromise”. They are key pointers delivered “without the compromise of attribution to any country specific”, though they noted that some of the conclusions may not be applicable to one specific country, notably the world’s top swim nation, the USA.


Don Talbot


Bill Sweetenham

The list is not only provides valuable insight for coaches and those applying for professional leadership roles in sport; the list is something that every board member out there should be aware of and use as a self-reflection tool for their own performance and deeper understanding of where they fit and where the read lines run if effective governance is their aim.

Here, for the first time beyond the coaching circle it was shared with, is the interaction between leadership figures honing in on what they believe any contemplating a role as a head coach / performance director in today’s world must think about.

When Don & Bill Shared Notes From The Trail Of Experience

Top 20 Tips For Head Coaches By Bill Sweetenham and Don Talbot

(in their own words, combined in one message)

  1. In the first year of appointment the board will ask “how can we help you?” In the second year the board will change their approach to .”… this is how you can help” and in the third year it will be “… this is what we expect of you and this is HOW you should do it !!!!!!”  There are no exceptions to this mode of operation in any sport and most corporations when and where you are dealing with moving goal posts.
  2. Never, never, never work for a board that contains any failed coaches!
  3. Always work with (not for) a board made up of a minimum of 50 percent of people who are coal-faced operators including a minimum of 2 coaching personnel, one of which is president of the national coaching organisation. Alignment of coal-faced operators and administrators is essential for accuracy and man management. Avoid government appointments sitting on boards. Avoid all persuasions to have a corporate board as this is a proven and failed strategy and ‘operational accuracy’. Should the above not be in place, forget your ego and find a better position.
  4. Boards in general think about the meeting and agenda before and after for a maximum of 48 hours each way. They know the outcome will most likely not affect them personally. Have a board where decisions made will impact, personally, their own lives.
  5. Before accepting any position, insist on interviewing the board and ask technical questions before you accept any appointment.
  6. Have a solicitor draw up your contractual negotiations. Do not compromise on this or any of the above.
  7. Be aware: Boards will be the limiting factor in your performance outcomes.
  8. Have the board who free load at major competitions stay at a different hotel than the team and make certain that all board members know that sitting with teams at competition is both unacceptable and extremely unprofessional. This also applies to any/ all governmental intruders.
  9. Have a clear understanding that those who haven’t been there have absolutely no understanding of the task at hand. For the accuracy of any board you will need people who have a vested interest in the performance aspect of operation and this must be removed from strategies of any participation direction. High performance drives participation and never the reverse.
  10. A board agreement that you and you alone are the only person to speak to all forms of media on performance outcomes or any performance strategies. NO COMPROMISE. This includes government!
    Don Talbot and the Konrads Kids

    Don Talbot, flanked by two of his first pace-setting pioneer swimmers, Ilsa and John Konrads – Photo Courtesy: ISHOF

    You can delegate should you wish but at your discretion.

  11. Ex-athletes on boards just as business appointments on boards compromise strategies where personal experience in their individual competitive events limits their knowledge due to selected memory retention.
  12. For these Top 20 Tips for coaches thinking of applying for leadership roles, worth noting that I (Bill) have held national performance director/ head coach / performance consultant and coaching leadership roles in Australia, England, Great Britain, Spain, Argentina and Hong Kong and that Don has been head coach / director of both Australia and Canada, so we both speak from extensive winning experience that also includes lessons from failure. We have looked at why and how we were successful and what caused failure. In this [leadership] position success and failure are separated by a fine line. We understand that being a winning club coach has NO relationship to being a winning national head coach. Being a winning club coach is a selfish role and a winning national head coach is an unselfish man-management role. Know the difference should you consider a similar position.
  13. Should you consider any of the above National positions think about all of the above should you wish to provide all clients and stakeholders with VISIONARY man management.
  14. Surround yourself with right , best and good people.

    Bill SweetenhamDonTalbot

    Don Talbot and Bill Sweetenham in more recent times – Photo Courtesy: Ian Hanson

    They will make your role exciting and productive against all challenges. Without this your role will be compromised and flawed.

  15. With the positive aspect of all the above, you will develop from a man manager to a visionary leader.
  16. An Adaptive Mindset is required, the combined experience of 22 Olympic campaigns for different countries has told us
  17. It is not superior technology that counts as you can buy this aspect  of advantageous performance
  18. Never believe you are the best but always believe you can be the best, – here is the mindset: “You must always strive to be the best, but you must never believe that you are.” – Juan Manuel Fangio, nicknamed El Chueco (“the bowlegged” or “bandy legged one”) or El Maestro (“The Master”), an Argentine racing car driver with 48 front row starts, 29 pole positions, and 24 wins out of 52 races (still the highest percentages in all three categories)
  19. Know what you know and know someone who knows all that you don’t know
  20. Closing note: Coaches, and especially you John (Atkinson, who raised the question), thank you for all that you do. Most head coaches in the world today in all sport are simply water treaders and lack visionary man-management and thus they leave the field of their operation no better off than where they found it. You people are not these people so thank you.

Bill Sweetenham and Don Talbot

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