Nick Cox Academy Director at Sheffield Utd

Nick can you explain your day to day role as Academy Director at Sheffield Utd

I oversee a team of coaching, recruitment, medical, sports science, education and administration staff to ensure we deliver a suitable age specific development programme for elite players between the ages of 8 and 21.  The ultimate aim is to produce footballers for Sheffield United but we also need to make sure the players experience is a life changing one and that we give them skills they might use away from the football industry.

You have worked at a couple of clubs in different positions. Can you explain how each club had their own culture and who/what was the driver of these cultures?

In my experience the two biggest factors that influence the culture of a club are the clubs own identity  (its history, tradition, location, fanbase, finances etc) and the person leading the organisation.  The successful clubs were the ones where the leader created a plan or a vision that built on a clubs’ identity.  What works at one club won’t always work at another.  But ultimately a leader that can (or can’t) communicate a vision and empower and inspire staff to work towards a clear goal is probably the biggest influence on culture. The leader will take on different guises at different clubs but ultimately I’m referring to whoever has the accountability for the success of the organisation weather that be the manager, a sporting director a chief exec or owner.

You recently enrolled on the masters in sporting directorship (MSD) course at MMU last year. How do you see this course enhancing your performance in your present role?

A large part of the first year has been spent focusing on myself. Understanding the way I work, establishing strengths, identifying my preferred ways of working and reflecting on my own leadership behaviours.  This has been invaluable. I’ve quickly been able to adapt behaviours to impact on my current way of working at Sheffield United.

How would you define the role of a Sporting Director and why do you feel this is a position clubs need to look at appointing

For any sporting team to be successful it needs to make sure it takes care of winning in the here and now as well as making sure the organisation is set up to function effectively in the future.  In football the increasing demands on a manager to ensure the team wins and the relatively high turnover of managers means its impractical to think that the manager or coach of the team can take ultimate responsibility for both the long term strategy of a club as well as the here and now.  The short tenures of a manager and pressure put on them to win will naturally lead to short term decisions being made which isn’t healthy in the long run.

In order for a club to ensure it is preparing for the future it needs to establish a degree of continuity.  Some clubs have found this in a manager but more commonly it is a chief exec, chairman owner or sporting director that provides this.  It’s a very expensive way of working to continuously change your recruitment strategy, playing style, coaching philosophy, and key staff that tends to happen if a manager is accountable for the long term strategy. These facets of a club need to be lead by the club and not a manager.  More and more clubs are employing sporting directors for this reason. It important to point out that in my opinion the manager has absolute accountability for the performance of the team with regards team selection, player recruitment, coaching programme etc.  The sporting director ensures the manager works within the parameters identified by the owners or investors.  A good sporting director should ensure the success of a manager and ultimately lengthen the managers tenure.

As a sporting director within a football club what skills and capabilities are required for the role?

Naturally a degree of technical and industry knowledge is helpful within the role but most importantly the ability to connect with and lead people is probably the most important skill of all.  Dave Brailsford and Sir Clive Woodward would be my benchmark of great sporting directors.  Neither would claim to be the best coach, sports scientist, psychologist or physio.  What they are good at is employing experts, setting the direction of the organisation, creating an environment for experts to thrive, managing people, making decisions, inspiring people dealing with conflict.  Leadership skills. .

On the MSD your colleagues are from other sports and business. Does this networking creating a rich learning environment? 

Definitely.  The group consists of students from a variety of sports from different countries with a huge wealth of knowledge and experiences.  The opportunity to network, build friendships, share ideas, visit other organisations and help each other reflect on our own ways of working has been invaluable.  Probably the biggest strength of the course.  In the last 10 months I’ve had the chance to spend time with Ashley Giles at Lancashire County Cricket Club as well as visit the British Army both as a result of the course.

nick cox