In Game Changer I first wrote about a not-too subtle phenomenon that occurs in many leadership situations. I referred to this as the – ‘The Three-Year Rule” where, many new programs and coaches fail or begin to struggle in their third year.

The great Hungarian manager Béla Guttmann, went so far as to claim, “The third season is fatal.” I’m certainly not the first to have noticed this. Working in various sports and countries around the world, this trend has become more and more apparent.

Why is this?

Failure to reinforce the basics

Vitor Frade, the great Portuguese mentor to many of the world’s greatest soccer coaches first brought this to my attention. Professor Frade explained that in many coaches roll one year into the next without starting with, and reinforcing, the basics of the organisation, game plan and philosophy of play.

This might not seem necessary at the elite end of performance, but it actually is more important at that level. The importance of a cohesive message cannot be underestimated for any organization. The ‘basics’ cover three main areas, operation, vision and methodology. Remember you can’t assume everyone in the organization knows these things, remembers from last year or that they will be handed-down to new comers by veterans.

Operation refers to how things are done, from time keeping to the more mundane. Vision is the philosophy of the team, the style we play to or operation of a business. The methodology is ‘the how’ this is achieved in practice.

By starting with this first message, players and assistant coaches know what is expected of them. The great Bill Walsh always started the first day of every season with the San Francisco 49ers, the very same meeting, covering the same points maintaining a clear cohesive message.

In modern sport and business, there is highly skilled talent recruited, and more frequent changes in staff making this arguably more important today than ever before.

The first year, as a leader, you make things clear and people more or less abide by the vision, by year two unless you reinforce them these messages become diluted with absence of focus and staff turnover, by the third year the vision is a faded memory.

Failure to adapt your system

Arie De Geus, who was the head of Shell Oil Company’s Strategic Planning Group is well known for the saying “The only sustainable competitive advantage you can sustain is to learn faster than the opposition.”. This applies to sport, not just business of course. This can be seen most clearly in the third year of any team when performance appears to suffer. It may not be that your team is not performing, it may simply be that the opposition now has adjusted to your style or system and you’ve not continued to adapted.

Good coaches have a successful system, but great coaches continuously refine and adapt it. This is one of the most fundamental differences between good and great – the ability to evolve. This takes honesty and humility with a desire and ability to learn fast.

Remember, in the first year, any team with a good system can surprise the opposition. The second year there is only one year of game film available for the opposition. However, by the third year there are 2 years of film, but not just any film, film of your losses. This is what every opponent needs – your kryptonite – how you were beaten.

Unless you continue to adapt your game-plan and present a different approach or misdirect, your simply feeding your opponent secrets to defeat you.

Failure of honesty and trust

Any successful organization must have a level professional trust. Those of us who have been fortunate to have been part of successful teams recognize you don’t have to be closest friends, but when it comes to winning it’s based on trust and faith in each other – from head coach the whole way down.

In the first year a new coach can ‘sell’ any vision to a group whether they are honest or not. With the new appointment comes enthusiasm and expectation. Most players will trust the vision presented by the coach.

If, by the beginning of the second year, it appears that the coach isn’t genuine or honest, this trust is eroded somewhat. Nonetheless, most players will still buy-in for the second season.

However, by the third year if the leadership hasn’t demonstrated honest and openness, the initial trust is in much shorter supply and you will see a failure on the field and off the field in the locker room. Sid Lowe and Dominic Fifield wrote about this recently in an article about Manchester United’s coach Jose Mourinho.

Sustainable Winning – Dominating Beyond Year 3

There are a number of ways some organizations side step these issues or use artificial ways to delay the three-year rule.

Some coaches keep older players on the roster or list to enforce culture and or delay the inevitable by changing staff or players after trust has been broken. But this never addresses the source. Avoid any issues in year three:

  • Always ‘start at the start’. Begin with operation basics, reinforce the vision and how you do things – for both assistant coaches, staff and players
  • Adapt faster than your opponent can. Competition never stays still, you need to ‘Red-Team’ inhouse constantly to see what your opponent is preparing for.
  • Be open and honest with your staff and players. Betrayal of trust cannot be under-valued. Almost every player can take bad news once it’s direct and honest

Dr Fergus Connolly is a performance expert with experience of working across elite professional sports including professional football, basketball, rugby, American Football and Australian Rules, as well as working with some of the world’s elite military units. He is the author of Game Changer: The Art of Sports Science and his new book 59 Lessons: Working with the World’s Elite Coaches, Athletes & Special Forces.