Simone Lewis: Creating a culture of lifelong learning in Academies
Written by Simon Austin — February 26, 2021
YOU may not have heard of Simone Lewis, but you’re probably aware of one the Premier League initiatives she pioneered - or have even been involved with one or more of them.
Hundreds of staff have now been through programmes including the Elite Coach Apprenticeship Scheme (ECAS), the Elite Heads of Coaching (EHOC) and Elite Academy Managers (EAM).
Lewis, a former professional volleyball player, stepped down as the Premier League’s Head of Learning and Development last summer after seven years with the organisation.
When I asked former Premier League Director of Football Development Ged Roddy for a comment about her, he said: “Simone drove the development of coach education initiatives that have truly transformed the way we work with coaches and coach developers - she left quite a legacy."
Lewis's involvement with the Premier League had started out as a favour to Roddy, with whom she'd worked at the University of Bath, but developed into something far more substantial.
“The Premier League were two years into EPPP and knew they wanted to develop coaches,” Lewis told TGG. “Ged had a working group and said, ‘Sim, would you come to this meeting with me? I’m trying to sell this idea and nobody really knows what I mean about a coach development programme.’”
They drafted ideas for the programme, got funding for it from the Premier League and Lewis was asked to come on board to develop it. initially, she worked on secondment from the University of Bath, where she was Head of Sport Science and Medicine, and on her watch ECAS was born.
Pretty soon, Lewis realised that the role was “a combination of all my history.”
She had extensive experience in Higher Education - as a senior lecturer in sport psychology and coaching - and also in high performance, having been an athlete, coach and administrator.
The idea behind ECAS was to develop the professional skills of 20 high-potential Academy coaches (one from each club) every year, but ultimately it ended up being about much more than that.
“The existing FA qualifications were only ever designed to develop the technical side of coaching,” Lewis explained. “ECAS was intended to complement that, by developing the leadership, personal and professional skills that nobody ever teaches you.
“No-one teaches you how to be more self aware, how to be a better communicator, how to manage conflict, how to recruit staff, how to develop leaders. It was about all of that.
“The two things that had the biggest impact of all were the peer learning and mentoring. That’s what people told us from day one."
The peer learning came from bringing together staff from different clubs to share ideas and work in a collaborative way; the mentoring was via a four-person support pod placed around each student: a ‘master coach’ from their own club, a coach mentor with 'world-class experience in another sport', a professional skills mentor from business and a Premier League advisor.
“We brought in people from the military and education and business and other sports to show that there were things to learn from outside football."
The students also ventured out of football environments to visit the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Breacon Beacons, where a former member of the special forces tested their ability to operate in hostile environments.
“A big part of the programme was learning through experience, so we had a good relationship with some ex-military people who ran training programmes,” Lewis said.
“We took all of the groups to the Breacon Beacons to do part of their leadership development. It was about working under pressure, with sleep deprivation, and how your professional skills can hold together when you’re under that stress. The military do this really well.
“We had another mentor who used to be really high up in the SAS, and a leadership trainer from Sandhurst - this was the calibre of person we had mentoring these coaches.”
ECAS was also University accredited, meaning it was the equivalent of two thirds of a degree (a Higher Education diploma), which was very important.
“There had been this image of, ‘we’re unintelligent footballers,’” Lewis said. "I would never ascribe to that. The accreditation was about helping them realise they had everything they needed to get a degree if they wanted to, and that this image of anti-intellectualism in football was wrong.
“That image was what people had chosen to believe rather than the reality. Coaching is a relatively young profession, so we were thinking, ‘How do you up the standard?'
“This collegiate feel, use of outside expertise and CPD was important and marked a major attitude shift.”
In July 2016, the first cohort of ECAS students graduated in a ceremony held at Ashridge Business School (pictured above). They had completed 25,000 hours of work over the course of two years and expanded both their horizons and abilities.
During the ceremony, Roddy said: “The most striking thing is that there is a huge amount of resilience in these people, because they have been keeping down their day jobs, coaching six days a week, and at the same time committing to this programme, committing to each other, writing papers, thinking about the game, and then being exposed to all sorts of different environments.”
This first initiative had been targeted at coaches, rather than at the leaders in the Academies.
“I’m not sure that they would have been ready for this at the start, because it was a major change in culture and thinking,” Lewis said.
So another of the objectives of ECAS had been to show these Academy leaders the value of leadership and professional development and to get them engaged in the process, before it was pitched at them personally. This “worked a treat,' Lewis said.
“The overarching aim was to create more of a mentoring and coaching feel at the clubs. People were telling me that it had been more old school, more command and control.
“The vision was to create a culture change, to one of lifelong learning, across both Academies and first teams. If you can change the culture and develop leaders, then they embed that healthy culture and develop other leaders and it becomes a virtuous circle.
“Ultimately, that’s what’s a leader’s job is to do - create a vision and develop other leaders."
Now two more programmes were launched, one targeted at the Academy Managers (EAM), the other at the Heads of Coaching (EHOC).
“They were much bigger programmes because they were for all 92 clubs,” Lewis explained.
EAM was launched two-and-a-half years ago and was “completely bespoke to the individual.”
“If you were coming on to the programme then you undertook a needs analysis first," Lewis said. "You might liken it to a pick ’n' mix, because there were different elements based on your own needs.
"So what we ended up with were 92 individual programmes, which was difficult to manage, but it is how I believe development should be - individual and bespoke."
This time the mentors came mainly from finance, business and strategy backgrounds, because of the different requirements of the Academy Managers job.
“Some of the mentors were also advisers in terms of the programme design,” Lewis said. "It was a who’s who of business, sport and military, really high level.”
A major focus of EHOC was to predict how the role of Head of Coaching would evolve in the future, with the programme tailored accordingly.
“When we devised the initiative, we were saying, ‘What is this role at the moment and where is it going to be in a couple of years time?’
“We did lots of research across the game, built the programme and put 92 people on it over four years. Hopefully they are better coach developers because we did our homework.”
EAM and EHOC were pitched at postgraduate level, in conjunction with Portsmouth University, and graduates also achieved chartered status as either a manager (EAM) or coach developer (EHOC).
In all, Lewis launched seven programmes during her seven years with the Premier League. Another that was particularly close to her heart was the BAME and Female Coach Initiative, which was designed to address a lack of diversity across the coaching workforce.
More than 30 coaches have now been placed in full-time employment in professional football via the scheme (we covered some of them in this article).
Before leaving the Premier League last summer, Lewis helped to design a Black and Asian Player to Coach Scheme, which she had been working on for two years in conjunction with the PFA.
This has just launched and Lewis said there was an opportunity to improve diversity using the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement.
"This should leave us in a really healthy position for reappraising workplace values and diversity," she said. "I see real opportunities there for businesses, clubs, Academies to have a little reset. There's a real opportunity for forward-thinking leaders to embrace that."
Now Lewis is running her own consultancy, working with governing bodies, including Fifa, and said: "My mission is having a positive impact on British sport and making a difference."
That’s what she achieved during her time with the Premier League, as many of the coaches and coach developers who went through her programmes will testify.