You may be wondering, what does professional football have to do with air traffic control? It might not be obvious at first, but there are a lot of similarities – not least that both are high performing, high pressure careers which require certain levels of aptitude and mentality.

Ady Dolan, Heathrow controller and Head of Training, recently hosted West Ham at the busiest control tower in the UK. We spoke to him about how it went…

Like many parents up and down the country, I am involved in grassroots football, and I’m Chair of a football club in Wokingham with 30+ teams and ~500 players from Under 6s to adults.

It was quite a surprise when about 6 years ago I was approached to do some work with the Premier League, who were very interested in what we do at Heathrow air traffic control tower. Many elite sports organisations have spent a great deal of time in recent years searching for ‘marginal gains’, which includes looking outside their own sport, and indeed sport completely to see where they might make improvements. I was keen to knowledge share and show them how we operate, as well as to take the chance to learn about how they work and train.

So, what’s the link between football and Air Traffic Control? Well, some of the themes we have discussed include the concept of having a Just Culture, our strive for continuous improvement, our training methodology and how we embrace competence assessment throughout our careers.

Some of the other themes we explored were:

  • Recruitment and screening to find candidates with the right level of aptitude and mentality
  • Open Reporting and Just Culture
  • Striving for continuous improvement
  • Developing and maintaining competence
  • Having ‘non-negotiables’ within the operation
  • Sharing lesson-learning with peer groups, without fear of criticism
  • Challenge and Be Challenged across all levels of the organisation
  • Managing Competence and Maintaining Standards
  • High Performance Teamwork

All of these are areas that football clubs are interested in, particularly the idea of ‘challenge-and-be-challenged’, where the opinion of the person at the top should not be questioned.

Over the past few years, I have delivered sessions at the Premier League Annual Youth Conference, along with a host of clubs including Tottenham Hotspur, Aston Villa and Crystal Palace. Feedback from these sessions has been very positive, and the latest club to show an interest is West Ham United, who visited the control tower with a group of academy coaches.

A group of NATS staff will be visiting the West Ham Academy in May to see what else we can learn about high functioning teamwork in an elite sports environment – I’ll let you know how it goes!

Foundation Phase Coaches


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