The Skills and Abilities of a Successful Coach – Lessons from Rugby World Cup 2015

The Skills and Abilities of a Successful Coach – Lessons from Rugby World Cup 2015

Following the 2015 Rugby World Cup  much of the talk has been about the role played by the different coaches of the leading nations. And less about the players. There is ongoing debate about the fate of Springbok coach, Heyneke Meyer, and his abilities as coach. Various stakeholders are questioning whether he has the skills to take the Springboks into a new era of rugby and mould a team capable of competing with the likes of New Zealand Australia. That is a decision best left to others.

But let’s look at some of the key skills, attributes, abilities and behaviours that have enabled the All Blacks’ Steve Hansen (and Graham Henry before him) and the Wallabies’ Michael Cheika to achieve such success.

The sporting participation and performance landscape has changed considerably in the past number of years and the coaching abilities that used to achieve success are no longer doing so. In the words of former All Black coach, Graham Henry, “I’ve been coaching for 37 years…. [When I started] I was very directive as a coach…pretty authoritarian. But now it’s [changed]….If you didn’t change [as a coach] you were history.”

So what is the new breed of coaches doing? They are creating empowering environments in which their players can develop to their full potential both on and off the sporting field. Through transformational leadership they are developing a unique team culture and value system that has meaning for each team member and enables them to leave a legacy that is bigger and longer lasting than themselves. Players are given responsibility and thereby take ownership and accountability for their decision making. This enables them to think on the field and be flexible to changing situations and scenarios without fear of reprisal.

Such environments are characterised by challenge, fun, excellence, humility, team cohesion and “love” for the game and team.  “So we selected the right people and worked really hard on developing…[better people] who had strong connections, played for themselves, but also played for each other, and people they loved. And they loved each other clearly, within the All Blacks. I think… [that was] a real source of performance.” (Wayne Smith, Assistant All Black coach, 2004 -2011) And that’s why a player like Sonny Bill Williams can hand over his winner’s medal to a young boy.

And how do these coaches achieve these exciting environments. Firstly, it takes a certain level of (EQ), emotional intelligence (the ability to recognise and effectively manage your own and others’ emotions) and maturity to understand the needs of each individual player under your charge. Some need discipline, others encouragement, some need skills development, yet others need to better understand tactics. Following on this awareness is the ability to effectively communicate your vision and insight and transfer your knowledge and expertise to the players enabling them to execute skills and game plans without having to defer.

They understand the importance of shared leadership and are prepared to acknowledge the input of both players and other coaches. “You need to be vulnerable enough to admit that you have not always got all the answer,” (Steve Hansen, All Black coach 2011 – ). Innovation, adaptability and value for diversity are key traits of autonomy-supportive coaches who build teams based on trust and respect for each member who are selected not only on their technical ability but also their behaviour and attitude.

Successful teams and their coaches are not built over night, but it takes time, patience, adaptability, connectedness and a commitment to self- development and ongoing learning.

Coaches must grow up

Coaches must grow up

It is no longer a trend but pretty much a constant that schools in South Africa make use of people to coach sport in schools that are considered external to the school staff – the school staff being classified as mostly those that teach academic subjects and the Sports Department are seen as a level down for some obscure reason and then comes administration staff etc. It constantly confuses me further how an academic teacher relegates sport to an obstacle as opposed to an ally.

However there are some concerning challenges that come with this need to contract “external coaches” .  I personally have picked up on this in many discussions with colleagues as well as with my own department. It is one thing to make plans around the sporting program of a school and sprout the educational value that sport plays, which I myself have sprouted very often. It is a completely different thing to actually action such value and ensure that there is a consistency in application.

In this light, I do believe that as part of this modern disposable society, coaches, who generally are students themselves at University are seeking the quick fix. Their skill set in the line of administration, process management, discipline and communication are for the most part incredibly lacking and worst of all they seem quite happy with presenting this half-hearted package – well it should not be allowed. To coach sport is a very serious responsibility. Not only do you have to have technical proficiency but you must show a willingness to grow skills. From where I sit at a strategic level, a policy making level and a decision making level I maintain consistently that a sports department, coaching staff or single coach MUST lead by example. A coach has to be more than he/she is expecting from the players in the school. If you are not the example then you cannot align any degree of expectation because you yourself are not performing positively.

This in turn does apply to me – I have to be an example to coaches if I am to have expectations of them and their performance.

In my lists made up by so called experts about what a coach is – very few lists say that a coach must “hear” – the word listen may crop up – but “hear” does not. A coach must be super alert for all signs and signals from the individuals and teams. Schools are cash cows for coaches to make an easy buck, schools today have extreme levels of accountability – some very realistic and some over the top. However coaches have to realise that they are an extension, a very important one, of the school. A school is an educational facility, shaping minds, thoughts, perceptions and characters. This job of coaching is no longer about turning up and spending an hour baby-sitting some talented people and going home. There has to be improvement in your performance as a coach all the time. No two sessions can ever be the same, don’t cancel sport when it rains go into a room and talk about the mental side or game plans and patterns. The point I am driving at is to realize that education comes first and sport itself comes second.

I have said many times before – the process of coaching is much more important than the result of coaching. If the process is correct, if the process is authentic and genuine then the result should look after itself. But be very clear that your process has to be perfect and better than anybody else’s.

Overall and dangerously generalizing, coaches for the most part actually need to grow up and stand truly tall to the responsibility that comes with being part of a school sporting program. Schools themselves need to be clear on standards, payments and expectations. Schools must ‘invest’ time and energy into enrichment of coaches for the sake of the coach and the school. Gone are the days of 60 to 80% of the coaches being school teachers. We have not managed this shift well enough and I believe the kids are suffering and that is unacceptable. A dual responsibility exists with school and coach to bring their part.

We have no regulatory or governing structure for school sport and so it is up to us to make sure we get it right.

Winning, losing and building character

Winning, losing and building character

The Intercol competition is on us again. The Intercol is a great competitive institution in South Australia and, arguably, one that is both most hotly contested and anticipated among the participating schools. It’s an appropriate hook on which to hang some comments in respect of the role of sport in education.

Promoting participation in sport raises a fundamental question; why do we play sport at school? Is sport there for recreational purposes or there as part of the education of a student? These basic questions easily extend further.
Is being competitive ‒ i.e. winning your share of competitions ‒ critical to the school’s overall reputation? And if, in some years, your student enrolment features no sporting ‘stars’, is it right to import, say on a scholarship, a sporting star or two?

I stand firmly on the side of sport as one of the tools available to an educator. Sport teaches young people many things. There are the obvious dividends of course, for instance, improved fitness and health but also how to be a member of a team. In life, we have much to say about the importance of teamwork but it most easily and naturally manifests itself on the sporting field. It’s often the predicament or needs of a team which drives an individual beyond what he or she believed they were capable of doing. The greater good is a powerful motivator.

Humility is an attractive character trait in all humans. Sport has an uncanny way of teaching that lesson; ask the beaten favourite, ask the second-place getter, ask a team which tried hard and acquitted itself with honour, but which finished out of the placings. Not winning is not necessarily the same thing as losing when it is done with pride and dignity.

Sport also teaches us how to win. Celebrating an achievement, a championship, is fine. Triumphalism and hubris are unattractive and, in some ways, demeaning. Sport can also promote risk taking. I’m not referring to unacceptable risks, the kind where say, inexperienced surfers tackle dangerous waves for which they’re not ready. Rather, perhaps, it may be an attempt at an ace on a second serve in a critical tennis match; or a long, ambitious pass in soccer, or an attempt at a previously un-scaled height in the high jump competition. Oxymoronically, you might describe these as safe risks.

And, of course, sport ‒ within a school context ‒ should not be viewed in isolation. It is part of the wider curriculum and an element of the educational experience. It is part of rounding a character and potentially helps to transform a young life.

I asked earlier whether it was important for a school to win its share of competitions and whether failure to do so over a period negatively affects the perception of the school? I would like to think not but, in sports-mad Australia, I suspect it does, at least with some people. Given that, is it then acceptable say to offer a scholarship to a young sports ‘star’ in order to bolster a school’s chances of a win at, for example, the Intercol? And, if you do, is it any different from offering a scholarship to an exceptionally bright student to up your school’s academic averages? Personally, I think a school should take its chances. The pendulum always swings back and forth and, over time, your share of wins will come.

The invincibility of the Australian cricket team with the likes of Warne, Gilchrist, Waugh and Hayden came to an end. A winning streak always ends and, conversely, so must a losing streak. In time and for a time, all schools will unearth exceptional athletes.

To contrive a win is, surely, disappointing? The most important, perhaps the only important thing in sport is to compete.

So, bring on the Intercol and may the best school win.

First published on www.positivesportparent.com in April 2012.

Has school sport lost its way?

Has school sport lost its way?

We regularly hear stories that would lead one to believe that school sport has become more than just a game, but rather “win at all costs”. A girl’s primary school in Bloemfontein has introduced a parents’ code of ethics. Two of Durban’s biggest schools will not play first team sport against one another this term following accusations of unethical sportsmanship relating to overage rugby players amongst other issues. A 17 year old rugby player tragically died from a suspected neck injury sustained during trials in January. ….  who thought school rugby was a winter sport! …… And following an increase in the use of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs among teenagers in schools, the SA Institute of Drug-free Sport (SAIDS) has launched a new drug testing programme within schools in an attempt to root out the use of steroids, stimulants and diuretics.

It would seem that the pressures put on school boys in particular to perform at an early age has spiraled out of control forcing them to engage in any activity necessary to enhance performance, whether that be taking perceived performance enhancing substances, arguing with officials to achieve a better outcome in a match or lying about their age amongst other behaviours. Unfortunately, these behaviours seem to be endorsed by parents, coaches and the schools themselves. To quote Dr Glen Hageman, President of the SA Sports Medicine Association, “Unfortunately, people judge a school on its rugby results, as opposed to its academic results.”  Even scouts and agents can be held responsible for the pressure they exert in the form of potential contracts and academy opportunities that they promise if the performances are up to “standard”.  It would be good to remember that only 24% of boys who play provincial rugby at U13 level, go on to play at the Craven Week U18 tournament (Durandt et al. SA Journal of Sports Medicine, 2011).

So what can be done to assist all stakeholders in managing the challenges that our youngsters face without destroying their dreams? Education of parents, coaches, teachers, schools and players is a key factor in encouraging teenagers to play by the rules.

It is well recognised that development into a competent sports man or woman is a process that takes time and patience to master the skills necessary to succeed either as a participant or a competitive athlete. Each child is unique and will develop at his or her own pace. There is no quick fix. Children under the age of 18 do not need any form of supplementation if they are provided with a balanced diet consisting of 3 meals and 2 snacks per day of a variety of healthy foods. In the long term, “magic” drinks and pills cannot replace the consistency of hard work, discipline, skills development and a positive attitude.

Parents should communicate with their children about their goals, their feelings and reason for playing sport. How often do we encounter parents who are living their own failed dreams through their children’s success? Recognise and reward your child’s progress and efforts and not just the results, because there is no correlation between winning at an early age and later success. Research has shown that kids with a balanced approach to their sport, school work, family, friendships and other activities perform more effectively in all spheres of their lives.

Sport at school is part of the educational journey that children are embarking upon and the lessons they learn from both winning and losing are an extension of the classroom and a window into understanding the challenges of life.

First published on www.positivesportparent.com in March 2013

 Inappropriate Aggression in School/Youth Sport

 Inappropriate Aggression in School/Youth Sport

Over the past number of years we have witnessed an increasing level of aggression on our sports fields involving all stakeholders in the sports participation process. There is a wide variety of examples – a water polo player being punched in the face, deliberate fouling in the front row of a rugby scrum, a parent or coach verbally berating or even physically hurting young athletes for a poor performance, a coach arguing with a referee for missing an error in play or a school turning a blind eye to over aggressive sportsmanship in order to ensure a winning result.

Whatever the nature of the aggression, this type of behaviour is unacceptable in youth sport and without a firm stance from all stakeholders it will continue unabated. It can result in severe physical and/or psychological damage to the child which may have lifelong consequences.

So what are the reasons for this behaviour?

  • With the ever increasing professionalism and commercialisation of sport at younger and younger ages there is an over-emphasis on winning at an age when children should be having fun and learning the fundamental movement and sports skills that will ensure sporting success at later stages. This emphasis on results and winning increases the expectations and thus pressure placed on young sports people to perform. In a survey conducted in the UK in 2013 amongst 1,015 kids aged 8 – 16; 87,5% felt under pressure to win, 64,3% indicated that they had witnessed team mates fouling, diving or time wasting and 54% said they had witnessed cheating in games of which 37% indicated that their team mates didn’t care if they won by cheating. This “win-at-all-costs” attitude is permeating our sporting environment.
  • From research published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in 2008 it appears that the control orientation of parents leads to ego defensiveness which in turn leads to anger and aggressive behaviour.
  • And coaches? They are under constant pressure from schools to achieve the results that will bring “glory” and new students to their school. In the words of Dr Glen Hageman, past president of the South African Sports Medicine Association, “Unfortunately, people judge a school on its rugby results, as opposed to its academic results.” In addition, coaches themselves are driven by the need to achieve so that they can move on to bigger and better positions and what better way to prove your worth than by a winning record.

In order to begin to address this aggression by a minority but that affects the enjoyment of sport for the majority we need to put sport participation into perspective. According to Cote and Hancock (2014), the 3 goals of sport participation are:

  • Participation,
  • Performance, and
  • Personal Development

In addition, it should be remembered that only 1% of sport participants progress to the elite level and only 0,5% become professional sportsmen and women. Research conducted by Durandt et al showed that only 24% of U13 provincial rugby players in South Africa played at the U18 provincial tournament. Furthermore, sporting success is a combination of both genetics and practice, despite the popular belief postulated in books such as Outliers and Bounce that sufficient practice alone can ensure elite performance.

It needs a committed effort of all stakeholders (players, parents, coaches and schools) working together to rid our sports fields of inappropriate behaviour. Sport is competitive by its nature, but winning doesn’t need to be achieved by aggressive sportsmanship.

Guidelines for reducing overly aggressive behaviour on the sports field·

  • Schools must develop and articulate a philosophy towards sport based on sound developmental principles and in line with the schools’ values
  • Parents should be educated to understand their role in their kids’ sporting lives and that once on the field they have very little or no control over what transpires during the competition and should therefore control their own emotions
  • Coaches should be trained to focus on a process vs scoreboard orientation to competing allowing kids to learn from their mistakes and continuously improve
  • Kids should respect the nature of sport and understand that success comes from internal motivation
  • Adults must be appropriate role models for their children or students and set the example based on values
  • Terms of Engagement covering all aspects of sports participation and applicable to all stakeholders should be developed together to ensure commitment and buy-in and schools should have an obligation to implement these agreed terms and enforce compliance to avoid the status quo remaining. 
Victory for working athletes

Victory for working athletes

Claude Moshiywa (38) became the 1st South African male since 1992 to win the “Up” run (from Durban to Pietermaritzburg) of the iconic 90km Comrades Marathon on 2nd June 2013. What made this run so extraordinary is that Claude in not a full time athlete unlike most of the leading runners who compete in events of this nature. He is in fact a full time employee in the catering division of a leading South African Bank. The 2015 women’s race was won by Caroline Wostmann, a chartered accountant, management accounting and finance lecturer, wife and mother of 2!  Proof that it is possible to have dual career aspirations and succeed in the competitive world of professional sport.

To achieve in both his careers, Claude and his family have had to make a number of sacrifices but with victory in June 2013 these sacrifices paid off. It takes a great deal of discipline to get up at 3am most days of the week to train before completing a day’s work and then train again in the evening. Planning and time management are integral to getting the balance right. In addition, there is a support group with whom athletes work to achieve their goals so teamwork plays an important role. Other key attributes that contribute to this kind of achievement are perseverance, motivation, patience, flexibility, self-control, performing under pressure and mental toughness. All of these competencies are sought by organisations seeking to employ dedicated and committed employees, so the lessons learned on the road are easily transferred to the work environment and both parties benefit.

International research has shown that a balanced approach to a sporting life enhances success on the sports field and there is an increasing trend towards professional athletes from across the sporting spectrum engaging in education and/or work whilst simultaneously pursuing their sporting dreams.

For parents and coaches of kids who show sporting potential there is no longer a need to choose between a sport and alternative career – it is possible to manage them both simultaneously. It takes desire, discipline and self-management to get it right, but the long term benefits are immeasurable. A sports career is in essence “temporary employment” and usually ends between the ages of 30 and 35 and in many instances earlier than this due to injury, lack of desired results or burnout. …..And after that there is a need to enter the job market. If you have planned for this during your sports career you are able to participate in an industry of your choice without having to go through a learning phase.

For more information on how PSC can assist your athletes in establishing a career off the field, click here. (Link to Career Coach service).

First published on 3rd June 2013, but amended on 2nd July 2015

To win requires mastery of skills

To win requires mastery of skills

The development of a child into a competent sports man or woman is a process that takes time and patience to master the skills necessary to succeed either as a participant or a competitive athlete. Each child is unique and will develop at his/her own pace, taking part in the sports that he/she comes to enjoy through exploration and performance.

The one thing we all seem to agree on is that the objective of sport is to win. What we don’t agree on is what makes someone a winner and the process it takes to master the skills required to win. How many times do we hear the first question a parent asks their 8 year old – “Did you win?” Perhaps the question should be, “What did you learn?”

There are 2 kinds of winners:

  • Winners on the scoreboard often referred to as “ego orientation”. This tends to be the traditional definition of a winner. A winner on the scoreboard can in fact be outplayed in every facet of the game but still have more points or goals. I don’t have to remind you of a rugby match played on Sunday 9th October 2011 in New Zealand, where the team who played the best, did not win! Why, because there are very often factors beyond the sportsman’s control. You can only control those aspects of your performance that you are in control of.
“If winning is defined as only those that finish first, then 97% of all participants at the Olympic Games would be failures!”  (Unknown)

That brings us to the second kind of winner.

  • Winners in terms of mastery or “process orientation”. A mediocre performance can still win a race whereas a magnificent performance may still lose the race, if others perform better. We can only control our own performance and hence the importance of focusing on mastering the skills (physical, technical, tactical and mental) to give ourselves the best possible chance of success.

Research at the 2000 Sydney Olympics indicated that athletes with a mastery orientation won more medals than athletes coached purely with a scoreboard orientation. (Dr Joan Duda, Chair of Sports Psychology at the University of Birmingham (UK))

The table below highlights the differences between mastery orientation and ego orientation.

  • Mastery/Process Orientation
  • Scoreboard/Ego Orientation
  • Effort focus – did I give my all?
  • Results focus – how many points did I score?
  • Learning and continuous improvement which is within your control
  • Comparison with others and the scoreboard as arbiter
  • Mistakes tolerated as part of the improvement process
  • Mistakes avoided because they lead to poor results on  the scoreboard
  • Decreased anxiety because in control
  • Increased anxiety leading to decreased performance
  • Increased self-esteem and self confidence
  • Decreased self esteem
  • Increased resilience – ability to bounce back faster after a setback
  • Decreased moral reasoning causing increased temptation to do whatever it may take to influence the scoreboard

The mastery of skill development is a process that takes place over a period of time and for successful and optimal performance this process needs to proceed through all the necessary stages at the appropriate developmental ages of children. This can be very generally summarized as follows:

Approximate,Developmental Age* (years) Skill,development
6 – 8 or 9 The essential skills such as skipping, hopping, jumping, throwing,,catching, hitting and swimming required as the foundation for more complex physical activities and sports
8 or 9 – 11 or 12 General sport skills suitable for a variety of activities and sports
11 or 12 – 15 or 16 Sport specific physical, technical, tactical and mental skills to compete at higher levels
15 or 16 upwards Sport specialisation for “serious” competition or for non-competitive participants to become active for life

*Developmental age refers to the degree of physical, mental, cognitive and emotional maturity of a child which may be different to their chronological age, i.e. their age in years since birth.

So how can you as coaches encourage those that you coach to develop a high mastery orientation? Here are some practical tips. By focussing on the process the results will take care of themselves.

  • Reinforce effective process goal setting. For example, “What throwing skill am I trying to improve during today’s practice session?”
  • Emphasise the value of hard work & persistence. “Did I put in my best effort today?”
  • Connect with your athletes. Do you understand each athlete on an individual basis and know what encouragement will get a specific player to participate and perform to the best of their ability
  • Emphasise individual progress. Each child’s progress should be “measured” against his/her own potential.
  • Reward skills improvement as well as acknowledging those that perform at the highest levels.
  • Encourage critical self-observation. Each child should develop the ability to assess their own progress.
  • Reflect on their own performance and encourage self-discovery. By thinking about how a particular practice session or event went, children will learn to identify the strengths on which they can build and the mistakes which they can rectify through practice
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” (Michael Jordan)

References:

Gibson, B.  Performance implications of Physical and Mental Growth of the Young Athlete.  Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia.  Coaches’ Information Service. 2008

Gould, D., Dieffenbach, K., Moffett, A.  The Development of Psychological Talent in U.S Olympic Champions. University of North Carolina, Greensboro. 2001

Hemery, D. In Pursuit of Sporting Excellence. A Study of Sport’s Highest Achievers. 1986

Thompson, J. The Double Goal Coach. 2002

Long Term Athlete Developmenthttp://www.canadiansportforlife.ca/resources