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.