‘Behind every winning sports team is a great coach’. That’s a phrase I often use when opening coach education sessions. Of course every winning team also has great athletes but if a good coach leaves then it is common for the team to see a downturn in performance even if the athletic talent is still intact. The famous and well-renowned coaches like Jurgen Grobler in British Rowing, Sir Alex Ferguson in Soccer and Warren Gatland in Rugby fully understand their significance as coaches because success has followed them over long careers with many different athletes and we have all seen it. But coaches at lower levels, professional or amateur, and even entry-level unpaid coaches also need to understand the considerable influence they wield. Coaching is about leadership because it is assumed you have the knowledge to teach others and the personality to inspire, mobilise and facilitate performance in people, so even if you are short on experience as a coach you still have influence as a person. Well-considered encouragement to a young sportsperson just might awaken a sporting dream and change their life forever, and equally well an ill-tempered retort might snuff it out.
Leaders need credibility if they expect people to follow them and the famous coaches have the advantage over the younger ones because they have a far larger data-bank of information to call on. They have records of miles of training done, intensities, weights lifted, tactics employed and have witnessed more Olympics, World Cups, and tournaments than others. Others can observe and copy their analysis but they created it in the first place and importantly they know the mistakes they made. “You don’t lose, you either Win or you Learn” – a quote attributed to Nelson Mandela and others! Over time they gain more and more data and many of the top coaches stay there a long time. It’s a virtuous circle; the more they win the more they know why they won and can repeat it again.
Responsibilities of a Coach
Some aspects of coaching are quite broad, just like being a parent or teacher. You need to set the tone on a daily basis, to be seen to be fair, consistent, and reliable. Coaches are like mirrors – if we are grumpy, late, poorly planned, inconsistent, biased, low energy, then our athletes tend to reflect that straight back at us, especially the younger ones who know no different. The environment is key, not just the physical buildings and facilities but the cultural environment too. Why do the All Blacks play in black, Usain Bolt drape a Jamaican flag round his shoulders, eyes well up when a national anthem is played? It’s symbolism: anyone lining up opposite the All Blacks knows they have to be good, very good to earn that jersey and they will be mighty opposition. It becomes like a suit of armour. In my days as Head Coach with Cambridge University Boat Club we were proud of our light blue colours. Oxford dark blue – the enemy. Ready in 180 days for the annual University Boat Race, no heats, or second chances, no silver medal, just first or last; the result imprinted on you for the rest of your life and done in front of several hundred thousand people. Kit is earned over time by those most deserving and that is where performance analysis comes in. The coach needs to make decisions to get to this point; talent ID, training, assessing, evaluating, testing, selecting, competing, winning. He needs information, data, and the ability to manage it to get the right information from it, without which there’s no hope of creating success.
Common challenges faced by a coach
An absolute first step for coaches is to understand themselves and what is their coaching persona. Dr Steve Peters, Psychologist to British Cycling and author of ‘The Chimp Paradox’ states that you need to understand yourself before you can hope to understand and help others. Brian Clough the football manager was once asked whether he ever consulted with his players “We talk about it for 20 minutes and then we decide I was right”! If nothing else that constitutes clear leadership but in most situations it pays to appreciate that people are different and the coach stands to unlock more talent by being perceptive of this. Owen Slot looks into this aspect in ‘The Talent Lab’, a book he wrote in cooperation with UK Sport after the 2016 Olympics. A few years out from the Games the British Swimming and Hockey teams were performing below their aspirations and he explains how the analysis of performance data allowed staff to narrow down reasons for under-performance. Once understood they realised the training programmes were fine but put in strategies for change which centred largely on the coaching styles. In other words the factual information led to a change in some quite soft skill areas, and medal success followed.