The turnaround in England’s fortunes in the 5 months between the end of the last World Cup and the conclusion of this year’s 6 Nations, as welcome as it was startling and unexpected, seems to have been due in no small part to the appointment of a new coach in Stuart Lancaster.
This underlined for me the fact that even at the highest level, coaches make a massive difference in getting the best out of players – or in some cases, making a sow’s ear out of a silk purse.
Although the team drew one and lost two Tests in South Africa, there were signs that this England regime is heading in the right direction especially in terms of team ethos and player accountability.
As a junior coach for the last 8 years, I’d make the following observations (NB all of these are based on my experiences of junior rugby players in North of England – people working with different age groups and/or in different geographical locations might draw their own conclusions, and clearly Commandment 7 won’t apply to coaches of open-age teams; at least, I hope not!):
1. A great coach is in it for the development of his* players, both as rugby players and as people, as opposed to being in it for the benefit of his own ego.
* or her, obviously
2. A great coach never assumes he knows everything, or that he has nothing to learn from the players.
3. A great coach achieves maximum opportunity for player and skills development by finding a balance between coach-centred and player-centred learning that suits the squad as a whole.
4. At the same time, a great coach also recognises that the approach taken at Commandment 3 will not work for certain individuals, and so delivers appropriate development activity to suit these players as well. For example, a more supportive approach with players who are struggling to master a particular skill versus a greater measure of challenge to stretch players who have mastered the skill already.
5. A great coach listens as much as he talks, and asks more questions than he supplies answers – it’s preferable for the players to find solutions to their own issues than to have someone else’s ideas imposed on them.
6. A great coach does not tolerate prima donna players at whatever age, or allow ‘star’ players to dominate the team to the detriment of quieter, less pushy players. No one is more important than any other player or the team as a whole.
7. A great coach will listen to the concerns of players’ parents, but will not allow parents to dictate or interfere over on-field matters.
8. A great coach will ultimately aim to have his players grow to a level beyond which he can add any value to them – so that they outgrow him naturally as they develop.
9. A great coach will recognise when that moment has come and will hand them over to someone else – even if it is earlier than he had prepared for.
10. Finally, and coaches forget this at their peril, a great coach always remembers that players play rugby because they enjoy playing and so retains an element of fun and enjoyment in training throughout.
Are you a great coach? We’d all like to think we are, but I know I don’t always live up to every one of my ‘Ten Commandments’.
My teams won no trophies this year (the first time this has ever happened), but I’ve finished the season with 51 kids on the books most of whom turned out week in week out, who LOVE being there and who play attractive attacking rugby.
Of those 51, 45 have returned this season. They have a great willingness to try out new things in matches, a double switch and a dummy bringing them a try last time out, and they play for each other as much as for themselves. Every one of them is a star to me and there’s not a single one I’d want to lose.
We’ll see how they are as players at 19 and judge me then I guess!