Who’s driving the bus? The qualities of a good coach

gatesy Roar Guru

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    I just read a post on The Roar that talked about former internationals making good coaches.

    I don’t think a lot of the comments to that post paid enough respect to no-names who become good coaches, so I was drafting a comment when I realised, as usual that it had turned into an article of its own.

    It’s a bit of a ramble, and no doubt many of you great Roarers will have your own thoughts and reminiscences.

    I look forward to reading them, and it’s a great time of the season for a bit of digression, while Super Rugby is re-grouping.

    I once heard Ian Chappell say: ..”the only coach we needed was the team bus to get to games…”

    This definitely does not apply in rugby.

    I am one of those no-names, though I was not all that good as a coach – that’s not what this article is about.

    Rather, my point is that I have been around a lot of clubs and I’ve seen many people who were average or above average players become terrific coaches. Just as I have seen “names” who had no real success.

    I’ve probably been around long enough to have earned the right to suggest what makes a good coach, remembering that in every competition there is a team that wins the premiership and one that wins the wooden spoon, and most, obviously there is the majority in between.

    There could be many good coaches in that bunch, so you can’t just use winning or losing as a measure.

    If the definition of being a successful coach is that you can reach the pinnacle and can coach the Wallabies, then you are leaving a lot of good people out of the equation.

    Michael Cheika thinking

    (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

    The advantage of being a name is that you should have come through a system where you have had great coaches and been able to let some of it rub off on you.

    You should be able to absorb all that you were taught or just the atmosphere that you were in and internalise it so that you can pass it on.

    You should have had the luxury of time to learn from the best coaches, educators, nutritionists, skills and conditioning coaches, physios, etc.

    You should be able to earn the respect of your players immediately, because of what you have done.

    It is probably the case that if you ask many of the greats how they did that mesmerising side-step or that wonder pass, they will shrug and say ..”don’t know, it just happens .!” Maybe they never had to do that particular drill at training.

    A lot of names may not be able to earn that respect. A lot may not want to.

    I tried refereeing – lousy at it – a short and undistinguished career, but others pick it up and become great.

    Glen Jackson is one, but by and large, I would guess that most good referees are not ‘names’, that they started refereeing as youngsters and made a choice to referee, rather than play, at some early stage. Again, it is personality and ability that gets you there.

    As a ref you have the advantage of being out there running around the paddock, but what you don’t have is the post match team camaraderie. In some of the far flung places I ref’d at you were lucky to get a grudging beer from the winning team and were usually expected to drink up quickly and not hang around.

    What did it for me was leaving to go home after a game one day and walking past the sheds. The smell of liniment and the noise from the inhabitants taught me that I would rather be part of the team on the sidelines and in the sheds, than be running around copping abuse from at least half the crowd – somedays all of them!

    Somedays two men and a flea-bitten dog.

    A lot of coaching is person-management.

    Bringing out the best in people and letting them believe in their abilities. It might be taking a team of young colts who have all been coached in different ways at school, and bringing a measure of harmony to the team,so that they work as a unit.

    Working with them to see what works best with them, while finding your own feet with that group, as you get to know the individuals better, gradually adding more set-piece scenarios as they become ready for them.

    It could be working with a group of, say under 12s, where you are trying to teach them to defend, or teach that you don’t have to score the length of the field try every time you touch the ball like they did in the under 7s.

    You might teach them that you do need to have some alignment in your backline, not just be an indeterminate rabble all following the ball to one spot on the paddock, like a swarm of angry bees.

    It’s getting them to understand the concepts of running straight, learning to pass on both sides and those basics, and much more

    There are quality coaches in other sports who could easily adapt to rugby, not because they were great players, but because, whatever the sport, they have the person-management skills to mould individuals into teams.

    The word ‘mould’ brings one to mind – the great Geoff Mould, who I had the pleasure of getting to know in the late ’90s at Norths in Sydney. He was a baseballer of some note, and was never involved with rugby until he was thrown into the mix at Matraville High, as one of the teachers. He coached the Ella Brothers, and many others – the rest is history. Read it for yourselves, as I can’t do it justice. He just had the knack.

    So, what is the ‘knack’?

    It might be taking a team of women who have been at every level from an international to a complete novice, who has never played before, and having a week to try and get some combinations working, before a tournament.

    It can be putting groups of young or older players through boring drills on cold, wet nights at training to build their awareness of their mates around them, while trying to knock some of their bad habits out. It is very satisfying as the season progresses to watch the bonds that form with their teammates.

    It’s how you explain things, and get people to believe that they can buy in and become a valuable member of the team.

    It’s about how you as the coach identify the natural leaders in the group and then let them use their influence on their teammates.

    It’s about explaining the reasons for the drills, so that they learn to think their way through games, and not just react, or leave the hard yards to others around them.

    It’s about teaching them the meaning of putting “pressure” on in game situations. Pressure that results in turnovers, or pressure of just holding the ball for long phases, pressure that results in points.

    It’s the satisfaction that comes from seeing them improve as a team unit, week on week.

    It can be a bit like a new conductor with a new orchestra on day one. There are going to be a lot of challenges ahead getting the sounds and the harmonies to where you want it to be on opening night.

    It can also be frustrating, as you get to the end of a season, realising that even if you have that same group again, next year, you will probably have to go back to basics again.

    It’s about bringing together a group of players, whether they be Wallabies or under 12s, and getting them to think their way through a game, in getting them to sometimes slow the pace so that they make fewer errors, and gradually build up the tempo.

    That is where the coach becomes the conductor with the baton – slowing down or speeding up the pace.

    It’s being able to clinically analyse what is happening on the field, and distill it down to concise words and suggestions at half-time.

    Sometimes it’s quiet and measured suggestion, sometimes it’s inspirational and sometimes it’s a just a good old-fashioned “spray”.

    All Blacks' captain Richie McCaw and coach, Steve Hansen

    (Photo: Tim Anger)

    You have to be able to pick that, and then carry it through with authority, while keeping your dignity. That is not necessarily a skill that is common just to “names”.

    It’s about empathy, not just saying “do it my way, because I have been there”.

    It’s what you say to the group at the start of your next training session after a game, or what you might say to an individual about his game last Saturday.

    It’s about having enough guys in your squad who have bought into the team ethos, so that when you get injuries, or higher grade coach brings a player up a grade, you can carry on without having to panic.

    It’s a thousand and one things, and every coach will have his own take on it.

    The very first senior team I coached was a sixth grade side, about 25 years ago. At the end of the season, at Presentation Night, they gave me a nice tankard and the Captain made a short speech, which ended with “Gatesy… you’re not much of a coach, but we always knew who was driving the bus..!”

    That’ll do me.