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Do NRL coaches lack the human touch?

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Roar Rookie
25th June, 2019
11

The proliferation of performance measurement technology in sport appears to be a wonderful asset for NRL coaches, at least on the surface.

Never before has so much deep data been collected and made available for coaches to analyse in the pursuit of optimising team training and performance methodologies. 

Advances in wearable technology embedded in the players’ jerseys, for example, can now record the intensity metric of athletes, taking into account variables such as heart rate, body temperature and ground speed. 

The more perceptive viewers of State of Origin would have already noted the flashing green lights emitting from the Blues’ jerseys – Brad Fittler is reportedly a huge fan of many of the modern performance gadgets and gizmos available.

But amidst the big data revolution, is rugby league neglecting the less tangible human elements that separate the good coaches from the great coaches? 

Speaking on The Voluntary Tackle podcast last week, former NRL coach Matthew Elliott conceded that the huge amount of information now at the coaches’ fingertips can be a curse as much as it is a blessing. 

“It can be a huge distraction,” Elliott admitted. 

“As a coach after every game there are about eight million data points that have to be sorted… they are collated into how you can actually make that useful.

“I’m speaking as someone putting their hand up and saying they have been distracted by it… but what the smart coaches do is they use that data as feedback support to find out about how their team is going.”

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Elliott insists it’s not the introduction of big data itself that is the problem, but it’s how coaches use it and what alternative strategies they jettison along the way that ultimately influences performance outcomes.

“You think Wayne Bennett gets distracted by all of that stats? No he doesn’t, Wayne works on developing high level relationships with his players,” Elliott said.

Wayne Bennett

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

“Trent Robinson does it, they use big data at the Roosters no doubt about that, they’re mapping trends and all that kind of stuff, but he’s not getting distracted by it, he just wants to know what in that data is useful so that he can get his players to play better – that’s the only use for it”.

With emerging technology moving the goal posts for coaches at lightning speed and an increasing volume of resources pulled in that direction, it should come as no surprise that the profession now craves more guidance when it comes to the psychological management of players to keep pace with the change.

Enter the Coach Whisperer. 

Bradley Charles Stubbs has made a name for himself promoting a ‘Science of Belief’ ethos among a list of prominent Australian sporting organisations, with testimonials on his home page including high-profile coaches such as Eddie Jones, Graham Arnold and Michael Maguire. 

But whether you believe wholeheartedly in Stubbs’ particular brand of ‘expect to win’ mentality or not, perhaps the more salient observation is that he appears to be filling a perceived vacuum in the minds of many coaches. 

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How does a coach achieve a single-minded state amongst thier playing group in the era of such magnified technological distraction? 

I’m not convinced by the coach whisperer, but one correlation between coaching behaviour and success in the NRL does appear to be self-evident: the best performed individuals are also those noted for being the best man managers. 

Wayne Bennett, Trent Robinson and Craig Bellamy are all renowned for their attention to detail when it comes to caring for their players as individuals, not simply a manifestation of data points.

Those finer emotional skills still require the deft touch that only an empathetic human can offer, so perhaps there’s still hope for us mere mortals, at least for the time being.