22 February 2018

Blending in: How managers incorporate new team members

Daniel Gallan (@danielgallan)

We can all relate to being the new member of a team. Whether it was your first day at a new school or your first day at a multinational corporation, the same principles apply. But what of the teacher, manager or coach whose job it was to ensure your transition is seamlessly into your new surroundings? CONQA delves into the unique facet of leadership. 

Raymond Rhule busts a tackle for his new side, the Stormers, in a Super Rugby warm up match against the Bulls.

Raymond Rhule busts a tackle for his new side, the Stormers, in a Super Rugby warm up match against the Bulls.

There’s nothing quite like a new signing to get a fan’s pulse racing at the start of a new season. A fresh face at your favourite team often represents a clean slate. The new recruit brings the promise of endless possibilities and the chance to steer your team down an entirely new and exciting path.

But while the headlines will focus on the transfer fees, tactics and whether or not the new signing will bring silverware to the side - very few fans spare a thought for the managers, coaches and decision makers, who now have to incorporate the new player into the structures of the team.

For Greg Hechter, the high performance manager of Western Province Rugby, which includes the Super Rugby franchise the Stormers, this is a challenge.

“Fans can often forget that these guys are people first and rugby players second,” Hechter tells CONQA ahead of the Stormers’ second Super Rugby match of 2018 against the Waratahs of Australia. “Each guy will have a different personality and a different approach to the game. It is our job to make sure new players get on board with our way of doing things without losing the traits that make him a unique individual.”

This starts with working from the foundation. There are certain non-negotiables in the organisation and no player is bigger than the side. For Western Province Rugby and the Stormers, these non-negotiables include a hard work ethic, the equal respect of every member within the organisation, honest dialogue and accountability for one’s actions both on and off the field.

“We try and instil those values in the player as soon as he signs,” Hechter says. “He has to earn the respect of his new teammates, his new coach and the new fan base. No player walks into this team. No player is simply entitled to wear the blue and white stripes [the team’s colours].”

This season, one player walked straight into the starting team for the Stormers. Springbok wing Raymond Rhule that was signed from the Cheetahs. 

Rhule impressed on debut, scoring a try to help secure a 28-20 victory in front of his new fans. While there are few that would doubt the 25 year old’s pedigree, his inclusion in the side does challenge the assertion that no player has the right to waltz in to the starting fifteen. Here, Hechter touches on a key factor in the amalgamation process of new players.

“Apart from being a quality player, Raymond is a great guy who has become mates with the rest of the squad fairly quickly,” Hechter says. “More importantly he's shown in pre-season how badly he wants to contribute the team. He has worked incredibly hard in training and his numbers indicate that he is one of our top performing players.”

When Hechter speaks of ‘numbers’ he is referring to the reams of data and analytics that coaches have access to in the modern sporting era. Metres run, breakdowns reached, time spent walking, collisions won; as Hechter says: “There is no place to hide today, we know exactly how much work a player is putting in.”

A coach or manager is always going to be impressed by a hard-working player, when that is coupled with an immaculate skillset, as is the case with Rhule, it is no surprise that a new player will gain a prominent place in the side.

However, in any sport, when one player’s climb up the ladder, as one knows, another falls behind. This can be a bitter pill to swallow at the best of times, but can be made worse when it is a new acquisition that is doing the shunting.

“It’s never easy for highly competitive athletes to be told that someone else is ahead of them in the pecking order. It is a tough challenge for coaches to find balance,” Hechter admits. “In Raymond’s case, we had a few youngsters who had aspirations of their own - now they have a massive obstacle in their way. It’s difficult explaining to them that they will have limited opportunities because of a new player, but that’s how it goes. Some players can accept that, however others may need to move. We want players who can take disappointment and be motivated by it.”

Despite the challenges, a new face in the dressing room can have a positive impact on the side. Besides the obvious benefit that a new player (at least in theory) brings improvements on the field, there are more subtle benefits that directly impact the backroom staff, too.

As Hechter explains, “We always view the inclusion of a new player as the chance to gain a fresh perspective. We will sit them down and ask them about their previous team and how they operated. By asking questions we can find a way of improving our own protocols.”

Questions such as: How do the opposition train? How do they see us? What do they perceive to be our weaknesses and strengths? How do they recover? How do their strength and conditioning and rehabilitation departments operate? How is culture and team cohesion implemented in the side? A new recruit is a wealth of knowledge that, if tapped correctly, could provide an advantage for a savvy coach.

This however does bring a challenge of its own. A new player, particularly one who comes with a reputation, might be accustomed to doing things a particular way. If his methods, or the methods of his old team, contradict the methods of his new team, there is the potential for problems.

While Hechter has not experienced this dilemma first hand as a coach (he did experience this clash of ideas while working as a fitness coach with former a former Springbok coach. 

“There is room for flexibility. If a player believes that a certain routine in the gym or on the training field makes him comfortable and gets the best out of him, then we are happy to incorporate it in his programme. If a player wants to put yellow pages in his boots like they did in the old days then we’re fine with that. However, it all comes down to performances and fitness. If the player wants to do something that impacts either of those variables, then we will step in and draw a hard line.”

It is often said that this current crop of youngsters entering the workforce – commonly known as ‘Generation Z’ – is the ‘now’ generation who only stop moving to tweet from a screen (if they stop moving at all). As such is it hard to envisage a world where athletes remain loyal to one team over a long career.

If that is the case, how coaches and managers approach the unique challenge of incorporating new recruits in their side, and getting them to sing from the same sheet as the rest of the squad, will be a vital skill. As technology brings teams closer together to training and recruiting, this extra variable in a coach’s arsenal could prove vital to the success of the organisation.