30 September 2016

Owning and Directing the Narrative: How Elite Coaches Navigate Criticism

Daniel Gallan

Every single one of us gets lambasted for a job poorly done from time to time. Criticism can severely impact performance but luckily for most of us, the amount of people who have access to our shame is very small. Imagine that all your work, good or bad, was public knowledge. Imagine that everyone with a smartphone could vent how terrible they thought you were at your job. Imagine newspapers, radio stations and online blogs were about to call you out for a perceived ineptitude to millions of people around the world. Now you have a taste of what being an under fire head coach of an elite sports team feels like when results aren’t going their way. CONQA Sport explores how owning and directing the narrative can help coaches navigate these difficult times.

Louis van Gaal has never been a universally popular figure with the press and has had to constantly battle for a positive image. Here, as head coach of the Netherlannds, he speaks with journalists ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.  Image supplied by Action Images / Rafael Marchante

Louis van Gaal has never been a universally popular figure with the press and has had to constantly battle for a positive image. Here, as head coach of the Netherlannds, he speaks with journalists ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Image supplied by Action Images / Rafael Marchante

In the pilot episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones, the diminutive Tyrion Lannister, impeccably played by Peter Dinklage, provides some advice for Kit Harrington’s character Jon Snow:

“Let me give you some advice, bastard. Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armour and it can never be used to hurt you.”

Jon Snow does not know who his mother is and in the fantasy realm in which he inhabits, that makes him a social and political outcast. His character is fraught with anger and resentment. This piece of advice from an unlikely source urges him to take control of his own narrative and own the chastisement that has plagued him his entire life.

In the real world, few people receive as much public ridicule and condemnation as head coaches of elite sports teams. Every armchair pundit and social media warrior has an opinion and without ever feeling the heat of the hot seat, they are emboldened to share whatever pearl of wisdom pops into their head.

Try for a second and imagine what being on the receiving end of that must feel like. Everyone gets their fair share of criticism from time to time when they perform poorly at work, but very rarely is that ever made public knowledge. For the vast majority of you reading this, only a handful of people will ever chastise you when you make a mistake. Even then, the sting is all too real and even the best among us feel the burn once berated.

Now amplify that by a thousand or a hundred thousand. In some cases, you can multiply those feelings of shame and guilt and insecurity by a million. Now you can start to comprehend what it must feel like to stand in the face of a torrent of abuse and derision as a struggling head coach of an elite team.

Unfortunately that comes with the territory. Criticism generally follows on from poor performances and disappointing results. Most people would crumble under the immense pressure and would be remorselessly swept aside. That is why knowing how to own and direct the narrative is crucial for a struggling coach.

For Warren Kennaugh, a behavioural strategist with over 20 years’ experience working with elite athletes and teams including the Australian national rugby union and cricket teams, the PGA and the NSW Waratahs, the first step requires an admission of weakness and to wear the scorn like armour.

“You’ve got to be ready to declare your shortcomings early,” Kennaugh says. “That gives you breathing space and that can make all the difference as a coach under pressure. We value people that admit their faults and once they do, it is more difficult to use those faults as a weapon.”

This makes sense on two fronts. Firstly, it allows the coach to address whatever perceived weakness is being highlighted. Where there is smoke, there is fire, and criticism directed towards a coach almost always follows in the wake of poor performances. That is not to say that detractors fall silent when a team is winning but they certainly grow louder and more numerous the worse things get on the field.

Coaches know when their teams are not performing as they should and often have to face questions and comments that do little more than point out the obvious. If a football coach’s team is leaking goals, he will be well aware that his defence needs work. Any journalist or commentator who belabours a point of weakness after the coach has brought it up runs the risk of appearing petty. By starting with an admission of that weakness, the coach is able to set the tone for the rest of the narrative.

In this way, a coach who confronts challenges head on assumes a position of strength. As Kennaugh says, “There is nothing attractive about being defensive.” An elite coach is the main person in charge and we as fans want to know that they have the ego and charisma to turn things around.

Secondly, admitting weakness and taking on the challenge laid down by the fans and media gives the coach credibility. Honesty is a virtue that is universally valued and it allows the coach to get on the right side of the criticism. Denying an obvious weakness would portray the coach as either ignorant or a liar. Honesty here allows the coach to then shift the gaze towards his or her strengths and get on the front foot.

Take Mzawndile Stick, the South African rugby union backline coach, as an example. Many have criticised his lack of experience at Test level with former Springbok captain, Corné Krige, stating that “Stick, with all due respect, is out of his depth.”

It’s hard to argue with that statement. Stick, a former captain of South Africa’s sevens team, only started coaching in 2013 where he was appointed as the Southern Kings’ u21 assistant coach. From there he moved on to become Eastern Province’s head coach of the u19 side where he guided them to the union’s first ever u19 title in 2015. Last year he made the step up to Super Rugby as the Kings’ backline coach where he helped the beleaguered franchise win just two matches from fifteen games.

Despite this modest and undeveloped career, Stick was handed one of the most demanding and senior positions in SA rugby. Whatever the reason for his appointment was, no one can argue that it was his experience that got him the job.

Mzwandile Stick's lack of international coaching expereince has come under scutiny after his seamingly inablity to inspire and reienvent the Springbok backline. He will need to own and direct the narrative if he hopes to win over his doubters. 

Mzwandile Stick's lack of international coaching expereince has come under scutiny after his seamingly inablity to inspire and reienvent the Springbok backline. He will need to own and direct the narrative if he hopes to win over his doubters. 

As such, Kennaugh would advise Stick to embrace this shortcoming. “He needs to say, “You’re right, I don’t have experience”, and then list the things he does have.” These might include passion, innovation, enthusiasm, a willingness to learn or a great relationship with the players under his guidance.

By starting the narrative with the acknowledgment of his obvious weakness, a coach takes the sting out of criticism from the fans and media while at the same time accumulating credibility. If a coach admits weakness, we’re more likely to buy in to whichever variables are listed as strengths. If Stick were to publicly admit his lack of experience as a problem, we’d be more inclined to believe him when he lists his positive attributes.

“You never want to paint a picture that is a lie,” Kennaugh says. “If your team is not playing well you must never say that they are. Likewise, if you do not have experience at international level, don’t lie and say that you do. You’ll look like a fool that doesn’t know what he’s talking about and that loss of credibility will follow you forever.”

Once the apparent weaknesses have been addressed, the coach must immediately shift towards the variables that are working in a positive manner. Even losing coaches can find positives in defeat. Be specific and talk about those positives no matter how small they might appear. It is crucial to give the impression that despite the difficult times, there is a foundation to build on. Furthermore, we as the fans and media are more likely to be on board with those positives because of the coach’s honesty about the negatives.

Ultimately what a coach needs to do when confronted with a challenge by fans and the media is redirect the focus where it matters. Even praise can have a negative effect if it shifts a coach’s mindset away from where it needs to be.

Clinton Gahwiler is a sports psychologist working out of the famous Sports Science Institute of South Africa. It is his wish that we move away from binary definitions such as ‘praise’ and ‘criticism’ and instead focus on the outcome of that feedback.

“Criticism is in the eye of the receiver and I encourage people to never waste time or energy in labelling anything that comes their way as criticism,” Gahwiler says. “Rather, I urge them to stay open to feedback but distinguish in their own heads what is helpful and what is not.”

What the majority of us perceive as ‘negative’, a coach secure in his/her own abilities is able to take that feedback and turn it into a positive. For both Kennaugh and Gahwiler, the message is simple:  Confront the challenge head on and prove the doubters wrong. This is elite sport and only the fittest can survive. Prove you’re one of them.

All the best coaches are driven by ego. It would be impossible to succeed at the highest level without a healthy dose of self-confidence. Often the hardest thing to do is admit that you don’t have all the answers, especially when you have been tasked as the main person in charge. However, stripping away the ego and being open to input is crucial for a struggling coach.

 “A coach’s job is to coach,” Kennaugh says. “Hearing that your team is going to win by a landslide or get a hiding serves no purpose for the coach. A lot of the time the media just amplifies what sections of the public are feeling and all too often that is driven by an innate desire for immediate results. A coach must always have faith in what he is doing. As soon as he starts doubting himself because of what he is hearing in the media, he’s done.”

A coach must surround him/herself with honest people who will provide positivity when it is warranted while offering critical analysis when needed. “It’s like a bell curve,” Kennaugh says. “You always want to remain in the centre; focussed and on point. Anything that detracts from that focus needs to be eradicated.”

As a result, some elite coaches will avoid all media and public feedback entirely. Deputies are entrusted with the responsibility of sifting through the quagmire of radio, print and televised opinions concerning the coach and filtering out the white noise that is not conducive to improving the team’s performance. Whenever a nugget of insight from the press proves beneficial, the coach is informed. Everything else is discarded to the trash heap.

Another way to navigate these choppy waters is for the coach to find an ideological or philosophical middle ground. Pride, passion, hard work, dedication, a discomfort with losing; these are universal themes that are easy to understand and easy to get behind.

Addressing abstract concepts not only gets fans on board with the culture of the team but also steers the ship away from the disappointing result. As Kennaugh says, “If you don’t have an outcome, you need to build towards the trend.”

Gahwiler points out that no coach is ever selected with the assumption that he/she will never make a mistake. That would be impossible. Rather, coaches are selected because they are deemed the best candidate to make as few mistakes as possible. “It takes a secure individual to stay true to their values in the face of extreme external pressure,” he says. Not everyone is up to the task.

All successful coaches are filled with confidence in their own ability. They are the conductors that orchestrate the plays on the field and the culture off it. In much the same way that they must manipulate these two components, they must also seek to dictate the narrative that surrounds them personally.

This is easier to do when results are going their way but it becomes more important when they are not. A coach that is able to own the conversation and direct the focus towards the positives while not sidestepping the negatives is able to confront the challenges and criticism on their own terms. Playing the game the way you want to play it is the art of great coaching.