4 March 2016


The Nuances of Coaching: Creating a Winning Structure

Daniel Gallan

Coaches need to have the right mix of skills in order to be successful. They need a combination of technical and tactical ability, mixed in with a mental fortitude and resilience to cope with the trials and demands of elite sport. But how can an organisation ensure that the right coach is placed at the head of the right team? What are the different challenges that a junior development coach faces compared to the head coach of a national team? Cricket South Africa have a carefully crafted method when it comes to coaching development and placement which ensures the Proteas remain a world class side.

Sir Alex Ferguson is arguably the greatest coach that has ever been in charge of an elite sports team. Here he celebrates with fans after his 1 500th and final match in charge of Manchester United against West Bromwich Albion in 2013.  Image supplied by Action Images / Eddie Keogh

Sir Alex Ferguson is arguably the greatest coach that has ever been in charge of an elite sports team. Here he celebrates with fans after his 1 500th and final match in charge of Manchester United against West Bromwich Albion in 2013. Image supplied by Action Images / Eddie Keogh

They are two of the greatest central midfielders England has ever produced. Between them they scored 298 goals in the domestic Premier League and 50 goals for their country. The each represented the Three Lions over 100 times including 43 caps as captain. They both embodied the clubs they won numerous trophies for and possessed every attribute a world class midfielder requires. Despite the unquestionable brilliance each of them enjoyed at the height of their powers, conventional wisdom dictated that Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard could not form a successful partnership in the centre of the field.

“They’re too similar”, some pundits argued. “They’ll cancel each other out,” postulated others. Gary Neville, an international teammate of both stars and currently the manager of Valencia in Spain’s La Liga, shared his own theory with the BBC: “Maybe if you had the 23-year-old Lampard and the 34-year-old Gerrard as a sitting midfielder that would be a better combination than the two younger players. It just didn't work and I think it was because they were too similar, they had the same mindset.”

Whatever the case, the partnership failed to match its potential, illustrating a notion that all coaches and managers in any sport understand: the best people for the job are not necessarily the most talented, but are the ones who can fit into a team dynamic for the good of the collective. It is imperative that a coach doesn’t try fit square pegs in round holes, no matter how many talented square pegs are available.

The same challenges apply when selecting the right coach for the right job, and this provides federation administrators with the same headaches normally reserved for the coaches and managers they appoint. An astute selection policy is required when allocating roles within an organisation. An inadequate coach at academy or development level can be as detrimental to the overall success of an organisation as an ill-equipped head coach of a national team.  

A coach may be talented and innovative, an out-of-the-box thinking maverick who is always on the lookout for the next tactical breakthrough, but if that coach lacks in a particular variable, or overcompensates on another, his or her placement can prove costly.

For Corrie van Zyl and Anton Ferreira, the General Manger and Coaching Education Manager for Cricket South Africa (CSA) respectively, a coach’s development and subsequent placement within the system is a task they do not take lightly. Each rung on the ladder – from KFC Mini-Cricket right up to the Proteas – needs the right coach who possesses the necessary skills for their specific role.

“Certain people are equipped for certain roles and others are not,” says van Zyl, a former head coach and assistant coach of the Proteas. “That is why we try and develop our coaches holistically.”

In any code, elite sport works like a filtering system where only the best and worthy progress to the next level. While this may be true for athletes, whose success is measured by statistics, victories and trophies, the same does not entirely apply to coaches. The perception may exist that the best coaches are the ones who win trophies – and that is mostly true – but for Ferreira and van Zyl, success can mean different things depending on the coach’s position.

“It’s only when you get to the high performance level (national u19 squad) that winning becomes the focus,” says Ferreira, a successful domestic cricketer in his own right who spent 8 seasons with Warwickshire in the 1980s. “Up to that point we are looking for coaches who can develop players, coaches who understand the big picture and who track and mentor young people. If we’re trying to fill a coaching position at the Learn to Train stage (8-12) or the Train to Train stage (12-17), we’re more interested in a coach who develops elite players than one who wins competitions.”

At these crucial developmental stages, coaches lay the foundations that entire careers are built on. Basic technique, an understanding of the struggles and challenges each sport presents, the passion and love for the game; these are variables that need to be established before the finer nuances of coaching can be applied. As van Zyl says, “Our successful mini-cricket coaches are not necessarily the ones who are the most technically gifted.”

As a coach climbs the ladder, technical ability starts to become more important. CSA have a system in place where they award level 1, 2, 3 and 4 certificates for coaches who have achieved certain criteria and demonstrated both technical and tactical awareness. What separates an elite coach from the rest is an understanding of what van Zyl calls the “softer skills” of coaching.

These include man-management, emotional and psychological support, dealing with public expectation and the ability to divert pressure away from players. Ferreira explains that many coaches fail in this regard and as a result are unable to become elite coaches.

“They might be tactically astute, and have a vast understanding of the biomechanics of training, nutrition, vision training, and even sports law, but the one thing that is difficult to prepare is the coach’s ability to deal with the extra pressure that is felt at the top,” Ferreira says. Van Zyl adds, “The best coaches, at the elite level, are the ones who are able to make the players feel comfortable with pressure and who themselves are comfortable with it.”

There are countless talented coaches who reach a ceiling and can progress no further. Unfortunately, as a coach progresses, weaknesses are exposed. What worked before is often not good enough at the next phase.

Van Zyl won 6 domestic titles with the Free State Eagles (now the Knights) during the 2000s but confesses he struggled when asked to step up as the national coach in 2010. “You think you’re equipped for the next level of coaching because you’ve had success at the previous level, but it’s totally different,” he says. “No coach must think that the nuances and skills that you have developed as a franchise or junior coach properly prepare you for the next level. But it’s important to remember that a failure at the top does not mean you have failed as a coach. It just means you were not suited to that position.”

A young boy dives for a catch while competing in KFC Mini-Cricket. The organisation provides the first steps into cricket, not only for young boys and girls, but for coaches as well.

A young boy dives for a catch while competing in KFC Mini-Cricket. The organisation provides the first steps into cricket, not only for young boys and girls, but for coaches as well.

Both Ferreira and van Zyl speak about “performance gaps”, which explain why certain coaches do not suit particular roles. All coaches have them. The best coach at international level might have a glaring performance gap in terms of nurturing young players and would therefore make a poor youth level coach.

Successful coaches understand that there is no such thing as a perfect coach and are always looking to improve in any way they can. CSA encourage their coaches to develop whatever performance gap they may possess and are constantly on the lookout for coaches who admit their shortcomings and are hungry to work on them.

The challenge is keeping coaches who are not at the elite level satisfied with their role and to temper their ambition to become the next World Cup winning coach. There is a risk that an organisation can create a top-heavy system where all the best coaches jostle for places at the main table.

“That is the challenge,” van Zyl admits. “It’s our job to help coaches understand that even at the less glamorous positions, they are still contributing to the success of the national team.”

In the days of amateur cricket, coaches did not impart knowledge and technique for career opportunities or national ambition, but for the love of the game. Traditional cricketing schools and clubs were run by passionate teachers and administrators whose soul ambition was to beat their rival and develop a culture of which to be proud.

Now, a coach is a professional with a visible pathway to the top. Ambition encourages development but it can also breed complacency if a coach feels they are above their station. To counter this, CSA incentivise all coaches within the organisation by rewarding successful coaches and teams though increased funding, improved facilities and equipment, and invitations to prestigious seminars and workshops. “We remind all our successful coaches that they are adding value,” Ferreira says.

High schools – still the main breeding ground for both players and coaches – that achieve 90% on all 5 categories on CSA’s Schools Quality Index are awarded Blue Chip status. One of the criteria is Coaching Infrastructure and Qualifications. Should a school not achieve 90% in any of the 5 categories, their Blue Chip status will be revoked. This incentive drives player as well as coach development and has created a system where highly qualified coaches remain in development cricket.

“We’re looking for coaches that breed leaders,” Ferreira says. “We want coaches who empower young cricketers to make mistakes and take risks. We want coaches who encourage autonomy and responsibility because those are the coaches that are going to create the players we’re after.” Gone are the rigid methods of dictatorial coaches. CSA have implemented a strategy where all coaches within the system are on board with a unified philosophy. Every piece in the machine is working towards a single goal.

Van Zyl explains that all coaches and players are held to the same standard and are all contributing. Fine tuning technique and developing the emotional capabilities of players is a responsibility that all coaches are tasked with. Just as a promising u15 player works on his bowling action, so too does Kagiso Rabada develop a slower ball out the back of his hand. While AB de Villiers is growing into his new leadership role, so does a young high school captain who has never had to make decisions on the field.

“It’s a lot harder in cricket to have a unified style of play, as opposed to rugby or football,” Ferreira says, alluding to the fact that the way the game is played will depend heavily on particular variables such as pitch conditions or whether or not a team has a world class spinner. “But we can implement unified coaching structures that encourage player development.”

6 years ago, CSA targeted spin bowling as a unifying focus and that has paid dividends with the rise of tweakers such as Aaron Phangiso, Imran Tahir, Dane Piedt, and Simon Harmer. Now, the organisation is addressing the newfound lack of all-rounders and is positive that the same success will be achieved in this regard.

A coach’s main role, at any level, is to develop the players at their disposal and contribute towards a winning team. Vince Lombardi, Sir Alex Ferguson, Steve Hansen, John Buchanan and other legendary coaches will go down in history as elite contributors to the sports they dominated. However, their success, like any coach, was rooted in the way they got the best out of their players and facilitated a winning structure.