26 June 2016

Passing the Baton: Successfully Transitioning Coaches

Daniel Gallan

Elite sport is cutthroat industry where the only thing that matters is the success of the team. Coaches and managers who fail to meet the expectations of fans and stakeholders all too often get the sack. This can be a difficult and painful process. Stuart Lancaster knows what this feels like as he was axed as England Rugby’s head coach last year and has been replaced by Eddie Jones. Jones has enjoyed a perfectstart to his tenure but as CONQA Sport discovers, part of that success may be due to an unprecedented show of maturity and goodwill from Lancaster. Hopefully, his selfless act can be used as a model for coaches and federations in the future. 

A member of the U.S. team passes the baton to her teammate during their women's 4 x 400 metres relay heat at the 15th IAAF Championships at the National Stadium in Beijing, China August 29, If coaches could pass on knowledge as seamlessly and efficiently as this, the long term benefits could be staggering. Image supplied by Action Images / Kai Pfaffenbach.

A member of the U.S. team passes the baton to her teammate during their women's 4 x 400 metres relay heat at the 15th IAAF Championships at the National Stadium in Beijing, China August 29, If coaches could pass on knowledge as seamlessly and efficiently as this, the long term benefits could be staggering. Image supplied by Action Images / Kai Pfaffenbach.

Eddie Jones is the saviour of English rugby, or so the British media would have you believe. No other sport press corps does sensationalism and hyperbole quite like the English, but there is a modicum of truth to the bluster.

Jones has won all nine of the matches he has been in charge for, collecting six trophies along the way including a Six Nations Championship and the Cook Cup for England’s first ever series victory on Australian soil. What makes his success more remarkable is that he inherited a side low on confidence after a humiliating group stage exit at last year’s World Cup, a tournament that England hosted.

England when entering the World Cup were ranked third however so narrow were the margins in the chasing pack that when New Zealand lifted the Webb Ellis Cup a few weeks later, England were ranked eighth in the world following their defeats against Wales and Australia. Now they’re the second best team in the world, second only to the all-conquering All Blacks. The “Jones Revolution” is well under way and there is a growing sense of optimism that this could be the making of something truly great.

Sport so often mirrors life, and where there is yin there is yang. Jones’ success highlights the failure of the last regime and in particular that of former head coach Stuart Lancaster.

Lancaster inherited an unruly team beset by off-field misdemeanours. He was universally praised for the way he overhauled and restructured the culture within the team insisting that players honoured with an England jersey must act as role models. He stuck to his guns and famously omitted star player Manu Tuilagi from the World Cup squad after the imposing centre was convicted of assaulting two female police officers.

On the field Lancaster achieved a 70% win ratio prior to the World Cup with a young team that was very inexperienced in comparison to his rivals. He decided to go through the transitional period at the very start with a view of building a team that could succeed way beyond 2015.

He received widespread praise for the way he overhauled and restructured the culture within the team insisting that players honoured with an England jersey must act as role models. He stuck to his guns and famously omitted star player Manu Tuilagi from the World Cup squad after the imposing centre was convicted of assaulting two female police officers.

In only five of the forty six matches under Lancaster’s watch did England field a side with more Test caps than the opposition. By contrast, England’s match day 23 that clinched the series Down Under had a combined 730 Test caps between them compared to Australia’s 678. Lancaster never fielded a team with more experience against Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, Wales, Argentina, Scotland or Italy.

Lancaster failed for a number of reasons, and he is the first to admit that elite sport is a cutthroat industry where results are all that matters. In an interview for this article he casually called it a “tough gig” that is unforgiving of failure. He understands the pressure for change after the World Cup and while he is obviously still pained by the outcome, he remains positive about his experience.

Not many people on this planet can sympathise with Lancaster. Not because they might not want to, but because the life of a head coach is perhaps the loneliest out there, and when things go wrong, they do so in front of the world’s eyes.

According to the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale (1967), the eighth most traumatic event that a human can suffer is dismissal from work. This is behind the death of a spouse, divorce, marital separation, imprisonment, death of a close family member, personal injury or illness and marriage.

Fortunately, most of us only experience this in private with a handful of people knowing that it happened. Sports practitioners, and especially head coaches, do not enjoy this luxury. They have their dirty laundry aired in public with every embarrassing stain splashed all over the front pages of newspapers, analysed on TV and gossiped about on social media.

Former England head coach Stuart Lancaster looks worried before the crucial match against Australia at last year's Rugby World Cup. England lost 33-13 and crashed out of the tournament. Image supplied by Action Imaged / Eddie Kegg.

Former England head coach Stuart Lancaster looks worried before the crucial match against Australia at last year's Rugby World Cup. England lost 33-13 and crashed out of the tournament. Image supplied by Action Imaged / Eddie Kegg.

Most coaches retreat into isolation away from the jabs and jibes of the baying mob. Others display a resiliency and set to work right away in pursuit of another job, eager to prove the doubters wrong. They rarely, if ever, meet the new head coach who has just replaced them to pass on the information gained during their time in charge.

In a show of maturity and selflessness, Lancaster met the man who had taken his job in order to offer whatever help he could. “Even after I finished, I still cared so much about England Rugby and wanted to share my insight,” Lancaster says, evidently still disappointed by what happened. “I just wanted to pass on whatever information Eddie might have found useful.”

Jones understood that a coach can use as much information as he’s given and was happy to arrange a meeting. They discussed long term leadership plans for the team, shifts in strategy once particular players developed certain skill-sets and a host of tactical, physical, psychological and technical reports that he had developed concerning players within the team and those earmarked for future success.

One could make the case that this current team still has Lancaster written all over it. He gave first caps to over 25 players, the majority of whom had come through the very pathway he was tasked to develop in his previous role as Head of Elite Player Development.

Eleven of the twenty three players who beat Australia in the second Test to win the series lost against the same opposition at last year’s World Cup. If you include Billy Vunipola who didn’t feature in that defeat due to an injured knee, that number rises to more than half. Now, with the pain of the World Cup inside them and more experience of playing together, this side is starting to click.

Given the multifaceted nature of sport, where success or failure can’t be attributed to any one particular variable, it would be foolish to assume that Lancaster’s input has been the deciding factor in Jones’ incredible start. However, it would be just as naïve to dismiss his contribution.

Jones himself praised the legacy left by Lancaster and praised him for doing a “great job” developing the team. He told the BBC, “I’d be remiss not to say that a lot of the success has got to be put down to what Stuart Lancaster did with this group of players.” A kind nod to a man who perhaps has done more than vacate the position he now occupies.

In a perfect world an outgoing manager will sit down with the one set to replace him and have a conversation on how best to transition the team. After all, no one knows more about the ins and outs of the team than the departing coach. This is entirely idealistic as ego and emotions are massive barriers in this regard, but if this were the norm, troubling teething periods could be avoided.

Sometimes a team is inspired by a managerial change and elevate their play by sheer force of will. Other times they become disjointed and unfamiliar with new tactics and expectations. Continuity is a commodity that can’t be bought on the transfer market or even worked at on the training field. It has to happen organically and facilitating a dialogue between the outgoing and incoming coach is one way to achieve it.

This would be almost impossible at club or franchise level where patriotism and love for the team often end when contracts expire. For international teams, this emotion can be used as a motivator. “We’re sorry we had to let you go, but your results just aren’t what we demand,” the board might say to the recently sacked coach of a national team. “But we know how much you love this country and how much you want it to succeed on the field. We’d appreciate any input you may have for the guy stepping in.” You may say I’m a dreamer…

Lancaster pours cold water on the suggestion that he could be a pioneer. “There is no doubt it would help the team but I can’t see this happening that often.” It is impossible to understand what must go through the mind of a sacked coach and truthfully, unless you have experienced it you will never know. Emotions are inevitably high and passing on intellectual property is not something that should be taken lightly.

Boards of elite teams should be, but rarely are, the custodians of the team, culture, identity and long term plans. I suspect in this case however it was more driven by a coach who was mature enough to put aside his own emotion and hurt and try to help the team he helped create succeed after he had left.

CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town from 5 - 7 October 2016.

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