3 June 2016

Creating a Unified Ethos: A National Coach’s Challenges

Daniel Gallan

Allister Coetzee has been appointed the 23rd Springbok rugby coach and has immediately sought to establish an era marked with youth and excitement. With an average age of just under 26 years, this is a team that might lack experience but has all the potential for something truly great. What Coetzee will need to do is unify all 31 players under a single ethos – perhaps the most challenging task for any head coach or manager of a national team. 

Allister Coetzee looks on after he was unveiled as the South Africa Springboks' new rugby coach in Randburg, outside Johannesburg, Coetzee's squad announcement was met with much excitement and the hope of a dynamic brand of rugby. Image supplied by Action Images / Siphiwe Sibeko.

Allister Coetzee looks on after he was unveiled as the South Africa Springboks' new rugby coach in Randburg, outside Johannesburg, Coetzee's squad announcement was met with much excitement and the hope of a dynamic brand of rugby. Image supplied by Action Images / Siphiwe Sibeko.

It’s not often a Springbok squad announcement brings universal praise, so while a few of Allister Coetzee’s selections have raised the odd eyebrow, the new coach’s team has made South African rugby fans feel something they haven’t felt for a long time: hope.

Hope in something new and exciting. Hope that this youthful team will express themselves with a brand of rugby that is dynamic and entertaining. Hope that transformation targets may be met in the near future and that those non-white players will prove that they merit their place in the squad on ability. Hope that he can unify South Africans of all races behind a team that banishes the demons of the past that still haunt the Green and Gold. But before he can do that, he has to unify 31 rugby players.

Any leader in any field will tell you that creating a winning team requires everyone pulling in the same direction. Sure, everyone who wears that famous jersey wants to win, but how that victory should be achieved is a matter of opinion.

The 31 players that Coetzee has picked to take on Ireland in the 3 upcoming Tests come from 8 different teams: 8 players each from the Lions and Stormers; 6 from the Sharks; 5 from the Bulls; and 1 apiece from the Cheetahs, Bath (England), Bordeaux and Toulon (both France).

Coetzee not only has to unify those 31 players, he also has to amalgamate the best practices of 8 other head coaches and their support staff. Each player’s club coach has used him in a way that best suits that particular team using a range of psychological cues and triggers that motivate and drive him to his full potential. In addition, Coetzee will be working with many of these players for the first time. How he brings them together will determine his success.

Coetzee's ethos must also extend beyond the 31 squad members and throughout the organisation that he now leads. There is an SA "A" side, being coached by Johan Ackermann from the Lions, which will need to be a further extension of his coaching philosophy.

This presents its own challenges as Ackermann will likely have aspirations and want to imprint himself on the players under his charge. That being said, Ackermann may want to keep some cards to his chest as the performance of the Lions paces a more tangible path for greater things to come. As Mitchell says, "It's not an easy one because you don’t know how much is prescription from Alistair and if he can put his own flavour on things." In an ideal world the two coaches would work together and the Springbok ethos would extend fully into the mostly younger and less experienced SA "A" squad.

Coetzee’s challenge is universal. Every national head coach has to find a balance between integrating different opinions while at the same time stamping their own ethos on the team, a challenge John Mitchell is well aware of.

Mitchell is the head coach of the USA national men’s rugby team, the Eagles, and fully understands what Coetzee is going through. Mitchell, a New Zealand native, coached the All Blacks from 2001 – 2003, notching up 23 wins from 28 games for a win rate of 82%. He believes that the collection of players is irrelevant when creating a unified philosophy. What matters is setting clear objectives that each player understands.

“Before you can change a player’s mindset from club to country, you have to get him to understand your foundations,” says Mitchell, a coach with experience leading both clubs and national sides. “That sense of belonging has to be accelerated as you don’t have as much time with the team compared with their club coaches. You need to be clear what you value above everything else.”

For Mitchell, this is achieved by shifting each individual’s expectations. Very few athletes are fortunate enough to represent a club and country where success is a given. Rugby players like Richie McCaw and footballers like Andres Iniesta have won everything available to them. Others only collect winner’s medals with one or the other. Most never get the chance to lift a trophy at all.

With home ground advantage and facing a weakened opposition, the Springboks are expected to dominate the Irish but for some players in the squad, this expectation is new territory. Lood de Jager, the 2.06m (6 ft 9 in) lock, is the lone representative from the Cheetahs, a side struggling towards the bottom of the Super Rugby log with just 3 wins from 13 games. An old adage states that both winning and losing become habits. De Jager will need to shake that sinking feeling if he is to shine for the Boks.

Shifting expectations is easier to do when coming from a beleaguered team into one expected to dominate. Spare a thought for Gareth Bale, the Welsh footballer who recently collected his second Champions League medal in two years with Real Madrid. Realistically, his national side will do well to progress past the first round of the upcoming European Championship. Mitchell explains that reiterating what the collective expectation is to the individual helps him/her stay resilient during difficult times.

A national coach must also lean heavily on the core leadership team within the player group. This is easier to do when a coach has a core group of leaders who are all on board with his ethos, what Mitchell calls the “critical mass”.

Coetzee has already established who this core leadership group will be. The coach is fortunate in that several of these players such as Warren Whitely, Frans Malherbe, Patrick Lambie and Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira have all captained their franchise this season. Leadership is a skill that is honed through experience. What will be a challenge is forming a cohesive leadership team that gleans the best out of each individual while still adhering to the agreed upon philosophy.  

The new Springbok coach has repeatedly said that his leadership team needs to be an extension of his philosophy. Along with new captain, Adriaan Strauss, Coetzee will need to firmly establish what this philosophy is and ensure that everyone is singing from the same sheet.

John Mitchell, now with the USA Eagles, is on of the most respected men in world rugby. He started his journey as a player, representing his native Waikato 134 times. Although he never played for the mighty All Blacks in a Test, he did coach them 28 times before stints with the Western Force in Australia, the Lions in South Africa and the Sale Sharks in England.  

John Mitchell, now with the USA Eagles, is on of the most respected men in world rugby. He started his journey as a player, representing his native Waikato 134 times. Although he never played for the mighty All Blacks in a Test, he did coach them 28 times before stints with the Western Force in Australia, the Lions in South Africa and the Sale Sharks in England.  

No great coach can exist without great leaders in his team and no great leader can flourish without a great coach. Hierarchal leadership within a team is symbiotic. While that hierarchy must be respected, it needs to be fluid in how ideas are transferred from one rung to the next. 

There will be differing opinions and sometimes this can create friction. If players are coalescing around different leaders, the coach runs the risk of having to deal with a split dressing room. This cannot happen.

Ego is a variable that elite coaches and managers have to deal with on a daily basis. Helping players feel valued within a team dynamic is a task that any leader must take on, but at a national level, time constraints demand immediacy in this regard.

Mitchell advises that, “So often it’s not what you say or even how you say it. It comes down to how it was received.” Athletes need to understand that all decisions are made with the team’s best interests in mind. It’s nothing personal.

National teams comprise of the best of the best. Players who are peerless in their club now find themselves competing for a starting spot in their preferred position. Shifting a player’s expectation here can be a challenge for a national coach. For Mitchell, the onus is on the player to adapt to his/her new environment.  

He recommends spinning it in a way that sends a positive message to the player. Be realistic that they are not playing in their preferred position or starting on the field because there is someone else who is better suited to the game plan. However, their inclusion (either from the bench or in an unfamiliar role on the field) is benefitting the team. A positional shift might actually be beneficial for the player personally. It helps shape them into a more rounded player and develops skill sets that will stand them in good stead throughout their career and provides the team with more ammunition during injury crises.

Once again, the critical mass of senior players helps with an unhappy player. “You have to create accountability in every member of your team,” Mitchell says. Even players who are not getting much game time or find themselves holding tackle bags more that they’d like can offer input and should be encouraged to speak up. Mitchell suggests creating separate pockets of decision teams with a different member of the critical mass at the helm.

A leadership group for attack, for defence, for set pieces, for interpersonal relations; Mitchell is clear that all decisions can and should be inclusive wherever possible. “You don’t want to be too top heavy as that doesn’t lead to ownership within the entire group,” he says. “This is all about unifying different individuals under one ethos while developing the younger members of the team who will go on to become leaders on day.”

The jump up from franchise/club rugby to representing your country is a massive jump, not only in terms of the skill sets required to succeed, but also psychologically and emotionally. The demands are massive and the stakes so much higher. At the same time, coaches and managers of national teams are expected to handle themselves on this massive stage.

Coetzee is setting out into uncharted waters. Steering his team in the right direction will mean getting them all to steer in the same direction. If he can do so while still retaining a sense of his own individuality, this hope that Springbok fans currently feel may materialise into something truly great. 

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

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