Mind Games: Get off the coach’s case – it’s not always his fault

2014-11-03 11:00

Former Springbok rugby coach Ian McIntosh coined a term for the lows that inevitably follow the highs in the life of a sports coach.

McIntosh – infamously and unilaterally dumped by Louis Luyt after the Springboks’ unsuccessful tour to New Zealand in 1994 – called it “receiving your DCM”, as in “don’t come Monday”.

Professional sport has evolved a milieu in which the coach of a team assumes an omnipotent presence. He or she makes all the decisions, hires all the personnel, sets all the tactics, garners all the praise and accolades but – and here’s the sting in the tail – gets all the blame when things go wrong.

The situation in football is particularly pernicious where there is no job security for the coach if results fall short of what owners and fans expect, but this is also true in other sports.

Far from the Corinthian ideal of playing for enjoyment and the sake of the game, winning is everything and the responsibility lies with the coach.

Thus the methods applied by famous sports coaches have been studied by scholars, dissected and explained in books, and promoted as blueprints for running a successful business or in self-help manuals as being able to change one’s life.

For instance, the secret of Manchester United’s success in the 26 seasons Sir Alex Ferguson spent at the helm became the focus of a study conducted by the Harvard Business School. The school’s Professor Anita Elberse said “success and staying power like Ferguson’s demand study – and not just by football fans”.

She looked at Ferguson’s methods, interviewed players and management at Old Trafford and, in collaboration with Ferguson, came up with key leadership lessons to be passed on to business leaders and other sports coaches.

The thoughts, habits and maxims of highly successful people like Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers; Bill Bowerman, one of the founders of Nike who mentored a string of top athletes; Angelo Dundee, Muhammad Ali’s trainer; and others like José Mourhino (football), Bob Dwyer (rugby) and David Leadbetter (golf), have been committed to scholarly tomes to reveal the path to success.

But you have to ask whether it really is all down to the coach. Is he really that influential or does luck, like the simultaneous coming together of superior athletes, not play a bigger role?

In South Africa at the moment, it’s Johan Ackermann who has turned the Lions around; Stuart Baxter, who has guided Kaizer Chiefs on a record run; and Russell Domingo, whose initial spell in charge of the Proteas has been very successful, are garnering all the plaudits.

Others are not as fortunate and are constantly waiting for the axe to fall. But they are not always at fault. At times, the inability of their teams to perform might be down to poor management, a badly structured competition, a lack of development or simply the absence of sufficient top-class performers.

Instead of the usual “fire-the-coach” refrain, it might be better to stand back and ask whether he has been given the tools to succeed. One thing all the great coaches have in common is a knack of creating the environment that promotes confidence and in which team members have a commitment to each other.

The key is the human element – the ability of the coach to engender an atmosphere in which genius can flourish, along with the desire and determination of his players to do whatever it takes to be the best, and to want it more.

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