Spare a thought for us coaches

This isn't the original article I sat down to write today, but that will have to wait for another day...

"The life of the professional coach is a sorry one - the players get the glory when they win and the coach gets the blame when they lose"

In my previous article (which you can read here) I spoke of the time I spent with Stuart Lancaster, the Head Coach of England Rugby and his efforts to effect culture change on the England team after their 2011 World Cup disaster.

He talked about the pride and passion and the history of representing England, bringing in former players to talk to the current crop about what it meant to them in a non-professional era to represent their country. He gave ownership to the players, empowered them to build their own environment of high performance, set their own guidelines and rules and to own them - players who didn't meet the expectations were released from the team and the unity of the Red Rose forged ahead.

Until Saturday...

On Saturday night England played Australia in a must win game having succumbed to an unbelievable Welsh comeback with minutes to spare the week before. And lost.

World Cup over.

The first host nation to not make it through the group stages in the history of the Rugby World Cup. For me, as a die hard fan of rugby and the values it portrays, it was devastating (I was away working in France watching it with the locals, which only made it worse!) However, it got me thinking about the role of the coach and the effect this would now have on his career and personal life in the weeks and months ahead.

First let's take a step back in time to the end of the match versus Wales. For those that aren't rugby aficionados I won't bore you with all the precise details, but to put it succinctly the Welsh had fought back brilliantly to lead with minutes to spare after being behind for much of the match. Showing incredible passion and team work, especially given how decimated they had become by injuries. With a few minutes on the clock England were 3 points behind and won a penalty, the kicking of which would have brought the scores equal given  England a couple of minutes to attempt to score again for the win.

The captain called for a kick to the corner, instead of to the posts in a bold attempt to win the game there and then by securing the throw in and pushing the Welsh over the line to score a try. They didn't and the rest is history - and the decision will be debated ad infinitum.

As a coach I can see why the players on the field made the decision they did - you elect your captain precisely to make difficult decisions under pressure. I have no issue with the decision to go for the win, I applaud bold and brave decision making (unless it is dangerously reckless), but the execution of the resulting play was poor. There was a sense to me that the players, having made the decision were second guessing themselves - lesson 1 - once you have made a decision in life, back yourself to execute on it.

This is where the coaching comes in...

I have written more than once down the years of the importance of Game Understanding (an area so fundamental to winning rugby that it deserves the capital letters). Crucial to this are coaching sessions that put players in a problem-solving environment – where questioning is the means of communication, not telling. 
Brian Aston - The Independant 29/9/15

One wonders how much of this style of coaching goes on in elite sport, especially rugby. There is a lot of research to suggest that this problem solving coaching philosophy has great advantages over a more directive coaching style - but the evidence in that second half at Twickenham and that particular moment of the match suggests the England players were not as adept at problem solving as their Welsh counterparts.

This then is where the buck does stop at Stuart Lancaster's door (along with his coaching team) - he and his coaches will have to sit down and have a thorough debrief and analysis of what went wrong and how they could adapt their training methods to move forward.

Assuming that is that they are given the opportunity to do so. As we saw with the sacking of Liverpool football manager Brendan Rodgers yesterday, elite sport is a fickle world, one second you're on top the world and the next you are being squashed by the weight of it. The will no doubt be a root and branch review by the Rugby Football Union and much of the media is predicting a clean sweep.

Personally, whilst I do not agree with some of the selections made by Stuart Lancaster during his tenure (but then who ever has 100% public agreement on their selections in elite sport - only with hindsight perhaps), I do have a great respect for the man and his values. If given the opportunity he will learn from the experience and work tirelessly to put structures in place to build a more successful future for England Rugby. That is the mark of a great coach (or athlete, or person) - one who makes mistakes, reflects, learns and develops.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
Samuel Beckett

So, for all those fans, wailing and gnashing their teeth, despairing at the useless coach, who has no track record and didn't deserve his job in the first place, spare a moment to think of the man inside the coach, who took his values and principles put them on the line for all, who didn't make mistakes on purpose just to annoy you, he tried, he failed, next time he'll fail better.

Unfortunately, he likely won't be given a chance to learn and develop from this experience, where as many of the players will. There is no better training environment for athletes than competition, but coaches rarely get the luxury of being able to learn during the highest level of competition and develop their skills as frequently public and media perception and pressure dictates their removal rather than their development.

Does the coach deserve the chance to build and grow?

Leave your thoughts below