It’s a throwaway terms for pundits and scribes whenever a coach bumbles his way through a press conference after his team has lost another game. But what does “losing the dressing room” actually mean? By DANIEL GALLAN for CONQA Sport.
After the South African Springboks’ humiliating 18-20 defeat to lowly Italy in Florence last month, Joel Stransky, the iconic flyhalf who will forever be remembered as the man who kicked the winning drop goal against New Zealand in the 1995 World Cup final, shared his thoughts with Sky Sports’ The Breakdown. He did not mince his words.
“The fallout has been quite severe,” he said. “We sort of see ourselves, quite rightly so at the moment, as the laughing stock of world rugby.”
Stransky then went on the criticise the culture within the camp, the selfishness of the presidents who run the 14 different unions in South Africa as well as the weakness of the five Super Rugby franchises that act as feeders for the national team. He saved his most scathing attack for the coach.
Like a judge reading out Allister Coetzee’s death sentence, Stransky stated that “the coach has lost the dressing room”. You could almost hear the ringing of bells in the distance.
Of all the condemnations that can be heaped on a coach or manager, the most damning of all is to suggest that he/she has “lost the dressing room”. You’ve heard that one before, right? It’s a term that is bandied about with so much regularity that one would assume its definition would be universally understood. However, as with most sporting jargon, the ambiguity that surrounds this oft-quoted phenomenon means some clarification is required.
It obviously has nothing to do with misplacing a room. As football manager Ian Holloway said during his time with Crystal Palace in 2012, “People said that I had lost the dressing room. But I know where it is. It’s down the corridor on the left.”
It is an abstract but very real event where the coach or manager loses the respect of the players and/or support staff. “It’s very much in the subconscious,” Stansky clarifies for me. “Ultimately what happens is that the players, for whatever reason, stop respecting what is being said. It’s not necessarily that they no longer like the individual, Allister Coetzee is a really nice guy, but the players have clearly lost faith in his vision, his mission and his message.”
As we have seen in 2016, with the US election circus, Brexit, and a host of other examples too numerous and painful to list here, it is hard to trust the message if you don’t trust the messenger. For Stransky, that is exactly what has happened to the Boks.
“It is evident that the message no longer has meaning,” he says. “You can see that the unity isn’t there. Individual aspirations might still exist but the team is misguided and certain players are getting away with behaviours that should not be tolerated. For me, that is a clear sign that Coetzee doesn’t have the dressing room.”
Stransky references that certain players (“they know who they are”, he says) have been taking shortcuts in training or arriving to practise with a cappuccino in their hand – more than just a faux pas for a rugby man who won the World Cup under the strict disciplinarian, Kitch Christie.
But how does a leader lose a dressing room? For Paddy Upton, a well-travelled and successful cricket coach who is currently the leader of three dressing rooms in India, Australia and Pakistan, a lost dressing room can be attributed to a poor coach unworthy of his position.
“In order to lose the dressing room, you must have a glaring weakness,” he says. “It’s either a significant incompetence in strategy or tactics, a significant incompetence in your leadership and communication, or a narrow-minded philosophy that states it’s your way or the highway. Whatever the case, if you were not incompetent then you wouldn’t have lost the dressing room in the first place.”
Stransky concurs: “If you are a strong leader with qualities that are valued, you wouldn’t lose the respect of your players.”
If we take what these two are saying at face value, then we might infer that only coaches who are not worthy of their place at the head of the table lose the dressing room. This is clearly not the case.
Jose Mourinho has won trophies with every team he has managed. Despite a list of honours and accolades, the likes of which would be the envy of most managers, The Special One undoubtedly lost the Chelsea dressing room before we was sacked in 2015. Now in charge at Manchester United, there are rumours that he is dangerously close to losing another one.
How can a coach with eight domestic titles and two Champions League winning medals suffer such an ignominious fate? Once again, Upton has an answer.
“In a dressing room, influence is power, and wherever that influence leans, that is where the power lies,” he says. “In the modern game, the power does not sit with the coach but with well-respected senior players. It could be that in a squad, three key figures hold 60-70% of the influence. If they tip over and turn against the coach, the entire dressing room will follow.”
Upton has worked with some of the biggest personalities in world cricket, first as an assistant coach with the Indian and South African national sides where he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Jacques Kallis, and then as a head coach in his own right in T20 leagues around the world. He understands that the power dynamics of a team are constantly in flux.
The one variable that sees to this ever changing environment more than any other is results on the pitch. A winning team is almost always a happy one. Sure, there may be the odd player who occupies the bench more than he’d like who is not enamoured with the state of things, but like the terraces and executive offices, dressing rooms are full of smiles when the team is winning.
This might lead you to believe that a coach at the head of a winning team could not possibly lose the dressing room. You’d be wrong.
A successful team is driven by strong leadership, a cohesive game plan that gets the best out of the individuals within the ranks, and a strong culture that permeates throughout the organisation. These variables do not have to come from the coach. Teams filled with experienced campaigners and a core group of talented individuals can self-regulate without the coach needing to exert any influence. This is not an ideal situation but it is possible.
As Upton puts it, “A coach that lacks strong leadership qualities or tactical skills can lose the reins of the team and essentially go along for the ride.” If the team is winning, these deficiencies will go unnoticed.
Stransky references the former Springbok coach, Peter de Villiers, as an example of this. “He didn’t necessarily have the respect of his players, but with guys like John Smit, Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez, Bryan Habana and so many other legends, anyone could have coached that team and been successful.”
Whether or not you agree with Stransky’s views on De Villiers, that his contribution to the team that was better than Jake White’s 2007 World Cup winning side was minimal, the argument does have some weight behind it. The same has been said of more respected coaches such as Pep Guardiola during his spell with Barcelona or John Buchanan when he was in charge of the mighty Australian cricket side of the early 2000s.
“It’s not just head coaches,” Upton points out. “Successful teams can carry inexperienced youngsters, old-timers that are past their prime and even extra support staff who don’t necessarily add a lot of value.” When losses start accumulating, that’s when the knives come out and the fat gets cut off.
Upton uses the example of Paul Adams who is currently in charge of the Cape Cobras, the franchise cricket team operating out of the Western Cape. In 2012 he took over from Richard Pybus, a coach who turned the Cobras into an almost unbeatable machine, knocking the Titans of Pretoria off their perch in the process to become the most successful domestic team in South Africa.
Adams, the franchise’s youngest ever coach at 35, inherited a dominant outfit and his reign got off to a flying start. In his first season in charge he won the domestic double of the 50 overs competition as well as the four-day Sunfoil Series title. In his next two seasons he picked up another three trophies.
“The problems with his coaching weren’t evident in the beginning of his tenure because the senior players were largely running the team,” says Upton. “But when those senior players moved on, Adams needed to step up and fill that leadership role. It’s pretty evident he has been unable to do that.”
The 2015-16 season was the first in eight years that the Cobras did not win a trophy and, after 14 contracted players lodged a formal grievance against him in September, the wheels appeared to be falling off. The Western Cape Cricket Board stepped in and asked Upton to compile a report on the matter and although the contents of the report remain largely confidential, it proved a catalyst for change.
Adams attended a leadership course to address his weaknesses in the position. Although his side is still struggling near the bottom in two out of the three leagues in the country, he may yet keep the dressing room. Either way, Upton hopes that a lesson can be learnt from this.
“Head coaches very rarely benefit from the support structures that are afforded to every other person within an organisation,” Upton says. “A coach is the person who spearheads and drives all these people. If we turn the mirror and point it back to the coach, what is anyone doing to help the coach upskill, help him keep the dressing room etc? Everyone who arrives at this level is given all the support possible, but the person responsible for holding it all together is not.”
Ultimately it is the coach who is in charge of the dressing room and if he loses it, the buck stops with him. But if we are to follow Upton’s argument, the people who appointed the coach in the first place must share at least some of the responsibility.
Remember, both Stransky and Upton have pointed out that a coach who loses the dressing room has done so because of glaring weaknesses in his leadership, communication or tactical abilities. Upton states, “If a coach were to lose the dressing room within the first two to three years of his tenure, the people who appointed that coach need to be held accountable.”
If those people had done their due diligence, those glaring weaknesses would have been apparent. If Coetzee and Adams have indeed lost their dressing rooms because of deficiencies, why were they not identified as incompetent candidates for their positions?
To negate this problem, those in charge can surround the inexperienced coach with a team of support staff that shares his vision. At the very least he should be able to choose who those people are. As we have seen with the Springboks, Coetzee was force-fed a backroom team that appear to be singing from entirely different hymn sheets.
On top of all the problems Coetzee faces, his captain, Adriaan Strauss, announced his retirement back in September but kept his position as leader of the team (a massive mistake from Coetzee). To make matters worse, he has a shortage of senior players capable of uniting this struggling team. It is a perfect storm that the beleaguered coach currently is trying, but failing, to navigate.
So what hope does Coetzee have? Is it possible to win back a dressing room once it is lost? Upton and Stransky are once again in agreement and the forecast doesn’t look good.
“When you’re in a mess like the one Coetzee is in, you can’t see the wood from the trees,” Stransky explains. “Therefore he’ll need to bring in outside help to assist him and guide him. The catch is, if he doesn’t have the answers and needs someone else to step in, why is that person there in the first place? As a player I would think to myself, ‘This guy doesn’t have the answers.’ It takes a brave man to admit he’s out of his depth but ultimately all that may lead to is Allister falling on his own sword.”
Upton agrees: “The deficiencies that lead a coach to lose the dressing room are not remedied overnight. If he had the ability to identify those problems, he would have altered things long before he got close to losing the dressing room. In difficult times, a coach needs self-awareness and courage. If a dressing room is lost, those are two traits that have been lacking for a while and are not just going to suddenly materialise.”
Coetzee is no doubt riding in the middle of a perfect storm. He is hamstrung by selection policies and political agendas, he has been forced to brave the toughest waters without assistants that he has personally chosen, his captain on the field has jumped ship and the players who have to do the business on match day look short of confidence and ideas.
A perfect storm indeed, but all storms can be weathered with a stronger ship, a cohesive crew and a competent captain’s hands on the wheel. Coetzee looks lost at sea and if the SS Springbok continues on this dangerous voyage, a mutiny looks like an inevitable outcome. DM
Photo: Springbok Coach Allister Coetzee during the 2016 Springbok Press Conference at Montecasino on 23 October 2016 ©Aubrey Kgakatsi/BackpagePix
"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall