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26 March 2017 20:42 (South Africa)
Opinionista John Mitchell

Channelling the Coaching Collective

  • John Mitchell
    John-Mitchell.jpg
    John Mitchell

    John Mitchell is just third-ever person to play for, captain and coach of the All Blacks. As a player, Mitchell played 134 matches for his province Waikato, captaining the team a record 86 times, and played six games for New Zealand on their 1993 tour of Great Britain, captaining the All Blacks in three tour matches.

    He has coached all over the world and has winners medals for the Six Nations, Bledisloe Cup, Tri-Nations and Currie Cup competitions. Mitchell is now a regular member of the television pundit lineup on Supersport.

    As recently appointed Director of Rugby at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Mitchell oversees the rugby coaching, fitness and medical staff on the UKZN campuses, as well as taking charge of the UKZN Impi team in the FNB Varsity Shield. He also runs the Powerade "coaching the coaches" programme for Schools and blogs on his website.

With another season of Super Rugby now confined to the history books, it’s an opportune time to reflect on the various coaching setups of highly successful teams. And just like every facet of rugby, innovation is key and evolution of the coaching unit is inevitable.

The strange thing about epiphanies is that they can happen in oddest of places and at the oddest of times. One of these moments happened to me at 35,000 ft aboard a Qantas flight bound for Hong Kong with a Western Force sponsors group in 2009. Beating the drinks trolley to my seat, a businessman in the tour party posed a question that has stuck in my psyche ever since and helped shaped the way I approach any coaching role: “What is the difference between being a leader and leadership?”

The first part was easy: as former player, captain and coach I rolled off adjectives I thought best described being a leader. “A leader is someone who certainly influences outcomes. Positively or negatively. It’s a lonely job, often burdensome and can leave you feeling quite vulnerable at times, especially when things go wrong.” The second bit was tougher than I imagined, and I was left floundering at how best to describe the difference between that and leadership; my thoughts swimming around the concept of shared leadership but not quite finding the clarity I would have liked. Helping me out, the businessman then delivered a concise definition, one that has helped shaped the way I address vital aspects of my rugby thinking. “Leadership is the thoughtful application of that ability.”

There’s no doubt that being a leader, whether as a coach or captain, can be a burdensome task. In order to grow you need to build on the lessons and experiences from the past to become more thoughtful in your application of that skill. And before this starts feeling like a session on a therapist’s couch, let me relate a few on-field experiences to the scenario. A fine example of this is how the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) reacted in their approach to coaching, following the post-apocalyptic exits of the 2003 and 2007 World Cups.

After my tenure as head coach of the 2003 All Blacks team, the NZRU appointed a team of three head coaches to lead the All Blacks, migrating away from the traditional single figure approach. Three world-class coaches who could easily have sat as the individual head coach of any international rugby team on their own. This strategy brought great success to that side, although they did get a little cute towards the sharp end of the 2007 Rugby World Cup that I believe cost them dearly. But even that very harsh lesson helped the coaching team become more thoughtful in their application that forced a refresh of each coach’s specific role within the team. It would turn out to be a brilliant strategy and what I believe is now not only the framework but the basic requirement for any successful coaching team.

Let’s take moment to compare the coaching groups after the Super Rugby final. The Chiefs have won back-to-back Super Rugby titles under Head Coach Dave Rennie, who has a coaching group of Wayne Smith and Tom Coventry. All three having been head coaches in previous roles. Rennie has had to conjure up a rebirth of sorts, having been sacked from top level coaching only to rebuild with Manawatu in the ITM Cup and NZ under 20s. The Chiefs coaching collective is ably assisted by Andrew Strawbridge, whose particular strengths are in teaching skill within the game scenarios. He was arguably one of the most gifted players I ever played with and against, and combined with the other three masterminds, constitutes the most revered coaching unit in Super Rugby.

Its also interesting to see all four men list “school teacher” on their CVs, which supports the argument that coaches must be able to teach first, before inspiring and leading people to become winners. Getting the right mix of coaching talent was the highest priority at the Chiefs, evidenced by how, as a union, they cut the number of contracted players to be able to afford their hugely talented coaching team. Two years later their player depth has developed to such an extent that team rotation barely has an influence on performance or coherence.

Now lets take a look at the runners-up in the Brumbies and how Jake White has turned around a team culture that was a rabble before his arrival. He too has had the foresight and been ably supported by his administration to have Laurie Fisher, Stephen Larkham, and George Gregan as his coaching group. Fisher was the Brumbies head coach for five years, having also previously coached Munster. This significant coaching experience is invaluable when combined with how Fisher is emotionally entrenched in Brumbies and Canberra rugby culture.

An example of not getting it quite right, on the other hand, was how the Australian Rugby Union dealt with Robbie Deans at the helm of their national side. Facing severe budget constraints as well as some internal politicking, Deans’ ability to apply thoughtful leadership to his charges was undermined by not having a coaching unit with the right competencies. No doubt Deans felt the full force of the burdensome part of being a leader during his time in charge. Without the luxury of similarly qualified coaches to spread the burden of expectation of a nation, Deans was hamstrung in his role, unable to manage up, down or across by the end of a tenure – and his autobiography will one day no doubt term it a dark and lonely experience.

With the Golden Lions now back in Super Rugby, the fun-loving and sport-mad supporters will be revelling the outcome of the relegation battle. But if the Lions are to make significant strides towards being competitive and perhaps even contesting come playoff-finals time, they’re going to need to invest more in a comprehensive coaching unit than simply buying players and hoping history doesn’t repeat itself. Simply replacing the Kings with the Lions at the bottom of the Super Rugby table doesn’t do the union, the country’s pool of rugby talent or the fans any good.

A coaching group that is four deep, with capable character to create the necessary team depth and structure, is what is needed to change the fortunes of this team. History suggests not, but if they were to show leadership and courage, then anything is possible. We only need to look at what the Chiefs have done as an example, with the Brumbies hot on their tail.

There are no guarantees in life or sport. But being more thoughtful in the application of leadership will give you a better chance of supporting and guiding your team towards achieving your goals. Will our South African administrators take note of this key area for positive change? If they do, it will be worth it. DM

  • John Mitchell
    John-Mitchell.jpg
    John Mitchell

    John Mitchell is just third-ever person to play for, captain and coach of the All Blacks. As a player, Mitchell played 134 matches for his province Waikato, captaining the team a record 86 times, and played six games for New Zealand on their 1993 tour of Great Britain, captaining the All Blacks in three tour matches.

    He has coached all over the world and has winners medals for the Six Nations, Bledisloe Cup, Tri-Nations and Currie Cup competitions. Mitchell is now a regular member of the television pundit lineup on Supersport.

    As recently appointed Director of Rugby at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Mitchell oversees the rugby coaching, fitness and medical staff on the UKZN campuses, as well as taking charge of the UKZN Impi team in the FNB Varsity Shield. He also runs the Powerade "coaching the coaches" programme for Schools and blogs on his website.

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