The first game of the season showed promise with the team winning the first half easily, and then holding on for the second half to win the game. By the second game this pattern of decline in dominance as the game went on became worse, and the team lost the second half.
I had fears of what was to follow, and my fears were amplified when the field announcer stated the final score and congratulated the visiting team for winning the second half. It was just the announcer looking to give a positive to the losing team, but he had inadvertently drove the nail further into the coffin of his own team.
As I feared, the coach told the team in the post-game talk that they were not fit enough. This code for something’s not working, I’ve got no idea what, but it must be your fault and the easiest blame strategy is ‘you are not fit enough’.
Predictably they trained the team harder in non-specific conditioning work as well as rugby drills during the following week. During the next game the team were the flattest they had been, with limited on-field talk. They almost lost the first half, and ended up drawing the game. This outcome was exacerbated by the fact that the opponent on this day had not won a game in the season to date. Of course, it’s unlikely that anyone took into account that they had played and lost to the competitions top teams.
So what do you do next after blaming fitness? The post-game coach’s speech focused on the lack of intensity, telling the players they needed to play and train with more intensity. I am not sure how you naturally bring more intensity when you are more tired than you needed to be, but that’s the way this scenario played out.
During the week, as you can expect, the team were trained in a way that resulted in the coach happily stating that they had brought more ‘intensity’ to training, inferring this would serve them well in the upcoming game.
In the upcoming game the team lost for the first time, failing to score a single try, and conceding nearly half a century of points.
So what do you do now that you have gone down the path of throwing the players under the bus? You start dropping players. So about 55% of the way through the season players are relegated, with the ensuing drop in personal confidence you can expect from players dropped without knowing why.
How did this work? The next game resulted in a score against that exceeded half a century. Now it was against the second strongest team in the competition, but the fact this team scored as many points as they did against a lowest rank team (a team that the losing team had easily beaten) suggested that the outcome was unnecessarily out of context to the losing teams potential.
So where do you go now? Shuffle players around, playing them out of the position you had them in for most of the season? Basically you run out of options.
Few would disagree that athletes benefit positively from people believing in them, especially their significant others. And who more significant than their coach? On the flip side, again few would disagree that negative impacts potentially result when a coach directly or indirectly tells the athlete they are lazy, don’t try hard enough, are not intense or focused enough, or are not good enough to play at that level.
The challenge with any coach who fails to interpret the cause of their outcomes is further failure. However this failure is magnified in it’s consequence in the team culture where the coach takes the path of throwing the players under the bus.
Whenever I hear a coach who by words or actions blames his players, I see a lesser future for the coach. To put it bluntly it’s a path to failure. This applies no matter what level it is occurring at, bet it the national team or a local kids team.
I have had the fortune of working with coaches who have the strength to deflect the pressure on their team. The long serving Queensland rugby union coach John Connolly was one of these. I was impressed with his choice to absorb the pressure and not throw the players under the bus. However these coaches are the overwhelmingly minority. From my experience, I have observed the majority of coaches blame the players, failing to understand that firstly what goes on is a product of their leadership, and that the act of blaming the players is in the short term the kiss of death to their team’s culture and in the long term the kiss of death to their coaching career success.
Few coaches develop their coaching abilities to the level of being able to consistently and successfully interpret the cause of their wining or losing, and I accept this. However my suggestion that even in the absence of this high level ability, coaches could benefit from avoiding the popular habit of throwing the players under the bus.
NB. The above is fictional story to illustrate the message.