Wednesday, 12 October 2011

A new breed of coach?

The outgoing Springbok coach, Peter de Villiers, has been a controversial figure during the four years of his tenure. He's been villified in certain quarters as much for his media gaffes as his lack of experience as a top-level coach. Many die-hard Springbok supporters have expressed the opinion that, given a more accomplished coach, the "golden generation" of players he had at his disposal should have been far more dominant on the world stage. Most of the aforementioned supporters will be glad his reign appears to be coming to an end at the end of the 2011 world cup.

Player support

Yet many of the players have repeatedly come out in support of De Villiers. Perhaps not surprising when their places in the team have depended on it; but more surprising that they (notably John Smit and Victor Matfield) haven't changed their tune since retiring and are now beyond his reach. From what they've said, it seems De Villiers genuinely managed to create a happy environment for the players, one in which they felt supported and able to contribute to the Springbok cause behind the scenes as well as on the field. And even (shock and horror) with regards to having an influence on the playing style adopted by the team.

This is all wrong, say the critics. The coach's job is to lay down the law, and the players should carry out his plan to the best of their ability - even blindly. And let's face it, this is pretty much the traditional role of a coach, particularly in an autocratic society like South Africa.

Agile rugby teams

But maybe Peter de Villiers is on to something. The fact is, he leaves the job with results on a par with far more celebrated South African coaches like Jake White and Nick Mallett, so he must have done something right, right? Wrong! say the critics - any success the team has had is purely down to the players, not the coach at all. Well, er, yes - my point exactly. I'm willing to consider the possibility that De Villiers has been astute enough to create an environment in which the players could function effectively, and secure enough to then step out of their way so they could get on with it.

This is nothing new in the business world where there is a definite trend towards agile, self-organising teams making decisions themselves about how best to achieve a desired outcome. In this model, the manager's role is not to tell the team how to go about achieving the goal, but to remove obstacles that stand in their way and shield them from outside influences that distract them from the goal. This has proven to be a very successful approach in industries like software development, yielding far better results than more traditional methods.

Innovation in rugby

Rugby is still very much about tradition, but that does not mean it has to be traditional in its approach. To stay ahead of the competition teams have to constantly innovate, and this does not have to be restricted only to what happens on the field, but just as much about what happens behind the scenes - perhaps more so. Heart-rate monitors, GPS tracking, peripheral vision training, use of cryogenic chambers... just some of the recent innovations that have been applied in an attempt to push the boundaries of the sport.

Peter de Villiers may not have been the most technical coach, but I believe he deserves far more credit than he has been given. Who knows, he may just have provided the blueprint for a revolution in the management of teams: a new breed of coach to take the game to the next level. Let's see if anyone's been paying attention.

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