Well-coached teams prosper

The view that players are solely to blame for poor performance is nonsense. Astute coaches are critical, writes RYAN VREDE.

I listened with interest to Allister Coetzee's thoughts on his Stormers side's plight earlier this week. They've won one match this season and explored levels of impotency on attack that betray the talent available to them. Coetzee said he needed a strong response from the players this weekend against the Lions; which he does. However, he also suggested that they should take most of the responsibility for their dire situation.

That got my back up. Coetzee isn't alone. I've heard versions of this from numerous coaches whose sides had descended from chronic into terminal failure. They all share a common trait – they aren't good enough at their jobs. 

Certainly, professional players have a responsibility to earn their salaries by consistently exhibiting high levels of competence. Overwhelmingly though, the history of sport has shown coaches to be critical elements to the success or failure of professional teams for a myriad reasons. Going one step further, very good coaches – those with a skilled command of the technical, tactical and psychological aspects of their discipline – generally have the ability to rouse teams, whose average players outnumber the exceptional few, to consistently high levels of performance. Put a very good coach and a very good team together and you generally see periods of dominance.

The point about very good coaches that have at their disposal average-to-good players interests me more in the context of this piece, though. The Stormers, by way of example, have a small number of exceptional players, but a large count of average-to-good players. Is their squad, even one depleted by injuries, of such a quality that their last-placed log standing at present is truly reflective of their strength? I think not. I would suggest that it is a reflection of their coaching staff, with Coetzee at the head, lacking the aptitude to improve their charges and challenge in a manner that is more in keeping with the quality of players at their disposal.

In 2013 Cheetahs coach Naka Drotské seemed to have exhibited this aptitude after a couple of years of trying. But they've regressed dreadfully. Elsewhere, recently the Crusaders, Reds and Hurricanes have struggled along with match 23s boasting a good number of Test players, consistently failing to impose themselves in any meaningful way, even against opposition they should be negotiating easily. 

Good coaches are able to improve the collective and individuals through technical and tactical tutelage and having a keen sense of what motivational method elicits the desired response from different individuals. They assess their available personnel and develop game plans that seek to maximise their strengths. They provide the framework in which to work, and, having prepared their charges to work most efficiently within that framework, they hope the execution of the plan results in victory.

In the absence of astute technical, tactical and mental preparation, and with a shaky framework, you simply cannot hold players responsible for poor results. You can, however, point the finger if their execution is below the expected level. 

In South African rugby we tend to tolerate mediocre coaches for much longer than we should. Part of the reason for this is administrators who decide the fate of these coaches, as well as sections of the media and public not understanding the vital importance of having an astute coach at the helm. In seeking answers they often settle for the lazily-arrived-at and flawed notion that players are solely responsible when things fall apart. What utter nonsense.

There needs to be a higher standard by which we measure our Super Rugby coaches. This standard would certainly take into account the quality of players at their disposal. After all, you can't expect a fine cut of steak to come from sickly cattle. Greater accountability for under-performance is also crucial. Passing the buck to the players speaks to a juvenile trait in these men that shouldn't be tolerated.

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