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JCC Good Leadership

Coaching skills and techniques on the rugby field

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By Colin Richardson

Introduction

 

When discussing good leadership, it is easy to get caught up with business and political examples. In an attempt to understanding coaching as a tool for leaders to use, the sporting environment will be used as a vehicle. The rugby union professional arena and the Emirates Western Force will be referred to along with the coaching principals used throughout its governing body, RugbyWA. Comments regarding the Emirates Western Force and that of RugbyWA will be from my own experiences as an employee and the training I have received in my role as a Development Officer over the past two years.

 

Theory behind coaching

 

Whilst traditional leadership focuses on compliance, order and control, coaching looks at the subject from a different perspective. (Durbrin, Daglish & Miller, 2006. p 312). Coaching takes a desired result, or goal, and focuses on discovering the actions that will promote the most productivity towards the goal. The coaching relationship fits the idea of a partnership where team members work together to achieve results. (Dubrin, et al. 2006. p 312). A largely fluid process that is constantly trying to improve the current or forecast outcome, coaching relies on commitment and collaboration towards joint goals rather than traditional or managerial leadership.  (Dubrin, et al. 2006. p 312).

 

Due to the interaction required, coaching can not exist without a minimum of two participants. This is known as a dyad where both the coach and team member interactions influence the outcome of the relationship. (Dubrin, et al. 2006. p 312). An example of a coaching relationship with two participants can be that of a mentor. A mentor provides guidance and support for their protégé and provides coaching often in the form of a role model.

 

Coaching as a leadership method brings with it a number of advantages. Quite often the recipients of good coaching feel less alienated than more controlling models and are more inclined to have higher motivation in attaining organisational goals. (Dubrin, et al. 2006. p 313). If practiced effectively, coaching promotes personal development and effective team work. Group members respond positively to an effective coach who provides frequent praise and recognition for work well done. This contributes to keeping spirits high with every group member knowing their role in the team and the roles of their team mates round them. (Dubrin, et al. 2006. p 313). These outcomes obviously require a great deal of interaction which brings with it interpersonal risk. Both parties must share a great deal of trust as either party can single handedly sabotage the effectiveness of the relationship by not contributing as required to the relationship. (Dubrin, et al. 2006. p 312).

 

 

Coaching skills and techniques

 

Durbrin et al. (2006) discusses a number of suggestions that claim to increase a coach’s effectiveness and lead to an enhanced performance. The ten coaching skills and techniques that Durbrin et al. (2006) put forward will be discussed in relation to my experiences at RugbyWA.

 

Communicate clear expectations to group members

 

Communication is the key to being an effective coach. Whilst knowledge is an important coaching attribute, if the coach can not effectively share this knowledge they will fail to engage their team. I would argue that communication is perhaps the most important part of coaching as it is better to communicate limited expertise effectively rather than ineffectively communicate vast knowledge. An effective communicator knows their audience and pitches the learning experience at their level.

 

After witnessing John Mitchell coach at professional level, it is clear that he is extremely knowledgeable about rugby. Due to the experience and physical ability of professional athletes, this environment allows John to demand excellence and spend hours working on minor details. However, in my eyes, his coaching ability stood out when I witnessed him coach a local club rugby side at Palmyra Rugby Union Club. The players at club level were all amateur, relatively unfit and lacked the knowledge and ability of the Emirates Western Force squad. If john had used the same coaching method as he did with the Force, the club players would soon become intimidated, feel inferior and would probably not comprehend any skill being taught. Instead he pitched relevant concepts to the audience, encouraging questions and discussion. This immediately set the nervous club side at ease and they were able to relax and absorb the concepts being covered. At the end of the day the same things were being taught, however the difference between the groups abilities required a simpler and patient approach.

 

Clear communication leaves all group members knowing exactly where they stand and what is expected of them, this can then becomes the standard by which the group judge themselves and each other. (Dubrin, et al. 2006. p 314). Feelings of security, belonging and unity flow on from effective communication as every team member can be confident in their role within the team.

 

Focus on specific areas that require improvement

 

The concept of pinpointing areas for improvement can be directed towards attitudes, skills, knowledge, behaviour, equipment and any other factors within a group. (Dubrin, et al. 2006. p 314). Focusing on specific areas allows for improvement of weaknesses, creating and enhancing strengths as well as exploiting weaknesses found in competitors. Small improvements can also be measured and these improvements can then be built upon.

 

 

Specific feedback is essential to improve performance. If something is described as ‘good’, others may not be able to determine whether this is mediocre, average, or exceptional in the coach’s eyes? To provide specific feedback a coach must break down the process and isolate the different contributing skills, commenting on these individually. In a rugby related example rather than a coach saying: “your passes are to ground, get them up”, specific feedback would might be: “great hand speed, but perhaps try following through and aiming for the receivers hands?”. The first example was generic feed back that tells the passer what they already know and leaves them with no solution to the problem. The second example tells the passer that their hand speed is adequate and doesn’t need adjusting. On top of this, the passer has been given two things to concentrate on that could potentially improve their pass.

 

Key coaching points further allow for coaches to use repetition and reinforcement in their coaching. This is where coaches use key words or phrases for certain specific skills and repeat them to make the players remember them. For example key coaching points for a pass might include catch early, pull across body, point and shoot to target in reference to the ball. When the players know that there are three steps to follow in a process they are more likely to determine where they went wrong. In the previous example the player might not have executed the pointed and shoot to their target resulting in the pass going to ground. This form of communication is very specific and helps players to more accurately assess their own skills and isolate areas for improvement.

 

Listen Actively

 

It is important for a coach to be open-minded and approachable as team members must feel that they are involved in the learning process. Accepting suggestions not only opens the opportunity to brainstorm and share ideas but also gives all team members involvement in the coaching process. (Dubrin, et al. 2006. p 315). An approachable coach instills confidence in the team and generates mutual respect for both parties. Nonverbal communication is also important as a coach must be wary of negative body language that might result from personal issues, discontent, alienation and any other issues. These issues can be dealt with if recognised but may result in poor performance, or sabotage if left untreated.

 

Help remove obstacles

 

With the team’s interests in mind, a coach must do what ever is in his power to make the team successful. This means acting as a ‘barrier buster’ the coach must fight for their team’s welfare as they often hold the responsibility for this. (Dubrin, et al. 2006. p 315). This may include lobbying for resources and essentially fighting on behalf of the teams best interests.

 

Give emotional support

 

If a group or team member is performing below their normal capacity, this can often be a result of circumstances outside of physical ability. Emotional reasons such as family trouble or any other issues on the team member’s minds may divert their attention from their task at hand. (Dubrin, et al. 2006. p 315). Support does not mean interrogation, however a coach should act as a ‘toxic handler’ at times and share the experience with the team member by listening to their concerns. (Dubrin, et al. 2006. p 315).

 

Positive reinforcement is one way to instill confidence whilst still providing relevant feedback to team members. On the rugby field it is common practice to give an example of what a player did well in a particular skill before telling them what needs improvement. The advantage of this is that the player can feel secure in the fact that they are doing something right and can isolate the areas for improvement. The basic idea is to lift the spirits of the team, focus on the positive aspects, and mention but not to dwell on the negative.

 

Reflect content or meaning

 

A coach must take the ideas from team members and rephrase them into ideas and suggestions that relate to the team in a simplified manner. This creates meaning for the team member and suggests common ground or an understanding from the coach. (Dubrin, et al. 2006. p 315).

 

Give some gentle advice and guidance

 

The danger of cluttering and hiding the message in a barrage of words is a danger for any coach. Giving specific advice has already been discussed but warrants another mention to make all communication relevant as well as giving positive reinforcement. Open ended questions are great tools to give gentle advice and guidance whilst persuading a team to your line of thinking. (Dubrin, et al. 2006. p 316). An open ended question is one that does not have a ‘yes or no’ answer and encourages thought and discussion about the topic. For example, instead of saying the same point over and over, a coach may ask why a player thought that they lost the ball. This firstly makes them think about what they did, assess it for themselves and then provide their own thoughts on how to improve. As a coach the players answer tells us whether they know they made a mistake, if they have listened to you previously and gives them ownership of their own learning.

 

Allow for modeling of desired performance and behaviour

 

As previously mentioned, many people are visual learners. Demonstrations provide a great method of explaining concepts and are useful for a number of reasons. It is not necessary for a coach to give the demonstration personally as a team member might be just as good, if not better at a particular skill. When a team member is used to demonstrate an activity, they too learn by having their own technical knowledge reinforced whilst the coach can concentrate on explaining the demonstration. In many cases the players are the ones doing the job of the field and therefore a player that excels at a particular skill has instant credibility among their peers for their effectiveness.

 

Gain commitment to change

 

It is unlikely for a team to achieve a higher performance if the team members are not willing to actively work towards the team’s goals. A coach must recognise when players are not committed in order to find a new way to motivate all players and gain a commitment to change. A lack of commitment can be seen by over agreeing, vague responses to instruction or a lack of interest being shown. (Dubrin, et al. 2006. p 316). Whilst coaches must be on the look out for noncommittal team members emotional factors already discussed must be considered as possible contributions to lessening commitment.

 

Applaud good results

 

Positive reinforcement and encouragement should be present in dealings a coach may have with their team. Whilst certain circumstances may require discipline, correction or a stern approach, it must remain the focus of the coach to maintain an open and positive relationship with the team. Active praise and joy in the team’s success is generally easy for a coach that has involvement with a team as they can see their work pay off in the teams improved performance. Essentially a good coach should be a cheerleader for the team and experience the highs and lows with the team. (Dubrin, et al. 2006. p 316).

 

Conclusion

 

From the coaching skills and techniques discussed it is clear that these provide relevant and useful tools for leaders. The philosophy behind a good coach should be to facilitate and encourage improvement within a team environment. Whether this team involves two people or a larger group, coaching as a means of sharing knowledge and building camaraderie will help to enhance member performance. The examples discussed in relation to my experiences in rugby provide a differing outlook to the business or political scene however the principals remain relevant. I would agree with the skills and techniques put forward by Durbrin et al. (2006) and, as discussed, believe that coaching requires effective communication, commitment, encouragement, positive reinforcement and constant praise to keep a team striving towards a common goal.

References:

 

Durbrin, A., Daglish, c. & Miller, P. (2006). Leadership: 2nd Asia-Pacific Edition. (2nd Ed.) Milton, Qld, Australia: John Wiley & Sons.