I make no apology for writing a relational rugby inspired blog. We are all allowed one guilt pleasure and this sport is mine. But what inspired me to write this blog has little to do with rugby and more to do with coaching culture in its entirety. I don’t believe winning is everything but I am intrigued what lies behind teams who learn to win and particularly those sides who previously failed to make a habit of it.
It gets harder and harder the longer the season goes on and it can affect the trust between the players
Phil Harlow explores this latter issue with great sensitivity this morning for the BBC in his exploration of the form of London Welsh dubbed the “Premiership side who forgot how to win“. He draws on the testimony of Mike Schmid, current Chief Exec of Esher and former coach of Rotherham Rugby, relegated in the 03-04 Premiership season without a win. Schmid’s analysis of the damage to the training ground (or classroom) culture is marked. Schmid noted that he, “would like to think we were pulling in the same direction the whole time and certainly the majority of the people were. But within a group of that size you’re always going to get some who point the finger outwards rather than back at themselves.”
“It gets harder and harder the longer the season goes on and it can affect the trust between the players. It’s exceptionally hard as a coach to keep going and it’s those close games that really hurt you.
Fronting up every week really is draining. It’s only natural you start doubting yourself to some extent.
As relationships between the players begins to erode, in this instance a loss of “trust”, so the key relationships between the teacher and their students suffers as well. The English idiom we give to this is “loosing the dressing room” as Alistair Potter explores for Metro. It speaks of the vulnerability of relationships and the consequences of allowing relational distance to creep into any teaching space.
From Mike Schmid to Joe Schmidt
The Irish rugby team were worthy winners of last year’s 6 Nations and have begun this year’s competition in a similar vain. A pulsating encounter at the Aviva stadium last weekend saw Ireland edge out France. Once again the language used to described the game evokes school and classroom culture: “Ireland survive brutal French Examination“. Rugby matches are now referred to, much like cricket, as “tests” and like schools, only outstanding teachers seem to produce exceptional student performance.
The Outstanding Teacher
Wherever Joe Schmidt has “taught”, pupils have excelled. Sports’ writer Ben Dirs catalogues Schmidts successes. “Before Schmidt’s arrival at the provincial rugby team, Bay of Plenty, they had never won the Ranfurly Shield, New Zealand’s oldest competition, in almost 100 years of trying. They won it in 2004, Schmidt’s only season at the club. In 2010, with Schmidt assistant to current Scotland coach Vern Cotter, Clermont won the French league for the first time, having been runners-up 10 times. With Leinster, he won the Heineken Cup in his first two seasons in charge. The year before he joined Ireland, they had suffered their worst finish in the Six Nations for 14 years. They won it in his first year at the helm, went on to beat Australia and South Africa last autumn and are among the favourites to win the Six Nations again.”
The Relational Teacher
I am fascinated why Schmidt is such an outstanding teacher. One only has to listen to the testimonies of the players and coaches he has worked with to understand that he is a man who understands relationships and the conditions for it.
Brad Thorn, who won a Heineken Cup under Schmidt with Leinster in 2012 highlights Schmidt’s passion, his “high-intensity” and “dedication”, recognisable teacher traits. But Thorn, who has played under the finest coaches in the world, also points to his relational qualities and two in particular that I believe that underpin outstanding relationships in every classroom:
Outstanding communication: “He’s excellent with detail, everyone knows what they’re supposed to be doing in his teams”, Thorn notes. “We’d have some solid meetings that would go on for a good hour or so. He’d go into his schoolteacher mode. But you got the sense he was a good schoolteacher, because he was very good at communicating to large groups.”
And when he coached in France, Alex King (Northampton’s former Clermont coach) notes how Schmidt, “was just one of those coaches players wanted to play for [because of the work] he put the work in off the field, making himself fluent in French, which was one of the reasons the guys took to him so readily.”
But it’s more than the “soft communication skills” that Thorn points to, however crucial they are. It’s not just the ability to communicate but the humility to relate.
The perception of parity: In every teacher-pupil relationship there is in inequality of power with teachers having to re-exert their authority on multiple occasions in many lessons. Yet, the outstanding teacher is one who has authority whilst pupils feel they are in partnership. Former team mates like Freddie Butler describe Schmidt as an “extremely impressive man and very humble, even though he’s the Ireland coach now. He still comes to visit on a regular basis, stays with old friends, has a drink in the local pub, never forgets a face and has time for everybody.”
This was particularly true of the classroom. Butler says that within a week of joining up, Schmidt knew the names of all 50-60 players turning out. His students knew him well and felt known. Brad Thorn, reminiscing on the Heineken Cup final in 2012, remembers how “Joe [had] high standards but [was] able to tell people what they need to know without making it feel like a personal attack. When some coaches critique you, it sounds like they’re putting the boot in and you leave the room hating them as a person.” Schmidt was the master of giving formative feedback.
It is my belief that outstanding teaching and learning has it’s foundations in outstanding relationships; my guess is that the success of great sports’ teams are similarly rooted.
Go on Mr Schmidt sir – please let me come and prove it!?