How to build a winning team

I am usually a calm and measured person, thoughtful and considerate for the most part. However put me on the side of a sports field and I have the potential to transform into a ranting,  raging and rude maniac. I once told an opposition coach that people like him were the reason South African soccer was in such a mess. Much of the impact of my words were lost I think given that my team were 7-1 down at the time. A few years before that I saw red in more ways than one as I disabused the referee of the notion that he was impartial, fair or in any way competent when it came to officiating a football game.

Sport has the ability to raise one’s blood pressure exponentially, especially if one is involved in coaching. I have reflected on the alter ego that appears whenever I am near a white line and I have come to the conclusion that it is most likely to manifest itself when I care too much about winning. Winning is of course important, no one should play sport to lose, but when it becomes everything we are already losers.

The last unbeaten season was 1909

Last year our school 1st XV rugby side had an unbeaten season. Much has been made of this and rightly so. The only unbeaten seasons prior to this were in 1902 and 1909 when staff still played in the team and there were only 4 matches a year! There are I think so many variables in creating a winning team that it is impossible to predict how well a team will do in terms of results. Not only do you need to have the right players, you need the right players in the right positions, you need them not to get injured, you need them to get on with each other, you may need the opposition, or their star player to have an off day and you may need a few 50/50 calls from the referee to go your way. Any coach that says otherwise is fooling themselves. It is why an unbeaten season is such a special thing.

I spoke to our 2015 1st XV rugby team coach about why he thought the season had gone so well last year. He said the following, “Imagine coaching a group of rugby players who love the game, who are keen to play, who are talented, who are humble and who want to be role models for the younger boys at the school. Well, in 2015, I was privileged to be able to coach such a bunch of boys. The result, my best coaching experience so far as a teacher. Not because of the fantastic results, but because of the total educational experience.” Mike Schwartz.

I think that last line is the key, building a winning team at school level must be in the context of the total educational experience not a “winning at all costs” mentality. To win every game in a season is insignificant, in the sense that it makes not a bit of difference to the world. So is using a club to push a ball in a hole, as is driving an expensive car or earning a large salary. In the context of the global and local challenges we face, all of these achievements pale into insignificance, success in these terms is simply not important or relevant to the world we live in. Boys playing sport need to know this.
Meadows benchesThis is a difficult lesson to learn for an adolescent when up to 10000 people are cheering you on in a schoolboy match. It is hard to see, given the adulation and fanfare reserved for players who make the Springbok squad. Impossible to understand perhaps when professional football players overseas can earn more in a week than many South Africans earn in a lifetime. A winning season is of course associated with success, but it is important that our boys know that success does not equal significance.

At the end of the season our 1st XV coach quoted Larry Gelwix, coach of the Highland Rugby Team and featured in the movie ‘Forever Strong’, in his after dinner speech, “It’s not about rugby, it’s about young men. It’s not about building a Championship team, it’s about building Championship boys; boys who will be forever strong.

That’s a great quote. As educators and coaches we must first be aiming to build boys into significant as opposed to merely successful men. This means that regardless of what happens on the field in terms of results we can see growth and development in the character of our teams. We can have winning teams and championship boys irrespective of their win/loose ratios.

What did this entail for last year’s team? According to the coach the following had to take place:

  • Commitment – This started with a hard and demanding preseason training.
  • Sacrifice – Time had to be put aside for the prerequisite training. Boys also had to learn to put the team’s needs before their own.
  • Goal setting – This was individual but done publicly to increase accountability
  • Routines – Before and after matches the team knew what to expect. “The chocolate milks that they received at the end of the match were a major highlight.”
  • Gratitude – Giving thanks for talents, their own and others
    , became part of the team ethos.
  • Relationship – The older boys did their best to ensure equality in the team as opposed to relating in a hierarchical way. They enjoyed each
    Goal setting: An important part of development and growth

    other’s company. “The group of players was united and this made it easy to motivate them.”

  • Fun – The boys enjoyed their training and were happy. Music and singing were also important to them. The boys had a playlist
    that mostly consisted of One Direction. The year before that they told me that as they arrived at an opposition school they would sing ‘Story of My Life’ by the same band at full volume.

Our coach said, “The concept of making successful boys and not only successful players tied in well with the school vision. We have framed this as Success v Significance. The boys were just living what they had learnt for a number of years already.

If boys need to know that winning as an end in itself is not significant then so do their coaches.  Joe Ehrman in his book ‘Inside Out Coaching’ frames this as transformational, as opposed to transactional, coaching. A transactional coach has “their focus solely on winning and meeting their personal needs”, whereas a transformational coach “helps young people grow into responsible adults, they leave a lasting legacy.”

In a report by the Journal of Coaching Education it was found that coaches were ranked as the no 1positive influence on today’s sports playing youth. Given the critical role coaches play Ehrman says that each coach needs to ask themselves 4 questions:

  1. Why do I coach?
  2. Why do I coach the way I do?
  3. What does it feel like to be coached by me?
  4. How do I define success?

I know for myself that as I have introspected on these questions it has helped me clarify my own role as a coach and sharpened my focus. I am setting myself up for a fall here but I think I am less prone to fits of unbecoming rage and am more relaxed in my approach. I still hate losing (especially 7-1) but I am also more aware of an overarching goal that goes beyond winning or losing.

In my own small way I was also lucky enough (and I do mean lucky) to have my own unbeaten season last year with the Under 14A soccer team. In fact we won all seven of our games, the first time that has happened to me as a coach. I am fairly sure that, at least in part, it is linked to the fact that I am learning to stay calm on the side of the field, which in turn is a result of rethinking how I define success and why I coach.

Morning frost

In closing I want to retell the story played out in the American PBS documentary ‘Raising Cain’, narrated by psychologist Michael Thompson. Having examined the lives of teenage boys across the US, the series concludes by following the fortunes of Lincoln Sudbury, a High School Football team, and coverage of their final derby match against arch rivals Newton South,  upon which the success of their season will be judged. Lincoln Sudbury lose the game and anyone watching the footage can see they are truly shattered.

Thompson though, as he reflects on the game and the boys, chose to finish his broadcast with these words, “The boys thought today’s game was going to be a test of their manhood. They were right but not in the way they had imagined. These young men are going to have to prove they can cope with an immense disappointment…Today they showed deep compassion for each other. They’ve learnt that emotional courage is courage. Our job is to help them learn that lesson well.”




One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s