June 1, 2016

Doing Your Time – The Value of a Coaching Apprenticeship

Written by:
Dan Ritchie

‘You are entitled to nothing!’ – one of the best phrases I’ve heard that is probably underutilized in today’s society. I feel this phrase is generally more applicable to players and teenagers in today’s world; for what ever reason there appears to be a sense of entitlement for our aspiring athletes who seem to have lost sight of that good old fashioned hard work approach, which goes hand in hand with another old fashioned coaching approach called tough-love.

I could ramble on all day about the youth of today and their sense of entitlement in sport and in life and for those of you interested in this and haven’t already done so have a watch of Louisville College basketball coach Jeff Walt's post game rant about this very topic – great viewing, but another blog for another day.

I am looking at the value of doing your time in the coaching ranks through coaching apprenticeships; and there is a plethora of examples across a variety of sports. I’ve read a number of pieces lately about the makings of great coaches and how important it is for them to have been professional stars as players prior to going into coaching? Whenever this topic comes up, the first name that always comes to my mind is Jose Mourinho. Call him what you like – ‘the special one’, ‘the translator’, the master of mind games; the list could go on, but you cannot deny his achievements and the respect he has from some of the best players of all time that have played under him.

Mourinho was not a player of any note; his journey took a slightly different route to that of an ex-professional who is gifted an assistant’s role immediately after retiring. Jose studied sports science and worked in roles as a physical education teacher, youth coach, scout and assistant manager. He served a coaching apprenticeship under various managers. His big break would come working as Bobby Robson’s translator at Porto and Barcelona. While his title may have been translator, he was so much more; he spent every opportunity listening, learning and questioning Robson about his approaches – his skill set was so diverse that it allowed him to see the game from different perspectives. He took the time to learn the coaching process – he had the knowledge, but more importantly he had the ability to convey this knowledge – a skill many ex pro’s lack when moving into management.

Mourinho’s journey then paved the way for Andre Villas Boas, who again had no playing experience at all. Villas Boas did his apprenticeship under Mourinho and did all the less fancied jobs over the course of this learning experience. Villas Boas became known as the scout – he would sit and review tape after tape and deconstruct upcoming opposition for Mourinho. Villas Boas got to a point where he felt he had completed this apprenticeship and wanted to go out on his own, which caused tension between the two, but AVB had done his time – he had an understanding of the coaching process and this prepared him to manage the likes of Porto, Tottenham, Chelsea and Zenit at a very young age.

Closer to my home in the AFL, the last decade has seen the rise and fall of many coaches in the competition. A number of legendary players have moved into coaching roles, some have risen quicker than others, some to their detriment. The Brisbane Lions won three consecutive premierships from 2001-2003 and they were captained by Michael Voss who had won the Brownlow medal (best player in the competition) as well as numerous awards at the Lions and 6 times represented the All-Australian team – he is as close as you can get to an immortal in AFL.

Upon retiring from the game, Voss had agreed to go to West Coast Eagles as an assistant coach; where many predicted he would learn his craft and in time would become a successful coach; a fair point given his playing knowledge and leadership capabilities he demonstrated as a player. Things changed slightly when Lions coach Leigh Matthews resigned and Voss moved into the Head Coach role, just under two years upon retiring without any senior coaching experience.

Within three seasons, the Lions went from playing finals to the bottom of the competition ladder. A number of circumstances contributed to this, the main one being the retirement of a large number of great players who had led them to their glory days, which would hurt any side. So when a team loses over 1000 games of experience from their roster, how does a coach with minimal experience approach this? Well unfortunately for Voss it cost him his job and his credibility as a head coach – was this fair? Absolutely not, he is a legend of the Brisbane Lions who put a large portion of his life into making the place great and played through the bad times and the good times, unfortunately his playing career accolades did not prepare him for the cutthroat, results driven industry that is coaching.

It strained friendships with players who were formally premiership-winning teammates whom he had to trade or release as their coach, which is hard enough at the best of times. The question will always remain, what if he went to West Coast with no prior allegiance to the playing group and toiled away as an assistant, would he be a Head Coach now? Voss was later picked up as an assistant coach at Port Adelaide, where he has since made a good impact, but did those years as a rookie coach set him back? The apprenticeship was worth doing away from home, much the same as a father who has his own building company tells his son who has the same ambition to do his apprenticeship with someone who has no personal connection to him.

Three great coaching journeys that I always enjoy reading about are those of Graham Henry, Eddie Jones and Joe Schmidt. None of these coaching greats were professional or international players. These men for me epitomize what doing your time entails. All three men were school teachers who started coaching at schoolboy level and gradually moved into club rugby, provincial rugby and international rugby where their records speak volumes of their coaching ability. They all got better as they got older and continue to stay ahead of the game in a generation where many younger coaches at all levels portray themselves as having all the answers.

Henry and Jones particularly, can come across as stubborn and arrogant, I would call it a confidence they have earned from their results and the high esteem players hold them in. I can’t help but feel a little chip on the shoulder from not being international playing stars that spurs them on and makes them successful, I see the same look in the eye of Jose Mourinho as well.

At the end of the day we all need motivation to get us out of bed in the morning and to have a career as long and as successful as these aforementioned men you can’t be short on things that make you tick. They have all worked hard for every success they have earned and if organizations did not recognize that, they moved on, but not without as sense of ‘I will make you regret this’ mentality – a killer instinct driven from their own experiences and that is what will always make them competitors and ultimately winners.

I look at the strength and conditioning-coaching environment. This entire industry is built around people doing their time. The long hours unpaid, driving over an hour to coach an u18 team for no money –all because they have a vision and a goal. In such a competitive environment where everyone has the same qualifications; you need that experience to set you apart from other candidates.

Most successful strength and conditioning coaches will tell you they learned more at the local sporting team that had next to no facilities and minimal contact time with their athletes, than in their degree, because their work ethic allowed them to learn on the job, improvise and experiment and when they got to a professional environment where they had the best facilities and complete access to their squad they could make a significant impact at the highest level. This occurs because they are prepared for adversity and have learned their craft from the bottom up.

Too many young coaches either entering the professional ranks or at the amateur level think they have all the answers and are in a hurry to coach professionally yesterday. The great coaches have a vision and stay true to that, but the only thing they are in a hurry to do is learn more. Do your time in a coaching apprenticeship as the water runner, the message runner, the person who videos training, the person who picks markers up after coaches, the person who doesn’t think they’re too good for the sh*t jobs, because one day you might be the head coach and you will appreciate the apprentice who has the same work ethic you have and wants to pick your brain on best practice.

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