When we watch professional sports, be it rugby or something else entirely, the focus is usually on the players. But…
There are of course some famous coaches who serve as exceptions, but for the most part we get caught up in the actual sporting talent on display: the stars, the role players, how they work together, etc. And yet, we see examples fairly regularly that even at this level, with world-class talent on a field or court of play, coaching can make all the difference. A team of players can be largely unchanged from one season to the next, yet perform drastically differently. Ultimately, this is usually the result of a new coaching approach, not just from a tactical standpoint but from a teambuilding perspective as well.
For those who may have doubts about whether this really takes place at the highest levels, consider these recent examples from all across the world of sport.
St. Helens RFC, 2014
Fans will recall that St. Helens RFC won the Super League XIX in 2014, finishing first in league play and then earning a victory in the Grand Final. This was an improvement on a fifth place finish the prior year – Nathan Brown’s first as head coach – though it was more notably a step up from five straight runner-up finishes from 2007-11. The simple way to put it is that for this entire run, from 2007 to 2014, the Saints fielded a competitive roster good enough to compete at the top of the league. It wasn’t until Brown’s leadership kicked in however, that the 2014 team found the chemistry to dominate. Granted, the 2014 squad also benefited from the acquisition of Luke Walsh, who led in both points and scores. But the bulk of the team was unchanged, and saw a significant boost in performance anyway. This is further evidenced in Brown’s own departure, after which management specifically noted strong position for the future as a result of Brown’s “rebuilding the squad.”
Chelsea FC, 2016-17
Chelsea FC is exactly the sort of club you can look at and, at a glance, believe that coaching can not possibly matter. Operating at the top of the Premier League on a near-annual basis, the club is talented, rich, and constantly competitive. There’s a machine-like nature to a sporting organisation like this, and it can make it look as if the organisation itself simply finds ways to win. That said, the team was by its own standards a disaster in 2015-16, at one point flirting with relegation before ultimately finishing 10th in the EPL. This happened under Guus Hiddink, who was the second coach who attempted to replace the legendary but difficult José Mourinho. In 2016-17 however, Antonio Conte was brought in to manage a largely unchanged yet elite team, and the turnaround was instantaneous. Though Conte did not end up lasting long in London (and is now in an ugly dispute with the club), there was little explanation for the team’s championship run in 2016-17 aside from his influence.
Milwaukee Bucks, 2018-19
The current Milwaukee Bucks in America’s NBA are perhaps the best recent example of the importance of coaching. Last season, the team looked to be a talented, up-and-coming group led by one of the true young stars in basketball, Giannis Antetokounmpo. However, a coaching combination of Jason Kidd (who was fired) and Joe Prunty (who finished the season but was not retained as a permanent option) led the team to a fairly average, and therefore disappointing performance. In 2018-19 the team is largely unchanged, having let go of one or two role players and brought in one or two more. Yet it was the last undefeated team to begin this NBA season, and started to top power rankings for the young season. The difference – very clearly – has been Mike Budenholzer, a head coach with a very strong track record who arrived in Milwaukee and immediately turned the team into a more cohesive unit.
USA Basketball, 2008
Sticking with basketball, the United States national team is another fine example. Though many who follow the sport look at USA basketball as being something like Chelsea FC in that it is supposed to be machine-like in its dominance, the organisation actually struggled early this century. Far and wide, the criticism was that the organisation had begun to put forth loosely assembled all-star teams, attempting to win with pure talent. To some extent this is the nature of international basketball for the U.S., since the best players are busy for much of the year with their NBA teams. But head coach Mike Krzyzewski changed the culture of the organisation in advance of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Focusing on teambuilding and cohesion, Krzyzewski took an immensely talented team and won the gold, prompting a fresh era of American dominance. To give you an idea of the change, 2008’s team was nicknamed “The Redeem Team.” Once again, the importance of coaching for team performance, even with off-the-charts talent, was abundantly clear.