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RUGBYPASS+ The life of a head coach: Bossing it

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The life of a head coach: Bossing it
11 months ago

They pick the team, they manage the team, they drive the team; they’re the chief tactician on the chalkboard, the drill sergeant on the training ground, the stick and carrot in the dressing room and the quote in tomorrow morning’s newspaper. They oversee the coaching set-up, the strength-and-conditioning programme, the medical team, the video analysis, the data analysis, the nutritional strategy, the scouting and the Academy. They hire players, they fire players; they haggle with agents, juggle with budgets, joust with journalists and carry the can to all points of the compass. And there was the rest of us, blithely assuming there were just the 24 hours in a day.

“The alarm goes off at 4.45am and I’m out the door at 5.15,” says Wasps head coach Lee Blackett. “The first meetings of the day are with coaches on the phone while we’re driving in; we’re at the training ground by 6am.”

Down in Cardiff, Dai Young is not only in before dawn but, figuratively speaking, slipping into his Lycra shorts. “You wouldn’t believe it to look at me but I spin the bike, blow out a few cobwebs and then grab a bite of breakfast,” he says. “First meeting with the analysts is at 6.30, coaches at 7.”

Merciless as the hours are, the unforgiving minutes are always filled with sixty seconds’ distance run. Glasgow Warriors head coach Danny Wilson is not only up at sparrow-fart but drives the unbending hour to Scotstoun listening to audio books. “It’s leadership stuff; elite-performance management, autobiographies, that sort of thing,” he says. “Basically, it’s my CPD (Continuing Professional Development) time.”

And then there’s Ulster’s Dan McFarland, who, like everyone else, arrives at work at the same time as the caretaker’s keys. “The alarm’s set for 5.05am,” he says. “Coffee with just a splash of milk – I’m pernickety about the milk, hardly any – and at that time of the morning, it’s a six-minute drive to work.” There are atomic clocks that aren’t as precise as McFarland.

Blackett Wasps one-year anniversary
Lee Blackett is up before dawn to start work – yet doesn’t even use his private parking space at Wasps’ training facility (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Of course, the beauty of arriving at the office while skylarks are still in the shower is that finding a parking space is rarely a problem. Interestingly, Blackett has his own slot but tries not to use it. “It has got my name on it but it just feels awkward parking in it,” he says. “It makes me cringe; it just doesn’t feel right.”

That said, the perks of the job – parking or otherwise – are not plentiful. There’s no PA and no secretary, the one concession to a head coach’s dominion being a personal, partitioned office where, as Young puts it: “You can discreetly put an arm round someone or kick them up the backside.”

The drug of choice for the day is usually coffee. “I get stick from Steve Tandy on this but I drink it with almond milk,” says Wilson. McFarland reckons he’ll sometimes get through three caffeine injections by 8.30, although Young is more leaves than beans: “Typical Welsh boy, bit of a teapot.” Incidentally, the rumours about Young’s dependency on jelly babies are wildly overblown. “Look, I do have one or two before a game but I chuck them away before the cameras are on me,” he says. Happy to set the record straight.

I love an argument.  In fact, I’ll often argue stuff that I don’t actually agree with myself just to see how it plays out. Discussions for me are arguments for everyone else. Mrs McFarland hates that.

Ulster’s Dan McFarland

Training aside, the working day appears to be an interminable talking shop, a bustling – and occasionally bruising – merry-go-round of meetings that start at sunrise and, invariably, are still being convened into the evenings and at weekends. Blackett claims he can get through as many as 20 a day – formal and informal – most of them wide-open forums where fence-sitters get the frostiest of welcomes.

“I want to involve people in the decision-making process,” says Wilson. “We work to a shared leadership model with ‘negotiables’ and ‘non-negotiables’, although there’s far more of the former than the latter. I probably have more heated conversations with coaches than players but there’s plenty with players as well. I don’t avoid confrontations because you lose people’s respect if you do that, but I want to find solutions.”

This creative friction seems to be all-pervasive. “I love an argument,” says McFarland. “I want decisions to be made based on sound theory and experience and I expect people to be able to explain themselves. In fact, I’ll often argue stuff that I don’t actually agree with myself just to see how it plays out. Discussions for me are arguments for everyone else. Mrs McFarland hates that.”

Dai Young surveys his Cardiff Rugby squad playing against Harlequins in a pre-season friendly (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Young also positively relishes what you might call ‘feedback’. “I’m quite happy for a player to tell me something’s crap as long as he can tell me why it’s crap and how we could do it better,” he says. “Look, rugby players are too intelligent to be dictated to but, then again, there are times when you have to say, ‘Hey, I hear you, but we’re doing it my way’.’’

Success in coaching was once defined as keeping the 10 players who think you’re a pillock away from the 10 players who are undecided and certainly, as Wilson confirms, “a huge part of the job is managing people and, where possible, getting players to manage players – the shared leadership model – so it’s not just you policing everything and being the negative voice”. But a thick skin helps. “You do bite people from time to time,” says Blackett, “so I’d be kidding myself if I thought every player loved me. Especially after selection.”

No question, selection is where the alchemy – and the insomnia – lies. “The night before selection, that’s always my sleepless night,” says Young, “because the guys put a lot of work in and they all want to play, so I never pick the team lightly. Sometimes the stats make the decisions for you; other times it’s a gut feeling, such as standing behind a class player who’s in a sticky patch. Generally, if players are in the side, they think you’re OK; if they’re not, you’re an idiot. I think most of my players reckon my wife picks the team.”

The upside of tough selection choices is that it means you’re in a good place; the downside is keeping everyone happy. “No question, it’s a lot easier to drop someone if they’ve missed five or six tackles,” says Wilson. “The difficult bit is when it’s a close call and I’m not giving a player rock-solid reasons why he’s not playing. That’s tough.”

Blackett agrees. “The thing that keeps me awake at night is how you’re going to deliver the message on a 50-50 call,” he says. “Players want reasons not gut feelings and those are the hardest conversations to manage.”

You need to know your cattle and read the room. Ranting and raving and kicking over the furniture doesn’t get you too far.

Cardiff’s Dai Young

Picking your moments and choosing your words are always key; not least in the dressing room at half-time. “Sometimes it needs a motivational rocket, an emotional shake-up,” says Wilson. “Now, that might be the captain, it might be me. But it has to be controlled.”

Young wholeheartedly agrees. “You need to know your cattle and read the room,” he says. “Ranting and raving and kicking over the furniture doesn’t get you too far. Besides, if things aren’t going well, that’s precisely when the team need someone to be in control of the situation.”

Interestingly, Blackett sometimes feels that less is more. “You have to listen to players; you lose them if you don’t,” he says. “You might think the game’s going one way but, on the pitch, they think the opposite, so you have to listen to what they’re telling you. That, actually, makes you a better coach.”

One of the other great arts of Being The Boss is delegation or, perhaps more honestly, resisting the innate urge to micro-manage. Blackett says he’ll happily delegate anything to anyone who can do a job better than he can but then Young says he once found himself talking to the kit-man about the team’s socks.

“Delegating was huge challenge for me,” says McFarland. “When you’re an assistant coach, you’re responsible for detail and you’re down in the weeds, so when I first became a head coach I found it tough extricating myself from all that, partly because I loved it and partly because, initially, there are trust issues handing the detail to someone else.”

Iain Henderson
Dan McFarland found it difficult to delegate responsibilities when he got the top job at Ulster (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Wilson is from a similar background. “Look, I’m a nuts-and-bolts person, so I want to be on top of things,” he says. “What you try to be is a ‘T’ coach – breadth and depth of knowledge – but as much as I delegate more than I used to, I could still be better at that. What I’ve also learnt is when to let go. So Monday and Tuesday is very much coach-led, Thursday is handover day and Friday is run by the players.”

Days off? Not as such. “Wednesday’s the free day this week,” says Wilson, “so I’ll work from home, although, actually, now I think about it, I’ve also got to drive to Edinburgh to sit in on a job interview.”

At Ulster, the ‘day off’ is always Game Day Minus Three and it’s frequently taken up with all the stuff there wasn’t time to do the rest of the week. “Sometimes that’s just the day you spend firefighting. Even the summer holiday isn’t exactly a rest cure because it’s a busy time of year for personnel issues, recruitment and planning,” says McFarland.

Blackett’s last family holiday was in Greece. “That was the one where I finalised the deal to get John Mitchell on to the coaching team at 2am in the hotel lobby,” he says. “It was just me, the mosquitos and the mobile phone.”

It is a relentless, pitiless, all-consuming occupation. “If you want a job then do something else because this is a way of life,” says Young and, certainly, when you draw a Venn diagram of head coaches, your circles will inevitably converge on a potty-mouthed, uber-competitive workaholic who’d rather French kiss a dead skunk than stray more than two feet from his mobile phone. “‘The Brain’, my family calls it,” says Young. “Where’s Dad’s brain?’’

Blackett confesses to swearing “loads”; Wilson’s elder daughter actually has a cuss box in the kitchen – “She reckons I owe her 20 quid,” he says – this being the problem when you take umpteen work calls at home and inadvertently revert to industrial adjectives. The competitive streak? Well, that appears to be endemic. “Everything,” says McFarland. “Literally everything. I can’t play cards with my in-laws without getting angry. My son, Tomas, didn’t beat me at table-tennis until he was 16 and I’m not sure we’ve played again since.”

No one screams more at Wasps games than my wife because if we lose, she knows she’s not got a husband for the rest of the weekend. If we don’t go well, I can’t sleep.

Wasps’ Lee Blackett

For a head coach, losing is personal, painful, almost visceral. “It hurts, there’s no doubt about that,” says Wilson. “I try not to let my mood be affected by wins or losses but when you care so much it’s very hard not to be affected and that’s being very honest. Too honest, probably.”

If it’s any consolation, Blackett feels exactly the same. “No one screams more at Wasps games than my wife,” he says, “because if we lose, she knows she’s not got a husband for the rest of the weekend. If we don’t go well, I can’t sleep. I end up going to bed at 2am and I’ll be awake again at 5am.”

McFarland’s response to a defeat or a poor performance – a little like the process of grief – comes in stages. “I’m an emotional person and I can’t just wash that stuff straight off,” he says. “Often I need help. The only time the anger creeps in is when you feel that, as a team, you’ve let yourself down if you weren’t in the right frame of mind or the intensity levels weren’t there because the environment is a huge part in building that.”

“So in the first 24 hours, there’s a huge amount of frustration. But as you review it and dig deeper, you often find that it wasn’t as bad as you thought and it becomes cathartic; you find ways to improve. That’s the process. What you’re working out is what you need to do first thing on Monday morning and by the end of that Monday, heads are up and we’re taking steps in the right direction.”

Losing, alas, isn’t the only occupational hazard. Young detests emails and given he reckons he gets around 150 a day, this is scarcely surprising. “Those times when you’re not offering a player a new contract; that’s a horrible place to be,” says Wilson. “I’ve had to make some really tough calls and I find that the hardest part of the job, definitely. All you can do is treat people fairly and with respect.”

Every head coach has been there; all of them despise it. “Those conversations are obviously difficult and uncomfortable,” says McFarland. “You have to make absolutely sure that the process has been exhaustive and the reasons are right. But the hardest part of the job for me is managing the ‘uncontrollables’; things like injuries and referees where there’s a material impact you can’t affect. It may just be bad luck but it’s annoying and difficult to deal with; you have to be agile, keep your focus and have the cojones to stay on track.”

Wilson <a href=
Glasgow Warriors” width=”1024″ height=”576″ /> Danny Wilson admits explaining selection decisions to his Glasgow players has been a tough aspect of the role (Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images)

Agents and journalists often crop up in the ‘uncontrollable’ part of the conversation. “I’m no agent knocker,” says Young, “but they seem to have very few players who won’t have 10 other options for twice what you’re prepared to pay, so dealing with them is hard work and a bit of a guessing game. Certainly no agent’s ever going to ring you and say, ‘Look, my player has got no other offers and he’ll play for you for a bag of peanuts’. Doesn’t happen. And if it did, you’d start worrying about what’s wrong with the bloke to be honest.”

The media, intriguingly, reveals the broadest spectrum of opinion. “I don’t follow the media or read the papers,” says Blackett. “If people are talking about Wasps, I don’t listen. I’ve seen that affect too many people. I’ll make my own judgments about where we’re at.”

McFarland, though, views it very differently. “I need a flavour of what’s going on out there because we don’t live in a bubble and people within your organisation can be affected by it,” he says, “So if you’re not aware, you’re ill-equipped for making strategic decisions. It’s not a priority but it’s part of the role.”

The sanctuary, always, is the family, which is why a head coach needs a patient partner, a loyal dog and an understanding boss, probably in that order. “If anyone says they don’t take the pressure home, they’re a liar because you do and it’s often tough on the family,” says Young. “You can’t afford to have mood swings at work because you’re the barometer of the team and you have to lead but you can at home and that can make life difficult.”

Strategies on this vary. Blackett has a coaches’ blackout between 12pm and 4pm on a Sunday; Wilson does something similar ahead of the immutable ‘Sunday Five O’Clock Zoom’ with the coaching team. McFarland, smart man, has The Fifteen-Minute Rule. “Pat Lam taught me this,” he says. “When he came home after a game, he’d put his bag down, put down his car keys and he’d just sit and talk to Steph for a quarter of an hour and find out how her day had gone. And it’s not all altruistic; genuinely, it helps me as well as Danielle in the sense of, ‘Right, let’s just calm it down here and talk about something that may actually be way more interesting than work’.”

Not surprisingly, given the baggage that’s brought home, head coaches – aside from swimming the kids, mooching the pooch or turning up halfway through the Nativity Play – aren’t exactly domestic gods. “I’m useless,” says Blackett. “I’ve cooked one meal in 13 years. It was our first anniversary and I did a steak except that I cremated the steak, burnt the pan and we ordered a takeaway.”

McFarland reckons he can find the time to stick some soup in the microwave or mow a lawn, though, you’d imagine, probably not at the same time; Wilson offers just lawn-mowing. DIY? “No, again, poor,” says Wilson. Young claims to have once hammered a nail into a wall but otherwise “my father-in-law does all the DIY. I do make a good sandwich, apparently, but that’s it”. Do not go on a survival exercise with these people.

Winning stuff is unbelievable – nothing like it – but you also have some very dark days and tough times and making sure you can control it and get a balance is difficult.

Glasgow’s Danny Wilson

But what unifies them slightly more positively is the unstinting, unswerving – almost addictive – loyalty to the job, irrespective of how few people outside the bubble have a clue how demanding it is. “The day starts at 6am and often you’re not leaving until 7pm,” says Blackett. “But a lot of folk reckon you go in at 9, chuck a few cones about and at 12 you’re done.” This isn’t a complaint, it should be said; just an observation.

“Look, it’s very hard to make out that we have a tough life,” says McFarland. “I love my job and I’ve no interest in people patting me on the back for how many hours I work. So if I’m lying on a sun lounger in Italy listening to an NFL podcast that I think might, creatively, improve something we’re doing, it’s because I enjoy it and I want to be good at my job.”

What also unites head coaches is the copper-bottomed certainty that, whatever else they do, they’ll be defined by the results column. “Winning is everything, isn’t it?” says Blackett. “Yes, we look at performance but the environment’s all about winning.”

Young agrees but with a caveat: “Certainly, if you don’t win often enough, you’re not going to be in work for too long. But then how many trophies would Sir Alex Ferguson have won with Oldham Athletic’s squad and budget? I say this to people – and they look at me like I’m stupid – but one of my proudest achievements as a coach was keeping Wasps up in 2012” – everyone injured, no money, insolvency lurking around every corner – “so it’s not always about winning; it’s about getting the very best out of the team you’ve got around you.”

“The fact is you have some brilliant days as a rugby coach,” says Wilson. “Winning stuff is unbelievable – nothing like it – and internationals when I was on the Scotland coaching team were spine-tingling. But you also have some very dark days and tough times and making sure you can control it and get a balance is difficult.”

Keeping the tail wagging seems to be the key. “Yes, it can be a lonely job at times and you can make poor decisions,” says Young. “I’ve made enough of them. But you can turn anything around with the right mindset and the right people. You just have to be positive.”

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