Coaching / Development Performance | 19.06.17

Do Coaches Need to Have Played the Game?

Gordon Lord, Head of Professional Coach Development at the Rugby Football Union, gives his take on the matter.

Gordon Lord, as Head of Professional Coach Development at the Rugby Football Union (RFU), oversees the coaching of its coaches. He took up the post in April after 25 years at the England and Wales Cricket Board where he served first as a National Coach and then as Head of Elite Coach Development. The Leaders Performance Institute was mindful of his resume when we approached Lord at May’s Leaders Meet: Talent Pathways at Manchester City’s Etihad Campus to ask: do coaches need to have played the game?

During a quick break in the day’s programme, Lord touched upon what ex-players bring to the realm of coaching, what facets they may need to add to their skillset, and some of the provisions being made for aspirant coaches by the RFU across England. There was, however, just one place to start.

So Gordon, do you think that coaches need to have played the game?

GL: I believe that anybody helping someone else has to possess a feeling for what it is they’re trying to achieve. There’s a great book called Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg, which is about the notion that people who live in the world where there’s a lot of snow understand a lot about that snow; and I think you need to have lived to an extent within the sport, not necessarily competing at the highest level, but you have to have a feeling for the sport and a feeling for people, if you’re going to be a coach.

What skills are needed by former players who are making the transition into coaching?

GL: It varies from individual to individual. For example, a former player who has had leadership and captaincy experience, they bring a different skillset from their playing experience; a player who has struggled to be their best will bring a very different skillset from one who just found it easy. Probably the biggest learning for those who have had playing experience with significant success is that they haven’t necessarily led and not everybody is like them; the understanding that their solutions aren’t always the best solutions for others would be a good starting point. It begins with an awareness of self that quickly moves to an awareness of others.

Is there increasing or decreasing room for non-playing coaching staff in rugby union?

GL: I think there’s always room for non-playing coaching staff. I’m not yet in a position to be able to say what the proportions of those who’ve played the game to a significant level and those who’ve played the game are, but my sense is that there’s always room for outstanding coaches and where those coaches come from in the game is very much club-specific, international-specific and individual-specific.

What sort of coaching programmes are you looking to provide at present?

GL: The RFU have in place outstanding coaching programmes in England for the development of their coaches. There’s also a series of bespoke workshops, which have been made available, called the Red Rose Programme. Increasingly, with the pressures of the game, that local coach development and support can be provided at club level; that is the direction we need to move things to, to an extent. While retaining the regional and nationalised programmes, if we can provide a high level of support, in situ alongside coaches when they’re working, you can kill two birds with one stone because you’re absolutely in their environment and you’re dealing with what they’re dealing with, as opposed to simulating that in a high pressure environment. It’s also the logistics of then taking time out of their clubs under increasing pressure from various stakeholders means it’s less likely they’ll be able to attend centralised events.

Does the RFU use these centralised programmes to lay down a path for the clubs?

GL: The purpose of a centralised event is to provide an option for people to learn. The decision about what is necessary to learn, whilst the governing body can nudge and influence direction, the demand comes from the clubs and coaches within them. At a national level, that’s a different picture, but at a club level, supporting the Premiership and the Championship, and the specific needs of those clubs and we need to be flexible in order to accommodate that.