Coaching / Development, Leadership & Culture, Performance | Feb 19, 2019
Cody Royle says the media aren’t going away but a coach can turn their media duties into a performance advantage with the right skillset.

Head Coach of AFL Team Canada, Cody Royle, is partnering with Leaders Performance Institute to explore the many different skills that shape modern coaching. In the months ahead, he will be releasing his thoughts on the patchwork that is modern coaching, outlining who is doing it well, and raising some new ideas to consider as we all move forward.

First up is the matter of managing the media. At the top levels, being a great tactician simply isn’t enough, you need to be an exquisite communicator, understand sport science, manage the media, manage ownership, take care of your own health and wellbeing, all while putting your players first. It is a complex puzzle that is ever-changing.

By Cody Royle

It’s outrageous to consider that elite coaches need to front the media nearly every day to explain their decisions. Not even Fortune 500 CEOs are required to do that. During a recent panel discussion, Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer talked about how he thought the accountability was high when he was CEO of Microsoft, but he hadn’t seen anything like pro sports. “Every 24 seconds, you can see how our team is doing – that’s accountability” he said buoyantly.

Having your performance dissected to the extent that sports coaches do is unparalleled; every tactical nuance, personnel decision and tone of voice is queried, and with sports coverage shifting online and opening up to new media sources, it’s an element of sport that’s evolving, but certainly not going away.

Being in the media is an important and necessary part of coaching, but rarely thought about in the skillsets that we as sports leaders need to develop. Often, there aren’t many opportunities for practical experience until you’re in a head coaching role, and then you’re thrust into the lion’s den knowing one misstep could end up as the lead story on ESPN or the BBC. I make a point to ask other head coaches to recount one thing they felt unprepared for on their first day on the job, and many have brought up the fact that they didn’t truly understand how labour-intensive managing the media was.

In a recent interview in The Athletic, former NFL Head Coach John Fox spoke to just that point. “The problem some assistants don’t understand is you’re going to be the face of the organization. It’s not all football. You are not going to be locked in a dark room watching video and coming up with gameplans,” bristled Fox, who coached both the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos to Super Bowl losses.

As society shifts towards demanding open, honest and vulnerable communication from leaders of all designations, we as coaches need to consider how we adapt in order to meet the challenge. The guarded, smoke-and-mirrors persona that was commonplace among coaches in the past may not be the best way forward, especially considering we are competing for the attention of the public, who have more entertainment options than ever. These days, everything is marketing.

Here are what I consider to be the standout examples of incorporating the media into the day-to-day systems around a team, and how it has benefited teams and coaches alike.

England and the New York Yankees

It’s undeniable that two of the most intense jobs in world sport are managing the England football team, and managing the New York Yankees. The magnifying glass permanently attached to the Three Lions and the pinstripes is difficult to comprehend for us mere mortals, but they’re both organizations that have the self-awareness to understand and acknowledge the daunting media presence surrounding them. In fact, they’ve both made it part of their hiring process.

When England hired then-caretaker Gareth Southgate, they used the interview process to simulate the kind of media scrutiny Southgate would face if he was appointed full-time. Southgate was subject to a three-hour, five-man panel including Howard Wilkinson, Graeme Le Saux, Greg Clarke, Martin Glenn, and technical director Dan Ashworth.

“It started off with a review of ‘OK, go through the last four games, what have you learned?’ and there was some pretty feisty opinions from the more technical people in the room” said Martin Glenn, who recently resigned as CEO of The Football Association. “That was a good example of saying ‘OK, do Gareth’s powers of analysis stand up to scrutiny?’” Glenn added.

While positive results and a World Cup semi-final appearance have lightened Southgate’s media scrutiny, the FA must be lauded for their wherewithal to foresee that even moving from caretaker to full-time boss would see the heat ratchet up for Southgate.

Similarly, during their recent search for a new manager, the New York Yankees used a quirky hiring tactic to shine a light on what it was really like to be the face of the iconic organization. Rather than the tight-lipped interviewing process we’ve become accustomed to, the Yankees made all five candidates public.

According to General Manager Brian Cashman, this allowed the media to provide an additional background check on top of the digging the Yankees would do themselves. The media may just uncover something that the team couldn’t find, like they did in 2003 with Arizona Diamondbacks coach Wally Backman.

Additionally, Cashman was able to observe how the candidates handled questions from the news media. The Yankee manager is unique in that they are required to speak to the press twice a day, 162 days a year, in front of the largest media contingent in the sport. It is, by every definition, a pressure cooker, and unlike any other team in the league.

The Yankees know there is more to it than just baseball acumen.

Marcelo Bielsa and Steve Kerr

Recently, Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa admitted to media sources that his club had been spying on rival teams all season long. The club hastily organized a press conference and speculation was rife that the Argentine was ready to quit, but instead he turned the press conference into an hour-long PowerPoint presentation to gobsmacked journalists.

Bielsa went on to outline the incredible amount of detail Leeds’ scouts gather in order to prepare the coaching staff for each game, including as many as 51 analysed Derby County games. Sky Sports reporter Tim Thornton noted, “Everybody in the room was looking at each other, almost in amazement. It was a tactical masterclass from Bielsa.”

Marcelo’s point was that from a coaching perspective, any information gleaned from spying on opposition trainings paled into insignificance against the data points they already had, but it was the manner in which he delivered it that caused most of the jaw-dropping.

But for all that, it was just another in a growing line of coaches who are willing to be exceedingly transparent with the media. Golden State Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr, who spent ten years as a broadcaster with TNT, has forced other North American coaches to reconsider how they deal with the media with some honest quotes to rival Bielsa’s presentation.

Last February, Kerr’s high-flying Warriors beat down on the bottom-feeding Phoenix Suns by 46 points. The margin should have been enough to make national headlines, but it was Kerr’s coaching that became the top story. Throughout the game, the Warriors coach allowed senior players to coach the team while he and his assistants stood back and observed.

During the ensuing press conference, Kerr was asked to explain his helicopter parenting. “I have not reached my players for the last month; they’re tired of my voice, I’m tired of my voice,” he said. Of course, Golden State were dealing with a highly unique set of circumstances: they had made three straight NBA Finals appearances (and were en route to a fourth), meaning they’d played a cumulative six months more basketball than the Suns over those three seasons. Kerr continued, “It’s [the players’] team. I think that’s one of the first things you have to consider as a coach: it’s not your team. It’s the players’ team, and they have to take ownership of it. As coaches it’s our job to nudge them, to guide them, but we don’t control them. They determine their own fate.”

There is no footage of the NBA journalists, but I’m sure their mouths were as slack-jawed as the football writers watching Marcelo Bielsa’s presentation. Put simply: in the ‘stick to the script’ era of sports media, you just don’t hear coaches give such honest and transparent answers to the mainstream media. But is all that changing?

What does the future look like?

To me, it appears that the veil is coming off whether coaches want it or not. A quick search of Netflix and Amazon Prime brings up behind-the-scenes documentaries featuring Juventus, Manchester City, the All Blacks, Dallas Cowboys, Salford City, Boca Juniors, Sunderland, and the Arizona Cardinals. That’s not to mention HBO’s fantastic football series, Hard Knocks, or their NHL equivalent, 24/7. And recent reports suggest Apple, Disney, Walmart and WarnerMedia are all readying streaming services of their own.

So, this trend is not going away, and the demand for fly-on-the-wall sports content hasn’t yet reached its peak.

Some coaches will shudder at the thought of their secrets, and their coaching style, being captured and exposed to the outside world. Others will realize that having your players watch unedited footage of Pep Guardiola coach for six hours is automatically going to draw comparisons in your dressing room anyway.

But for coaches of teams without Manchester City’s budget, you can still market yourself and your club by taking to another form of media: social. To this day, solemn few top-level coaches utilise social media (Steve Kerr does, and Gareth Southgate did), and even fewer do it properly. It’s about more than just re-posting your team line-up and some favourable fan comments.

Platforms like Twitter and Instagram provide coaches with an opportunity to create content markets you and your ideas to team fans, future employers, as well as explaining to new recruits why they would want to come and play for you. With players evermore tech savvy, the need for your coaching content to be visible online appears to be a pressing need, even at the elite levels. The added benefit, obviously, is the ability to address misreported storylines that play out from traditional media outlets, and do so via video or text. It is the new world of dealing with scrutiny.

As a coach, you can choose whether you think it’s never been more difficult, or never been easier, to manage the media. You can choose to groan at reporter questions or you can choose to join Twitter and share your own perspective. I believe the coaches that will get ahead in the future will be the early adopters – the trendsetters who assess this new media landscape and choose to capitalise on the openness rather than close up ranks.

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