Winning 50 Test caps does not earn the right to top-flight job
Game must reward coaches putting in hard yards across various environments, instead of turning to elite ex-players
Last week, Andrea Pirlo took charge of Juventus, one of football’s most illustrious organisations. His journey to the top comprised a glittering playing career where he was coached by others, and then a few days of actually being a coach, in charge of the club’s under-23 team.
Meanwhile, at just 33, Julian Nagelsmann has taken RB Leipzig to the semi-finals of the Champions League. He has never played topflight football. He has coached since becoming injured at just 20.
When you consider how close coaching and playing are, maybe think about similarities between a pupil and a teacher or having an operation and being a surgeon.
Numerous high-profile ex-players have been catapulted into rugby coaching roles. These roles were never advertised and had no robust selection process, no development plan and no provision of appropriate stretch-and-support for the successful candidate.
I have seen this before. Dean Ryan told the Rugby Football Union coaching department that we needed to understand a former England back row had “earned the right” to be a Premiership coach because of his 50 Test caps.
It is worth considering the skills and behaviours of great coaches. Sergio Lara-Bercial’s work on serial medal-winning coaches finds they tend to be committed to getting better, often driven by fear of not being good enough. They simplify complexity and have unwavering high standards. They put people first, are emotionally intelligent, practice shared leadership and are optimistic.
Ex-players can be blissfully unaware of their biases and what they don’t know they don’t know
Coaching is a contact sport where we constantly bump into other humans. You might do all of this as a former international player. You definitely do not have to, though, and you certainly have not “earned the right” any more than the many great coaches who have honed their craft in numerous environments and through a multitude of experiences.
Just ask Chris Boyd, an ex-pharmacist turned Super Rugby-winning coach and now, in my opinion, the best coach-developer in the Premiership.
But what about those ex-players who do get the golden ticket? Some choose to get better and are willing to open themselves up to feedback and possibility. They might acknowledge their nagging imposter syndrome, realising coaching is very different to playing, and feel frustrated with the coaching they received as players.
Other golden-ticket winners might remain on chapter one, blissfully unaware of their biases and what they don’t know they don’t know.
How often do they video themselves coaching or invite experts in with a critical lens? They often see themselves as expert fault-correctors, becoming obsessed with
“controllables” such as shape and structure.
These controllable aspects are easier to “coach” than concepts such as leadership. I was once told by a Premiership coach that leaders are born, not made, so there is no point coaching that anyway. I wonder how true that is.
The appointment by Harlequins of Jordan Turner-Hall feels like a great example of a player-to-coach story done well. Chapter one started earlier than anticipated with a careerending injury. When Quins advertised the role, he was already a few more chapters into his book with a variety of experiences across schools, clubs and the Northampton academy. Combined with his experiences as a player and as a culture-carrier from 2012, the Harlequins academy position is a great fit.
I could replace Jordan’s story with those of Lee Blackett, Matt Sherratt, Ryan Davis or Ian Peel. That is how a coaching journey could look. That is how you might “earn the right” to a top-flight job.
Fast-track: Dean Ryan advocated former players getting top jobs