Steve Hansen On The Art Of Coaching
Posted by Dean Holden at December 19th, 2015
by Dylan Cleaver, 11 December 2015
Fresh from his World Cup triumph, All Black coach Steve Hansen was in Auckland last week as keynote speaker at the Connecting Coaches convention. Dylan Cleaver caught up with him for a chat on the Art of Coaching.
In modern head coaching, how much of it is technical know-how and how much of it is amateur psychology?
There’s a component of man-management, which is massively important as a head coach. You’re managing a group of people, you’re trying to get them all aligned on the same page and trying to get them to do the same thing, which is to perform to such a level that you win test matches.
Is there a degree of amateur psychology or emotional intelligence in understanding the people you’ve got, the individuals you’ve got? There’s a massive amount of that. To be able to have an influence on somebody, you have to have emotional intelligence and you have to understand the mood of the troops, the camp. They go hand in hand.
Do you need to know about the game of rugby? Of course you do. You’ve got to have some form of tactics and techniques to be able to run on the park and win test matches.
Getting the balance between those two things is important.
In terms of that man management, some players might need a cuddle, some might respond better to a kick in the bum – can damage be done if you get that wrong?
You can’t do a lot of damage cuddling someone, but if you’re prodding and putting too much pressure on somebody who can’t cope with it, then that can damage them, but not irreparably. Through experience you learn what’s the right amount of pressure and when it’s the right time to apply it.
Multiculturalism has had enormous benefits for New Zealand sport, particularly rugby but does that create its own pressures as a coach, particularly when the bulk of coaches in this country tend to be middle-aged white men?
I don’t think that’s right. There’s 500 people in that room [at the national coaching convention] and it’s certainly not full of middle-aged white people, so I think that’s a myth.
Does it have its disadvantages? No.
We take the approach that the team comes first. We look at each individual after that and every one is their own person. White people have their own idiosyncrasies, as do Pasifikas, as do the Maori cultures. Each culture brings their own little differences and it’s just understanding that.
They could be pink, white or green, I don’t care. Having said that, learning their culture is important because it allows you to understand them as individuals.
Steve Hansen: On Learning
Is it something as a coach you should make a conscious decision to learn or does it happen organically?
There’s a blueprint for it but what I try to do is look at the individual first and foremost. What is it that makes this guy tick? Is he a family person? Is he an individual who likes his own company? Once you find that out, you can help them achieve what they want to achieve within the team.
You told the convention that early in your coaching career you were too sharp-tongued and perhaps a bit of a bully. The public perception of you has also changed over the course of your tenure. Was there a lightbulb moment where you thought you needed to make this change?
When I started coaching there were no media. I was on a school field coaching High School Old Boys. You learnt along the way by making mistakes. I did an apprenticeship in coaching so all my really bad failings and mistakes – and every coach makes them no matter who you are – were done in a relatively private environment.
As you be come more exposed, with teams like Canterbury and the Crusaders, there’s media looking at what you’re doing. Early on my mindset with the media was that I didn’t trust them. Obviously that’s based on things I’d seen or felt myself.
Steve Hansen: On media and perception
As time goes on you work things out and realise that what they are is a conduit to the people you want to send messages to. I can control what I say so it becomes easier.
When I was in the All Blacks I was assistant coach and that’s subtly different to the head coach. You protect things a little more while the head coach is looking at the big picture.
As I became All Black coach I knew my mindset had to change from being the protector to looking at the bigger picture. It was a challenge because a lot of people thought I couldn’t do it. It was interesting. I got some support, learned and it’s not been too bad I suppose.
You once said nothing in sport could ever match the pressure you felt as a policeman of telling someone a loved one had died…
Nothing will compare to dealing with people who have suffered a loss.
Sport is hugely important in this country and it’s one tool we can use effectively to help our obesity problem. A lot of national pride and identity comes from our national teams playing well.
With the All Blacks there is one constant: there is pressure all the time. It doesn’t go away. You’re expected to be on your game the whole time.
What you come to realise is that if you can acknowledge that it’s there, then you can start to work out how to deal with it?
Steve Hansen: On pressures
Are you going to flip out every time something raises it head? It could be 10 minutes to go in a World Cup semifinal against South Africa and the game could go either way.
Once you learn and understand that then you’re prepared for it.
It’s no different from, I guess, pilots who are under pressure have to save lives, or surgeons. We plan for it so the pressure doesn’t get on top of you.
Also, rugby’s a game. That’s why I love it and enjoy it, because it’s a game. It won’t change who I am, it won’t define who I am or the people who play it. It won’t define who they are. It might be part of their life story but it’s just a game.
There are a hell of a lot more important things than that but in saying that I don’t want to belittle the importance that game plays in this country. It’s massive.
There’re five minutes to go in Sydney this year, there doesn’t look like there’s any way back – are you still enjoying that moment?
You’re not enjoying it. No one enjoys losing, but with five minutes to go it’s not over. There’s no point me worrying about what hasn’t happened yet; I’ve got to worry about how can I make it not happen.
I quite enjoy that, it’s one of the more enjoyable parts of coaching, getting yourself out of a fix. You’d much prefer to not have to do it, but there are going to be times when you do lose and there’s going to be times when you’re under immense pressure from a performance point of view to get the game won.
What that situation calls for is everyone to be clear-headed to give yourself belief.
Against Ireland in 2013 [won 24-22] is a great example there. We could have given up there and resigned ourselves to a loss but one of the beauties of this team is it doesn’t want to do that.
When you were assistant coach in 2007, or when you were coaching HSOB, do you feel a loss as keenly as you would now?
I’ve hated losing since the day I learned the concept of winning and losing. It’s probably one of my great strengths and it’s one of my greatest weaknesses.
The fact I hate it so much, I’ve got to learn to control it. There’s no point having a hissy-fit just because you’ve lost, but it doesn’t mean you just accept it. There’re so many things you can learn when you lose if you’re open to it.
You look at yourself first and foremost. What did I contribute to this loss? What could I have done better? Only then can you look at other people outside of that and how you structured the game.
At the same time you’ve got to have that huge love of winning that can motivate you to make sure you don’t lose too often but you can’t allow that to overshadow the process of how you win. That’s the most important thing in sport.
Where we got it wrong a number of years ago was when we said winning was not important. You ask any kid from the age of 10 – whether it’s rugby or two kids playing marbles – they want to win. That’s a natural instinct.
What we should be focussing on is what are the things that allow you to win? Teaching the skills you need to win marbles under pressure is more important than worrying about whether you’re going to lose your favourite marble or not.
Or it’s, ‘Hey, there’s five minutes to go versus Ireland and the scoreboard says we can’t win, we’re going to lose, we’re going to lose, we’re going to lose.’ The outcome becomes so over-riding that you can’t do anything you freeze. Rather than that you say, ‘What do I have to do in this moment for us to go down the other end and score points?’
If we can teach our kids to do that, then we can take those skills off the park and transfer them. For example, I’m under pressure to pass my exams but I’m only under pressure because I haven’t prepared properly. If I prepare properly I won’t be under as much pressure. Okay, so I’m under pressure for time, there’re five minutes left, so what do I have to do? I have to answer the question so I’ll concentrate on that and forget about the time.
Can you over-coach, and do you worry that coaching becomes obsessive? You read about coaches that watch game film to 4am every morning…
Yes you can over-coach, most definitely. Does it mean you’re over-coaching because you’re watching mountains and mountains of footage? No, that’s not over-coaching. Over-coaching is when you take all that stuff you’ve looked at and then try to make someone else process it.
The job of the coach is to facilitate an environment where the performance on Saturday is the head of the triangle and the base of the triangle is learning and fun. If there’s too much learning, if I’m sitting there telling you about all these things I’m watching at night, then it’s not a lot of fun. So performance becomes a chore and once it becomes a chore, like anything in life, you don’t do it, you try to avoid it.
The art of coaching is this: all your athletes are highly motivated when they first start, but your job as a coach is to create an environment that inspires them to use that motivation to get better and you do that by having the right balance of stimulation and fun.
Laughter is such an incredible thing. It changes people. That might mean that as the coach, I could be the butt of the joke. That’s okay, because that means I can have a crack back… as long as it’s at the right time and with the right balance.
Some of the things we’ve done as coaches, and it’s happened to us more than once, is you start the season off really late. We get them from the Super 15 and we’ve got a test match in seven days time and we’ll go nuts trying to teach them everything in a week. We as coaches know it all, because we’ve been working on it for six months, but they don’t understand. So you ask yourself, ‘What do we leave out?’ There’s risk in that, but you’ve got to work out what’s critical to get right in these few training sessions before the first test of the year.
You’re very vulnerable in the first few tests because you’re trying to mould five different teams into one and they’re not doing the same things they were in their other teams.
They’ve got training habits, off-field habits, that are acceptable there but they’re not here. That’s another form of over-coaching.
You even mentioned after the Samoa test this year that you did a bad job…
We did it the year before against England too. We thought we got it right this year, but we didn’t. It’s a difficult thing to juggle. The players are the same, because they want to do more than they should.
You’ve indicated that 2017 might be your last year. Isn’t that our job in the media to tell you when you should go?
I’m sure if you decide it’s time for me to go, you won’t have any trouble telling me.
My decisions have always been about two things: What’s right for the team and what’s right for your family?
My wife and I have a blended family and we’ve got six children and we have to figure out what’s right for them? If something is not right for them, or for the team, you wouldn’t do it. If something is right for the family but not right for the team, or vice versa, then I still wouldn’t do it. Both boxes have to be ticked.
I can’t make that decision right now, and my gut feeling is [I won’t carry on], but I won’t know that until the time. That’s why I didn’t sign on for the next four years. I don’t expect the rugby union to have to pay me out if I leave. Let’s get [to 2017] and talk about it then.
Do you think you’ll know?
You always know, but are you honest enough to tell yourself, that’s the clincher.
Who do you learn from?
You learn from everybody. Every encounter you have with a human being, or even animals, if your mind is open you’ll learn something. If it’s not you’ll go through life learning nothing.
The amazing thing about human beings is there’s a positive switch and a negative switch. If you hit the negative one, you’ll blame everybody else and it’s not your problem and you know it all. If you hit the positive one you’ll think, ‘Actually, that’s my problem, I’ve got to own that and I’ve got to learn something from it.’
You don’t start out like that. As I said, I’ve probably lived on the negative side for a while when it came to some things, but as you learn to accept that you don’t have to be perfect it’s easier to admit your own failings. Once you can admit to your failings you’ll have greater self awareness then it’s easier to learn.
Can head-coaching skills be interchangeable across different sports? Could you coach the Black Caps, for example?
The man-management side I could, but you’ve still got to have a certain understanding of the technical skills required to do the job.
If I go into the Black Caps and am talking to the batting coach, my role is not to be the batting coach but to sit over the top of them to help him become better. Therefore I need to understand something about batting because if I don’t how can I have a conversation with him and have any credibility?
I wouldn’t have enough knowledge of what I was trying to manage.
Do we use sport effectively enough to tackle social issues?
I think we’re getting better at using it. The Government of the day is fairly smart in the way it’s doing it with the fact that the health and sport minister is the same person – but that’s just my humble opinion. He or she, and in this case it’s a he [Dr Jonathan Coleman], can use sport to help with some of his initiatives.
Sport teaches us a lot. We often talk about the All Blacks being a family and there’s things that happen in your family that can teach you about sport and conversely there are things in sport you can take back to your family.
There’re 500 people at this convention and most of them are community coaches. Outside of teachers and parents they have a massive opportunity and massive responsibility to touch those people they coach in a positive manner. If they can do that and are successful at it we’ll have a lot of kids influenced by the positive things in sport.
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