Coach Speak: How the Manager Today Is Speaking Out

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Over the development of professional rugby, the players voice seems to have softened. No longer as accessible, it appears that ‘Coach Speak’ is the popular channel for teams to communicate. Think Eddie Jones, Michael Cheika, Warren Gatland or Steve Hansen. Each is well spoken, and this shows how the manager today is speaking out.

Today, the art of ‘Coach Speak’ is best used to describe the team as “progressing well” and the opposition as “respected”. But it can go further, as witnessed in Autumn when several head coaches used a tactic of talking up the opposition, as an aside to their belief that they were ‘underdogs’. It even stretched to the All Blacks, who after a single loss over 19 matches, referred to the Irish side as “favourites”.

Coach Speak: How the Manager Today Is Speaking Out

‘Coach Speak’ definition: the explanation and dissection of the game, team, players, opposition and opposing Coach.

Steve Hansen has been on the International coaching landscape since being appointed Wales coach in 2002. Eddie Jones has been coaching for over 20 years. He has seen the ups and downs; from Rugby World Cup losing coach, to winning assistant with South Africa, and now leading England toward Japan in 2019. Each has mastered the art of Coach Speak. Often complimentary of others, to the point of backhanded compliments.

The Art of Inference and Self Effacing Compliments

Affecting professional sports worldwide, Coach Speak can infect a good coach, to limit his interaction with the public. Through no fault of their own, a coach can engrate the broadcast media in several ways. (1) they begin to speak less. In that they give less information, to protect a team [usually] under pressure. He/she wishes to limit the risk of saying ‘too much’ but in becoming introverted, attracts more attention.

(2) they use strategy and begin to manage media attention. For some, control of the exposure is key to getting a point across. Jose Mourinho is one of the masters, as he can ‘stop short’ a press conference, when not willing to co-operate. The ‘special one’ has had success with many clubs, but his attitude to the press is a failing. Many feel it is a tactic, to remove attention from a poor performance–so when they win, why does he still act the same way?

Or like Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs, they limit their reactions. Single word answers, off hand comments or entirely evading questions–Wayne Bennett from the Brisbane Broncos is the best example in Rugby League.

Rugby Coaches Focus Attention on the Build-up

In recent series and International test windows, the attention to match build-up has made for interesting Coach Speak. Think Michael Cheika arriving in England, and refusing to be drawn on the past results from the June series. “I’m not here to talk about what happened in June. We’re her to play five Test matches, ask me about them.”

And the more measured the match build-up, the more hype that Coach Speak can create. Warren Gatland has always shied away from the attention of media, but in recent times he is using the inference of success as a motivator. “I know our team can travel down to New Zealand with confidence. We have played every International side, so the All Blacks are just another team to challenge us.” – his side then went on to lose 3-0 in June.

The way that coaches react to questions can often be witty, as well as fearsome. At the 2015 RWC, Hansen was asked ‘what did he have up his sleeve?’. In a slow response, he murmured “my arm” to hilarious laughter and levity. A complete opposite to when Cheika was asked post-game about what he thought of the All Blacks winning sequence [a new Tier One World Record of 18], he replied “I don’t think they need me to comment…..no, well why? What good will it do me.”

Create a Discussion, Not a ‘Conversation’

The two different responses bring reaction from the media and from the public. Something that a coach is often responsible for. While his team may have lost on the field, few would expect a coach to be glowing of their performance. But Coach Speak can explain a five point loss as ‘a developing step toward our goal’. Or as Jones has found recently, the teams success can be associated with the appointment of a new coach. “I’m not the one out on the field. These boys all have the same skills they did in 2015. We’re just expressing ourselves better as a unit.”

Often, answering questions is not the focal point. Fantastically, on the morning before the opening Rugby Championship match in Sydney, a bug was reportedly found in the All Blacks conference room. The recording device was reported by a New Zealand newspaper, and the story exploded prior to the game. Hugely distracting, the fact it was delayed until match day was not lost on the Australia team.

Reporting from Sydney, Last Word On Rugby found that the sports media were astounded by; not only the inference of cheating, but in the ‘tactics’ used by New Zealand Rugby. A hugely negative and divisive incident at the time. People accused the All Blacks of paranoia, scaremongering and worse. Cheika brought it up at Eden Park months later, in a moment that was pure Coach Speak.

He claimed that the newspaper which illustrated him as a clown were the same organization that leaked the bugging story. He hit out at the lack of respect, and after his team had played a fairly good match [losing 37-10] his grievances somehow distracted from the team performance. Some thought it was a way of removing the fact they had lost all three Test matches, even with an improvement from the first game to the third.

Players Less Able to Share Their Honest Thoughts

Whereas a coach can say that his players were ‘good’ or ‘bad’, the players will never be as critical of the coaching staff. They know that over the week, the management did their best to prepare the team, and it was up to the 23 players to string a performance together. Or most will ‘tow the company line’.

It is a common perception that many rugby players are less likely to speak out in this environment–to not make ripples, so to speak. Today, they are leaving that more and more to management. In pre-game interviews, selected players are sent to press conferences and may be entertaining, but never controversial.

You sense that the Public Relations and Media Managers have removed any liberty to express their opinion. If that opinion is not the same as the union, group or sponsors, then just hold your lip…or make a joke like Israel Dagg. Known for his relaxed manner off the field, he is light-hearted when speaking to media and would never press a matter, like his coach would. And when you look closely at it, they speak less about the world around them, as much as what is in front of them.

Harsh Reality of Speaking Out

Who remembers the furore over comments made by Will Carling in March 1996. He stated a viewpoint; an afront to the establishment (the Rugby Football Union), who briskly fought back by sacking him. There was a short, sharp, shrift. A negative reaction from the public, and a discussion over ‘decorum’ with Carling concluded in him being re-elected as Captain.

The matter was swept under the carpet, and other players have been singled out for their attitudes. Not in a Dennis Rodman fashion, but at times men like Tana Umaga have stated; after penalties and sanctions were handed down, “we’re not playing tiddlywinks.” His honesty was a lone spotlight on the officiating, but more often it is Coach Speak that we receive today.

Irish Reaction to All Blacks Tackling Technique

After the second Test between Ireland and New Zealand, there was much reaction to several incidents during the game. A head high tackle and a collision between players saw Ireland’s manager Mick Kearney speak out. “I don’t think we are whinging at all,” he continued when pointing out that World Rugby needed to look closely at the incidents. “I think the facts speak for themselves. We don’t cite anybody.”

Coach Speak would mean he is not directly saying that the tackling was dirty, but when interviewed, Steve Hansen took offense to questions from local reporters. “Are you asking if we are dirty players? The answer would be no, so next question.” It was less heated, than a qualified master of Coach Speak flicking aside a topic he’d prefer not to discuss. Hansen then heaped praise on the Irish team for their performance.

Coach Speak Can Shield Teams from Unwanted Attention

And today, it is the performance of coaches and management in their public relations and behaviour, that is shielding their team from unwanted attention. Many do it very, very well. And it is becoming the norm–to the point that Kieran Read often only answers one or two questions post-game–and he was the one who played the game.

We also find that coaches now have a greater voice than the players. By restricting player access, and minimizing their responses, the administration can direct the course of the match build-up, and post-game reaction. The art of Coach Speak is now a skill that International coaches (across all sports) are highly developed at.

One day the reporter might ask a question, and the answer will appear on their devices instantaneously. Surreptitiously created by a staff member behind a curtain, aka Wizard of Oz style. If that were to happen, then the interaction between teams and media will forever be removed.

Until then, you hope that coaches still respect that fans and the audience may still want to hear the truth….within the five minutes assigned by the Media Manager, of course.

“Main Photo Credit”