“Good isn’t always good enough; the sporting gods love teaching this cruel lesson to its vulnerable patrons.”
Good managers generally possess the same traits. A great eye for detail is paramount, as is an ability to concentrate under immense pressure. As Andre Agassi puts it: “Pressure means that everything’s working.” A solid manager also serves as an important outlet for their players, carefully treading the line between compassionate mentor and cold commander. Ultimately, one must develop excellent management skills, such as understanding the strengths and weaknesses of both their own athletes and their opponents, and devising the most effective strategies and tactics. Do this, and they are well on their way to becoming a good manager. However, at the top level, good isn’t always good enough; the sporting gods love teaching this cruel lesson to its vulnerable patrons.
How do those few legendary coaches rise to the top and dominate their disciplines. A good start is to examine the best managers and analyse what sets them apart from the rambling masses. The coaches of Trinity’s sports clubs offer some interesting answers. When asked who they see as the greatest sports manager of all time, today’s bosses often cite football’s finest. For Andrew Coleman, DU Ladies Boat Club (DULBC) Head Coach, Alex Ferguson towers above the rest: “I think Ferguson’s refusal to compromise is a key aspect of his success, and that dates back to his Aberdeen days. However, at [Manchester] United, he also showed that he could adapt his tactics to his player’s abilities, and that is how he led them to so many titles.”
It is in that vein that Dublin University Athletic Football Club (DUAFC) President, Raymond O’Malley, makes his choice for history’s greatest manager. Keeping with the theme of football, O’Malley selects Celtic manager Jock Stein and Nottingham Forest legend Brian Clough as notable examples. Specifically, it was Stein’s partnership with Sean Fallon that intrigues O’Malley. Stein’s facility to adjust his tactics based on Fallon’s advice helped Celtic to outstanding form in the 60s, culminating in the Glasgow side winning the European Cup in 1967, breaking the mould for British clubs in Europe.
“Knowing you can come up with something better pushes you to strengthens your team’s tactics. I think it’s good to know that they can be frank with you.”
O’Malley is no stranger to managerial success, guiding the Freshers team to last season’s Harding Cup. Reflecting on his triumph, he praises the honesty of his assistant coaches. “[They] told me when I was wrong,” he admits, “and that can be quite enlightening; knowing you can come up with something better pushes you to strengthens your team’s tactics. I think it’s good to know that they can be frank with you.”
At the same time, respect is another essential aspect of being a successful coach, according to Coleman. “You have to have respect for the athletes and what they’re going through,” he explains. He feels this is all the more important for college students, where training often competes with other activities in their demanding weekly timetable: “You need to ensure they can follow their exercises, and understand why they’re doing it. If [an athlete] questions you, either you haven’t explained it well, or they didn’t listen.” In any case, Coleman concludes that there is a need for more respect between parties in such circumstances.
Tying into this, O’Malley believes that trust is the keystone to a strong player-manager relationship. “The manager will need the trust of the players,” says O’Malley, adding that they earn it by, “demonstrating their knowledge of the game”. Likewise, the manager needs to have faith in his players, comfortable that they can execute the meticulous plans. O’Malley speaks of his confidence in his Harding Cup team: “Because of their involvement with strong club sides, we were comfortable with their ability to follow our strategy.” Trust allows the whole squad to easily commit to the overall plan and develop a durable team dynamic.
Of course, management style must be considered before one can even think about the end goal. O’Malley claims that the aggressive, “old-school” techniques of yesteryear have no long-term effects anymore: “It may return positive for the first few months, but after a while, players simply switch off.” When it comes to dealing with university students, he prefers to opt for a more facilitative approach: “These are highly intelligent players, educated, young people with a lot of self-respect; they won’t put up with an oppressive, domineering manager for very long. Again, there needs to be respect.”
“If you have faith in your crew, you can ease off. If something doesn’t need to be said, save the tough conversations for more important moments.”
Coleman takes a slightly different view on this issue, considering it to be a matter of ability: “It depends on the standard of rowing. If you have faith in your crew, you can ease off. If something doesn’t need to be said, save the tough conversations for more important moments. However, the athletes need to maintain constant focus on their goal. Rowing can be a long season, nearly 50 weeks long, so if you’re not going to perform, you really shouldn’t be there.”
Of course, one somewhat nihilistic question remains: what is the point? In plainer terms, in a role that appears to be utterly draining and at times unbearable, where is the fulfilment? Coleman enjoys that euphoric albeit brief moment immediately after a victory. “It’s different in rowing, because you only see the start and the end of a race,” he reveals, “but when all the effort and hard work finally pays off, it’s an incredible feeling. Seeing the faces and the body language of the rowers after a hard-fought win is satisfying too.”
O’Malley also links his pure joy to the belief in his players: “It’s the realisation that the players are as good as we think. That true sense of togetherness and union is why we become managers. It is great to see that confidence on the pitch; it’s how you know they will be a really successful team. That [Harding Cup] semi-final vs. Maynooth was the best performance over 90 minutes that I had ever seen. That was when I knew we were more than good enough. Those are the moments you dream of.”
It is difficult to determine precisely what separates the best managers from the rest, but when considering the most successful bosses in history, there are some recurring traits. Trust is essential, both in your backroom staff and your players, as is respect. Being capable of digesting feedback may not come naturally to everyone, but when it comes to coaching, one must admit sometimes that their method is not the most effective, and adapt. Whatever your opinion on Jose Mourinho or Eddie Jones, one must accept that the most important member of the strongest team is pacing anxiously on the sidelines, hoping their plan comes to fruition.