An unquenchable thirst for coaching knowledge
June 25, 2013
England captain Tom Wood and coach Stuart Lancaster celebrate their series victory over Argentina © Getty Images
England's season may have drawn to a close with an historic series clean sweep in Argentina but the work never stops for coach Stuart Lancaster who swiftly switched his attention to the British & Irish Lions in Australia.
His close interest in the squad's fortunes extends beyond the contribution being made by his players or his assistants Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell, who are part of the Lions' management team, with the access to the elite tourists granted by head coach Warren Gatland providing the England boss with just the latest opportunity to satisfy his insatiable hunger for coaching knowledge.
"He's constantly growing and will continue to grow and get better," commented Kevin Bowring, the Rugby Football Union's head of coaching development, in what could have easily been one of many plaudits laid before livewire centre Kyle Eastmond or fleet-footed winger Christian Wade following eye-catching displays in Argentina but was in fact a glowing tribute to their coach.
Lancaster is as driven as his young charges and according to Bowring that desire to learn is the key to being a successful coach - no matter what level of the game you are involved in. "It is a never ending process as far as I am concerned," Bowring told ESPN. "You are always learning. Look at someone like Sir Alex Ferguson. He sustained a long and successful career through renewing his assistant coaches, renewing his players and approach to his sport. That openess and constant desire to learn is also what's remarkable about Stuart Lancaster - it is what I call a growth mindset. Any coach with a growth mindset who is hungry to learn, to develop and improve will get on."
Bowring, a former Wales coach who made an unexpected switch to the home of English rugby in 2002, has been a key sounding board for Lancaster for the past decade but takes no credit for his rise from PE teacher to international rugby coach. "He's done a remarkable job in the last 18 months - and make no mistake, he's done it. Coaches need a support network around them, people who they can think out loud with, people they can trust and who will support them while challenging their thinking but the buck stops with them. Stuart has a good network around him to help him, but it's his decision, no one tells him what to do."
Lancaster's 'network' usually extends to Rowntree and Farrell but with both recruited by the Lions, England were forced to draft in some fresh faces for their recent trip to Argentina in the form of Exeter boss Rob Baxter and Saracens defence guru Paul Gustard. But rather than regret the loss of two important members of the support staff, Bowring welcomed the opportunity to expose some new coaches to the international set-up.
"What we have done at the RFU is give coaches the opportunity to work and develop with an international team as that is very different to Premiership or Championship coaching. Instead of coaching on a week in, week out basis with players of varying ability they experience an international set-up with higher quality players thrown together for a short period of time.
"And what a great thing for the likes of [Northampton boss] Jim Mallinder, [Northampton coach] Dorian West, Rob Baxter and Paul Gustard to have on their CVs. Coaches that have had that experience of a different coaching environment are no doubt better."
For Lancaster, that exposure to different styles and set-ups spans the elite game to grass roots. "Stuart still coaches the Under-12s at West Park where his son plays," added Bowring, who is fronting Gillette's Great Start programme to encourage the next generation of coaches. "That's a different context, environment and approach and we want all coaches to see that pathway. Not everyone is going to end up as an international coach but every player deserves quality coaching, every time - that is our mantra and vision."
Lancaster is a keen student of coaching techniques - no matter the sport - and not afraid to embrace any method he thinks may benefit his side. A fact underlined by the recent recruitment of performance expert Matt Parker who has since hit the headlines with his innovative attempts to lay the foundation for World Cup success.
"You want to stimulate coaches to learn," said Bowring. "Stuart's learning comes from meeting people like [British Cycling boss] Dave Brailsford or [Arsenal FC manager] Arsene Wenger."
That brains trust includes Tony Minichello, the coach of Olympic gold medal-winning heptathlete and face of the 2012 Games, Jessica Ennis. "I had Tony come and talk to a group of rugby coaches for me the other day and we both agreed on the key quality for a coach, let's call it emotional intelligence.
"That means a self awareness of what I need to do to get the best out of a player or athlete whether it is school, club or professional at this moment in time. And then the awareness of how to communicate that, how to extract feedback and then get the best out of that player or athlete and help them achieve their goals and dreams. For me it is about being emotionally aware, flexible and adaptable. Coaches who communicate effectively and who cater for the needs of the individual is key."
Exeter Chiefs boss Rob Baxter and Saracens defence coach Paul Gustard joined the England backroom staff for their latest tour © Getty Images
Gillette's Great Start programme celebrates the role of coaching and encourages people to get into coaching by offering grants. To apply for a coaching grant visit www.facebook.co.uk/GilletteUK
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.