The Springbok indaba – what should be on the agenda

Tom Dawson-Squibb | U20 Ikeys Coach

I was asked whether I would like to have attended the Springbok Rugby indaba. My response was an unequivocal yes, even if just to listen and to share an idea for 1 minute of the two days. I know there is a doom and gloom around the Springbok brand, and that most people polled on the issue feel that little will come of it, but I see it as a step in the right direction. A step towards building, a) an improved national rugby dialogue and b) a better level of trust. It is the latter that I want to talk about in this piece.

I have little doubt that much time will be spent debating the merits of amateur boards in a professional era, and also about how the Springboks should play and whether their skill sets match the desired strategy. The attendants of the indaba are clearly skilled and experienced people which is positive. Are the above topics worthy of conversation? Yes. Are they the crux of the matter? No.

Tom Dawson-Squibb lifts the Varsity Cup Trophy as part of the Ikey coaching team.

Let me revisit the aspect of trust, as I believe this is the missing piece of the Bok rugby puzzle. This is something that I believe is not only gravely absent from our rugby, but from our country as a whole. I did a scan of a newspaper and online news site recently to see how many articles were positive and how many negative – the answer was as expected. Positive stories were dwarfed by negative ones. Information we take in contributes to our trust levels. Without wanting to bring politics in, I would say the current narrative in South Africa is one of low trust in the presidency. This has an effect on behaviours. Levels of trust affect behaviour.  Go and look at any university campus right now if you want proof.

SA Rugby Indaba 2016

So why is trust the most important thing to get right in Bok rugby? Firstly, and I have gathered a fair amount of first and second-hand data on this, the levels of suspicion in South African rugby are high. Coaches are worried about their jobs and administrators are worried about whether they’ll get votes to remain in their positions. This creates an environment of suspicion and threat which causes people to protect their own interests. But why don’t the players play without fear they say? Because when an environment of suspicion and low trust is created it permeates through to all levels of the organization.

Now before this appears ‘blamey’ I want to state that this is not my intention, in fact I think the antiquated system and old-school thinking on people management that has created this, has happened largely unconsciously.

The All Black system is lauded by all and sundry for its culture, ability to play in an unencumbered manner and more so for the way it develops its leaders. If you talk to Australian coaches they will talk of how the players are more empowered and involved in decision making than in South Africa. I believe this is all largely down to a greater level of trust in their systems. If I feel safe and supported in my role as coach, I am likely to give players more freedom or take more risks in terms of empowering players than if I feel constantly threatened. If, as a player, I feel supported by the organization and have trust in the organization I am part of I am likely to be more engaged, and more free in my actual playing of the game.  Psychology 101.

Mark Alexander Addresses SA Rugby Coaches Indaba

David Rock developed an outstanding neuroscience model on people leadership called the SCARF model. He outlines how each of Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness are desired by people in order for them to feel motivated and engaged at work. Certainty explains how people desire predictability, knowing where they stand and what is likely to happen.

The more certainty I have the better I will perform. Fairness, the perceived level of fair exchanges within the system, has been shown by some studies to be even more important than money in terms of motivating people. Trust in a system would be highly influenced by levels of certainty and fairness. Now let me ask you whether those two constructs are perceived as high in the current Springbok (or even franchise) system?

I recall a story about a meeting between the 5 Super Rugby coaches in New Zealand at the completion of the competition. The winning coach of that year walked in and proceeded to outline exactly what they did, why they did it and how they did it. He shared all of his IP to his competitors. I know, crazy hey!! But that is the level of trust that exists, and his philosophy was that by sharing everyone would get better and that he himself would now have to go and evolve, which he relished.

In the age where information is so readily available, content is less of the king than the ability to translate content and build relationships, sharing needs to be welcomed. I heard just the other day stories of strength and conditioning coaches in South Africa, working in the very same union, keeping information to themselves and not sharing and or debating on how to improve. I have heard of SARU forcing experienced, top coaches on their books to come into the office to do ‘homework assignments’ so that they complete their number of days working at an ‘acceptable’ level. Would they not be best served refreshing and revitalizing with their families, or visiting foreign parts to learn? Truth be told, there is still a large amount of suspicion in the way we manage people. An oft-used philosophy is that if I don’t monitor time logged at work, keep tight schedules or keep a good level of ‘fear and respect’ people won’t work well. There is enough research and anecdotal evidence to fill up a colony of libraries that refutes that style of thinking. But perhaps that thinking is bred by suspicion.

To wind down, if the desired outcome is growing players and coaches to reach their potential as individuals and as a collective then some key things need to be in place. I believe it has less to do with a homogenous style of play or coaching ‘structures’ at school level, but rather with a paradigm shift altogether. Growth requires risk, it requires the welcoming of failure and it requires other people to be involved in that growth. If the environment is one of suspicion and low trust then no risks will be taken, failure will be met with outrage and others will steer clear of helping and rather protect themselves. The result of this – stagnation and watching others fly by you. Sound familiar?

We live in a complex country, but one that brings with it great diversity. If one looks at the Springbok 7’s set up, there is clear South African proof of a diverse mini-system built on trust, low ego and an unwavering desire to grow as people and players. And, they win a lot! Were this Springbok indaba to be effective, it would dig 3 levels deeper than playing style, short-term fixes and criticizing the status quo, and it would seek to build trust in the system. It may just be worth the risk to do it, because surely now is the time for something deeper than just trying to paper over some cracks.

I’ll leave you with Ernest Hemingway, “The best way to find out if you can trust someone is to trust them”.

Here’s to brave decisions and great relationships … and a lot more wins!