“Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing” NFL Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi (1959-1967).
As in many other parts of life, including business and politics, the cutthroat world of professional sport has seen the demise of many a once much fancied and revered leader – the coach.
But if the 2014 National Rugby League (NRL) season is anything to go by, it seems to be happening on an increasingly regular basis and, even more brutally, early or mid-season.
This year in the NRL a record seven or nearly half the coaches in the competition have either been sacked by their Club’s Board or announced a premature departure in response to the poor performance of the team on the pitch.
The first sacking happened after just a handful of games into the regular season.
The last and most recent victim had spent almost the entire second half of the season coaching a young, talented team knowing the axe could fall at any moment.
Ironically, it was a “performance review” conducted by another former coach who had himself been sacked from his last Club, which was used by the controversial CEO to persuade the Board to dispense with his services.
In the last English Premier League season (EPL), it was coaching carnage with 12 of the 20 Managers sacked.
This apparently rising trend isn’t confined to the NRL or EPL but is being played out across a variety of professional sports where sponsors and fans, closely followed by the boardrooms who rely on the sponsors and fans, expect results and demand immediate answers when their team is not meeting their start of season high expectations.
And in the small coaching pool that makes up the NRL Competition, these sacked coaches often simply end up at rival clubs via a musical chairs type process.
“If we can play like that every week we'll get some level of consistency” Sir Alex Ferguson, Manager Manchester United (1986-2013).
When a team is consistently underperforming and losing matches - who is responsible, and if it is the coach or manager, does sacking them lead to better outcomes?
When a team of otherwise talented and highly paid players underperforms or loses week after week it’s difficult to properly or objectively assess who is responsible. With 11, 13, 15 or 18 players on the field in whatever code, it’s a bit hard to blame the players. They can’t all be playing poorly. It must be poor coaching. But on the other hand, how many times have we seen one player single-handedly turn a game around by an act of sheer individual brilliance? How many times have we seen an otherwise poorly performing team respond to a perceived injustice such as a cheap shot by an opponent lead to a complete turnaround in effort and result? Surely that points to player responsibility?
To make it more confusing, different coaches seem to see things differently.
One NFL Coach certainly predicted his own demise when he said:
“I feel that a great coach is one that has a vision, sets a plan in place, has the right people in place to execute that plan and then accepts the responsibility if that plan is not carried out”
Mike Singletary, NFL Footballer and Coach, sacked by the 49ers in 2010.
Yet Brian Clough, one of the EPL’s greatest ever managers, “the greatest manager England never had”, saw it differently:
"Players lose you games, not tactics. There's so much crap talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win at dominoes”.
He also believed the buck didn’t necessarily end with the Coach. When asked about the number of managers getting the boot he said:
"If a chairman sacks the manager he initially appointed, he should go as well."
Judging by the quotes for which he is famous, legendary NFL Coach of the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi acknowledged the precarious nature of the coaching role when he said:
“If you aren't fired with enthusiasm, you will be fired with enthusiasm”.
In the AFL at least there’s been a bit of a fight back for coaches. Perhaps scarred by his own brief experience coaching the International Rules Football Team for two losses and two narrow wins,
Melbourne Football Club icon Garry Lyon recently called on his old team to stop pointing the finger at their coach for their poor showings on the field:
"Stop blaming coaches. Stop blaming the poor culture. Stop blaming the last five years, Melbourne players."
West Coast Eagles co-Captain Matt Priddis took defending his coach much further when he said:
"It's the players…it doesn't matter who's coaching, it's purely the players."
So no-one will probably ever agree on where the blame lies for a team’s poor performance. But if we accept for a minute the proposition that the leader or coach needs to go, is there any evidence this produces better results?
In English and European Football where the ruthless practice of sacking the coach has been around a lot longer, a couple of studies appear to shed some light on the subject.
Dr Bas ter Weel is deputy director at the CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis in The Hague, the Netherlands and a professor of economics at Maastricht University.
In 2011 he released a paper titled “Does Manager Turnover Improve Firm Performance? Evidence from Dutch Soccer, 1986–2004”1. According to the paper, over the time studied the average season saw around 50% of teams changed managers, and of these, about 44% were forced resignations. Dr ter Weel studied the performance of not only the teams who fired their boss when times were tough, but also those who stuck with the beleaguered coach and weathered out the season. The paper found no difference in performance between the two groups:
“What is clear is that performance increases after one period are significant but that the new manager performs worse compared to the control group in the next three periods he is in charge”.
A similar study2 conducted around the same period but of the German Bundesliga came to very similar conclusions. University of Muenster researchers examined more than 40 years of German professional team records in an effort to determine if coaching changes affect a team’s results.
Using the goal differential (GD) as the measurement for team performance, the study found no significant difference in performance or results gained from replacing the coach mid-season.
The frequent positive results achieved immediately following a coach dismissal is explained as “a simple statistical selection effect (regression towards the mean)”, which, according to Wikipedia used to be known, perhaps more appropriately, as “reversion to mediocrity”.
Unfortunately there is little hope that statistical studies of this type will lead to less coaches being fired mid-season. Pressure from the media, the sponsors and fans who fund professional sport and demand results will continue to determine the fate of coaches who do not meet their high expectations.
Finally, there’s the view that no manner of great coaching or player talent can produce a desired result – that it is something in a Club’s DNA that ultimately determines their long term success.
Therefore the last word goes to Australian Rugby League “Team of the Century” coach Jack Gibson who famously said:
“Waiting for Cronulla to win a premiership is like leaving the porch lamp on for Harold Holt”.
1 Does Manager Turnover Improve Firm Performance? Evidence from Dutch Soccer, 1986–2004, Bas ter Weel
Published online: 18 January 2011
2 Heuer A, Müller C, Rubner O, Hagemann N, Strauss B (2011) Usefulness of Dismissing and Changing the Coach in Professional Soccer. PLoS ONE 6(3): e17664. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0017664
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