I have been very privileged to have played in many teams in my water polo career and under many coaches. As a young South African player I was coached by dozens of different coaches, I then went over to the USA and had two different college coaches. By the time I got to Australia, I realised how each coach contributes in different ways and was once again lucky enough to play in three different National League Teams, be a part of NSWIS and the National Team Programme. This all meant being exposed to more coaches. For my first blog post, I wanted to touch on how important the role of the coach plays in the sport of water polo and what I believe constitutes a brilliant coach.
I struggle to find a sport where a coach plays as big a role as water polo. In rugby, cricket, soccer etc. you see the coaches up in a box or on the sidelines watching and pacing. In water polo, the coach is on the side of the pool, yelling directions, yanking players in and out of the water and freely hurling criticism or praise your way. The way that the coach behaves on the side of the pool deck has a direct influence on the team’s performance and this is why:
- A coach who leads through harsh criticism or constant abuse, will spit out a team who plays under constant fear.
I have played under a coach like this before and the entire time that I was playing, I was constantly afraid of messing up. I was unable to get into the game properly because all I could think about was the repercussions if I made a mistake. This type of coach pitted players against each other and instead of a healthy team environment, he created a culture of hierarchy and fear. This team never reached its potential and had many disappointing results, not because of its lack of talent but through it’s undercurrent of fear. I am also sad to report that in my early stages as a young coach, I believed that in order to gain respect and get the most out of my players, I had to be hard, harsh and yell a lot. I went to a tournament with one of the best teams and when we got to crucial knock out stages of the semi-finals, my team buckled. I believe that this was in direct relation to my coaching, being too harsh and in turn the players were afraid of failure and afraid of me.
2. A coach who is too familiar and friendly breeds a team who will offer very little respect to both the coach and their team mates.
I have played under a coach who was too friendly with our team and it was extremely detrimental to our culture and environment. As a player, you want a leader but when you get a friend, lines and boundaries are blurred. With blurred boundaries comes a problem with respect. A coach who is too soft or too familiar leads to an abuse in power through team mates not respecting the coach or each other. Just as in point 1, a coach being too hard can be detrimental, so can a coach that is too soft. A great leader needs to actually lead – take responsibility and be the bad guy sometimes. I have been in a culture where my coach was too friendly and I am sad to say that I was one of the players that lost respect for my coach and in turn my team mates and I could not work together as a cohesive unit, as there was no leadership.
3. A coach who leads with kindness, authority and understanding will churn out a team of leaders who respect and honour their coach and team mates.
I have played under a coach who has cared more for me as an individual than about what I can do for them in the pool. A coach who has been hard and given out criticism when necessary, but then been kind and given compliments when deserved. A coach who respects his/her team mates and in turn earns their respect. In the early stages of my coaching career, I believed I needed to be a harsh coach who got respect through fear. I learnt very quickly that this spat out fearful players. When I played under a coach who was hard yet fair, gave both criticism and compliment, and demanded respect yet gave it, I realised that I played more freely, reached my potential and our team culture was healthy.
When I look at the best women’s water polo team in the world, in the USA team, I like to look at why they have been the most dominant team for the past 10 years. I like to call it “The Adam Krikorian Effect”. Adam is the USA women’s National Team Coach and has been for the last two Olympic Games. While I have never been coaches by Adam, I have watched his team and played against them. There are a few key points that I have noticed about his coaching style and team:
- He is highly respected by his coaching staff and team
- He has a great balance of being tough but kind
- His team plays with so much freedom
- He smiles and laughs with his team
- He is adored and respected by his players
At an Olympic Games only the players receive a medal, not the coaching staff. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, when team USA won gold, each girl after receiving her medal, went and draped it over Adam’s neck. It was evident to anyone watching that this team of woman had so much respect, love and admiration for their leader and in a moment that should have been all about them, they made it all about him. What an honour for a coach. At an Olympic Games, each team has prepared as best they can, put in hours of effort and time, so what is the determining factor? In my opinion, it is the coach. The coach is the make or break for a water polo team and I have seen first hand how a mean coach breeds fear through a team and a kind and fair coach breeds freedom and respect through a team.
As I have embarked on my own journey as a coach, I have made many errors. I started as that first coach and have seen first hand how it doesn’t work. I am constantly inspired by the “Adam Krikorian Effect” and am witnessing first hand how it is shaping and moulding the teams and young woman that I coach.