Elite coaching seldom allows for growth because winning is the currency that professional sports teams trade in. If positive results aren’t delivered, the coach is quickly ushered to a door marked ‘Exit’.
There are common traits that the greatest sports coaches share – single-mindedness, vision, organisation and a winning mentality – to get the job done successfully. But few are allowed the chance to fully develop those traits, or impose them on their teams.
Having those and many other skills won’t be enough if there isn’t support from above – whether it be an owner or a CEO. Coaches need to have people in high places that share their vision and who have the same stomach for the fight.
Weak bosses will cripple an elite sports team if they don’t share the same clarity about the direction a team is taking. A strong boss will do everything to create an environment to shape that winning context, but be ruthless enough to know when to hit eject.
It’s a fine line and more often than not caution and fear overcomes vision and patience. But it is the coach who makes the decisions that ultimately decide his own fate.
Which brings us to Blitzboks mentor Neil Powell. A few more grey hairs notwithstanding, he has hardly put a foot wrong since his appointment six years ago.
His first five seasons at the helm produced three runners-up places and two titles in the World Rugby Sevens Series, including 12 tournament wins (two more this year), a Commonwealth Games gold medal and an Olympic bronze.
He was given the latitude by SA Rugby to gradually build a team to become World Series winners. It took three years of finishing second before they claimed the title with a tournament to spare in 2017.
In 2018 it took until the last minute of the 60th and last game of the campaign for the Blitzboks to retain their title.
This year the chances of making it three in a row are gone after a slow start, but Powell’s team are looking stronger as the season goes on.
They lost so many players – too long to list here – to injury and migration to 15s. More than 10 World Series champions have been missing and naturally results have been inconsistent as Powell rebuilds.
But through it all he has remained as self-assured as Gordon Ramsay at a braai. Because for him and those he inspires, results are a simply bye-product of processes, planning and execution.
His remarkable ability to see everything in this light, even when fans and media are starting to question, is the reason the Blitzboks have won two of the last three World Series tournaments and why they continue to command respect.
The really hard work happens at the Sevens Academy conceived and created by Powell and fellow coach Marius Schoeman.
Started by the pair in 2010 on a shoestring budget, the SA Sevens Academy in Stellenbosch today contracts 28 players as full time sevens professionals and is constantly scouting for new talent.
Schoeman’s role is intrinsic to the Sevens programme’s success, but it’s Powell’s leadership that shapes it. He is unafraid to delegate responsibility and willing to concede where he has to personally improve.
Last week in Singapore, instead of leading analysis sessions, he made players run the debriefs. They had to take ownership, and offer explanations and solutions for the shortcomings exposed at the previous week’s Hong Kong tournament where they finished seventh. It was both daunting and liberating for the players and the results in Singapore underlined what a good piece of management it was.
Powell could have panicked and tried desperate new tactics or called for stalwarts such as Seabelo Senatla and Tim Agaba to abandon fifteens and return to save the Blitzboks.
But he resisted and instead trusted that what has been built in Stellenbosch would deliver the next batch of world-beaters. Which is exactly what happened with Angelo Davids and Kurt-Lee Arendse, the latest duo to have the sevens world salivating.
Clarity of vision, steely resolve and the capacity to stay on course through the rough times are the pillars of Powell’s coaching tenure. The Blitzboks won’t win the World Series again this year, but the foundation has been laid for continued success.