Cheika front and centre: Coaches playing the leading role

An emotional Michael Cheika came out this week, talking of his emotions and affects on his personal life after another Wallabies defeat to the All Blacks, making it a very uphill battle to win back the Bledisloe Cup last held in 2002. The heart on his sleeve coach has been the focal point of public backlash to the Wallabies' latest loss to the All Blacks and he said he didn't feel any added pressure to perform. Cheika said he was not concerned about the criticism, mainly because he is already his own hardest marker. Turning that negative into a positive is the only way to remain in the hunt for the Bledisloe come Saturday, at a venue where the Wallabies haven't won a Bledisloe Cup Test match since 1986. With the 2019 Rugby World Cup just over a year away, Cheika says he remains convinced the Wallabies are still on the path to success, even if it has contained potholes and rough patches. This lead me to look at the timing and tactics of Cheika's comments and address to the media; is he taking centre stage with the AUS press to allow his leading players to focus on and orchestrate their on field requirements?  


Coaches such as Cheika and his assistants need to learn to cope with ambiguity and difficulty of their role, overcoming a sense of legitimacy or validation and the perceived expectations of others, including the unrelenting media. The challenge of successful coaching is acknowledging social interactive dilemmas within individual and team goal setting and development, offering suitable scenarios and choices with all members’ involvement and collaboratively dealing with matters as opposed to eradicating them.

Current players and former Wallabies hooker Jeremy Paul has come to the defence of the under pressure Michael Cheika, saying he would have loved to have played under him. Paul said it isn’t always about the coach, and in this case it is about the quality of players that Cheika has to work with: 

Coaching is not just about plays and how to do a lineout, it’s about passion and the confidence he can draw out of an individual

Jones et all (2004) quotes coaching as “inherently fluid and multifaceted, militating against clean treatment, typified by pre-specification of a cumulative sequence of precise objectives and monitoring their achievement” (Jones et al, 2004). Other relevant research noted expert coaches could be recognised as highly adaptive in nature and adopt flexible planning strategies, relative to the context offered, quoted by Cote as “coaching expertise requires flexible adaptation to constraints” (Cote et al, 1995). Having coaches adopt supporting roles, such as the adopted role of Cheika dealing with media and absorption of perceived blame, allows them to support their “leading actors” being the Wallaby players through methods such as offering practical guidance with limited control, focusing attention on aiding development through decision making for players and practices from observations, evaluations with positive and honest feedback whilst displaying understanding and care towards players. 

This style of leadership would see the Wallaby coaches steering as opposed to controlling player's decisions and actions, encouraging player discovery through evolutionary planning and organising of tasks whilst keeping sight of overall objectives and showing empathy to get the best from the players. Coaches acting as orchestrators whilst attempting to create a successful pedagogic setting requires coordination of activities to investigate, monitor and respond with honesty to players. This may require some transparency from fellow coaches to offer rationale for processes. It may also require negotiation of processes with players to meet individual and collective performance measures of those being coached whilst matching evolving circumstances for learning and development against attempting keeping sight of overall objectives.

Wallace (2001) looked at shared leadership through “promoting cultural transformation for followers through articulating vision of desirable future state, empathising dialogue, team work and mutual support”. Therefore, coaches shall look to incorporate a greater degree of follower power, gaining an overall system of collective relations between activities, agents and objectives. Offering player or athlete autonomy “positively corresponds to a number of desirable (player) outcomes” (Gagne et al, 2003); these include task perseverance through developed intrinsic motivation and physiological well-being. Protrac (2000) investigated ideas of coaching unobtrusively which allows players to informally focus on the Wallaby squad's playing objectives. Therefore, as defined by Gibb (1954), this form of leadership would be recognised as collaborative, “accomplishing group tasks with leadership as fluid (state) as opposed to fixed phenomenon”. This should enable intrinsically satisfying experiences for all involved, players and Cheika's coaches alike, enable personal development through informal and incidental learning opportunities and increased levels of skill and knowledge retention due to increased input into leadership. 

Studies have shown that athlete satisfaction is related to the degree to which athletes understand their role and responsibilities within interactive sports teams. (Eys, 2007). The main aspects of influential and successful coach-athlete relationships revolve around ideals such as mutual trust, respect, support, cooperation, communication and understanding of each other and impact of each other within the relationship such as Cheika's adopted role with the media. Both performance enhancement and physiological well-being is deeply engrained within the coach-athlete relationship. Coaches need to acknowledge and recognise the effects of positive, interdependent relationships, which are dynamic and interlinked with cognitions, feelings and behaviours to achieve common recognised goals (Jowett, 2007). Therefore, a coach’s ability to acknowledge and develop positive interpersonal connections, driven by interpersonal skills and united sense of purpose and achievement, can offer solid base for positive group climate. 

As previously mentioned, we recognise coaching as acknowledging social interactive dilemmas within individual and team goal setting and development, offering suitable scenarios and choices with all members’ involvement and collaborative dealing with matters as opposed to eradicating them. Lemert (1997) discussed that coaches “define themselves and their role by their perception of what it means to be a coach with the influence of occupational socialisation and subculture, which provide a sense of others expectations”. However, as explored through previous research mentioned in this article, it is believed coaches whom relationships with players respect their knowledge or expertise in athletic or sports based contexts, cultivate learning without exercising legitimate power and do not influence social aspects or relations can lead to new shared understandings with their athletes. Therefore, I perceive that Cheika took this action of putting himself under the spotlight as opposed to supporting staff or players to allow their focus to be on winning the Bledisloe Cup back; we'll see on Saturday night!