It's that sick feeling in your gut, the butterflies and the air of uncertainty. That's the feeling you experience as a coach as game day creeps closer and closer each week. Then the adrenaline rush of the game and the exhilaration of an intense victory against a quality opponent. It’s a rush and it’s what you live for; to be on that knife edge constantly.
Face your fears, be uncomfortable and come out on the other side. As soon as you feel or want to feel comfortable you are in trouble. Maybe not today or this week, but once you think you have everything covered you are gone. Sometimes the longer it takes to realise this, the bigger the losses are going to be.
Nothing fails like success, the old saying goes. Take a young player that is making his debut in the NRL. I've been involved in this journey many times. The struggle of pushing themselves to the limit just to earn the spot, coupled with the excitement of their debut, normally produces a performance that surprises everyone (including themselves). They often back this up the next week and the week after that. Though after a few games, it is then common that the young player stops chasing and rightly wants to enjoy his new level of accomplishment. It is at this point that they get their biggest and most valuable lesson. The chase never stops. In fact, if you want to stay in the NRL it has only just started. This is the main reason that many players will come in and out of first grade a few times early in their careers. Sometimes they might struggle physically, but usually it is the mental challenge of staying hungry and being uncomfortable; it’s not ability.
The preparation for a NRL game is a great challenge every week for a head coach. There are 30 players and 15 staff to coordinate for recovery, reviews, field and weights sessions, analysis meetings, etc. Also, often a lot of outside noise from the media and fans trying to infiltrate into your thoughts and processes. Everything builds up to the 80 minutes on game day. The difference between a win and a loss can be decided in one brutal minute. This is why the thrill of the chase is so rewarding when it goes your way. That hour in the sheds after a victory is priceless. As you walk out to the bus for the trip home it all starts again; "who have we got next week? What does our training week look like? I need to watch the tape of tonight's game," - it never stops.
And it can’t. As soon as it does, you start to become ineffective and that seeps through your whole group. I've usually experienced this after a run of victories. The team wins 2, 3, or 4 games in a row and then suddenly produces an out of character performance which results in defeat. It’s the way you lose that sounds the alarm. As you trace it back through the previous weeks, invariably as the leader you see how you got a little too comfortable and complacent. There is no worse feeling as a coach. Sometimes you just get beat because the opposition was too good even though you played well. But the majority of the times standards had slipped. Comfortability is a cancer for a team.
Leadership roles in sport and business require strength and courage. Once a leader has projected a vision for a team they must then be prepared to navigate the pathway. The greater the vision, the more potentially volatile the journey, greater the challenge, and higher the level of discomfort. A big part of your responsibility, as a leader, is not only to face the challenges along the way but meet them head on.
Hence, growth occurs when you are in a state of discomfort. When an outcome is unpredictable it makes you uncomfortable. But, it is in this state that your ability to grow and empower change is magnified and the opportunity for success is enhanced.
It’s that knife edge I wrote about earlier - it can be a beautiful place. It’s one of my favourite things about coaching Rugby League. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.