The Australian cricket team that John Buchanan coached from 1999 to 2007 is among the greatest sports teams ever. Unrelenting consistency, unprecedented success and numerous trophies: how do you coach that?
John Buchanan doesn’t immediately strike you as a leader. Quiet and meticulous, the idea of him being in charge of the great Australian cricket team boasting big personalities like Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting and Shane Warne is hard to imagine. He was in charge, though, and he presided over an immensely successful period: two World Cup trophies, 16 consecutive Test match victories and three Ashes series wins.
Despite that, Buchanan’s methods haven’t always received the acclaim that they deserve. Having not played international cricket, there are those who seek to deride what he achieved. Now running his own leadership business, Buchanan is clear about what he believes makes a good coach: “As a coach, you’ve got to understand yourself inside out and with that you do not compromise yourself. You can change the order of your principles if you like but you never sacrifice a principle, you don’t compromise a principle. The essence of coaching is about relationships and you obviously have them with athletes, you have them with other support staff, you have them with administrative staff, you have them with the board. But the important people as a coach are obviously your players and your relationship with them has to be as solid as it can be.
“Of course, in sport, you will have players coming and going and you will be closer to some than to others – that’s natural – but regardless, there is a relationship there that needs to be as solid as it can be. For that reason, if you know what your principles and philosophies are, and you stick by them, what you deliver to that athlete is consistency, and consistency is what an athlete seeks in a coach. The coach is that person who an athlete might not necessarily agree with, or indeed like all the time, but they clearly understand who they are and what they stand for.”
While Buchanan’s background is in cricket, the importance he places on relationships is relevant to coaches in all sports – and indeed to leaders beyond the world of professional sport. Also relevant is the distinction between earning and expecting respect and the difficulty in proving yourself as a coach if you haven’t excelled as a player. When Buchanan went to interview for his first coaching job, at the Queensland Bulls in 1994, he was attempting to take over from Jeff Thomson, an Australian Test cricketer who had played over 100 times for his country; Buchanan had played only seven first-class matches and averaged 12.30. The gulf was huge.
“I went to interview and I’d had one year playing Sheffield Shield cricket 16 years prior to that. So I guess the fundamental question must have been: ‘How is this bloke going to help us win a Sheffield Shield?’ To do that I had to understand circumstances. I had good and bad memories from life circumstances and from relationships in the past: people I’d played against, teachers and coaches I’d had, my peers, my parents and so on. All the good and the poor experiences – and all the experiences from my one year playing Sheffield Shield cricket – were helpful to me in so far as I got to understand that there are a lot of people who try really hard yet don’t necessarily get performances or results.
“I believed those people could make better players if there were better support systems and people who understood them a little bit better. To me it was about trying to work out what my team philosophy was, what my principles were, what my cornerstones were and what I really believed in so when I went in for the interview I imparted my coaching philosophies around vision: always trying to change the game, always trying to be in front of the game. I sometimes used the saying, ‘If it ain’t broke, break it and start again.’ When I was interviewed I was asked how I was going to win the Sheffield Shield and my response was, ‘Well, that’s not what I’m going to do. That’s not my role.’ The vision for me was to look at the bigger picture of dominating domestic cricket for the next 10 years. It was to be about looking at our systems and processes and how we could improve them. If we could do that then we would be on target to win the Sheffield Shield.”
One year later and Queensland won the Sheffield Shield trophy – the club’s first success in 69 years. Five years later he was coach of the national team.
The question that Buchanan’s success throws up – like that of coaches in other sports who have also been at the top of their game despite not playing to a high level, such as Jose Mourinho and Stuart Lancaster – is if being a successful player in your sport isn’t required then what is needed to be a coach, and is it something anyone can do? “I think coaching is within everybody,” Buchanan explains, “but I think like any occupation that’s built on science and art – the science being everything from sports science to the hard performance measurements around individuals and the art being the skill of communicating and really trying to understand a human being – some will be a lot better than others.
“Woven into that is the idea of trying to find your fundamental purpose in life: and why would you be a coach? It’s a big question for everyone involved in coaching, particularly when you consider that you will be under the gaze of so many people who want results day-in, day-out. One of the key fundamental purposes to coaching is about helping people and if you like helping people, it certainly helps you to be a far better coach than if your fundamental purpose is just about achieving incredible results. I think a coach who is very focused on results can have success but I’m not sure that they have longevity – they’re possibly the coaches who move from club to club.”
Among his other achievements, longevity and consistency were a big part of what John Buchanan did for Australian cricket. For his years at the helm they were unimpeachable. The pressure to get results is probably greater for coaches now than it was when he left his post in 2007, so does he think that pressure has made being a coach even tougher? “Most definitely. It’s one of the biggest things that’s changed since I finished coaching, social media has changed that significantly. Sport has always been results-driven, but it just seems now that the investment in sport by media, sponsors and supporters really drives this need to win today.
“It makes coaches think less about winning tomorrow and therefore coaches try to produce immediate results when I think most really want to build a club. Unfortunately that time element seems to be a real luxury – a precious commodity that is not afforded to many people – and coaches are tested constantly. I must say I am not envious of any of the guys who aspire to be coaches in the Premier League. Having met Ryan Giggs, Paul Ince and a few others when I was in the UK, I know them to be pretty impressive characters: they still wanted it, because they have incredible passion for the game and a strong belief in their own skills to do the job. The ultimate challenge is whether they can survive, and not only can they survive, but can they prosper?”