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Champions

Last week at a team roundtable, we got to talking about Crusaders coach Scott Robertson. Once we got past our obvious admiration of his infamous breakdancing prowess, we turned to the former All Black’s comments about his coaching style in a recent Stuff article. It was Robertson’s language that struck us. Here was the rally-guy for the iron-cast men of Southern Steel describing his role as an alchemy of “a mate, a teacher, a counsellor and guide”. “We talk about our feelings a lot” the worming and windmilling coach said of his players.

You read that right. The coach of the Crusaders talks to his players about their feelings. While we don’t know the first thing about sport, we’re pretty sure that kind of language is an anomaly. It certainly sticks out like a sore hamstring from a Kiwi sporting culture that promotes stoicism and the archetypical hard man bloke on the field, driven from the sideline by their stern, detached mentor.

There’s almost a sense in Robertson’s tone that he favours a style that promotes the coach as an equal, a champion rather than a cudgel, a collaborator rather than a dictator. The article continues, with other coaches chipping in. They talk about generational shifts and the importance of open communication. They speak of the athlete’s increasing interest in owning their own career. They speak in terms of care, and place themselves “beside” their players, rather than above them.

The strange thing is, we’ve found ourselves having the same conversations around the office. These conversations, peppered with the same kind of language as Robertson, seem to indicate that something’s shifting in the next generation of artists as well as athletes.

As an outfit involved in developing young artists, we play the roles of coach and mentor on a daily basis, and a lot of times, in our industry, there’s an expectation of stoicism and toughness that goes with that. Artists start out as small fish in a large, saturated market. They have to be the best, work the hardest, and push themselves hard in a scene that is constantly threatening to railroad them and challenge their motivations. It’s easy to slip into the mindset of the hard-nut, cruel-to-be-kind J.K Simmons’-type mentor from Whiplash. Not quite my tempo, and all that. It’s easy to believe that only toughness will breed toughness.

But, we’re learning that with every generation comes a wholly different attitude, and a need for a different approach. Take Generation Z, the youths of today, born from the mid-1990s onward in the wake of Millennials. Across the worlds of commerce and education, people are noticing that Generation Z are fundamentally different, not only in their motivations, but in their relationship to authority. We already know that Generation Z is one of the most anxious in history, pressured to succeed and overwhelmed with the tools with which to do so. But we also know that their ownership is high; they are the DIY generation, less interested in being told how to do something, and more fascinated with mastering the mechanisms for doing it themselves. They’ve grown up with helicopter parents hovering overhead, and have responded by demanding autonomy and independence. Their feelings are their reality.

All this to say, maybe Robertson has a point when he calls himself a guide. Perhaps he’s stumbled upon a more effective way to be a mentor, echoing the experts’ encouragement to be “consultants, not supervisors”.

This is not to say that there is no longer a place for mentors to be direct, to offer the necessary harsh truths that lead to growth, it just suggests that these need to be offered from a place of camaraderie and trust. Perhaps our slogan as coaches and mentors needs to be less “I can make you a success” and more “you can succeed, and I can help you along the way”.

When you think about it in music industry terms, it’s a refreshing antidote to the music exec behind the desk who sees an emerging artist as blank, thoughtless clay, to be fashioned into a sellable brand. It affirms a young artist as independent and driven. It implies a partnership, where success, as well as failure, is as much on them as it is the people who are guiding them.

They told our parents’ generation that they could never be their child’s friend – to maintain an authoritative distance. They spoke of fear and respect earned from discipline wielded from above. Perhaps those days are gone, replaced by a generation who are tougher on themselves than we could ever be. YouTube has replaced the expert; they can learn everything they need to know from a quick Google search.

But they still need a champion. They still need a friend. And let’s not forget, they still need that friends’ precious wounds sometimes. But there’s something to be said for a coach who walks beside you, someone who lets you set the roadmap, and continually nudges you back to the centre line. Someone who lets you own your failures and meets your enthusiasm halfway.

Luke Oram