Game for a laugh?
“We’re just having fun,” was England No.8 Billy Vunipola’s assessment of the start of Eddie Jones’ reign as head coach following their 15-9 victory over Scotland in their opening Six Nations clash.
“He’s a great guy,” continued the Man of the Match in the Murrayfield match-up, “we’re only two weeks in and I hope we keep on the good side of him. He’s funny and he’s very personable and I really like him.”
In almost 20 years of reporting on the sport I have listened to countless post-match interviews but I don’t recall any player ever referencing a coach’s sense of humour.
Jones’ ability to elicit a chuckle or two from his players and his clear and deliberate use of humour to build a bond with his players is fascinating.
It may also be a revelation to some that humour has the power to both unite and inspire players from grassroots to the elite game.
We understand the need to incorporate fun and games to entice and encourage younger players who are new to the sport and many of us have witnessed how such an approach can even boost learning.
But it may be news to some that coaches working at the highest level with the best players in the world are also aware of the potential benefits despite the pressure and demand for results in the modern game.
However, be warned it is not as simple as a ‘knock, knock’ joke and in fact it requires a delicate balancing act.
Any team that fails to work hard on the training pitch will be found out in a game no matter how much fun they may have had in the build-up.
Rest assured that a coach of Jones’ calibre and experience is well aware of that need for balance having also crafted a reputation as a tough task-master during an epic coaching career.
But it appears from Vunipola’s comments that there could be plenty of laughs in store for England to ease the pain of a beasting or two in the luxurious surrounds of their training base in leafy Surrey.
Recent research from the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences (Ronglan, L.T. and Aggerholm, K.) has underlined how humour can have a positive impact in elite sports coaching.
Evidence illustrated that the use of humour can not only strengthen the relationship between a coach and his team but also cement the bonds between the players themselves.
It is perhaps no surprise then that Jones would adopt such an approach having only taken charge of England at the end of last year and faced immense pressure to make an immediate impression with a Six Nations fast approaching.
But you sense this is not a new tactic for Jones, although he is not averse to new ideas having recently visited German football giants Bayern Munich and their manager Pep Guardiola in search of a new angle – and he may be
Jones’ vast experience will have no doubt taught him a lot including that while the use of humour nurtures a sense of belonging among the players, care must be taken to prevent it becoming divisive and detrimental.
The danger is that a player or group of players may feel ostracised if they sense they are being laughed at or belittled by their peers which in turn could have a negative impact on team morale and unity.
Over-use of in-jokes may also create barriers to new players joining the group when form and injury may enforce such changes in personnel.
The research, based on in-depth interviews with six experienced elite Scandinavian sport coaches, also found that humour was a valuable tool in high-pressure situations.
It proved to be particularly useful for relieving stress and tension in the heat of battle.
Particular ‘jokers’ were also encouraged at certain points to help alleviate stress and counter-balance the intensity of training.
The use of practical jokes to diffuse situations and offer light relief were also highlighted and such pranks are familiar to most in the rugby world including players who you think would know better.
A favourite that springs to mind is the time when former Leicester and England joker Austin Healey intercepted a letter for his then house-mate and team-mate Will Greenwood.
The letter in question was from the British & Irish Lions confirming Greenwood’s selection for the 1997 tour of South Africa but Healey instead just delighted in his own selection in front of his friend before – several hours later – putting his friend out of his misery.
Another key point highlighted by the research was the importance of knowing your athletes. This is a no-brainer for most coaches but specifically knowing how they would react to the use of humour and when, if ever, it would prove beneficial.
Jones probably would not claim to know any of his new charges that well having only recently taken charge but again his experience would no doubt be invaluable in making such assessments.
And far from undermining your own position, it is argued that a laugh or two with your players and occasionally being ‘one of the boys’ could also subsequently enhance your authority.
When humour is noticeable by its absence, your players will hopefully understand that it is time to deliver a performance not a punchline.
Anything that strengthens a coach’s bond with his players can only be a good thing in the quest for a winning team but the real test comes when victories prove elusive.
Jones has made a winning start and while his side may have struggled to light up a wintry day in Edinburgh, there will no doubt be more jokes and smiles in training this week.
Maybe defeat somewhere down the line will bring an end to the fun and games but in fact that may prove to be the best time to ensure the post-mortem is punctuated with a few jokes due to the heightened pressure to deliver.
But maybe not too much as any good comic will tell you, leave them wanting more.
Ronglan, L.T. and Aggerholm, K. (2014) ‘Humour helps: Elite sports coaching as a balancing act’, Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, Oslo, Norway; University of Southern Denmark, Odense, Denmark.
Balancing the Use of Humour in Coaching, Sports Coach UK Research Summary (2014)