Mal Maninga’s Coaching Philosophy and Experiences as a Successful Sports Coach

By Liz Hanson – Client Director at Athlete Assessments

I was inspired by the recent article published in The Weekend Australian (12-13 February 2011, pages 41 and 43) about Rugby League Coach, Mal Meninga. So inspired, I’ve decided to start a series about inspirational coaches and what I most value about their coaching philosophy and experiences they share. Mal Meninga has the prestigious honor of being the first in the series (not that I believe he will include being in my list on his CV of professional achievements!!)

As a player, his career is one of the greatest in rugby league history, with a long list of honors and achievements including being a member of: the Order of Australia, the Australian Rugby League Hall of Fame, and has also been named at centre in both Queensland’s and Australia’s rugby league teams of the century. Not to mention all of the Australian Captaincies he held, the success of different teams he played for, State of Origin wins and Test matches.

His most recent success as a coach has been achieved with the unprecedented wins of the Queensland team in the State of Origin series. No other coach in history has achieved five straight series wins with a winning percentage higher than 70%. Prior to taking the Queensland team post, he’d had a break from coaching, with his previous coaching being for the Canberra Raiders for which his time he described as ‘mixed’. Here are some of Mal Meninga’s quotes from The Weekend Australian:

“I went through a really black hole for about two years because I lacked self-confidence after being exposed to that type of experience at that coaching level. I went through a stage there where I was naïve; I didn’t really have a coaching philosophy. It was a case of going in at the deep end and trying to learn quickly. I had an ageing team, professionalism came into play, the Super League war emerged. I was probably too honest in Canberra. I probably didn’t handle it as well as I would have liked. I was a victim of those circumstances. The players’ pay trebled and quadrupled in some cases. Egos go out of hand. It was a very difficult time for the game in general. It was a nightmare at times.”

One of the things I most admire is his honesty about the experience. He shows an open heart and vulnerability and from his physical presence, it would be hard to imagine his vulnerable side. He shows humility. So often there are examples of coaches who think they have all the answers and get all things right. The greats don’t act like this, they know they don’t have all the answers but their responsibility is to build a quality team around them and continue to personally learn and develop. Great coaching is a journey.

“It was a life-changing experience for me. I went back to uni and did a business management course. I got to understand at the time that coaching wasn’t for me at that level and if I wanted to get into coaching you have to do your apprenticeship.”

“I always thought I would have a career in rugby league because I love the game, I have a passion for it. I always thought the game would provide for me and I would hopefully be a good vehicle for the game to blossom as well. I struggled to come to terms with what I really wanted to do. I learned a lot out of that. That’s the good thing, the positive thing to come out of coaching at the Raiders. I have certainly grown from that (Origin) and on the back of being involved at the elite level with the Origin side.”

They say what doesn’t kill you, only makes your stronger. What a great example of taking a negative experience, learning from it and coming out the other side on a new level of clarity of purpose and growth.

“It has rebuilt my confidence and enabled me to think about how I want to go about coaching. I think I have found the right formula, my philosophy, how I want to be. One of the things I need to do is be myself. I feel I am more comfortable with myself, I know myself better, I know how to react to things and behave.”

“The thing about coaching is you have to have control of you. You have to have in-depth knowledge of how you handle things. When I was playing I was calm. That’s me. I believe the players are a reflection of you on the football field. You have to be composed on the field and be able to think clearly.”

Self-awareness and being in ‘control’ of your behavior is such an important foundation for coaching. We’ve already written numerous articles on this topic. Great athletes and coaches have self-awareness. They know what they do best, and where they need to improve. Studies suggest that 75 percent of making behavioral changes is being self-aware of what it is you currently do.

Self-awareness is the recognition of our behaviors, our strengths and weaknesses, our beliefs and values, and how this all creates the outcomes we experience in life. High level self-awareness goes deeper into our core beliefs and values, both of which shape our actions, decisions and behaviors.

As Geoff Colvin puts it in his best-selling book, “Talent Is Overrated”:

“The best performers observe themselves closely. They are in effect able to step outside themselves, monitor what is happening in their own minds, and ask how it’s going.. knowledge about your own knowledge, thinking about your own thinking. Top performers do this much more systematically than others do; it’s an established part of their routine.” (page 118)

“A critical part of self-evaluation is deciding what caused the errors. Average performers believe their errors were caused by factors outside their control: My opponent got lucky… Top performers, by contrast, believe they are responsible for their errors…. So when something doesn’t work, they can relate the failure to specific elements of their performance that may have misfired. Research on champion golfers, for example, has uncovered precisely this pattern. They’re much less likely than average golfers to blame their problems on the weather, the course, or chance factors. Instead they focus relentlessly on their own performance.” (page 119-120)

What Mal Meninga shares is a great example of what Geoff Colvin describes as the difference with top performers.

Developing self-awareness can help us to recognize the specific triggers creating certain emotional and behavioral responses. Self-awareness is also a prerequisite for effective communication and interpersonal relations, as well as for developing empathy for others.

The bottom line is, athletes and coaches perform in their chosen fields to a higher level if they have greater levels of self-awareness. When we develop self-awareness, we can begin to choose the types of behaviors that create great and consistent performances. Mal Meninga is a fantastic example of a coach with a very high level of self-awareness. He also has a well articulated coaching philosophy.

“The philosophy is about the way you coach, how you interact with your players, how you communicate, your quality of staff”. 

“You have to have a club that is strong in its leadership. You have to have a really good junior development program as well. I looked at the (Queensland) team in 2005 and there was something lacking. Instead of complaining and going behind the team’s back… I thought If you’re going to do something you might as well dive in and help out.”

“In a way Origin was a bit of a lifesaver when you talk about rekindling my passion for the game and actually wanting to be involved in the game in some level. I think I have plenty to offer to be honest. I have had some great mentors in my life. I know I have a really good understanding of what it takes to be successful.”

Coach Mal Meninga also shares in the article that he surrounds himself with excellent tacticians and although his position as head coach is still the boss, he is egalitarian in his approach with his coaching team.

He also talks about how he maintains a strong connection with the coaching greats of Tim Sheens and Wayne Bennett. These men are the top coaches in rugby league and were also mentors to Mal Meninga throughout his playing career.

Ideally, mentors are more than wise people who we turn to for advice on an ad-hoc basis. Ideally, they are experienced master coaches who can give us feedback on how we’re doing and can guide us on the skills and abilities we need to focus on next. This can be an idealistic ask and finding that person isn’t easy, but it shouldn’t take away from the on-going pursuit of finding great mentors. Having mentors is a tremendous advantage and imagine the advantage of having mentors such as Sheens and Bennett!

In business, many CEOs of the best performing companies attribute much of their personal success in rising to the top of their organizations and field to having a few key mentors who were consistent with their guidance and helping them. Take Jeff Fettig, CEO of Whirlpool, as an example he is quoted as saying: “I am here today in part due to a handful of people who, before it was in vogue, provided coaching and mentoring to me early in my career. That helped me to develop.”*

However, coaches acquiring mentors is often overlooked. In a 2009 survey of coaches, we found 52% responded to not having any mentor and the 38% who did have a mentor only connected with them on a monthly or longer time period basis. It is well founded in business, a mentoring relationship is one which needs continual nourishment and regular touch points. A mentor’s role is to act as a sounding board for decisions and to bounce ideas off. They can also be of great value for coaches in being able to help you assess your own behavior and coaching style.

Mal Meninga – we salute you! Congratulations on all that you have achieved and we look forward with anticipation of your future successes.

Please Contact Us if you have any questions or would like to discuss this article further. One aspect we can strongly support your on-going coach development, is in further understanding of your coaching style and self-awareness. Click here to read more about information specifically for coaches.

*Jeff Fettig mentoring example taken from Geoff Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated, page 131.

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