Most of us can think back to one, or several, watershed moments in our lives; passing a driving test, getting married, being offered the dream job. They’re defining, they stay with us. For Denis, it was captaining the England Rugby League team in a World Cup final at Wembley. His defining moment.
Then the final whistle blew and he found himself on the losing side. Like a failed driving test, a first date that never happened or a job interview that never went any further than that. Most of us have had those moments too. They may well serve to shape who we are today but equally they get consigned to the wastebasket of our memory.
Here’s a good one for hard-core pub quiz enthusiasts: Who was the only man, apart from Bobby Moore, to lead an England side out for a World Cup final at Wembley? Answer: Denis Betts. But no-one remembers it. Because he didn’t win. Because, unlike our driving tests, dates and interviews he never got a second bite at the cherry. At least until now.
Roll forward 22 years and Denis is now coaching an England side who are in the semi-finals of the World Cup in Australia. It’s either the penultimate step towards being embraced as sporting heroes or a banana skin that will send everyone involved into the zone of esoteric quiz questions. None of this is lost on Denis,
It’s the nature of tournament sport and it can be brutal…It’s always been real but now it’s highlighted. You can almost touch it.
“It’s the nature of tournament sport and it can be brutal. Now we’re in the knockout phase it’s completely different. It’s like google maps. When you start off, you can see where you’re heading but it’s only really a notion, a point on the map. Then you get closer and click on street view and everything comes in to clear focus. You’re still heading in the same direction, to the same place but it’s in close up. It’s always been real but now it’s highlighted. You can almost touch it”.
“And how does that affect everyone?”
“Everyone’s really enjoying the journey. We know there are high expectations, we’ve got them ourselves, but we’re pretty confident and comfortable”.
I’m not entirely convinced. I know that confidence doesn’t remove the feeling of pressure. I’ve been around dressing rooms when teams win and I’ve been present when teams lose. The difference is as stark as you can imagine. For me it serves the idea that relief is an under-rated emotion. Beneath the celebration there usually lurks a ‘thank f**k we didn’t lose’. The bigger the expectations, the greater the sense of relief. I put this to Denis,
“How do you manage yourself and the squad in light of those expectations?”
“It can become a burden if you let it. We just constantly focus on review and preview, moving forward in the context of what we’ve learned. We’re focusing on the margins, looking to eradicate errors and keep moving forward”.
“How often are you doing that?”
He rumbles his unique laugh, “All day, every day. We have to. We need to know, the players need to know. There’s no point doing a six-monthly review and telling someone you think they’ve been shit for six months. We’re at the place where sport differs from so many walks of life, particularly business”.
I know what he means. The great coaches I’ve witnessed follow a constantly repeating, evolving process. It’s what they ‘are’ rather than what they ‘do’. On the other hand, poor coaching tends to be transactional, something that’s ‘done’ at an agreed time and place. It’s an approach that rarely works for anyone involved, including the coach. Denis continues,
In sport, you’re at the edge of success and failure every minute.
“In sport, you’re at the edge of success and failure every minute. A business can take losses, roll with the flow, re-group. For us, tomorrow means that one team will win and move forward and one will lose and go home. That’s it”.
He pauses. I can hear his name being shouted by, I assume, some of the more enthusiastic squad members. Our time is nearly up but he has one more thing to add,
“We’ve been building to this for a long time. The point is not to divert from our focus or our process. It’s like a sword fighter. You can have the best skills but if your sword is blunt, you’ll fail. It’s up to us to keep the sword as sharp as possible”.
“That’s very poetic”.
That laugh again. “I’ve still got time to read books”.
And with that he’s gone. Another step closer to finding out whether they’ll be a footnote or a chapter in English sporting history. Answer sheets at the ready….
Coach Down Under
This article is part of the Coach Down Under Series.