Michael Cheika, then coach of the Wallabies at Twickenham Stadium in 2016 I Getty Images.

WHO WOULD BE A COACH? That’s the question that might have formed on the lips of anyone watching former Australian rugby coach Eddie Jones’ terse press conference following the Wallabies’ 40-6 thrashing by Wales at the Rugby World Cup in France earlier this year. Jones was in the hot seat, a position in which all coaches at the highest level find themselves at some point. It’s part of the job, if you can call what is a multidimensional, intensely scrutinised and, for some, all-consuming obsession, a job. 

“I don’t consider coaching a career in any way, shape or form,” says Michael Cheika, coach of the Argentinian rugby team, a former World Rugby Coach of the Year and one of the few people who might have had a real understanding of how Jones was feeling in that moment, having coached the Wallabies from 2014 to 2019. “One day when I grow up, I’m going to have to get a proper job, just like everyone else. I think this is… it’s a lifestyle.” 

Cheika, 56, who’s speaking to me today from his living room in Paris where he currently lives, loves the real-time, week-by-week, game-by-game accountability of his role (he refuses to call it a job). “That is the best because you know that the day-to-day will get you to the better results later on,” he says. “The ups are never as good if you haven’t had the downs. So, the thing I enjoy most is that attention to results.” 

Cheika’s attitude is one built not so much on self-confidence—though, of course, that is important—but supreme self-belief. “Confidence can come and go,” he says. “You can be swayed with confidence. Because after a bad result, you could have your doubts. But what brings you back is that sense of self-belief, that you know what you can do and what you can achieve.” 

If you want to know if you truly love something, you can get pretty clear confirmation if the things you enjoy about it are the same as those you find challenging, or as pop culture’s most recent coach du jour Ted Lasso said: “Taking on a challenge is a lot like riding a horse, isn’t it? If you’re comfortable while you’re doing it, you’re probably doing it wrong.” 

Comfort certainly isn’t something you’ll find in great abundance in elite-level coaching. This is a role that puts you on a war footing with failure. One in which pressure is a ceaseless companion, scrutiny can be forensic, and all that really matters, no matter how much an organisation might bang on about about culture and development, is wins and losses that are there for all to see. Succeed and you’re a saint. Fail and you’re a sinner. As Tom Sizemore’s character says in Michael Mann’s Heat, “The action is the juice”. And if it’s not, well, you should probably find another gig. 

Former Wallabies coach Eddie Jones at last year’s Rugby World Cup France 2023 I Getty Images.

In that sense, you could call the coaching environment at the top level of professional sports a cauldron. The mental strength required to operate under such a cutthroat dynamic is difficult to fathom. But mental strength is built on mental health. And while the psychological demands faced by players have become a major focus in the past decade, the same can’t be said of the mental burden carried by coaches. Does the authority and visibility of the position preclude it? Could an admission of weakness and vulnerability put your job at risk? In all likelihood, yes. But there’s also the possibility that coaches, the ones who’ve survived, are mentally strong because they’ve faced adversity, shouldered responsibility and been held so accountable. 

“I think that mental health in coaching is a case of whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, that cliche, because if you survive long enough as a coach, you’re going to encounter all kinds of anxiety and depression but you’re going to overcome them,” says Dr Bill Steffen, a former division one soccer coach in the US and assistant professor in sports science at Wingate University in North Carolina, whose primary research focus is mental toughness in coaching. “You’re going to inoculate yourself to those two conditions. Yeah, you get depressed. Yeah, you get anxious. But you figure out how to handle it, or you don’t, in which case you exit coaching.” 

If that’s the case, could it be that the seat Jones was occupying at that press conference back in September, while hot enough, perhaps, to scold or even brand him, was one he could endure? Because coaching isn’t so much a cauldron as it is a crucible. 

WHEN BRIAN GOORJIAN WAS APPOINTED head coach of the Boomers in 2001 after more than a decade as an NBL coach, he had a very human reaction: am I good enough? “I was excited when I got the position, but as soon as I got it, I’d have to say I felt overwhelmed because the responsibility is huge,” says Goorjian, who’s enjoying a view of the Melbourne skyline on a clear Friday morning, as he speaks to me from his apartment in Prahan. “I thought, Am I good enough to do this? Everyone has those doubts in them and people don’t realise that. You feel insecure. This isn’t just you and your team. This is a country.” 

Goorjian, whose heavy Californian twang is still strong despite emigrating here in the late ’70s, found his doubt disappeared once he entered the Boomers’ camp and immersed himself in the day-to-day minutiae of coaching, otherwise known as the X’s and O’s. There, the players and support staff would likely have never twigged that their loquacious, at times temperamental, always passionate coach might have felt unsure of himself. And Goorjian wasn’t about to tell them. In a leadership position that hinges on authority and respect, there’s not a lot of room for outward expressions of uncertainty. 

Boomers’ head coach Brian Goorjian I Getty Images.

The popular image of the coach as a solitary figure on the sidelines of games means they’re easily reduced to caricature, at least by their critics in the media and in the often hackneyed archetypes they inhabit in popular culture— stubborn, taciturn, volatile, tight-lipped and inscrutable are a few of the more common adjectives used to describe top-level coaches; Lasso, in his unrelentingly cheesiness and avuncular nature, clearly bucks the stereotype. But you do have to wonder how much coaches’ public profiles match their private personas. “I’ve spoken with coaches that say, ‘Yeah, I’m screaming just to scream, just to be a presence so that it looks like I’m doing things, even though I know I’m not’,” says Steffen.

Anson Dorrance, coach of the division one women’s soccer team at the University of North Carolina and former coach of the USWNT that won the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991, says many people are surprised when he describes himself as an introvert. “I’m a radical introvert,” says Dorrance from his car on the way home from practice in Chapel Hill. “So for me, even on this phone call, this is a performance. This isn’t me. This is me acting like the women’s soccer coach at the University of North Carolina.” 

So, what defines mental toughness as it relates to coaching? Steffen conducted a study in which he and his team asked 22 elite-level coaches in the US that very question. The coaches surveyed came up with 46 characteristics, which were then narrowed down to a top 10. Confidence was rated the most important component in a coach’s mental make-up, followed by resilience, consistency, positivity, energy, passion, optimism, adaptability, inner strength and patience. The coaches were then asked if they thought these traits needed to be innate or could be developed. “Most thought it could be developed because a number of them said they weren’t mentally tough when they started coaching,” says Steffen. “Resilience is adversity and adjustment, and if you don’t have adversity, you can’t be resilient. Most coaches had some difficult times, yet they adjusted, they adapted, then they developed that resiliency.” 

Cheika agrees coaches need to be mentally agile to succeed. “I’ve got an open mind as a coach but can also be very authoritarian,” he says. “I think that’s a real skill: to be able to be flexible, but to have single-mindedness when necessary. And then not be afraid to change if you feel like, Oh, no, this actually is better.” 

Underpinning all of these traits is often an insane level of competitiveness. “Most people that think they’re competitive, I don’t think are competitive,” says Dorrance, who gleefully tells me he was the subject of a celebrated book, The Man Watching, which includes a chapter in which “everyone who hates me gives their opinion on me”. 

It was Dorrance’s competitiveness that drove him, during one year of his 47-year tenure at UNC, to take a single Thursday afternoon off. “I was okay with that,” says the 72-year-old, who elevates plain speaking to an art form. “In fact, as my wife will tell you, I hate vacations because what’s going through my head is someone’s getting ahead of me.” 

Clearly this level of commitment is not for everyone and even for those who possess it, is surely a double-edged sword. “The beauty of it [coaching] is that it’s not a nine-to-five job, and the curse of it is it’s not a nine-to-five job,” says Steffen, who also used to coach division one college soccer in the US and once had a year where he was away from home for 49 weekends on recruiting trips, a workload that hastened his transition from coaching into academia. 

Dr Will Vickery, a senior advisor in coaching at the Australian Sports Commission, confirms that work-life balance is an alien concept to a lot of coaches. “It consumes your life, so you don’t really have a lot of time to switch off,” he says. “You forget the fact that it’s your job as opposed to your life.” 

GOORJIAN KNEW HE MIGHT face a little extra heat when he stepped off the plane from Japan after the Boomers’ lacklustre FIBA World Cup campaign back in September. He expected it from the traditional media, who he has long courted and enjoyed a fruitful, symbiotic relationship with. But these days, of course, the real criticism, the stuff that might keep you up at night, doesn’t come from those who report on sports for a living. It’s from the anonymous keyboard combatants on social media. Fortunately, or perhaps astutely, Goorjian isn’t on social media. “My daughter’s like, ‘Don’t worry about what they’re saying’, so I’m like, Jesus, it must be fucking horrible.” Goorjian didn’t care to find out. “I’m oblivious.” 

But he’s all too aware how such criticism affects the younger coaches he mentors, calling trolling the work of “cowards with no responsibility”. “Man, you’ve got to watch your mental health because some of that stuff is vile, really nasty,” he says. “I had a guy on the phone the other night and he was like, ‘They’re talking about my wife and my kid’. It breaks my heart.” 

Cheika too, shuns social media but is similarly aware of its psyche-shredding potential. “All of a sudden you can be receiving everybody’s judgment,” he says. “It’s probably more in the domain of those who are just starting off in coaching. Whereas a coach my age, I wouldn’t know what anyone’s saying on social media. So it has no effect. And this is the thing, right? It’s a choice.” 

While Cheika and Goorjian’s absence from social media removes it as a stressor, they don’t shy away from scrutiny from the mainstream media and are accepting of the fact that reporters, like them, have a job to do. “I always look at it like I’m getting rewarded for my work,” says Goorjian. “People say, ‘You can’t hide this’. I like that. I’m proud of what I’m doing, I’m proud of my team. I love that if I lose a certain number of games, my ass deserves to be in the firing line. It helps drive me.” 

Again, Cheika is not overly bothered by criticism of his performance; invariably, he’s already judged it for himself. “I’m an extremely harsh auto critic,” he says. “What role have I played and how has my performance been? I’m already asking those questions before any media ask me. I feel like the whole pressure thing is a bit overplayed.” 

Of course, pressure also comes from within an organisation, particularly if you’re a coach who’s been brought in to help a team take the final step toward a championship, premiership or medal. Goorjian admits that his outstanding record as an NBL coach, including a three-peat with the Sydney Kings, has created expectations he’s found tough to deal with. “You can’t help but feel it within the organisation and to be truthful with you, that’s why I’ve coached overseas [in China] a lot in the last 15 years,” he says. “You don’t want to let people down.” 

The perception created by a team’s position on the ladder can see pressure on a coach mount quickly. “Their win-loss record is their litmus test,” says Vickery. “If they’re not winning, then they’re almost seen as failing, which is absolutely not the case. But the public perception is often that way.” 

Steffen, meanwhile, believes the focus on results warps perceptions around the job the coach is actually doing. “I think coaches get too much blame when they lose, but they also get too much credit when they win,” he says. 

The fact is, when a team is underperforming, it’s not the star player who’s going to get the axe, even if fault lies within the locker room. “It’s easier to get rid of the coach,” says Steffen. “To sack one person versus sacking an entire team. It’s just easier to change it that way.” 

In such a transparent, results-driven profession, job security will always be an issue, says Josh Frost, a researcher at Orygen Institute, who’s currently completing his PhD on the mental health of elite coaches. “In last year’s Premier League season in the UK, 13 out of the 20 football clubs sacked or fired a coach. In some sports coach turnover is very prevalent.” 

Not surprisingly, those who’ve been in coaching for a while have developed strategies to deal with the precarious nature of their position. Cheika, for example, came into coaching from a successful business career and was already financially secure. “No one’s forcing you to do this,” he says. “It’s a choice. I’ve always had my own businesses. What that does for you is give you that autonomy so you don’t make compromises for the reason of job security or because you need that salary to pay your mortgage.” 

Earlier in his career, Goorjian, too, leaned on a teaching qualification as a form of insurance, allowing him not only to shelve worry about his financial future but also to take risks. “I always had a plan B,” he says. “I taught when I came to Australia. So, I had a mindset of, I’m in a casino, I’ve got five grand in my pocket that I’ve won, I’ve got the other 500 sitting on the table and I’m playing with the bank’s money. Risk-taking is a very important part of coaching. You’ve got to play a little bit by the seat of your pants.” 

AS A FORMER PLAYER with the Melbourne Demons in the AFL, Alistair Nicholson remembers his first coach, Neil Balme, being fired after a string of losses in 1997. “I got quite a strong dose of the instability and impact that can have on a football club and player group,” says Nicholson, who these days is the CEO of the AFL Coaches Association. “And then my time under Neale Daniher, there were times where I’d go, ‘You’re looking after us and looking after us well, but who’s looking after you?’ And I think that’s probably where the conversation is now.” 

A 2020 study by the Orygen Institute conducted in partnership with the Australian Institute of Sport of 252 elite coaches found that 41 per cent of them had psychological symptoms that warranted treatment from a health professional, while 42 per cent reported potentially risky alcohol consumption. Almost a fifth (18 per cent) reported moderate to severe sleep disturbance and 14 per cent experienced very high psychological distress. 

Frost believes the broad remit of modern coaching makes it inherently mentally demanding. He cites pressure from clubs, fan expectation, job insecurity and social media as contributing factors, which are compounded by long hours and frequent travel, often robbing coaches of the ability to access a support network. “I think a range of things can be very demanding and with a lot of social isolation and travelling, not having your social support around you can really contribute towards being more vulnerable to mental health challenges,” he says. 

And while the argument can be made that adversity forges resilience in the longer term, the fact is, not all coaches are equipped to deal with the pressures of the job as well as others. This is only exacerbated by the fact that those who are struggling may not feel comfortable disclosing their difficulties due to concerns about the reaction from their organisations. “Coaches are leaders in their environment and might feel less inclined to exhibit or express emotions at the risk of receiving judgment from players or members of the hierarchy or board,” says Frost. “And that’s why it’s really important that organisations cultivate a psychologically safe culture to allow coaches to be able to express their emotions or challenges in an environment that has fewer consequences.” 

Steffen returns to the sink-or-swim dynamic of coaching. “Sinking could lead to problems with mental health or you just get out of coaching,” he says. “I know a number of coaches that have just left coaching because of the demands. They felt like it wasn’t healthy.” 

Sometimes coaches just need to refresh themselves, something often only afforded by default after contract termination. Increasingly, though, at least in the AFL, some coaches are choosing to take time off on their terms. “We’ve seen in the AFL some experienced coaches take a sabbatical or time -out and the boards have confidence that they’re going to bring something back to the club. Clarko [Alastair Clarkson] and Brad Scott and Ross Lyon came back after a period away and hopefully their energy levels will continue to let them do it because there’s only so many people that can do it at the top level and do it well,” says Nicholson, whose organisation helped found, in 2018, a mental health education program for AFL community coaches and players called ‘Tackle Your Feelings’. 

Not surprisingly, the mental toll of the profession is something coaches will often only acknowledge behind closed doors, sometimes with other coaches who are equipped to understand the struggles they might face. Goorjian and Cheika both talk regularly to other national-level coaches. Both also see the advantages to be gained in seeking outside counsel. When Goorjian began coaching he employed a performance coaching consultant to evaluate him on and off the court. “Once a week, it’s like I’m sitting in the chair and he would say, ‘Let’s talk about you. You look tired, let’s talk about your …’ so I know that side of it.” 

Similarly, after the World Cup, the 70-year-old sat down with a circle of trusted confidantes. “They knew I was going to call. They’ve watched every game. So it’s like let’s sit down and talk. If I have a problem and it’s affecting me, I have people I can go there with. You need it just like the players need it. You need to be evaluated. I’m like everybody else. I’m not made of steel.” 

IF COACHING AT THE HIGHEST LEVEL does ultimately come down to winning and losing, you have to wonder how coaches mentally approach this inescapable, sometimes oppressive dynamic. While there is something to be said for attempting to embody Kipling’s immortal line, ‘If you can meet with triumph and disaster . . . And treat those two impostors just the same’ coaches do have to allow for their own humanity. 

“On wins and losses, I have a rule where at midnight, that game is in the rear-view mirror,” says Goorjian. “If we win, I’ve got to celebrate with my staff, ‘Let’s have a meal together’. But at midnight I put it in the rear view mirror and it’s the same thing with a bad loss.” 

Of course, the really big victories, the championships or Olympic medals should be savoured, he adds. “I got a three-peat with the Sydney Kings. You carry those rings around in your heart with that group for the rest of your lives. The bronze medal [at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics], I think about that every single day. I wake up and that’s something I carry. It never goes away.” 

Cheika, who’s coming off a fourth-place finish with Argentina at the Rugby World Cup, is in a period of reflection when I speak to him. “Look, it’s hard for me because many would say we had a successful World Cup, finishing fourth. I’m still going through the last game where we could have finished third. What could I have done better in the lead-up? Not because I’m looking to be hard on myself but because I know that will serve me so that when that scenario or something similar occurs again, I’ll be able to make good decisions or better ones.” 

That is, of course, all you can do, for soon enough victory and defeat are reduced to something altogether less august: statistics. And those, well, those can be damning, even for the most successful of coaches. “If the only time you’re happy is when you win the championship, you’re going to have a horrible career,” says Goorjian. “I’ve been in this close to 40 years; I’ve won six. It’s very, very rare that you finish a season with a win.” 

This all serves to underline the fact that in this business, you need a healthy relationship with failure. Sport’s great conceit is that results mean everything and nothing. The stakes are a construct, the drama confected. “The greatest thing about sports is failure because it doesn’t matter if you fail,” says Dorrance. It’s a lesson he tells his players but one that might serve anyone compelled to embark on coaching as a career. “If you want to really grow, fail as often as you can and recover, because it’s in the failure that you’re going to learn about who the hell you are and you get to make a decision on who the hell you want to be.” Well said, coach. 

Are you a high-performance coach in Australia? Orygen Institute wants to hear from you!

Orygen Institute is inviting high-performance sports coaches to participate in an online survey that aims to explore beliefs about mental health. Participants will go into a draw to win one of twenty $100 vouchers.

Findings will help to inform targeted interventions and frameworks that support the mental health of Australian high-performance coaches.

For more information and to complete the anonymous survey, visit here.


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