The right coaching style will help a player thrive, says Demetri Catrakilis
The most important thing a player needs is backing. If a coach equips a player with freedom, opportunity, and confidence, he sets a player up to thrive in a way that technical coaching alone simply won’t.
So says flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis, and few would know the importance of being backed better than him. After all, ‘backing’ is that one thing the pivot with the golden boot faced a shortage of in his career.
There was sometimes doubt, sometimes questions where Catrakilis was concerned, even though his goal-kicking stats and his ability to inject tactical solidity into a team should have nullified any doubt. Still, he wasn’t just a goal-kicking metronome.
For Catrakilis, it was the coaching style of former UCT Ikeys mentor, Kevin Musikanth, who coached him at False Bay, coupled with different experiences in other set-ups throughout his career (he’s been with Western Province/Stormers, Southern Kings, Montpellier, and Harlequins), that have shaped his view on the importance of backing your players.
“I was at the Lions Under-19 and played Currie Cup there. They didn’t give me a contract at the end of the season, so I was picked up by this French agent to potentially move to Racing Metro – their U23 side – and I did that,” Catrakilis reflected.
“I went over to France for about three and a half or four months. That didn’t really work out, the contract wasn’t quite what I thought it was, so I ended up coming back. No one really wanted me to join their Varsity Cup team, I couldn’t find a club or a union to join, the Lions didn’t want me back and UJ didn’t want me to play Varsity Cup.
“I somehow found an agent, who wasn’t a licensed agent at that time, so it was a little backdoor, and he then got in touch with Kevin. Kevin contacted me in 2009 and spoke to me for about 20 minutes. He told me I’d be the flyhalf and he’d be the coach and that I’d play in the premier league in Cape Town. I didn’t really have anything else that was going to pay my groceries and my rent, so I thought ‘let me just see how it goes’.
“I arrived in Cape Town in January 2010 and I met Kevin that same week. When I walked into his house and he thought I was a 20-year-old surfer boy because I had long hair and he thought I was still a teenager. We ended up doing really well that season and I played every game. We built a relationship that’s lasted for 10 years now, he’s like my older brother.”
Musikanth explained that for him, it was crucial that they found a good kicker to survive the 2010 season in the Western Province club league and sidestep relegation. So he went for Catrakilis, although he wasn’t entirely without doubt at first given his age back then.
“I knew we needed a flyhalf that could kick. I had never met Demetri, but I contacted the agent and asked him for the best kicker he knows. And then he told me about Demetri.
“He said Demetri is a great potential as a flyhalf, he just needs to be backed, he said he’s a gifted kicker of a ball. I knew that we needed a kicker, we needed a flyhalf, and if we just had that, we wouldn’t get relegated. I was petrified that we’d get relegated because I knew we didn’t have a conventional ace kicker.
“When I saw Demetri I looked at him and thought ‘sherbet’, because he was so young and the Western Province Rugby League was full of these seasoned, hard men, some of them who were ex professionals, and I thought I can’t use a matric boy,” Musikanth quipped.
“I had never done this before, but I asked him to kick a ball, and it was just the sound. I had never seen or heard something like that and I’ve never seen it again, then I knew what the agent said was true – agents would say this anyway – but this time it was true…he was the best kicker of a rugby ball I had ever seen in my life.
“We beat the national club champs, Hamilton in our opening game and we won 75 percent of our games that year. That year he was scouted by UCT and they ended up winning the Varsity Cup the following year.”
Musikanth admitted that, at the beginning, he wasn’t exactly sure how to best work with a player of Catrakilis’ abilities. The method he went with? He just put his “heart on the table”, and the young flyhalf did the same.
“I didn’t know what I was doing with Demetri because I had never coached a player that had real potential, so I thought to myself ‘how do I give my heart to this team?’, because if I do that, you can’t really go wrong. So I wanted to show genuineness in both my vulnerability as a coach, but also in the fact that here’s a guy who shouldn’t be playing for False Bay, he should be a junior contracted Currie Cup player at least. I remember him going to U21 practices, and I couldn’t believe that he wasn’t being picked, and we shared our frustration about that right through the years.
“If you know that 90 percent of the time that you put the ball down you’re gonna get three points, you just have to do that three times and it’s the same as a player who scores two tries in a game. Show me one player in the world that’s ever averaged two tries in a game. First and foremost, if you have a guy that kicks at 90 percent, why would you not pick him first and build your whole team around him?
“I know that your world-class kickers are kicking at over 80 percent, but think about it, that extra 10 percent is a try. So if you’re guaranteed a players who’s going to score a try for you in every single game, you’d pick him and you’d argue with people who question it and say ‘well, he averages a try a game'
“The moment you play together and coach together you’re joined for life, and coaches must never forget that, because you have an opportunity to either add to somebody’s life, or take away. But you can never change it, good experiences or bad experiences, you’re joined for life, and that is the responsibility of the coach. The way you treat a player and the way a player treats you – it’s more on the coach because you’re the mentor – is massively important.”
For Catrakilis, that turned out to be more than enough.
“I agree with Kevin 100 percent on the role of coaches. I think sometimes coaches don’t realise the responsibility they have. They have a lot of power in their hands, I mean, they literally decide somebody’s future. They decide whether a guy plays on the weekend, they decide whether he plays to the best of his abilities a lot of the time cause they’re the ones who give confidence and they’re the ones who instil fear into players sometimes. They’re the ones who decide whether a player gets a good contract or even gets another contract at all. Coaches have a huge responsibility, and I don’t think a lot of them understand the impact they have on other people’s lives. At the end of the day, as Kevin was saying, it’s your own player, and you’re going to have that connection with them for the rest of your life. If you give a player confidence and you encourage him to play to the best of his ability, then the team thrives anyway.
“I’m very grateful that I had a coach like Kevin that encouraged me to get better and better. I remember I was sitting at a restaurant in Constantia and Kevin sat me down and told me ‘you’re not going to be here (with False Bay) for very long, you’re a class above everybody else’. We sat down and he asked me where I see myself in a few years’ time. We wrote it all down and he set goals for me. Writing it down and having it so structured was such a big thing for me going through that season.
“I think that’s why I’m still so close to Kevin, because he allowed me to express myself. I was confident and I felt the most free I had ever felt on a rugby field while playing for him because I knew this guy backed me. He believed in my ability and I couldn’t do a thing wrong, even when I did do something wrong.
“I got better as the years went on, but think I played my best rugby under Kevin for the ability I had, and it was only because I was allowed to express myself. That’s why coaches have such a big role, and I just wish they can give that freedom, that opportunity, and that confidence to players in the future. That is the most important thing about coaching…leadership.
On his future plans, Catrakilis said: “I’m keeping fit at the moment, but I find myself, especially last season, mentoring flyhalves on how to do certain things and get around the field, not only flyhalves, but fullbacks and other backs as well. A big focus for me now is to just try and give back as much as I can.”
Musikanth added that Catrakilis’ future is definitely in rugby, and he also had some advice for coaches.
“Demetri’s future is in the sport irrespective. He’s had to coach himself, he had a gifted way of seeing the game, he’s had to learn about the dynamics of different coaches very quickly. Those are the little parts coaches should pay attention to – not necessarily because they didn’t pick Demetri, but because right under their nose could be another Demetri. He is still one of only three great fly halves that have kicked a drop goal with both feet in a big final and the other two are Naas Botha and Jonny Wilkinson, that is the class of the young man. Don’t just look for the obvious potential, that’s right there. Look for the Demetri.”