Tom De La Hunty doesn’t hesitate when asked about the most difficult decision he’s made as head coach of the Canadian bobsleigh team.
It was during the recent Sochi Winter Olympics when, just two days before one of the critical runs, he switched up the roster in the four-man bobsled race betting it would increase the team’s chances for a medal.
It was a blow to bobsleigh pilot Christopher Spring, who was essentially demoted.. It’s difficult to say whether Mr. De La Hunty’s call was the right one, given that the crew he set up for the win crashed before before it could reach the finish line in the second run. That hurt the crew’s timing and mean it didn’t qualify for the fourth and final run.
In hindsight, Mr. De La Hunty said he has no regrets about his decision.
“We were under pressure to perform and try to win a medal. As tough as it was, I felt that was our best opportunity to win a medal – to put the best team behind the fastest pilot,” Mr. De La Hunty, 57, said in a recent interview.
He believes the men’s team would have won a medal had it not been for the accident.
Making that decision was hard but, like many leaders will tell you, such decisions come more easily when you have a strong mandate. For Mr. De La Hunty, it was to try to win medals for Canada.
“I did what I thought was right,” said Mr. De La Hunty, who was born in England and still calls Britain home.
It’s a strategy that worked in his favour at Sochi after Canadians Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse won their second Olympic gold medal in the two-woman bobsleigh.
Selecting Ms. Humphries as the pilot of that team was one of the best decisions Mr. De La Hunty said he’s made as a coach.
“It’s an absolute no brainer, isn’t it?” he said with a laugh.
For Mr. De La Hunty, being head coach of the Canadian bobsleigh team is similar to running any organization: It’s about making tough decisions and not worrying about whether they’re popular.
“You’ve got to coach like you’re not afraid to lose your job,” he said. “About 50 per cent of the team love me and 50 per cent of the team hate me. You can’t please all of the people all of the time.”
Mr. De La Hunty’s tough-love coaching style was formed in part by his years in Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF), which he joined in 1978 at age 21. The RAF taught him a number of leadership skills he uses today, including discipline, respect for authority and how to handle pressure, especially when you’re in charge.
“Dealing with pressure is something you get better at the more you do,” said Mr. De La Hunty, who began as physical training instructor in the RAF. He was commissioned as a physical education officer in 1999, gaining the rank of flight lieutenant.
The RAF is also where he was introduced to the bobsleigh. He began bobsleighing for the RAF in 1980 and was RAF champion for 13 years. “The British [Olympic] team were all military, so that’s how I got started,” he said. He competed on the British Olympic team from 1980 until 1991, competing in both the 1984 Sarajevo Games as well as the 1988 Calgary Olympics.
In 1991, he switched from being a competitor to a coach for the British bobsleigh team, from the 1992 Albertville Games until Turin in 1996. He also coached the Dutch team for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake, and went back to coach them again for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
The Vancouver Games was also a difficult time in Mr. De La Hunty’s coaching career. That’s when the Dutch men’s team withdrew from the competition after Georgian luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed in a crash during a training run on the eve of the event. Mr. De La Hunty said the team’s pilot lost his confidence after that accident. The women’s team went ahead in their event, finishing eighth.
Later that spring, Mr. De La Hunty was hired to coach the Canadian team.
He brought with him a specific leadership style. Mr. De La Hunty describes it as “leading from the front,” which he said means always demonstrating that you’re in charge. He also describes himself as bombastic, at times.
“I like to shout and scream occasionally if I need to,” he said. “I get very excited.”
He also has high expectations of his team when they’re off the track, including how to act and dress when they’re representing Canada. For example, he forbids the men to wear hats when they arrive at hotels, during dinner, or anywhere where it might be considered disrespectful.
“You’d be amazed at how many times I have to take hats off,” he said.
Also banned are flip-flops, sleeveless shirts and workout clothing such as Lycra pants, unless they’re at the gym.
“When you turn up at an airport, you need to look smart,” Mr. De La Hunty said.
“Manners cost nothing. Deportment, and looking like a professional bunch of athletes, is very important to me. It’s something that I am going to work on in the coming years with the Canadian team – if I end up staying with them. And I intend to.”
The Globe and Mail presents the Canadian Olympic Committee’s Coach Reward Program, which recognizes the coaches of the Sochi 2014 Canadian Olympic Team medallists. As part of this series, we will be asking six Olympic coaches who are receiving the awards to share their stories on motivating, leading and managing talent.