Archive for October, 2011

Rugby Union, Attitude and Those Who Influence It

Friday, October 7th, 2011

The Right Athlete, the Right Coach and at the Right Time Will Naturally Gravitate Towards Each Other  –  This Is Where We See Magic Happen.

As an avid rugby fan and former School and County Player (scrum half) I have found myself glued to the current Rugby World Cup 2011 in New Zealand, as many other diehards have.

As I watch the big hitters such as New Zealand dominate in their opening games, the Springboks play their usual cheeky tactics, the Australian’s scramble due to selection and injury crisis and the England team typically struggle with on and off field discipline and finding form.

I found myself strangely drawn down to the grassroots and intensely study the nuts and bolts of the Welsh Rugby team. They are only just getting the job done in most cases but doing it in such a crude yet inspiring way it is mesmerising – even my Australian wife catches herself barracking for the Welsh (fleeting though it may be, they haven’t played the Wallabies yet).

Wales versus South AfricaI mean I am passionately English through and through and will be ecstatic when Jonny Wilkinson and the boys again take out the Rugby World Cup for England! But, I started to realise there is something about the performance of the Welsh team that is very familiar to me in their attitude and approach… something that isn’t flash, spectacular or even overtly entertaining – but effective, ballsy and synergistic in drive, discipline and passion.

I should have realised this familiarity was due to a mutual connection when I saw his signature style permeate this team. It was, after all, the same person who influenced the direction of my sporting career and beyond to my chosen profession today.

Over the past few weeks as I watched this Welsh team jostle for the ball and make plays out of scrappy nothings, I found myself thinking about my own sporting career, no not my low level Rugby Union success, but International Gymnastics.

“Gymnastics?” I hear you say!

I know – it is not the most socially accepted, publicly revered, or indeed sexiest sport out there – but one I was passionate about and therefore found I excelled in.

To be honest with you, I was more physically suited to Rugby Union than I was Gymnastics: I was stocky, exceptionally inflexible, had the coordination of a three legged rocking horse and, due to a hearing disability, the balance of an intoxicated old man on a Sunday afternoon. NOT the traits of an aspiring dynamic and nimble Gymnast. However, what I lacked in talent I made up for in heart, tenacity and a willingness to learn.

All I needed was someone who was patient enough, technical enough and stubborn enough to mould me into a true sportsman!

But I had a problem (I know I had a few) but this one was huge!

I was very young, inexperienced and oblivious to what I needed…

So how would a young one like me identify and recognise that certain person who had the correct skill-set to get the most out of me; the person who had the opportunity and the drive to push me in the right direction; and the foresight to see beyond my physical shortcomings to see my passion.

Well, I didn’t know where, how or even why I needed to find that coach. That is not to say that I didn’t have the right person, because I did – only I didn’t have the maturity to recognise the right person at that stage of my life. (Funnily enough, these days as a consultant I find this scenario repeated week in week out.)

So I got to thinking as the Welsh pushed on and through their opponents in a scrappy dog fight – does the athlete select the coach or does the coach select the athlete?

As an athlete I would have said unequivocally the coach was along for the ride on the coat-tails of successful, talented and hardworking athletes. As I look back now I would have said the athlete needed the coach in order to be the athlete they have buried deep inside them… and often could not make it without them.

I think it is one of those process of natural selection: the right athlete, the right coach and at the right time will naturally gravitate towards each other, filling the void and finding their positioning.

And this is where we see magic happen. If all the stars line up and the timing is perfect, these two can create a sustainable champion, an athlete, a team even a club that is something special, something unique. It takes both sides to be shining at the same time to make them something special – and therein lies both the skill and the problem.

You see I realised what I was seeing in the Welsh Rugby team was the influence of a special coach-player dynamic, a belief and passion and a synergistic drive.

What I saw was in fact my coach – LITERALLY my coach. Yes, my Gymnastics Coach of many years ago, Mitch Fenner had recently been working with the Welsh Rugby team. The same drive, tenacity and passion he had helped nurture in me was now shining through these hard hitting, scrappy, rough-around-the-edges work horses.

Every now and then someone comes along who helps you become that little bit more than you would have been. They help you shine just that little bit brighter, for that little bit longer.

The secret is to recognise that and embrace it at the time, as together champions are forged and apart athletes are lost.

Jonny Wilkinson: In Need of a Reboot

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011


The Rugby World Cup 2011 rumor mill is in full swing today, hinting that England’s golden booted superstar Jonny Wilkinson is to be benched.

The talk is that Wilkinson will be replaced as England chief kicker and number 10 as England moves unconvincingly into the knockout rounds. This is a devastating blow not only for Wilkinson but us diehard England fans who know just how important a steady boot can be.

Most associate Jonny as England’s archangel from the 2003 Rugby World Cup when England secured the title in the dying moments off the tip of Wilkinson’s boot. But like most professional athletes Wilkinson’s career is defined by much more than that one moment in time. Just seven points shy of reaching the record of all-time highest scorer in test rugby, Wilkinson is clearly in a class above the average, someone who has proven that he can sustainably perform to reach career defining milestones such as this.

So why now is Wilkinson looking down the barrel of the bench, being replaced just when England could once again benefit from his cool, calm, golden touch?

Wilkinson is, without a doubt, off form. His percentage at this Rugby World Cup is at the bottom of the averages for kickers, not his usual top spot. When most performers are peaking Wilkinson finds himself falling off the conveyer belt and out of the team. This will surely be Wilkinson’s last RWC and his last chance to cement his name in the global Rugby community’s mind.

So what has happened to Wilkinson’s signature ‘crouch, shuffle, clasp, kick’ midas touch in this campaign?

The purists are blaming the new championship ball…

The knockers are saying Wilkinson has past his prime and should move over…

The players are blaming the stadium conditions and unusual wind currents…

The press are blaming England’s lack of discipline…

… and Wilkinson has said the blame rests with him!

So what is the truth?

Where should the blame (if any blame at all) lay? Or is it all just part of the peaks and troughs athletes expect to move through?

There is no doubt Wilkinson handles pressure and has proven time and time again he can put the boot to work at the right time under extraordinary conditions, and for this his technique has been studied and copied across the globe.

So could it really be the new aerodynamics of the match ball?


But any player of that caliber should be able to adapt and maneuver their skill-set to cope with the different reactions the shape may give. One or two kicking sessions would see them roll with the changes and be back on form, I don’t believe skill-set is that tenuous.

So, surely not – could it be that he is over the hill? Maybe, at 32 years old, but why now? He has been on form leading into the RWC and hasn’t suddenly aged significantly overnight!

Could the England teams reported lack of on and off field discipline be causing this disjointedness? Some England players certainly are gaining attention for approaching this RWC like a club tour of Spain and enjoying the after-game entertainment much more than the on-field battles. But Wilkinson, again over many campaigns, has proven he can rise above any in-house behaviour issues or lack of performance discipline.

So, that leaves us with Wilkinson! What is he doing differently, what has he changed or attempted to correct or has left out that has his historically reliable steely boot – misfiring?

When we disregard the other options we are left with performer error, Wilkinson just isn’t performing – as simple as that!

Unlike a lame horse this is not the time to have Wilkinson put down, replaced or moved to the bench. Now is the time to stop and re-evaluate, to look at where the stitching began to unravel, the point at which the tried and trusted was replaced with an inferior replica. This is the time to reboot the boot and bring back the successful pattern.

Wilkinson is a play-maker and a game winner – so Jonny if you are reading this (and I am sure you are ;)) it is time to go back to what was working, recognise the patterns of success you had and reinitiate them. It is time to remove yourself mentally and emotionally from the whirlwind of misses and break the unsuccessful pattern and mentally REBOOT.

This all sounds a little pie-in-the-sky but it is the basics that work, the understanding of what was done to achieve, then replicate that. Disassociate from the emotions of failure and clinically assess and reapply.

All the excuses in the world ONLY allow us to blame someone or something else and not correct the issues. If we could do it before we can do it again (as long as we are physically capable of course).

So all Jonny Wilkinson needs is a mental re-boot to bring back his successful operating system.