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Change and High Performance - Some Reflections From Professional Rugby

As one who works both in elite sport (mostly professional rugby) and increasingly in the corporate environment, I have often reflected on the similarities and differences between them. From a performance and people point of view, there are many similarities between a commercial company and (for example) a Super 14 rugby franchise such as the Crusaders. There is a highly-functioning leadership structure in each (board, CEO, CFO or similar, manager/head coach etc); there are different departments, each responsible for an area of the business; each has (hopefully) a clear raison-d’être or purpose with implicit or (preferably) explicit goals; each ought to have an identifiable culture – the way we do things around here; and each has effective ways of measuring performance and ensuring that the outfit is heading towards the achievement of its purpose.

Each person has a role definition and/or a job description and is accountable for delivering according to the tasks allocated. Other key elements shared by both the sport organisation and the company ought to be commitment to innovation and improvement, systems to ensure actions are aligned to both goals and values and lastly, task cohesion (that people co-operate harmoniously to get the job done). In rugby, social cohesion (how well your people get on away from work) is also very important. If you ask any of the players at the Crusaders, they’ll tell you it’s easier to put your body on the line for someone who is a mate both on and off the field! Social cohesion grows and nurtures task cohesion in a body-contact sport like rugby.

A good part of my experience has been within the professional rugby environment and at Super 14 level, the majority of that has been an association with the Crusaders rugby team, which has created an unparalleled legacy within the Super rugby competition since its inception in the mid-90s.

No other team has come near the performance track record of the Canterbury-based team, which has won the competition seven times in its 14 year history (as well as making the final on two other years) and has established a reputation for sustained excellence in New Zealand rugby rivaled only by the great Auckland side of the mid and late 80s. As well as the winning stats mentioned above, the Crusaders have the highest winning percentage (both home and away) in the history of the competition and are the only side to go through a whole season unbeaten (in 2002).

I mention the Crusaders, not only because they are the Super Rugby team that I am most familiar with, but as I have outlined, they have an unequalled record of success. The comments I will make are my own and in no way reflect those of the Crusaders organisation. In some companies, the current company/team performance can often be challenging to get a real grip on, but in rugby, the performance is there for all to see each weekend, laid bare by the scrutiny of the TV camera, the film of which is then captured into a computer software programme which allows every tiny detail of a player’s performance to be analysed, both the good and the bad bits.

The detail in which the game is analysed would astound people seeing it for the first time. Not only are the nuances of the home team’s players’ performance pored over at length by both coaches and many players, but the opposition’s performance trends are also studied in depth to allow tactics to be designed which will optimise the potential for success. There is nowhere for a player to hide from his deficits and conversely (and more positively) all the good work done is also clearly displayed on the computer screen. Of course, performance analysis and strategic planning take place in all companies – it’s just that in professional rugby it takes on a much bigger meaning and importance in the weekly cycle (plan-prepare-play-recover-reflect-improve-plan-prepare etc).

When it comes to change, there are some things that the Crusaders are keen to change and some things they won’t change for all the tea in china. What they won’t change (and seem to cling to with a quiet ferocity) is their culture. The team has clear underpinning values which are instilled deeply into everybody associated it. These values are not taken for granted, but are revisited each season – each new season brings a new team to the contest and personal meaning is created for the incoming group who then commits (if they’re new players) or recommits (if they are returning players) itself to doing what Crusaders do.

The other startling feature of the outfit is the number of management who are ex-players. Head coach Todd Blackadder is an iconic ex-captain of the team, while assistant coaches Mark Hammett and Daryl Gibson, high performance manager Steve Lancaster, professional development manager Dave Hewitt and Academy Manager Matt Sexton are all prominent ex-players. The risk with this approach is that there can develop a somewhat inward-looking approach (which the management carefully guards against by constantly reaching out to bring new information into the group); the huge advantage is in the continuation and nurturing of the essence of the Crusaders culture. The management knows it because they have lived it as players and the essence of it hasn’t changed at all – their blood flows red and black! The culture of the team is akin to a powerful tornado. If you are standing near the bottom of it you will get sucked in and if you don’t really belong, you’ll be spat out 20 paddocks away. It’s this culture that has allowed the Crusaders to recruit several talented players who had been ‘problem children’ in their previous teams and get the very best out of them.

If that’s what they don’t change, then what they are constantly changing and wanting to improve is on-field performance. In professional rugby, as in most commercial enterprises, to stand still is to fall behind. Both coaches and players are seeking constant improvement – in physical conditioning, in skill execution, decision-making, in mental strength, in self-reliance and in leadership. The coaches also understand something very important and that is that most of their coaching is concerned not with teaching their players novel things, but rather in getting them to do things that they already do, but do them differently (i.e. better!). In other words, most of their coaching is dealing with deeply ingrained habits (in the things that they do and the way they think) and beliefs (what they have come to think about themselves, the world and the way in which they interact with it).

On field, most of what players do is controlled by the subconscious mind (that it is done instinctively or intuitively) – it has been done thousands of times before and both the decisions and the actions are reproduced automatically and habitually. If you want to get a taste of what I am talking about, fold your arms as you normally do, then put them down and fold them the other way from what you normally do. It will feel strange, weird. Changing habitual behaviours (both actions and decisions) is the world that rugby coaches inhabit daily.

How is it done effectively? Well, it’s both a science and an art. It is beyond the scope of this brief article to cover all the tools and techniques used, but becoming a top class rugby coach means becoming a master ‘change agent’. The first thing though is to emphasize the importance of selecting the right players and then building on their strengths. Marcus Buckingham’s books on top class management (First break all the rules; Now discover your strengths; The one thing you need to know) which are based on extensive research, clearly indicate that while all of us are able to change, people have in-built talents and the wise manager and coach selects people for roles in which their innate talents will be put to best use, rather than selecting good people and trying to mould them to jobs.

The second part is to nurture awareness of what is happening in the performance – what is going well and what needs to improve. Good coaching is about developing strong player self-awareness and facilitating bringing the subconscious (below awareness) ‘error’ or poor decision into the conscious mind (awareness) so that it can be understood and a commitment to change made by the player. After that, it is a case of training with purpose and awareness until the new action or decision is habituated and then returned to the subconscious mind from whence it came – to be executed with effectiveness in the next game. When you see great coaching, it’s a bit like magic.

I believe that what top class coaches do within their pressure-filled environment has much to offer the corporate world. When it comes to change and the practice of behavioural change, it is what they do every day. It is their ‘stock in trade’ and defines the core of their job.

If they are poor at facilitating change (both their own and that of their players), they fail and their team fails. At the Crusaders, they’ve been very good at it for a long time. Robbie Deans and his assistants over the last eight years or so have merely passed on the baton to Todd Blackadder and his assistants. As the old French saying goes “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” – the more things change, the more they stay the same.

This article was written for HRINZ publication by Dave Hadfield, of MindPlus consults to both elite athletes and coaches throughout New Zealand and who is a HRINZ 2009 Conference Speaker.


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