I used to be a fairly overweight, beer-drinking, sailing, boat-building type person. One day I decided to get incredibly fit, train for a sport way above my level and push myself to extremes physically and mentally. I joined a still water rowing club, who told me to leave as I was too small. If I lost 10kg, I could have been a coxswain – that’s how short I was. But I stayed and kept training, rowing and rowing, getting fitter. I enjoyed the weight training with Rod Hinchey at Bayview gym so much that I wanted to become a strength and conditioning coach. It was a complete career change at 27/28 years old.
started with a few basic courses, got my Level 1 Strength and Conditioning, and then picked out some of the top coaches and the five most energy-demanding sports I could find to study – ice hockey, cross country skiing, long distance running, boxing and rowing. That’s not to say that swimming, tennis, basketball and rugby are easy! From that I worked out my foundation of how to train people. I was also influenced by Ashley Jones while I was at the NSW Academy of Sport. He was working with the Sydney Kings basketball team at the time, then moved on to the Wallabies and All Blacks, among others, and is now working with Scotland’s national rugby squad.
I started in strength and conditioning, which then phased into a rehab position. I would rehab team members physically and mentally so they could return to their squad positions. I’ve always had a passion for psych and mental skill conditioning. It was from this that I decided it was where I really wanted to end up.
I saw that there was a gap in the market in sailing, having a sailing background myself and training a few juniors and seniors at the time. I got these people incredibly fit and pretty hardened up in the headspace as well, and the doors started to open after the first year.
I told Ashley Jones that I was going to university to get a sports science degree, but he talked me out of it. He said, “Grab your bag, head overseas and do your apprenticeship. Knock on as many doors as you can, hang out with the best coaches in the world that you can find, and learn your trade that way.” So in 1991, I went to Hawaii and worked with an outrigger canoe team, and then the state Hawaiian kayak team for 6 months.
Next I landed in mainland USA and ended up working on the Australian team for the 1992 America’s Cup. The boat was so behind schedule that it didn’t matter if you were a doctor, a rocket scientist, a physiologist – everyone had to work on the boat. I learnt about being involved in a great team, including learning from Iain Murray who is an amazing sailor and who I would later work with on his Olympic campaigns. I was basically a walking sponge for anything to do with coaching, management, people management, defusing ego, communication – which is the real art of coaching. We focused on the positives and how we could reach the outcome we desired. If you have 35 people in an organisation thinking like that, it gives you some incredible fire-power. While the boat failed to make the semi-finals, I decided to stay on in the States, first with the University of Michigan football team and then checking out the Vancouver Kanucks ice hockey team before coming home.
On returning, I got a job with the North Sydney Bears rugby club working as a sports therapist. I got back into sailing as well, and set up a strength and conditioning centre at the local yacht club, which I ran for around 20 years. Through this I ended up working with a number of state, Australian and pre-Olympic sailing and rowing teams, as well as some professional yachting teams. I was privileged and fortunate to be part of the state rowing teams from 1992 to the 2000 Olympics and forged lasting friendships with many great managers, coaches and athletes.
HIGHS AND LOWS
The highest point of coaching is when you sit down and work out the plan for an athlete and you know that everyone is doing the best they can to achieve it. Those are the incredible moments. As is the patriotic feeling of knowing that you are a small country without a huge budget (compared to some countries) but still able to perform and succeed at the highest level. The low points are when you come off these teams.
After the Sydney Olympics, the government was cutting back and the jobs weren’t going to be available for the next Olympic cycle.
Without reflection and rebuilding, I jumped onto the next project, which was Iain Murray’s 2004 Olympic sailing campaign in the two-man Star class. I was his rehab coordinator, strength and conditioning coach, and mentor. We travelled around the world going to sailing regattas. In the lead up, however, Iain got pneumonia and was unable to compete so Colin Beashel was selected instead, so I helped Colin’s team instead. Iain had another successful campaign for the 2008 Olympics and I learnt a lot from him in terms of communication, being present in the moment and resolving issues.
You have to surround yourself with the right people. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel or do everything on your own. Every single person I have ever asked for help has been keen to provide support to anyone with the desire to ‘have a go’ in sport, coaching or development. Being successful doesn’t come into it. A lot of people look at coaching and think you have to be successful, but realistically even the leading coaches in the world are running at about 70-80% success rate.
AND THEN CAME CANCER
I had some health issues in 2013. Looking back, I believe it was due to the stress and load I was under, and perhaps that I wasn’t looking after myself as well as I could. I could have reduced the pressure I placed on myself and celebrated the wins more. It became like an MBA in personal development for me, and I believe if you want to manage other people, you really have to know and manage yourself at a high level.
It all happened very quickly. I was swimming the length of the beach a couple of times, around 6km every second day, and was doing weights and yoga. I noticed a small bump in my neck. By the second week, that was taken out and by the third week I was in hospital. I went from 75kg to 50kg. I couldn’t talk and had a food tube in my stomach. Essentially, I went from a 4-year Olympic cycle to a 10-minute cycle where I would lie on the bed and be grateful for everything I did still have. There was no energy to put into the things I didn’t have. The nurse would come in and I couldn’t say anything back, so I would look at the ceiling and consider what I did have at that moment – I could blink my eyes, I could move my toes, I had two arms, and I was still here. Then there was a day when I would slide to the edge of the bed and feel the floor with my toes, so I celebrated that. Then there was a day where I could stand for 30 seconds, which was great. For 70 days, that was life.
A lot of people say to me that the cancer must have been a bad time, but I see it as an experience rather than being simply good or bad.
After I’d had a couple of operations, I found a bump in my throat. I chose to be angry and not allow support from my team for a few days, until the nurse came to me and said, “I think we’ve operated on the wrong part of your body. We should have operated on your ears because you’re not listening to one word we’re telling you. If you keep trying to do it all on your own, you’re not getting out of here alive. We’ve got a 33-person team here to help you if you decide you want it.”
At the end of 70 days, I had learnt about expectations. Finally, I was told I was leaving the hospital then 10 minutes later I was going into isolation indefinitely as my white blood cell count was less than 1. I could be there a day, a month, half a year – they didn’t know. I was expecting to leave, I was excited, and it was taken away. Through my coaching there were a lot of expectations to win. If I wasn’t successful, I wasn’t going to be able to get my next job. I put so much pressure on myself. Now, I very rarely use the word expectations. I look for outcomes. Most coaches now don’t use the word “winning”, they will use the word “outcome” and talk about effort. I ended up in isolation for 2.5 weeks.
A lot of people say to me that the cancer must have been a bad time, but I see it as an experience rather than being simply good or bad. You can grow and learn from an experience. The last couple of years of my life, it’s changed my outlook and how I view everything. Since getting out of hospital, I still go back every second week to help people coming out who are going through what I went through.
ADVERSITY = EXPERIENCE = GROWTH
The greatest challenge faced by coaches is the pressure of expectations, as well as being really able to celebrate each day’s achievements – the good, bad and ugly. Try to be present in the moment, not dwell too much in the past or the future. Where do you want to put your energies and your time? Look at what you can do and study the things you can improve, rather than dwelling on a moment in the past that didn’t result in the desired outcome. Turn it around and use the 3×3 system: write down 3 great things, and 3 things you need to improve. Nothing is ever bad. If you can review yourself on these things constantly as a coach or an athlete, then you end up with serious horsepower.
To manage these expectations as a coach, first get rid of the word ‘expectations’ and change it to a word you are comfortable with, e.g. outcome, goal. If you can change what words you mentally feed yourself, it actually gives you a better playing field for achievement. It’s a bit of an art but it’s what elite athletes do. For example, consider what Jonathon Thurston says to himself before kicking a goal. What are the words he uses to get himself focused and present, to have a good chance at a successful outcome? There is no shortage of distractions, but you have to prioritise and get completely present so you can reach your outcomes.
Many coaches are using this attitude already, such as Wayne Bennett (Broncos) and Des Hasler (who I was associated with at the Sea Eagles). As coaches, we are constantly reviewing processes for our athletes to perform at a high level, but I think that coaches need to sit back and have time to review themselves, work on their own processes and rewards. Their foot is always on the accelerator trying to achieve their KPIs. If you reward yourself for the little things, imagine how that changes your day.
We need to have adversity. Today where I sit at home, I look out over the bay and the wind is gusting up to 30 knots. The trees all around me are getting challenged by the weather. The trees are just going to hang on and not do anything too radical. But once the wind stops blowing, the roots go deeper and the tree gets bigger and stronger. It’s the same with people. We need adversity and to be challenged. We need it to grow. You can say that the adversity was bad, but then you will not grow from it. If adversity can be an experience, then the bigger the adversity, the bigger the growth.
Powerful Stories, Tips and Amazing Insight
Ready, Set, Go! Everything you need to know to start coaching from the legends in the field. As well as the Business and Life coaches, our launch edition features David Parkin (AFL), Lisa Alexander (Netball Australia), Adam Commens (Hockey Australia), Simon Cusack (Swimming Australia), Sean Douglas (FFA) and many more!