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Business, Olympic Edition Peak Performance: It’s all in the planning

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By: Tim Walsh •  4 years ago •  

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I WAS ORIGINALLY A RUGBY PLAYER FOR THE QUEENSLAND REDS, AND THEN WENT ON TO AN INTERNATIONAL CAREER THAT SPANNED 10 YEARS. I PLAYED A LOT OF 7S THROUGHOUT MY CAREER, COMPETING IN 20 TOURNAMENTS FOR AUSTRALIA AND GOING TO THE 2002 COMMONWEALTH GAMES IN MANCHESTER.

I

played in England for 6 years with Leeds Carnegie, Worchester Warriors and Birmingham & Solihull, as well as with North Harbour for New Zealand, back to the Reds in 2010, and finished up my career in Padova, Italy, playing 15s from 2010-2012 with Petrarca.

I absolutely loved playing in Italy. It was an amazing experience, just from a personal growth aspect, I was immersing myself in a different culture, struggling through the language – although I can speak some Italian now! We ended up being very successful all over Europe. It was a great way to finish my rugby career.

Whilst in Europe I played for Samurai Rugby 7s International team – a very prestigious invitation-only team. Throughout that time, I worked with some of the best coaches and players in the world, such as Mike Friday and Ben Ryan. I learned a lot from these guys, playing under them and then coaching with them as I stepped into my first coaching roles.

Throughout my career as a player, I had always coached rugby when I could, so I did my coaching badges Level 1 (in Australia), Level 2 (in England) and Level 3 at the RFU (whilst in Italy). I’ve also always tried to increase my knowledge around business, so I’ve completed several degrees, diplomas and courses, and now nearly have my MBA. I’m very fortunate to be able to be in the business of sport, and specifically my passion, rugby.

While I was in Italy, the U20s World Cup was to be held in Padova, so the Australian team came over and I ended up working for them as analyst and Assistant Coach for Australian Rugby Union (ARU). Once I retired from rugby, I became the Coaching Coordinator for the ARU Rugby 7s for both Men’s and Women’s programs. This involved travelling for 6 months of the year and supporting the Men’s team in Las Vegas and the Women’s in China. After a year, in 2013, the opportunity to be Head Coach of the Women’s Rugby 7s team arose and I’m now in my 3rd season with them.

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It was amazing development for me, being able to see what worked and what didn’t for both teams. Within that time, the 7s game became a full-time program for the Women’s. It enabled me to really focus on one team, take ownership and mould them to where I wanted them to go and their style of play. I love the fact that I can shape and grow the team. When I took over as Head Coach, they had finished 7th in the World Series and 5th in the World Cup in Moscow (2013).

I had been coaching both Men’s and Women’s squads as an interim appointment after the departure of the Men’s Head Coach. I was assigned the task of leading the men’s team to Olympic qualification in Rio, which we achieved successfully through the Oceania tournament. Andy Friend has now taken over as Men’s Head Coach, as he has just returned from Japan.

PLAN TO PEAK AT THE RIGHT TIME

Taking over the Women’s team, we had a flush out of players to quickly change the culture. We developed a focused strategy around recruitment and selection. I gave the girls some policies and structures around play and behaviour.

We won the first tournament in Dubai, were 3rd in Atlanta, won Sao Paolo, and made every final after that. We ended up finishing the 2014 season 2nd overall. The following year we finished 3rd for the season, and currently we are sitting 1st.

If you look at our ranking and form, we are a massive chance in Rio. There is a lot to be done between now [time of writing] and then. It depends on who can peak at the right time, handle the pressures of the Olympics and maintain focus. That’s the reality of the whole experience. If we perform at our best, then I believe we can win it. We have great depth and great players with a lot of experience.

Working towards Olympic medals means you cannot maintain peak performance over a full period of 18 months. We have to schedule in specific down times and rest periods, and maintain a focused season plan around what tournaments we are targeting. We have to be smart and recognise that there may be some games over the season where we will not be quite at our physical best as a consequence of the plan to peak at the right time.

2 months ago we hosted an Olympic family day. Everyone close to the players was invited – parents, partners, friends – with the aim to help them stay focused and be protected from excessive pressure. We brought in the Women’s Water Polo Captain, Bronwen Knox, who will be attending her 3rd Olympics, and was on the bronze medal-winning teams from 2008 and 2012. She was able to speak to our team about what their Olympic preparation, both past and present. Her mother was also able to share about how she could help Bronwen cope with the pressure. We also brought in a sports psychologist to work on any focus issues and on personal development.

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The AIS have been very supportive with their resources and gave us access to the Water Polo, Hockey, Netball and Basketball teams. Being able to talk to other coaches in similar situations is a great help and there is a huge depth of expertise and experience. I meet with Rod Macqueen every so often to talk about rugby strategies and bounce ideas. The beauty of having travelled so much as a player meant I was able to spend time with a lot of different amazing coaches (e.g. Mike Friday, Brian Ashton, Peter Grigg, Ewen McKenzie), see their strategies, their different ways of doing things, and then pick out the things that worked for my style and implement them.

Lately the single biggest influence on my coaching has been David Nucifora, who played for the Wallabies in the 1991 Rugby World Cup winning team. He consulted for the women’s team for a year before he took up the position of Head of Performance at the Irish rugby union. He also coached me as a player, and has mentored me as a coach to become who I am today.

THE PERFORMANCE MATRIX

Coming into the Olympics, it would be naive to think that the pressure remains the same but it is a catalyst for us to be able to attract sensational athletes and another challenge for us to embrace and thrive off.

3 years ago I wrote down all the criteria I thought we needed to be to win the Olympic medal. A sample of these were:

  • squad size
  • physical results
  • mental psychology
  • game trends
  • leadership (players)
  • leadership (coaching)
  • skills needed to be the world’s best

These were all included into a performance matrix to develop the team to where we are today. We keep monitoring and adjusting it to keep the players highly motivated and challenged. Getting the best comes from being creative and keeping it enjoyable, although it is hard work. We do lots of identity building that we work on every year and create vision statements that we live by as a team.

Team Identity is built around the culture and drives player behaviour. It’s has become our moral compass so that every big decision or behaviour we require, we always turn back to the vision statement, which helps us make the tough decisions. Everyone has the vision statement on a card in their wallet that they carry around. There is a shortened acronym version that the players developed which is tagged on the bottom of emails and up in the locker room. It is everywhere to help permeate their lives, inform their decisions and help them live it.

ALWAYS LOOKING AHEAD

Overall it is a process-driven, performance-based team. We are continually setting goals, reaching them and adjusting them onto another goal. We’ve always had Rio 2016 in our sights, but are now also looking ahead to the 2018 Commonwealth Games and 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Looking back at the list I created 3 years ago, there are a lot of differences to what actually happened! Injuries do happen due to rugby being a contact sport, and will put a dent in the plans, but the squad size now has the depth to cover all bases with experience. We made sure we had world-class international experience and the team is well on track, if not exceeding expectations. While I’m never satisfied, never complacent, it is really pleasing to see that my initial predictions were fairly close to what we have achieved so far.

The last 3 years have had themes:

  1. 2014: Platform and Establishment – becoming a full-time team, establishing an identity
  2. 2015: Growth and Leadership – maturing into a world-class team, leading on and off the field in the way Women’s 7s is played
  3. 2016: Dominance and Destiny
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I try to create an environment to allow individuals to perform at their peak. I see myself as a transformational leader but also a servant leader. I create the opportunity for them to excel but not dictate via measures and markers. I want to create something they can own, where they have the freedom to express themselves and perform.

I went to the Commonwealth Games as a player but this will be my first Olympic games. We all stay in the village and our tournament is actually in the first 3 days. After that, the coaches fly home and the athletes stay. We won’t go to the opening ceremony, which ended up being an easy decision that comes back to our original vision statement. The simple answer was no, as it would affect our performance. We didn’t have to argue with the players at all, because this is how they think. We are very fortunate to have the competition so early. If they do well, they’ll have a fantastic second week! I am also glad because I will make it back in time for my little boy’s 2nd birthday. To be not only the Head Coach, but to take this team to the Olympics, is a dream.

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