Coaching, Klopp & The Last Dance – The Stuart Lancaster Interview: Part 2
June 18, 2020 4:15 pm Conor Sharkey
In the second part of our interview with Stuart Lancaster, the Leinster Rugby Senior Coach speaks about his passion for coaching, his admiration for Liverpool FC’s Jürgen Klopp and assistant manager Pep Lijnders, and his time with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.
You’ve been very busy: GAA, rugby club and RFU webinars across the last couple of months. You clearly enjoy it.
I do. I enjoy coach development and leadership development. I enjoy passing on what I’ve learned. I don’t say I’ve all the answers, by the way – far from it. I’ve always enjoyed doing it and I’ve always done it. Because, when I was a young coach coming up, or a young teacher, or a young person trying to learn about leadership, I’d other people do the same for me. They passed on what they’d learned. I never forgot the time they took to do that. Some people went out of their way to do it for many.
So, to be able to do the same back in return, and obviously this window at the moment using online forums, if you navigate the IT, it’s an effective way to hit a lot of people. Obviously, I’m just the person at the end of the screen doing the talking. There’s a lot of people behind the scenes that have set it all up, registered, set up the IT.
Hopefully, it stimulated debate. The frustrating thing for me is you can’t see eye contact with the people you’re communicating to so you don’t know if it’s really landing. The second part of the equation is the complete difference in levels. You might have some coaches on there who are under-10 coaches for their local rugby team or GAA team.
And some coaches are coaching at the highest level in Gaelic football or in rugby in the professional game. And you try and find content that fits for both parties. Whereas, normally, at a coaching conference you’d do either an elite conference, therefore, it’s geared this way, or a community coaching conference is geared another way. But I enjoy that challenge, I enjoy putting the clips together and the notes. The feedback’s been positive, so it’s my way of trying to help people keep moving forward during this window.
It was interesting to see you doing the webinar with the GAA. Do you look to learn from other sports?
That particular GAA webinar, that came about after I went to Croke Park 18 months ago and spoke at their national coaching conference. I think there were about 800 coaches there. I think part of the reason it resonated at the time was because… I described to the audience I wasn’t always a professional rugby coach. I was a part-time rugby player and a part-time rugby coach. So, I coached Tuesday and Thursday and played Saturday. Which is the same as any GAA team, really; part-time coaching and a weekend game.
Also, the principles of play that I learned… When I was PE teacher you were coaching hockey, soccer, basketball, rugby. They’re all invasion games, of a fashion, where you’re trying to create space, see space, scan, score goals, score tries, whatever. I’ve got a good understanding of the principle of games.
With the GAA, I certainly wasn’t trying to tell them how to play hurling or football, but what I was trying to say was ‘here are some things I would say to rugby coaches, see if they’re relevant in your world, number one, and number two, here’s a list of my top 15 coaching tips that I think you need to think about if you’re going to be a great coach’. That was the message from me, really.
In terms of rugby learning from other sports, I think it’s everywhere you look. I went to American football, there’s things I took back from there. I’ve had calls with rugby league coaches, obviously, that’s a closer sport to rugby union. I did some things with the FA (English Football Association), so there’s reference there.
I was watching on TV, there’s a programme called The Test, which is about the Australian cricket team, their journey from Sandpaper-gate and when they got done for ball-tampering to redemption. So you’re watching that and taking things from that. The basketball one with Michael Jordan has come out, that’s on the list. And so it goes on. The GAA itself, learning how Dublin did the ‘five-in-a-row’. There’s always stuff out there if you look. The challenge is usually finding time to look but now we’ve got a bit more time.
You mentioned The Last Dance on Netflix, and I think that’s what the people really want to know: what is Stuart Lancaster watching on Netflix? Have you seen Tiger King?
I haven’t actually watched that yet. You know what? Because I didn’t have a TV in my flat in Dublin, I got out of the habit of watching it. So when it comes to an evening and Nina goes ‘do you want to sit down, watch the TV?’, I’m like ‘I’ve got this book I want to read’. But, obviously, it’s good family time as well. I’ve been on the road travelling a lot since 2007 when I joined the RFU at Twickenham. It’s been quite nice also to just be at home for a bit and not rush up and get on a plane and fly to Dublin and back again, and spend a bit of time with Nina and two children – and the two dogs.
One of the things that stood out in one of your Leaders Questions episodes on Off The Ball was that based on their personality profiles, many of the players in the squad are introverts. I wouldn’t have expected that and was wondering what it’s like to work with a group that is more naturally introverted?
It’s a programme called Insights. Not everyone’s done it but a majority. A lot of them did do it with the Academy and I think with Ireland, and I’ve had a few lads go through it as well. I wouldn’t say all of them but certainly, a majority would be slightly more introverted. Not completely introverted in that they don’t speak or that they don’t talk or communicate in any way. They’re happy, quiet, they’re detail orientated, they’re studious. But everyone can be on the other side of the spectrum where you are directive, have the confidence to speak in meetings.
It’s a skill you have to train. You have to make people aware of their own personality traits and train them to have the confidence to do that and encourage them. You’ve got to create a safe environment for that to happen. If you’re in an environment where you’re quite introverted and then you speak up in a team meeting and everyone shouts you down and the coach has a go at you, then you won’t want to speak again. It’s creating that safe environment for people to grow which allows people to find their voice, which I say to the players all the time. Because that voice needs to be heard, one, in meetings and, two, definitely on the field, because the players are leading the team.
It’s not a coach-led game like American Football where the coaches call plays. It’s down to the players. They have to be able to communicate and articulate their point of view, both on and off the field. I think it’s a good thing really. You want a good blend of both personality types in a team. I think we’ve got that.
Is that something you’re aware of for yourself as well, where you stand in terms of those personality traits?
Yeah, I mean, there’s no right or wrong personality. It’s more understanding what you’re like, what your individual personality is like, and then picking the right tools out of the box at the right time. So sometimes for me, it’s being directive saying ‘this is the way we’re going, this is the way we need to defend’. Sometimes it’s standing at the front of a group and trying to inspire and motivate. Sometimes it’s actually just being a supportive team player. And sometimes it’s getting the detail right, the accuracy of your review, or the plays, or the coaching session.
Isa (Nacewa) was a really good example. He had a good blend of all four (personality traits). He could adapt his personality. When players are more strongly orientated in one particular direction over another, if you’re really red/directive, it’s encouraging those people to be more reflective and to take time to listen rather than telling everyone what to do all the time.
Who do you admire in rugby or any other sport, coach or player, past or present?
I think there are big influences on my career like Bill Walsh, the American football coach, and John Wooden, the basketball coach. Both have passed away now but those legendary American coaches would be high on my reading list.
Obviously, in our sport, New Zealand and the coaches from there and the success they’ve had is phenomenal really. Wayne Smith really being the guy who I would spend most time with, but Graham Henry, obviously through Leo (Cullen)’s connection I’ve met him a few times. He’d be someone who you’d go to.
In rugby league there are the great NRL teams, I would look at their coaches. I’m fortunate to know a few of them. I’m fortunate to know a few in England as well. There’s a lot really – I’m very lucky. There’s something called Leaders in Performance which is a sport to business company and they set up what’s called a P8, which is a meeting before their conference. So, the conference is on a Tuesday and on a Monday they have a private meeting for 8-10 coaches of different sports. And it’s closed-door, it’s Chatham House rules. And basically, the eight or 10 of us would sit and debate themes, or success after success, or how you deal with failure, or whatever it is.
You’ve got some amazing people in there like Arsene Wenger and Dave Brailsford, Gregg Popovich, Alastair Clarkson from Hawthorn in Aussie Rules. You learn so much in those environments. Probably more so than you do on the day after at the conference.
It’s interesting to hear mention from people in Leinster of Jürgen Klopp, Pep Lijnders, and talk about that Liverpool squad and what they’re achieving and what they’ve built on as an example from another sport.
Pep Lijnders is excellent, I think. Klopp’s excellent, obviously – clearly. I’ve got a couple of Pep Lijnders’ press conferences that I’ve shown to the players. I think he speaks so well. He really articulates the identity of Liverpool. You’re constantly searching for little gems like that to show the players to bring to life your theory and your themes, but through the story of another team. I think that’s a powerful way of connecting people, through stories. That Liverpool story – I’m not a Liverpool fan, I don’t watch a huge amount of soccer, to be honest – but I admire what they’ve achieved. There’s a lot you can take from watching and watching the coaches and how they’ve gone about their work.
It’s not necessarily figures from the past who you find inspiration from; it could be anybody, anywhere – even a young coach like Lijnders.
There’s a guy, Sean McVay, coaches American football. He’s 34, I think. He coaches the LA Rams. Again, he’s very impressive the way he speaks. His theory of coaching and leadership as well. He’d be another one I would try and track and follow to see what he’s saying and why.
You spent time in Atlanta with the Falcons. What was that like being there? How long did you spend there and what did you get to take in?
I got two pre-seasons. The first year I went in and it was to speak to the defensive coaches about tackle technique in rugby. I ended up speaking to the whole team, amazingly, about lessons that I’d learned in coaching and sport. And the second year, it was similar really. Again, more time with the defence coaches for three or four days. Obviously they were in the middle of their pre-season at the time. I think it was leading into the time when they reduce their squad from 95 to 55. So they were really receptive and I learned a lot from them.
Do you miss it, all of it? The coaching, the games?
I can get my head around it, the not coaching bit. I wouldn’t want to do it forever. I wouldn’t want to not coach forever. I miss the craic, I miss the lads. I miss coming into reviews, getting ready for training sessions, planning it. I miss the build-up to the games, the games themselves, the post-match. Even if I’m on the commute back to the airport, I miss seeing all my friends at the airport! They’re all like, ‘Stuart, how you doing? Good game today!’. Yeah, you miss work. When you love work, you miss it.
As I said, there are bigger things at play here and we just need to all be patient. If we can nail it now, then the things we miss will come back sooner. Let’s get it nailed now, shall we? Let’s get it nailed now.
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