I spent eight years working with a rugby team in the Southern Hemisphere. The success that this franchise had started from very humble beginnings. They finished last in the inaugural season of Super Rugby, the first of Rugby’s professional era commencing in 1996. The success they achieved attracted quality players and took players that no other team in New Zealand seemed to want. The environment assisted them in becoming All Black representatives as well.

There are six pillars of excellence that every player and staff member lives by. They can recite upon request since it is ingrained almost as part of the team DNA. The Six Pillars of Excellence are:

  1. Hard Work
  2. Enjoyment
  3. Loyalty
  4. Integrity
  5. Team First
  6. Respect

Hard Work

Since I am a strength and conditioning coach, I place hard work first on the list. Although, in reality, they all should be given an equal ranking. It is not just hard but smart work as well. It is the planning that goes into each season and attention to detail in the skill development.

RECENT: Off-Season Gym Programming

Of course, they are not the first team to emphasize this aspect. I remember sitting in with head coach Brian Smith and his two assistants, Brian Johnson and Peter Sharp, back in 1997. I listened intently for over two hours whilst they discussed how they would teach every aspect of the game. They stripped everything back and came up with a plan to develop the skillset from under 16s all the way through to the first-grade team. Everything was written down on those old library index cards—key points on each skill from how to hold the ball to tackle technique. When this level of detail is matched with the recruitment of a work ethic, magic seems to happen.


Enjoyment might seem out of place, but I think it is essential to develop in the team structure. All too often in the professional game, for both players and coaches and support staff, the stress is like a pressure cooker. As I said in a recent interview for an article by Lee Eldridge;

“If it stops being fun, why keep doing it? Remember why you got into strength and conditioning in the first place, and stay true to that. Enjoy every day. There will be some very tough days ahead as you develop and grow but remember why you do what you do. Try and be the best you can.”

My first position in professional sport was with basketball, and I would often play a primary school game called Rats & Rabbits. By the way, Rats & Rabbits is a game I continue to use to this very day with the same results. It is a fun acceleration and change of direction game. The number of times a player would come and ask if we were going to do this game in warm-ups or request this game would absolutely astound most of you. For the most part, players do not realize how much they are actually getting out of the activity.

Winning teams tend to be a tightly knit group where they enjoy each other’s company off the field as much as working for each other on the field. You have to realize why you got into this particular sport in the first place. Initially, it was all about hanging out with your friends and having fun. Robbie Deans, one of my former head coaches and one of the most successful and astute coaches in world of rugby said this in a recent newspaper interview:

“This is the way that rugby should be (recent Barbarians game) regardless of what competition you are playing in. It’s the player’s game, and sometimes coaches forget that. We produce stress when in actual fact, if we retained this element (of fun) the players would rise to the level you want.”

Sunday Star Time. December 3, 2017


Loyalty, to yourself, each other, and the team are extremely important in developing culture within a team. You may not agree with everything and it is actually highly likely that at some times you will not agree, but your loyalty to the team will. As a phrase generated in one team I was associated with, we stood for, “disagree but commit." If you don't like something, you say it upfront and not whisper in the background, eroding confidence in others and destroying the meaning of loyalty. “In the belly, not in the back” is another wonderful saying from a former team that rings true.

I remember a wonderful story told about Vince Lombardi. He had always done contracts with players by the shake of the hand with no third party required. Then a player brought a manager to negotiate. Lombardi shook hands, excused himself, went back to his office, traded the player over the phone, and came back to inform that manager that he needed to speak to X team as that was where his player was now employed. Loyalty to the team and the ways of conduct were very important to Lombardi—it was always about the name on the front of the jersey rather than the name on the back.


This direct quote from the Australian Sports Commission’s website is the best I have found to explain integrity:

“Integrity is the integration of outward actions and inner values. A person with integrity does what they say they will do in accordance with their values, beliefs and principles. A person of integrity can be trusted because he or she never veers from inner values, even when it might be expeditious to do so. A key to integrity, therefore, is consistency of actions that are viewed as honest and truthful to inner values.”

For me, it is the glue of moral character, the honesty that is deeply connected to loyalty. When you say you are going to do something, you follow through on that promise and not just pay lip service to it. It means that you would never do anything that dishonors yourself, your teammates, or the organization.

A colleague of mine was in the NZ Army told me this fable, which I think best explains integrity:

"Which person do you want working with you? Person 1 walks straight pass rubbish lying on the gym floor and does not even see it. Person 2 sees it and ignores it expecting someone else to pick it up. Person 3 sees it, identifies it for what it is, and puts in the a trash can. I know which person I will be hiring."

Team First

Team First is aligned with the thought that before you say or do anything, consider if it is in the team's best interest. Is it going to help the team move forward as a unified group? It comes down to holding yourself and others accountable to a higher purpose. It's the common vision that you develop in training camp by whatever methods your coaching and support staff, together with the senior player's group, decide upon. It comes down simply to doing the right thing, all the time, not just when someone is watching. I have seen theming done extremely well, as a collaborative effort. It's finding what spins the group's wheels, be it music, video, or activities.

As Simon Thomas mentioned in a wonderful and recent podcast, it is “how we saturate our environment with our values—an alignment of everything. Create belief and bind a team to a common vision, tight and connected all season long.”

I remember one season, the unifying theme was Sword Brothers. This was engraved on our dress sword pins with the Latin, “Gladius Frater.” A team handshake comes from this, as does appropriate video or music linked to game footage weekly. It gains momentum and everyone is a part of this and contributes to the team. Remember, every group is different. Year to year, or one team to another, it is important to realize what works for this particular team in present day. What works with your program and your group? Don't try to uplift an existing culture from another program and drop it in somewhere else. This is fraught with having potentially the complete opposite effect of what was intended in the first place, even with the best of intentions.

Another year it was "ME WE," a simple and strong message of unity of purpose. It's the union of the individual and the team. They buy into the team vision of why we are doing this, what needs to be done, and how are we going to achieve our common goal. It reminds me of the great Phil Jackson and his Triangle Offence. He shares the scoring threats/options around the court so that the star player who may be doubled or even triple-teamed can get a pass to the open shooter and score. The star may have to sacrifice his numbers, but the team is the ultimate winner.


Respect is earned and never given lightly. It is respect for the history of the organization you are with, respect for the rest of the staff, to what they have achieved in the game. It is thoughts, words, and actions in synchrony with the values of honor and trust. A small aspect of this is that players look you in the eye when they shake hands with you. They may not say much, but you feel that connection. Getting to know your athletes as people first is a huge aspect of respect. Know their likes and dislikes and grasp what is going on in their lives away from the eight hours a day you spend with them. This information will help you help them to be the best they can be. You'll also know what other stressors are in a player’s life so you can pull back to prepare for game day.

I remember one episode that destroyed respect. A player arrived from another team and requested a large number of tickets for the opening game. Each player selected to play would normally be allocated four tickets, and often players bartered around the group to get more. Any shortfall, and you were expected to pay the going rate. Well, this new player stood his ground and even brought his manager in. He would not purchase any additional tickets and expected to get the remainder required for free. Unfortunately, the principles of the organization took a hit when his request was granted.

In my experiences, character can not be taught. By the time a player comes to your team environment, he has the character he has. Of course, it can be molded and shaped, but the success of many teams is that if you recruit on character first, these player’s will always find a way to win. Whereas, player’s with lesser character will find a way to shortcut and lose. You can always teach skills if the character is right to begin with.

I have been in programs where a player stays only until he feels that he can no longer give anything to the program. It is all about leaving a legacy and the belief that the jersey is more important than the player in it. Unfortunately, I have also been in programs where a player stays on as long as he can get something out of the jersey—it is all about him. As a former head coach of mine once said, “You have to get people to buy into being a part of something bigger than themselves.” As Damian Marsh, currently the head of physical performance with the Fijian rugby union, once said, “It is all about the buy-in you get from the players you have in the environment that you help to create.”

If you have not yet read the book Legacy by James Kerr, I would highly suggest you get a copy and circulate it widely through your staff as a guidebook to culture and character at the highest levels of sport. As one of the major themes of the book states, “Better People Make Better All Blacks.” So, investing in people, treating them as individuals, and working with them to allow them to be the best they can be on and off the field, will allow your team to be the best they can be.

On the topic of character, and in conclusion, no one I believe says it better than the legendary John Wooden:

“The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”

“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” 

Header image credit: ammentorp © 123rf.com

Ashley Jones has just completed his 30th pre-season in professional sport, working across three professional sports on four continents. Ashley currently plies his trade in Major League Rugby (MLR) with the Houston Sabercats as their Head of Performance.