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

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There are Six Pillars of Excellence that each and every player and staff member live by and can recite to you upon request, since it is ingrained almost as part of the team DNA. The pillars are:

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


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

Of course, this is 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 while they discussed how they were going to coach and teach each aspect of the game. They stripped everything back and came up with a plan to develop the skill set for under 16’s all the way through to the first-grade team. Everything was written down on those old library index cards – key points on each skill, everything from how to hold the ball, to tackle technique. When this level of detail is matched with work ethic, magic seems to happen.


The second pillar, Enjoyment, might seem out of place, but I think it is an essential aspect to develop in the team structure. All too often in the professional game, for players, 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 S&C 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, and try and be the best you can.”

My first position in professional sports was with basketball. However, long before my professional career began, I would often play a primary school game called Rats & Rabbits. I continue to play this game to this very day with the same results – it is a fun acceleration and change-of-direction game. The number of times that players would come and ask me if we were going to do this game in warm-ups, or request this game, would absolutely astound most of you. And for the most part, the players don’t realize how much they are actually getting out of the activity.

Winning teams that I have seen 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 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 is extremely important in developing culture within a team. You may not agree with everything – and it is actually highly likely that at sometimes you will disagree – but your loyalty to the team will remain. As stated by one particular team with which I was associated, “disagree but commit”. If you do not like something, you say it up front and not in whispers in the background, which only erodes confidence in others and destroys the meaning of loyalty. The phrase “in the belly, not in the back” is another wonderful saying from a former team that rings true in this regard as well.

I remember a wonderful story told about Vince Lombardi. He had always done contracts with players by a shake of the hand, with no third party required. Then one player brought a manager to negotiate. Lombardi shook hands, excused himself, went back to his office, and traded the player over the phone. He later came back to inform the manager that he needed to speak to X team, as that was where his player was now employed. Loyalty to the team and the code 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.


Team First is basically aligned with the thought that before you say or do anything, consider if it is in the best interest of the team, and whether or not it is going to help us move forward as a unified group. It comes down to holding yourself and others accountable to a higher purpose – the common vision that you develop in training camp, by whatever methods that your coaching and support staff decide upon with the senior players group. It simply comes down 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 – finding what spins the group’s wheels, be it music, video, or activities. As Simon Thomas mentioned in a wonderful 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 that 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 on a weekly basis, which creates momentum of which everyone is a part, and to which the whole team is contributing. Every group is different; from year to year or from one team to another, it is important to realize what works for this particular team, at this time. Find what works with your program and your group, rather than trying to uplift an existing culture from another program and drop it in somewhere else. Trying to translate another team’s culture to yours can potentially have 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 on unity of purpose. It meant joining the individual and the team as a group that buys into one team vision of why we are doing this, what needs to be done, and how are we going to achieve our common goal. This reminds me of the great Phil Jackson and his Triangle Offense, which involves sharing the scoring threats and options around the court. This means that the star player, who maybe doubled or even triple-teamed, can get a pass away to an open shooter and score. Although the star may have to sacrifice his individual numbers, the team is the ultimate winner.


With regard to Integrity, this direct quote from the Australian Sports Commission’s website is the best that I have found to really explain this element of success:

“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 that you are going to do something, you follow through on that promise and don’t just pay lip service to it. It means that you would never do anything that dishonors yourself, your team mates, or the organization.

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

“Which Person do you want to work with you? Person 1 walks straight past 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 it in the trash can. I know which person I will be hiring.”


Respect is earned and never given lightly. It is respect for the history of the organization you are with and respect for the rest of the staff, from who they are as people, 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 a player looks you in the eye when they shake hands with you. They connect with you – they may not say much, but you feel that connection. Getting to know your athletes is a huge aspect of respecting them as people first. Knowing their likes and dislikes and what is going on in their lives (outside of the eight hours a day you spend with them), will help you to help them to be the best they can be. Knowing what other stresses are in a player’s life can give you the heads up to pull back in some areas so they can produce come 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 allotted four tickets. Players often bartered around the group to get more, but with any shortfall, you were expected to pay the going rate. However, 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 was granted his request.

In my experience, character cannot be taught. By the time a player comes to your team environment, he has the character he has (although it can still be molded and shaped). The success behind many teams is that when they recruit on character first, these players will always find a fair way to win, whereas players 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, and 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 that is bigger than themselves.” Similarly, Damian Marsh, current 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 that you get a copy and circulate it widely through your staff as a guidebook to culture and character in action, at the highest levels of sport. As one of the major themes of the book states, “Better People Make Better All Blacks”. 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.

In conclusion, I believe that no one says it better than the legendary John Wooden, with these two quotes from him on character and his Pyramid of Success:

“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.”

 Image credit: Iaroslav Neliubov ©