The End Of Year Grade Needed By Welsh Sport – An ‘A’ For Attitude

As 2016 draws to a close, it’s time for the lists and the awards ceremonies, the back-slaps and the prizes – in all sports and at all levels. But what creates high-achieving performers? Huw Jones, former Sport Wales chief executive, says serial winners in sport – like the All Blacks – prove it’s all about attitude and planning. Cash helps, but it’s not enough.


Every Christmas we see repeats of the same old films on TV. But there’s one I never tire of watching; ‘The Great Escape’. It’s not just because Steve McQueen was the coolest guy that ever lived and that it shows heroism of the highest order. It’s because it shows one of the best examples of a high performing organisation in action. Next time it’s on, watch it and think about the five aspects of high performance which I discussed in last month’s blog:

  • Setting Unreasonable Ambitions. They wanted to get 250 men out of Stalag Luft III in order to tie down as many German troops searching for escaped POWs,rather than being used on the front
  • Strategy andperformance insights. They knew exactly how they were going to achieve this this through building three tunnels, Tom, Dick and Harry.
  • Distributed Leadership. Everyone had clear rolesand knew what was expected of them: Hendley the Scrounger, Blythe the Forger, Sedgewick the Manufacturer, Danny and Willie the Tunnel Kings.
  • High Quality Feedback. Group Captain Bartlett, Big X, seeking progress reports and ensuring everything was on time in order to escape on the darkest night of the year.He would challenge colleagues but also gave them high support.
  • Working as One. Everyone committed to the same goal of getting 250 men out and supporting each other.

In the end 72 men escaped and 50 were rounded up and shot. They all knew the potential consequences of their actions. The plan gave them not just hope but exhilaration and something to live for rather than just exist.

And remember, all of this was done with nothing. They had no resources except what they could see (and what they could steal!). High performance isn’t about how much money you have, it’s about your behaviour and attitude. Yes, more resource help you to do a better job but it’s no substitute for having the 5 components of high performance in place. As Sir John Harvey-Jones once said, ‘Concentrate on the resources you’ve got not worry about the resources you haven’t got’.

So what does high performance look like in practice in sport?

You can’t think about high performing teams without starting with the All Blacks. They have dominated rugby for so many years, even when they were unsuccessful in winning the Rugby World Cup. At that time the Baby Blacks were certainly dominating the Junior World Cup.

I spent some time with Grant Hubbard who was Team Manager for the Baby Blacks. It was fascinating listening to their approach. He didn’t focus on tactics or structures but on player management and behaviour. If they were going to win they needed the right attitudes both on and off the field. They undertook player profiling to know how each one would react physically and mentally to the pressure which they would face. But they also instilled in each one the expectations which they had of him.

I recall the story of a young prop who was new to the squad. He was told that now he was an All Black they expected him to be a ‘leader’. The young lad responded by saying that he was no Richie McCaw and couldn’t be a leader. They told him he misunderstood. On the field he was expected to contribute to discussions if things weren’t working; his views were as important as anyone else’s. Off the field, people would look up to him because he was an All Black and he was expected to behave accordingly and show leadership back in his community.

Eric Hoffer the behavioural psychologist once said ‘Power corrupts the few, while weakness corrupts the many’. In the All Blacks squad everyone has a valid view and everyone is expected to speak up. If at breakfast a player is seen eating something which is not on their dietary list the players don’t go whinging to the coach about him, they are expected to address the matter directly with the person concerned – ‘You’re letting yourself down; the team down and the All Blacks down, leave it alone’.

When Pat Lam joined Connaught he did so because they had the same vision, a commitment to be Champions of the Pro12. Some people laughed, just as they did with Leicester City, but there was a steely determination to achieve that goal and insights into how they wanted to play as a team. The players bought into this vision and they all supported each other. The leadership of Lam was crucial. In simple terms there are two types of leader: the leader whose players would gladly follow him or her to hell and the leader whose colleagues would gladly see them go to hell! You get a strong impression that the former is beginning to happen at the Arms Park through the leadership of Danny Wilson.

Alex McLeish tells a story of when he was a young footballer playing for Aberdeen and Alex Ferguson was the manager. He said that he saw AF coming towards him down the corridor and he didn’t know what to say. As the pair got closer Ferguson said ‘How’s Scotland’s best centre-half, then?’ McLeish said he felt 10 feet tall. Contrast this with the behaviour of Ronaldo during Euro2016. His constant criticism of colleagues, his petulant behaviour saw very average performances from the Portugal side. During the final, when Ronaldo went off injured after 15 minutes they began to play as a team and eventually won the tournament.

Similarly, Jose Mourinho began to lose the Chelsea dressing room when he started to criticise his players and staff publicly. They were no longer in it together and acting as one. When a group of men are dispirited and failing, they don’t need a leader who believes in himself nearly as much as they need one who believes in them.

As Michael Jordan said, ‘Talent wins games but teamwork and intelligence wins championships’.

Some people say that this is all about motivating people. Words can inspire but only action creates change. Steve Hanson, Alex Ferguson and I suspect Danny Wilson all believe in preparing players and having the confidence in them to do the right thing on the field. As the great Dallas Cowboys coach, Tom Landry once said ‘I don’t believe in team motivation. I believe in getting a team prepared so it knows it will have the necessary confidence when it steps on a field and be prepared to play a good game’.

I was once privileged to meet Martin Johnson after England won the RWC2003. I asked him if they had any specific tactics before the game. He said that their game was predicated on the assumption that they would win the scrums because of their powerful pack while they thought that Australia would dominate the lineout. He went on to say, ‘After 15 minutes we realised that it was the other way around’. So I then asked what did you do next? His response was simple: ‘I gathered a few players around and asked, what are we going to do now then boys?’ The coaches trusted the players and he trusted his colleagues. If they had advice or instruction from the sidelines they did the same; consider it as a group and then decide if they were going to carry it out or not. They were the players on the field and they took responsibility.

I think it was the 2012 Autumn Internationals when I was invited by S4C to their box for the New Zealand game. Who was in the adjacent box – only the All Blacks coaching staff which meant that I was effectively sitting next to Steve Hansen, albeit with a small wall between us. I was stuck by how little communication took place between them and the pitch. They trusted the players to do their job.

The classic high performing Olympic organisation is British Cycling. Peter Keen its Performance Director at the time of Sydney2000 was the guy who started to put in place high performance principles. These were then taken forward by David Brailsford and Shane Sutton. This is best exemplified by their massive desire to win the Men’s Team Pursuit. They recognised that if they were going to win the Gold medal they needed to break the World Record. The Australian team was good and would certainly match the British team’s performance, hence the need to break the World Record.

Now there is little point in simply saying we need to break the world record or we want to break the record. You have to have insights into what will achieve this for you and what things you can control. This is where the concept of ‘incremental marginal gains’ comes in. Making lots of small changes which can add up to a significant difference. They looked at the bikes, helmets, riding position, diet, height, weight of riders etc. This strategy has been hugely successful both on the track and on the road in the Tour de France.

Some people take these principles to extremes. Bill Sweetenham who was Performance Director for British Swimming used to insist that swimmers slept on the floor! His logic was based on the fact that if they always did this then before a championship they wouldn’t get affected by a bad night’s sleep due to an uncomfortable bed. I think I’d take my chances in a bed!

The U.S Swimming Team at RIO2016 showed the impact of marginal gains in an extraordinary way. By shaving around 2 seconds in total from 12 swimmers resulted in 12 medals which they would not have won. If Michael Phelps had been 0.71 slower in 200 Fly he would have gone from first to fourth.

British Cycling, U.S. Swimming and the All Blacks all seek continuous feedback on their performances. This is a mixture of both technical data and also soft data on attitudes. The Junior All Blacks Management were all scored by the players in the squad. If they didn’t achieve a specific threshold then they would not be considered for the next championships. How powerful a driver is this for coaches? Players responsible for their destiny. Leadership is not a position or a title it’s action and example with players deciding how well you discharge your responsibilities. Innocent Drinks have a similar assessment process for managers, I believe.

But of course, it’s not just about team feedback. The great players want personal feedback on how well they are doing. When Richie McCaw retired, Steve Hansen was asked how great was McCaw? He didn’t come up with the expected trite phrases like ‘he was the best’ or ‘he was fantastic’. Hansen said that every year during pre-season training McCaw would ask him how he could improve as a player. He wasn’t satisfied with his current performance he always wanted to be better. He had unreasonable ambition for himself and the team. That’s what made him a great player.

At the age of 87, Michaelangelo was quoted as saying ‘I am still learning’.

All the above examples have the 5 components of high performance in place but especially one: ‘Acting as One’. Having pride in yourself, your team mates and especially the badge. This quote has been attributed to many people. I don’t know who it was that said it first but they are absolutely right: ‘It’s not about the name on the back of the jersey, it’s about the badge on the front’.

Putting in place the 5 principles of high performance isn’t easy but maintaining them over many years is what creates greatness. As Vince Lombardi the great Green Bay Packers coach (and after whom the Superbowl trophy is named) once said, ‘Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all-time thing. You don’t win once in a while; you don’t do the right thing once in a while; you do them right all the time. Winning is a habit.’

This applies equally to players and coaches.


This article first appeared on the website of Llanishen RFC.


Huw Jones was Chief Executive of Sport Wales (previously the Sports Council for Wales) for over 15 years. During this period the organisation was named in the Sunday Times Top 100 Places to Work in the UK (Public/Voluntary Sector). He led the organisation through a high performance change process resulting in the Vision for Sport in Wales. He retired in 2013 and is now a volunteer in sport as well as a season ticket member at Cardiff Blues.

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