(Keep in mind this event was 8 hours long. I might have gotten some things wrong and these notes may lack the context/nuance you would have gotten from the in-person presentations.)
The first presentation was a joint session with Kieran Read and Andy Ellis:
(As an aside – I would recommend reading Legacy by James Kerr)
The first lesson was to be your authentic self and know your true values. Andy couldn’t start off his career as the scrumhalf who screams at everyone and does the rah rah thing because they wasn’t really who he was. He was imitating other players at first instead of being himself.
They told stories about players who actually make it as All Blacks and there’s a theme where the players selected as top high schoolers don’t tend to make the best all blacks because they haven’t faced adversity or has to reassess and take ownership of their development so they fold up a bit at the first obstacle.
Kieran played at a high school with only one side (most schools have quite a few) and Andy was on the Auckland B-side growing up.
They are mentioning parts of their culture that we may be familiar with and discussed the Haka which connects them to their culture and where they are from. It’s not an intimidation thing and it’s not for the opponent or fans. It’s for them to feel that connection. No matter how they are expressing themselves externally, it is all meant to be connective and creating a focus internally.
They’ve put the 2011 final on the screen and are going over leadership questions such as kick,run etc with a scrum 3 minutes to go. Due to a run of injuries they’ve got their overall 4th fly half in the game who was just pulled off a fishing boat two weeks prior, and Richie McCaw just took a minute for injury. Kieran and Andy come together and make a plan and Richie shows leadership by backing them.
After 2007 (20 years without a World Cup) they sat down and self evaluated. They looked at the culture to create a deep and caring environment so there was something to fall back on under pressure. It’s easy to say culture, just like its easy to say communication but develop culture how? Identify a clear purpose. Create real vulnerability in the squad, peel back some of the layers of macho culture to create actual relationships to build trust. Environment of belonging – even in the best team ever you want folks to belong.
Rituals for belonging – daily handshake/fist bump with eyes up making contact. Food and coffee being ready on arrival to the facility was important for them so the group is chatting instead of going to lockers and phones. Share and hear stories. (They are big on having the smell of coffee specifically creating a welcoming environment when folks walk in.
EPRU Clubs might be interested in the way the All Blacks did Club night during match week and whether they can do something similar post-training – On Tuesdays they would socialize wearing jerseys from their club teams and Dan Carter wore a chairman jacket and ran the event. They would do things like raffle, jerk of the day, stories and histories from clubs etc.
They also mentioned that it is important to have sound – play music and have the energy positive. (They had singing and they had a GOAT chant they yelled out because goal was to create the greatest team of all time. Chant was about the silver fern and the importance of the jersey).
Another of their core principles is to prepare to leave the jersey in a better place. That’s not just leaving it in a better place through your performance but making sure to prepare in advance and help your replacement as much as possible at the end of your career. Andy helped the next scrumhalf. Kieran got to learn from Ruben Thorne and when Kieran earned the starting job Ruben came directly to him and asked how to help him.
Question from the Audience – Kristin “K-Train” Aliberto asks whether he thinks the US has the proper mindset for that sort of culture to be installed. Andy says to remember why you play. Also points out that the All Blacks were already high performance/best athletes and needed to connect from there. You don’t do the “social” stuff without having also put in the necessary work. Kieran adds that building the right culture makes people want to perform and succeed and that you can’t just bog down into details, you need to also build relationships (Kieran grew as a player in high school because they trained twice a week but had a coach/teacher that would meet with Kieran 2-3 times per week before school to work with him).
A question from the crowd (another New Zealander actually I believe) chimes in and says it’s like a family trying to get 15 kids to do something. American coaches seem overly concerned with complex systems. All Blacks agree that structure is important but you have to have other fundamentals of mindset/relationships before diving right in or else folks won’t truly commit to getting to that point.
Kieran Read told a story of how he brought a notebook to his first meeting with a new coach because he thought the plan was to go over all of the details. Instead the meeting was the coach telling him to close the book then telling him he would end up being a 100 cap all black and the coach was there to support him.
Some stuff is organic like having music, some things are planned out like club night. Let the players take the concept you’re trying to instill and build it authentically in a way that works in your group. The stuff you implement culturally might be intentional but you also just do it and have it be the culture without always over explaining to the players. For example the ABs always made sure to have the smell of coffee in the team room but they didn’t explain to the players in granular detail how the smell would make them want to be at work, they just did it and made it a more enjoyable place to be so that they naturally wanted to be there and focus on the task at hand.
From there we moved into the red brain vs blue brain concept. They had a criminal psych come in daily to work with team on mental skills. Blue is calm and clear and allows decision making. Red is stronger because it is primitive and designed to keep you alive but less conducive to succeeding within a team structure on the rugby field.
Techniques for blue brain: mindfulness/breathing allows you to think about something you are doing and focus less on what just happened. Helps to get out of the loop that being in the red creates. Think about breathing in and out. Another technique is to actually talk to your teammates about where they are at and try to recognize when you’re in the red.
Andy thinks about eyes up and breathing in. On the exhale he pushes his toes into the ground and thinks about that. Took him 6 months to learn how to flip back to blue.
Kieran uses self talk. He says “Kieran next task” and tries to move on. For perspective he would also look to the far reaches of the stadium – way up into the corners – to realize that there is more than just the play that just happened and gain perspective.
Every huddle starts with eye contact and a breath. Kieran connected to Sam Whitelock and Ben Smith as his “breath guys”.
In order to desensitize you need to actually know and understand why it works and you need to practice. Have a process around it. When someone makes a mistake you connect and focus on what comes next. You have a method to reset, You don’t need to focus on talking about mistakes, you can’t control the past only what comes next. You also don’t need multiple people chiming in on a mistake.
They put a graphic on the screen that charted it out a bit:
Believe in your people
Help them believe in themselves
Give them opportunities to practice leadership
Discussion shifted to leadership within All Blacks match week:
Monday and Tuesday are heavy with coach time then they start to fade and by Friday it is players only with the match on Saturday. Before 2011 World Cup they had a coach chat 90 minutes before kickoff but they got rid of that because by that time they already knew their jobs and what needed to be done. It was a decision focused on what’s best for the players, not what might be best for the coach.
If the coach has a message they can have it sent in through a player. A couple of players (probably limit to two) can each bring in a focus while the coach just reminds them to have fun.
Anthony Chieco asks about how to get people to listen when some are 40 with decades of experience, others have never played etc. Andy says to build a culture where people listen and Kieran points out that you need the individual connection to be built. (This might sound repetitive in these notes but they probably went for a little over two hours and the main theme that they related back to was how many of your problems are solved by building a culture where people want to be productive rugby players and have the tools to do so as a team because you’ve built those connections).
Summary of the first Kieran and Andy presentation:
Understand who you are
Build a culture of success
Perform under pressure
Next up with Referee Superstar Liz Malazita publicly unveiling her “Back Ten Please” project for the first time with her initial presentation. (You can find the account at @backtenplease on Instagram).
Liz isn’t just teaching the rules from a black and white standpoint. She is seeking to create a dialogue and bridge the gap from players/coaches to referees so that we all know specifically what the referees are looking for and why they made certain calls in the context of the game.
Liz specifically wants folks to know why things are being called so we can all stay cool, calm, and collected on the field. We don’t want fights, arguments, etc we want good, fun, productive rugby.
The Referee sets the standard for the game and as the match goes on teams need to figure out the referees specific nuances and tailor their play accordingly. In match prep folks need to be cognizant of the fact that the referee is a variable and during match play the players should – to the extent that they are able – consider what is important to a given referee.
KTrain chimed in and suggested treating the referee like the weather. You don’t yell at the wind and rain, you change what you’re doing to match the variables.
Liz mentioned seeing leadership gaps at the local level. She expanded on that and explained that teams have a captain or two that might have some understanding of the rules and working with referees, but that the teams lack depth behind them so if they go off there’s nobody left who knows what’s going on.
One player at a time (the Captain) is interfacing with the ref but others should still understand what is happening. It is understandable that at certain levels they need to teach safety and the basics before getting too deep into the lawbook but you need more than 2 players on the field who have any understanding.
Liz is trying to help with that through this project. Back Ten Please allows players to spend their training time focused on what their coach needs to teach them while also having an avenue available for supplementary education. You can’t expect to succeed on the pitch and play good productive rugby if you’re not willing to put some time into learning the rules.
Liz goes on from there – a lack of understanding leads to player frustration and down the line issues from there which makes things less enjoyable for everyone.
Liz brought the referee tackle sequence to go over. Refs are looking through the following in real time:
- Tackle – is the tackle safe
- Tackler and assist – clear and obvious release
- Tackled player/ball carrier – one movement, not playing on the ground
- Arriving players – through gate, on their feet, look for potential foul play
Multiple folks in the crowd pointed out that there seems to be differences in how 7s and 15s are officiated. Liz explains that she is looking for clear and obvious when making calls and that there shouldn’t be ambiguity. (In other words, not guessing and hoping to have gotten the call correct). Certain things are much clearer in 7s due to less players on field and around ball. It’s simply easier to see.
Final point – Referees are not always correct, but your response as a coach or player has a big impact on the game so disagreement does not give you carte blanche to get into disrespect/abuse.
After lunch we had a Richie Walker and Josie Ziluca combined presentation. Richie is the scouting director of Premier Rugby 7s and he has coaches both the USA and Japan women at 7s Olympics among other things including winner an MLR title as Head Coach of the Seawolves. Josie Ziluca currently coaches Princeton and the USA U20 backline. She has also worked as the Women’s and Girl’s Director for the Atlantis Program.
The first thing they told us was to do fun stuff at the start of training sessions. You don’t know what someone’s day has been like and we want the best session we can get so we start with fun games to get their mind on rugby.
Game 1 Player one holds ball, player two puts hands on top (like prayer hands on the nose of the ball). Player one drops ball and two catches it but they don’t know when it is going to be dropped and they can’t flinch.
Game 2 Cone in middle of players, call body parts they need to touch like Simon says, then eventually say go and see who can grab the cone first.
Game 3. Pass back and forth from about 1 meter. Coach says go and whoever has the ball turns and runs away, (straight line) other player tries to chase and tag them before they cover a certain distance.
Question from Joey Chieco regarding match warmups and how to do it effectively without wearing players out: Josie says warmups for matches or training should feel familiar and comfortable. Richie says 20-25 minute warmup max. Individuals have their own time first that doesn’t count. 5 minutes warmup, 5 minutes skills, 5 backs and forwards, 5 minute team run, 5 minute final with sprints and hit shields. Josie and Richie agree that it’s best to have it in place ahead of time. Game warmup doesn’t change week to week, that’s what training is for.
Question about what to do if things don’t look right: Richie says that even if the 5 minute team run is no good you just move on, the culture and mentality should be built so the team knows how to refocus and move forward. He also mentioned that you frequently have great team runs and bad matches or bad team runs and great matches so you can’t just spend huge amounts of time on the pre-match run.
If there’s a 1PM kickoff they suggest starting at 1230 and leaving 5-10 at the end for restrooms, jerseys, captain chat. (Important to remember that you aren’t starting ice cold at 1230. The players do have their own time before then and with only 5 minutes devoted to warmup, stretch etc they should be using some of that time to move a little).
Both coaches remind the audience that right before a match isn’t really the time to teach. That’s early in the week. It’s too late in the pre-game.
Getting into training discussion: Josie spends 75% of her time on basic skills and even a highly tuned program she wouldn’t go below 50%.
Both coaches see plenty of value in stretches and warmups with ball in hand.
Kyle Antoian asked what to do with only 3 hours a week and received a suggestion/outline:
First hour begin with basic skills and get clarity of what needs to improve from before.
Second hour you do the same thing but with intensity this time.
Final hour you focus on accurately running your team stuff
(This was referred to as the CIA method)
Chris Ward chimed in to discuss starting off with games. He and Josie were in agreement on the concept of doing games and less “rugby” structure but the same skills. It takes pressure off of the players and makes things fun. Richie added that when you are using these opportunities, make sure that every player is given an opportunity to do every skill (for example, lot props practice kicking).
Touch games, with consistently changing rules, are great fitness and fun. Require a switch every 3 passes, loops, kick pass, etc. require pops off the ground.
In terms of developing the skills Richie suggested having the last 20 minutes be 5 minute blocks where players have been given “work ons” to practice but also having the freedom to choose some of their own. Richie had locks practicing conversions for example.
Question about how to let players practice every skill, but then focus properly on match day: Richie lets everyone train their skills but their time is managed appropriately and they don’t always get the match day green light. Richie also mentioned that he wants to engage and connect with the players at the back of the line so when you’re doing drills, skills, etc make sure folks aren’t filtering to the back and disengaging or getting lost.
The coaches emphasized that you need to show and build confidence in your players and as a team. Richie uses his water runners for this a lot.
Water runners can be used to deliver a positive and uplifting message. Richie has all of his players take a card, write their name, and what makes them happy. He relies on those things as messages to send in. Send in a player’s happy word to uplift them.
On the subject of skills Josie reminded everyone that if you don’t make mistakes then you don’t learn. Expand your game and don’t be afraid to make errors, learn from them, and achieve at a higher level.
Both of the coaches suggested that the mentality you bring to the table is important and that for example, instead of saying “don’t drop the ball” focus more on what you do want to happen, not what you don’t want to happen. If you say “don’t drop the ball” all they hear about is dropping the ball.
Josie is an international touch rugby player as well and is adamant that proper touch rugby needs to be taught to more players at the younger levels all the way up to the highest levels. Using the FIT rules will make players learn how to play into space and manipulate defense. (Note* this is in addition to using touch rugby variations/games to make things fun. You don’t always stay rigid, but teams should have this tool in their toolkit).
Josie was asked about contact training and how to build up those skills/keep players healthy and fresh for a full season. Josie has a lot of walk-on players this year and mentions that there are all sorts of wrestling and contact games beyond just going full tackle. One quick example she gave is to create a 5×5 grid and have the players try to push each other out using tackle shields. Basically get more comfortable with physical contact in general.
Richie uses CIA for tackling
Clarity on technique and build on that technique. Later in the week it is same concepts but up the intensity. Then at week we break it down and get accurate. Much more about technique than reps.
Josie mentioned the importance of tackling under the ball and not at the ball. If you’re at the ball you can slide up and are liable for bad outcomes. Teach the laws of the game to your players and do your tackling within those laws. Richie brings in referees all the time.
(If you’ve been paying attention, and admittedly these notes are pretty long, you may have noticed that Josie and Richie concurred with the All Blacks on creating an enjoyable environment and making sure that there’s an element of fun involves as well as keeping players in the correct mentality AND that they agreed with Liz about ensuring your players are training to the laws and working with referees. All of the speakers have emphasized that through proper communication we can build the best culture for a sport and make all elements of it better)
Richie mentioned that he doesn’t do one size fits all coaching, he works on their skills with how they are already doing things. So for example, Penn State’s Kate Daley went to the World Cup this fall and Richie was brought in to handle the fall season. He didn’t try to get the players to fit into his system. He took what they were already doing and worked with that.
Josie has 1 on 1s with all of her players, and she meets them where they are and acknowledges their potential insecurities/anxieties by allowing them to bring in a buddy for support. If you don’t have time to do 1 on 1s with everyone then consider using google forms to determine self awareness and where players feel they are developing as a shortcut. You’ll be able to quickly see certain areas where folks just need more self-confidence and others where they need a bit more work. Zoom is great too
In teams of focuses Josie specifically mentioned catch-pass and track tackle as good developmental focuses and also suggested coaches solicit feedback from players, invite other coaches to observe your sessions, film training sessions etc. Keep getting as much feedback, viewpoint, and data as possible.
Let players design training sessions on occasion.
If you don’t have a full staff (or really even if you do) give responsibilities to the captain which reinforces that everyone needs to help. Have players set cones and do field set up etc. When Richie went to coach in Auckland he had a Black Fern in the squad and had her be the first person to handle laundry/cleaning duty. He explained to her that if she did it, everyone else would do it. Lead from the top.
New players want to know every single step to take. Do the game type stuff so they can get reps in a non stressful environment and gain comfort.
Interesting story: Richie mentioned being in Chicago for the USA vs All Blacks match. The ABs cleaned their local room and the Chicago staff was amazed at how clean it was and mentioned they wished that other teams did the same. Steve Hansen pulled the ABs off the bus and had them go clean out the USA locker room.
Collaborating with opponents and rivals can be difficult but Josie mentioned that NIRA all has a weekly ref call that includes coaches and they do share film etc. Josie also has 5 mentor coaches that she goes to for advice and teaching. Richie also collaborates with opposition coaches fairly regularly. Josie recommended each coach have their list of 5 coaches that they think are better than them and try to stay in regular contact.
A great ending point from Richie – teach your playmakers on offense to look from the outside in when running phases instead of watching the crash/breakdown. The nines can watch and snipe the breakdown while the 10/15 start from the wing and work inwards looking for the space to attack. Wings should be communicating everything in from the sidelines.
Kieran Read and Andy Ellis back for additional joint session that was set up as a mostly unstructured Q/A:
Core values that drove the All Blacks
Kieran looked at who they were and their legacy and helped create them
Being driven to succeed and do your best
Be inspiring both to the fans and also the example for teammates
Be grateful for the opportunity
Be fierce, don’t take a step backward
Be courageous – speak up when it needs to be said
Andy says Kieran was first on the field and last to leave. Would do anything for his team and was a fierce competitor.
If not rugby then Andy was studying landscape architecture at University. Kieran probably would have been a phys Ed teacher.
They both enjoyed getting from super rugby into ABs camp, and never wanted to lose to another NZ club just like your brother. The atmosphere was great in that regard and the players always did well to not bring any outside issues/drama into camp. Leave it on the field.
Kieran named Schalk Burger as th hardest opponent to go up against on the field. He also mentioned that he liked when opponents would respond to the Haka.
Kieran told a very funny story about the best Haka he was part of. It was vs Wales in Cardiff and part of Maori culture is that after you lay down the challenge you don’t turn away. After most Hakas the other team moves to get into position to start the match and the All Blacks then do the same. This time each team refused to walk/look away so they had a 3-4 minute stare down. Richie eventually made the decision to get on with it.
In terms of away games – Andy loved playing in South Africa. At loftus they would inject vodka into oranges, drink/eat them, and then throw the rest at the players. Andy was a great sport about this and seemed to think it was actually pretty funny. Andy also enjoyed playing at the AC Milan stadium vs Italy in front of 80K plus.
Kieran’s favorite was Millennium in Cardiff.
They have both retired from playing and miss the guys and the camaraderie as well as showing up to training but they really don’t miss the soreness so they’re perfectly content with their decisions.
Andy has an awesome gig where he goes to his Japanese club for 3 weeks preseason to make sure all of the culture is put in place and then does the same thing in New York.
Andy says DuPont is best 9 in the world. Most memorable he played against was George Gregan who apparently had incredible chatter on the field.
Captain chooses which Haka is performed
New Zealand has a huge sporting culture where kids grow up playing everything and touch rugby is a huge part of their culture. They play daily at recess.
When asked who was better they indicated that Dan Carter had more skills but Richie McCaw was the best worker ever according to Kieran. Andy concurs that Richie didn’t have the world’s best skills but he wanted it far more than anyone else.
One thing they mentioned is that they spent extra time in position groups to build cohesion and then the groups would intermingle and work on how to accomplish their goals together. So, for example, the halfbacks would work together a lot and then would intermingle with the backrow to ensure they had an understanding of how they wanted to attack off the base. If certain combos had repeated issues on match day the coaches would discuss with them and see whether they needed to spend more time together.
Andy told a great story about his first test. Leon Macdonald had made his debut previously so in Andy’s first match Leon gave his jersey to Andy so Andy could trade Leon’s jersey to his opposite number to get theirs and still keep his own.
The subject of next year’s men’s 15s World Cup came up and Andy suggested that it comes from the top. USAR needs clarity on what sort of game they want to play. The identity isn’t clear and we should use our athletes. Fast, explosive, exciting. Top down so coaches at lower levels know how to help train athletes to take those steps if they want to represent at that level.
Andy says the landscape is fractured and there needs to be more alignment among various clubs, regions, etc
Work on core skills of your position. No magic secret to success, just do the work.