The England head coach looks at the Manchester City manager and other gurus who changed his thinking as he got his side mentally and physically ready for the World Cup
Jones encouraged his players to sit with different people at dinner and team meetings
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Pep Guardiola turned out to be the biggest influence on me during my time with Japan. Pep had just taken a year’s break from football, having left Barcelona in 2012 after he won so much with a brilliant team in which Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta and Xavi proved that comparatively small men could become the greatest footballers in the world. I was fascinated by tiki-taka, that Barça style of football characterised by short passing, deft movement and controlled possession of the ball until the opposition defence are opened up and helpless. I wanted to talk to him about these attributes because Japan had to find a way to beat bigger teams.
Pep was incredibly generous and gave me a lot of time. He also allowed me to watch his training sessions with Bayern Munich. It was intriguing because he was coaching some of the best players in the world, and talking to them in various languages, while working with striking intensity. After a routine warm-up he split them into three groups and had them working on concepts of space with relentless focus. One particular session only lasted for 30 minutes but, as they came off for a break, the players were mentally and physically drained. Despite the freezing temperatures, sweat ran down their gaunt faces. Pep’s razor-sharp instruction and expectation pushed the players to their limits. But with purpose, intensity and clarity, they had achieved more in half an hour than most teams would in a traditional two-hour training stint.
Guardiola’s training sessions were short but sophisticated
I had also started to structure our training in short concentrated bursts. But, rather than feeling proud that Pep and I had the same views, I squirmed at how amateurish my sessions seemed when compared to Guardiola’s sophisticated and intricate coaching patterns. I liked the way he could move from coaching the team, talking to everyone in ways that opened their minds, to individualistic moments when he would take a player to one side and show him exactly what he meant. He sometimes even used his hands to move a player physically so there could be no misunderstanding about what they needed to do. It was impassioned and it was inspirational.
At the end of a long day, which finished at 7pm, Pep gave me two hours in his office. He talked about space, movement, passing, training and winning. I left Munich feeling almost dazed. It was exhilarating to watch, listen to and speak with one of the masters of our profession but, at the same time, it was embarrassing to know how far ahead of me he was. Prior to visiting Bayern Munich, I thought I knew something about professional coaching.
Neil Craig, coach to the coaches
My positive experience in assisting South Africa coach Jake White at the 2007 World Cup encouraged me to appoint Neil Craig as the England team’s head of high performance. Neil, who is a few years older than me, joined the team in October 2017. He brought vast experience with him. A former Australian rules footballer, Neil had coached Adelaide and Melbourne and been the head of performance and coaching development at Essendon as well as the director of coaching at Carlton. The professionalism of Aussie rules compares favourably with any other code anywhere in the world. They really know what they are doing.
His official title was pretty meaningless. He more accurately described his role as being a critical friend to me. Neil became my observant right-hand man. His job was to watch closely and advise me where I might improve my interaction with my players and the other coaches. I also wanted him to work with all our coaches and key support staff. After all, who coaches the coaches?
Neil had known me since before the 2003 World Cup and he felt that, while I was still demanding and sometimes intolerant, I had developed a greater empathy with my coaches. In the past, if a coach didn’t know the answer to a question, I would erupt. Now I was more likely to give the coaches a bit more time. I would still make my dissatisfaction clear but I was nowhere near as volatile. After just a short time in our camp, Neil felt our boys had a great work ethic, but they were more comfortable following orders rather than doing anything original. They all called Neil “boss”. He would suggest they try something and they’d say “Right, boss” or “Yes, boss.” Neil was used to Australian players who would never call him boss and always ask him: “Why?”
Daley’s coach and four fatal fears
The great Frank Dick is the former head coach of UK Athletics and was Daley Thompson’s coach when he won Olympic gold in the decathlon in 1980 and 1984. He might have had a few years on the clock, but Frank has one of the sharpest minds in elite sport. I had asked him to join our team in 2016 as a consultant and visit our training camps once a week. His official title is “strategic planning consultant”, but in reality he is just a smart bloke with a lot to offer. He has made a huge impact on our progress.
He spoke to us about the fact that, when you’re in a team, there are four “fatal fears”. The first is the fear of getting it wrong or making a mistake. But if you never make a mistake it means you’ve never challenged yourself to go beyond the limits. The moment you start something new, or step beyond the edge of risk, the chances of making a mistake are notably high. But every time you make a mistake you need to make a point of learning from it and not repeating it. When you become really brave, you don’t wait for somebody else to see the mistake. You put your hand up straight away.
Frank’s second fatal fear is of losing. When you enter any contest in life you can only control yourself. But if you can deliver the performance that you’re capable of, every time, the result should take care of itself. The third fatal fear is fear of rejection. This means you don’t put yourself forward. But, by risking the fact you might be knocked back, you learn how to ask questions and to grow as a person. The final fatal fear is of criticism. But here, Frank said, the key point is to replace the word “criticism” with the concept of “feedback”. Once you start looking for feedback you will be much stronger and more resilient.
Being Scottish, Frank was quite blunt in his assessment of the English national character. He felt English people are pretty soft until their backs are up against the wall. It was a sweeping generalisation, but the old spirit of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain was still obvious in English sport. We wanted to reach a position where our team didn’t have to wait until things were going off the rails before they produced their best.
World’s most interesting coach and what to do when ball is out of play
Professional curiosity is vital in elite sport and so I planned a trip to Australia for Steve Borthwick (forwards coach), Neil Craig, Tom Tombleson (strength and conditioning coach) and myself in the brief gap we had between the 2018 autumn internationals and the 2019 Six Nations.
The highlight of our trip was a day with Ric Charlesworth. He had been a state cricketer for Western Australia, an Olympic medal-winning hockey player, a doctor, a federal member of parliament for ten years and a bestselling author. Ric Charlesworth is the most interesting coach in world sport. Apart from coaching Australia’s women’s hockey team to Olympic gold in 1996 and 2000, and the men to silver at London 2012, Ric has held consulting roles with the New Zealand Test-cricket team, the Australian Institute of Sport and an Australian rules football team in Fremantle.
During our visit, one of the most interesting conversations centred on the topic of “downtime” — how a team manages itself when the ball is out of play. We discussed the fact that it might take four hours to play 18 holes in a round of golf, and yet you’re only standing over the ball, and hitting it, for five out of the 240 minutes. Rugby is also a game where the ball is out of play for long periods. We’re not alone, as so many other sports, from American football to tennis, have downtime. Ric’s theory is that you have to be more productive in your downtime to gain an advantage over the opposition.
So we had an intriguing session with Ric about how England’s players could best use that “dead time” in the middle of a match. We considered how to measure the quality and impact of those strategies.
Craig, left, joined Jones in October 2017
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Ric showed us a video of his Australian team being beaten in the semi-finals of the 2012 Olympics. He believed that they lost because their players did not engage in any meaningful conversations when the ball was out of play. The set-up was wrong and one of their players had strayed into the wrong position. But the environment was not robust enough for the players to take charge and talk to each other in the midst of a sporting battle. It was one of Ric’s few failures in a major tournament and he was honest in pointing out how he and his team had not created the right atmosphere to communicate constructively when they were under the pump. We call it the performance conversation, and I knew it was imperative that my England players could produce it when they needed it most.
When the time came to leave Ric Charlesworth in Melbourne, I had another “Pep Guardiola” moment. I knew we had spent time in the presence of greatness.
Psychologists who made us all get on
Ric introduced us to Corinne Reid. Although she is an academic, and was then director of research and chair in psychological therapies at the University of Edinburgh, Corinne had worked with Ric’s most successful hockey teams.
It sounds obvious, but Corinne was penetrating in explaining how these critical and candid performance conversations require a specialist skill set. It takes a subtle skill to call out a team-mate and explain, in a clear manner, that they need to change the way they are playing. The last thing you want to do is crush an individual’s confidence. Our players did not have to be best mates, but they had to work together effectively.
Togetherness is forged through conversation. Players needed to get to know each other much better in person, either on a one-to-one basis over a relaxed coffee, or in a group session run by Corinne. They would be encouraged to talk about life away from rugby.
We decided to mix seating arrangements at dinner and in team meetings. We forced the players out of their familiar groups so that they could mingle with the team-mates they didn’t know as well. You can only begin to understand someone when you’re face to face, sharing a meal or spending constructive time in each other’s company. There would be no room for cliques. This also applied to the coaches. I decided to sit with the younger or newer boys who did not really know me well. The other coaches did the same and, soon, the players quite deliberately went out of their way not to sit with their club team-mates but to actively engage with the blokes they knew least.
Corinne held six sessions with the staff and the players, and the impact was immediate and remarkable. When she left for a prestigious academic post in Australia, Dr Andrea Furst, a psychologist who had helped the GB women’s hockey team win gold at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, assumed responsibility for this important work. It’s hard to overstate the impact that these two incredibly impressive and intelligent women had on the development of our group.
The professor of meetings
Knowing we had limited time with the players, we explored ways to maximise impact on their learning. Professor Vincent Walsh from University College London introduced four key principles. The first was to ensure that the room in which you spoke to the players was open and well lit. The second was to introduce some sort of primer that would release dopamine from the brain. The third was built on the structure of only ever having three points. And so the fourth principle was to start and not to finish. We would leave meetings without resolution. This allowed the players to think more about the final solution. These changes worked a treat. Our players are with their clubs for 40 weeks a year and if you consider, on average, they have three meetings a week, that’s 120 meetings before they get to us. We had to find ways to make it as easy as possible for them to learn.
The statistical secrets of success
I started paying serious attention to some of the analytical work being produced at the RFU by a smart young bloke called Gordon Hamilton-Fairley. Gordon was a talented data analyst who was employed by Rob Andrew and Stuart Lancaster to investigate different problems in the game. Some of his projects included referee decision-making, lineouts and kicking. Rugby is dominated by video analysis, which has weaknesses. Often the video analysts who travel with the team listen to the views of the coach and then find the video evidence to back it up. Gordon was a devotee of the American sports-style independent data analysis that relies heavily on mathematics. Gordon had read politics and economics at the University of Virginia in the States and built a strong relationship with the Brooklyn Nets basketball team. He wanted to replicate — at the RFU — the Nets’ research statistics department.
I had a meeting with him in my office at Twickenham and he presented a compelling case for his independent, maths-based approach. I was drowning in data and we didn’t have the skills to make sense of it. I had a gut feeling about which statistics mattered most, but I didn’t have the evidence.
Gordon undertook to do the research to unlock the secrets of success in international rugby and engaged his colleague, James Tozer, to help him. James is a data analyst, educated at Oxford, whose day job is writing for The Economist. Between them they set about building regression models and using machine learning to analyse five years of international rugby. Their discoveries were amazing.
Based on their analysis, James and Gordon presented me with the six key metrics that matter in rugby. I won’t reveal all six, but one is effective kicking. They didn’t stop there. They have continued to develop other models that help us to track and predict not only our own performance but those of our competitors. Their data has been worth every penny.
My communications guru for 22 years
I clicked right away with David Pembroke, the communications adviser to the ACT Brumbies when I became coach in 1997. Over dinner, he provided all the background and insights I needed to understand the Brumbies — and why we had to grow our profile not only in Canberra but across Australia and around the world.
Pemby had also written a plan called “ACT: Taking on the World”. He gave me a copy and said: “Sounds better than taking on Australia, doesn’t it? By setting up the challenge to be the ‘best in the world’, you push the players to always improve both on and off the field and you give the supporters, the board and sponsors the opportunity to be involved in something really significant.”
Today the original Brumby boys still call him “Global” and tease Pemby about his big-picture thinking. It’s all good fun and the boys are grateful. His vision was a powerful driver of ambition, standards and behaviour, and in a few short years we achieved that goal when we became Super Rugby champions — despite being based in a town of only 300,000 people.
That first detailed conversation convinced me Pemby was the sort of bloke I could rely on to tell me the truth and always have my back. Twenty-two years later, we still speak most days, as he ensures I stay on top of my communication. He’s a brilliant strategist and helps me shape the right message to the right audience at the right time in order to help my England team succeed.
A day in the life: I do my best thinking at 5am
There are 10,080 minutes in every week. A game of rugby lasts 80 minutes. How you use the other 10,000 minutes is vital when you want to win the World Cup. You have to deal with your players, coaches, additional staff, executives and administrators, sponsors, the media and supporters — as well as giving precious time to your family and your own well-being. There is never a minute to waste because every idea, word, action and their consequences have to be considered, calibrated and either adopted or discarded. Each day from December 1, 2015, when I started in the job, to November 2, 2019, the date of the World Cup final, had been planned and mapped out in detail. I’m an obsessive planner.
I work to a clear and deliberate strategy. Even my sleeping patterns are ordered. Generally, I won’t sleep for more than four or five hours at night. But I always try to slot in 30 minutes to an hour for a nap in the afternoon — otherwise I’ll get quite tired. I need to keep an eye on my health and stress levels since the stroke.
This regime works well for me. It begins with a 5am alarm call. I am so used to getting up early that I produce some of my best thinking between five and six in the morning. I am in the gym soon after six. After a workout and a little breakfast, I turn this additional early-morning time into a quiet period free from disturbances. By 8.30 or 9am, when we join the players, my fellow coaches and I will already have done a decent chunk of the day’s work. The days are long, but it is great fun. Before I get into bed, I reflect on the day and decide how I could improve. It keeps me honest and it’s funny how the list is always pretty long. I’m hard on myself. It helps to guard against complacency.
Copyright Eddie Jones 2019. Extracted from My Life and Rugby, which is published on November 21 (Macmillan)