These thoughts are to help and inspire people like you and me to reach higher and strive for greater things, to stand for a cause more noble than self serving, seeing the good in others and seeking it for their sake. I unashamedly weave my faith, biblical insight and life experiences into a sporting context to illustrate my personal journey to this point - I hope in a small way, I can help you on your journey to being all you were intended to be....

There are now over 50 posts to check out, tweet, link to facebook or google+ Please feel free to share a link BUT If you use any of the illustrations please acknowledge the source as Phil Manchester, Bradford, England. You can follow me on twitter @philmanchester

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Confidence to Perform Consistently

For a few years now, I've been watching an emerging rugby team play. They have been ranked very highly over recent seasons in 15 a-side rugby and 7s. Yet for some reason, this season, their potential hasn't been realised. The team lost a number of games to teams they had previously beaten and heads went down. They hit a poor run of form that they couldn't shake off.

It's hard to put a finger on what actually caused the sudden downturn in form. A couple of players out with injuries? Other teams being physically larger this season? A tougher fixture list? Not really. Surely a good team doesn't become a poor team overnight?

I've reflected on what I witnessed and I came to the conclusion that the reason for the slide in performance was a loss of confidence. This then drove a lack of self belief. Over a period of time, you could see it becoming contagious.

Subsequently, I talked over this loss of form with a number of coaches, managers, educators and mentors in a number of fields outside of rugby to get as a wide a view as possible. A theme emerged from my conversations: one of the biggest performance killers is a lack of self belief which manifests itself in low confidence. That lack of confidence stops so many from getting back up and running or even making an attempt in the first place. I decided to investigate confidence.

I have to point out here I'm not advocating the development of hugely inflated egos - there are enough of those around in all walks of life. No, I am talking about the "objective understanding of ability and personal qualities" that enable people in all walks of life to take a step forward - often, as it were, to take  a step of faith -  in order to achieve something or attempt something different.

I thought long and hard about confidence in a sporting context and specifically about what are the "abilities and qualities" that drive performance. I concluded that essentially there are four key areas: technical ability, creativity, cognition and spatial awareness. They seemed to be common to most sports.

Technically, an athlete has to know how to perform core components competently: pass, tackle, kick, catch - all have to be worked at. This is true in any walk of life be it sport, a job, an area of service and even in relationships - we need to know how to treat people, how to communicate, how to listen. There are things we have to work at.

Creative thinking is that ability that allows you to think outside of the box. In a sporting sense it's the ability to play what is in front of you, responding to what you see in a constructive rather than destructive way. This way of thinking and processing real time game information is linked to cognitive ability - that is the ability to take information in, process it and replay the information in the form of problem solving using what you have worked on in training, your experience and the way the game is panning out.

Spatial awareness is the ability to see objects or people in relation to each other in space and time. It's that sense you have before you make a pass, knowing that the ball will reach the other person because you have the ability to judge space and speed. It's understanding your location on the field of play in relation to  player with the ball and the timing of a tackle or when to pass or make a break.

Sports psychologists tell us that the ability to focus and get refocussed are the keys to staying on track and sustaining performance. Doing what we know we can do and doing it to the best of our ability breeds confidence. Confidence enables us to do more of what we know we can do and sustains performance. They identify "distraction" as the trigger that so often hits confidence, suggesting internal and external reference points as a means of getting back on track and refocussing. Often a coach will have worked on a key phrase or word or an image to help a player regain composure. They are mental reminders of what the player knows but has been distracted from. Sadly, we have all seen the alternative when confidence collapses - the inevitable slide into overthinking and under performing - even for world class athletes. Its true when we experience life set backs too.

Now we all know that there are times in sport when we do actually lose a game because we meet opponents who are simply better than us. Those are the experiences from which we learn and go on to develop our own skill levels. The same is true of course in every walk of life. Unless we grab hold of the development opportunity that we are presented with in a difficult challenge or in a defeat, we are destined to produce repeat performances.

How we respond in any situation will have a big influence on what happens next. If we allow ourselves to be defined by circumstances, by what just happened, it will not only impact what happens next, but will begin to influence who we are. We start to  become responders, rather than initiators. Who wants to go through life simply reacting to everyone and everything we encounter.

The bible has an interesting observation on confidence, when it states: "don't throw your confidence away".  Its context is a passage talking about what impacts our definition as men.

How are we defined? By postcode, by job, by ethnicity, by salary, by competency, by our circumstances? Our true definition is not external. Sure, we stand in and operate from our circumstance, but they don't actually define us.

If in life as in sport, confidence is linked to our four key areas, then:

  • technically we have to work on being the very best version of who we can be. 
  • creatively, we can develop a sense that there is life outside of the box of the usual or routine way of thinking. 
  • we can begin to appreciate that what is in front of us can be overcome, that, we can find solutions. 
  • we can take a step back or pause momentarily to assess objectively where we are spatially in relation to others and what is going on around us.  
These are the abilities and qualities that help us to understand how we fit into the dynamics of a game, our jobs, a service or ministry area and relationally.

Confidence need not fly away with a poor result or outcome. Technical ability doesn't suddenly drain away overnight after we have lost a match. Our ability to read a game and creatively problem solve when confronted with a difficult situation doesn't disappear. What we have worked on, developed, become competent at hasn't been surgically removed without us noticing.

Sure there is room for improvement - that is called growth. But, we need to become skilled at identifying reference points to help us re-engage with our self belief and maintain or regain confidence.

The great thinker and writer Paul helps us with by looking at confidence from a different angle. He noted... "I am confident of this, that he who began a good work in you, will be faithful to complete it" - in other words, we can have confidence in foundational things and specifically in the foundational relationship we can have with the man's man Jesus Christ. Our confidence can develop as we recognise he doesn't go back on the ground we've covered together. He doesn't quit on us when it gets tough.

Two things mark out the man who can face most things that are thrown at him:

  • the confidence he has in the abilities and qualities he carries from his personal experience and training and they can't be taken from him - that's self belief. 
  • the confidence he can have in knowing that he has a source of help that transcends the circumstance, the game, the situation- that's faith;
faith in the man's man Jesus Christ to deliver on his commitment to us.  So let's not throw our confidence away. Lets work at the things we can work on and commit to Jesus Christ through faith, so that win, draw or lose we have a confidence that isn't disposable.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Cakes, cement and rugby

It was with a sense of anticipation that I was travelling to the English town of Rugby. My excuse was a business meeting. That was a front, I was on a mission.

I've always had an interest in where or how things started. Things that we take for granted. Things that are now part our everyday lives. Everything starts somewhere.

I had a mental picture of what I was going to experience. I wanted to take in the atmosphere, the sense of history. I would be inspired to come up with some motivational one liners, to inspire the lads back home. I was going to the birthplace of the great sport of rugby.

Driving along, I imagined William Webb-Ellis playing on the fields of the famous Rugby school. I could hear the lads and the master in charge shouting "What do you think you're doing boy?" Catching the ball and in defiance of the rules, Webb-Ellis ran off down the field with ball in hand. The rest as they say is history.

I didn't get to see the famous school. In fact, all I saw was the Rugby Cement factory and a traffic roundabout advertising the fact that "Mr Kipling" makes his "exceedingly nice cakes" in Rugby. A fact that didn't go unnoticed. Rugby, cement and cherry bakewell tarts. I am pleased to note that Mr Kipling cakes website has a "cookies policy".

The only reference to the great, global, sport of rugby was a roadside sign letting me know when to turn for the Webb Ellis Industrial Estate.

Like most of urban Britain, the town centre was a mixture of familiar retail chains, independent local stores, charity shops and people going about their business. They were totally oblivious of my quest to find the birth-place of a significant sport. I didn't even see a rugby pitch.

Standing in a car park looking at the back of the local bank and a small parade of shops, it was hard to imagine anything originating here - let alone the global phenomenon that is rugby. The remarkable thing is it did. Here in this small town in the middle of England. The truth of the matter is: everything starts somewhere.

The bible notes something about a town very similar to Rugby. It records a conversation between two men. They were talking about a man one of them had just met. The town: Nazareth. The man: Jesus Christ. "Where was he from? Nazareth? Can anything good come from there?" There was a familiarity about it. Jesus? Isn't he the carpenter? Rugby? Isn't that where they make cakes and cement?

The man's man Jesus lived in Nazareth. He had spent 30 years learning his trade and working as a carpenter. But his job, his town, his family circumstances didn't stop him taking his "catch the ball and run down the field" moment. His decision, to face whatever it would take to make us better men for knowing him, was world changing.

What decisions are we facing today? Don't let familiarity or circumstances prevent us from making choices that will change someone's world for the better; including perhaps our own. The ball is in the air. What will we do when we catch it?

It was strange to think that there, in Rugby, an ordinary town with ordinary people, something happened that changed the sporting world. Rugby has brought challenge, excitement, camaraderie and enjoyment to so many. Everything starts somewhere. And it's here, in the ordinary places, places with cement and cake factories, amongst the shops, banks, public car parks and yes the place where the great sport of rugby started, that the man's man Jesus challenges us to catch and run.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

The Inevitability of Impact

Rugby is a full contact physical sport. Anyone watching the game for the first time could be excused for wincing at the sheer force of the impacts. With the advances in training and fitness regimes, the modern player is also faster and more mobile than ever before. The harnessing of speed and force make for a dramatic spectacle, but also combine to create the shuddering impacts synonymous with the modern game.

Whilst researching the physical implications for players, particularly in youth sport or in development squads, I came across a fascinating article outlining a study in New Zealand looking at identifying signs of concussive injury. I was drawn to some of the statistics produced in the study. By using sensors attached to players and built into mouth guards, the researchers were able to accurately measure the number of impacts in a game and the G-force exerted in the impact. The results were revealing.

In one game, there were over 3000 impacts. The average impact was 22g. Given a fighter pilot can experience a force of around 9g, admittedly over a more prolonged period of time, the individual impacts in rugby are nonetheless quite remarkable. One recorded hit was over 200g. It almost seems impossible that players are regularly encountering physical forces that would normally be experienced in road traffic accidents. The remarkable thing is the physical resilience of players and for the record, how few concussions there actually were.  Now that's not to minimise the importance of looking for this type of injury and being aware for the sake of player safety. But it set me thinking. One thing is inevitable if you play rugby. You will experience knocks and have to take the impact.

Some of those impacts will take you down. Some will cause you pain. Others will require you to simply put your head down and press on, using all of your strength and stamina. Sound familiar?

There is another arena in which there is an inevitability that we will encounter impacts. Life. But as with the great sport if rugby, how we react to life's knocks will often determine the outcome of the passage of life we're experiencing. Some things take us down. Some things cause us pain. Others call for every reserve of strength or staying power for us to press through. Our response can be critical to how things turn out. When we get knocked down, we have a choice - to stay down or get back up regardless of what took us down. We may be different as a result of the impact, but we can chose to stay down or stand again. We may experience pain, but ours is the choice to let that pain forever define us or to allow it to become something that helps strengthen us for the next challenge. We may feel totally exhausted but ours is the choice to live depleted of our reserves or to shift our thinking to recognise that resilience, resistance work and recovery are essential elements for building strength and endurance.

The bible has an interesting observation, made by the man's man Jesus Christ. He had observed life over an extended period: working in a carpentry business, with all the demands of hitting deadlines, keeping customers satisfied, financing projects. He carried the social stigma of living in a small, rough town, that few people admired. He lived under harsh government regulation, with a though tax regime. He was the oldest in the family he was born into and carried the responsibility. When he set out to make a difference for people, he was looked on with a familiarity that was driven by envy and contempt for his lack of formal religious preparation. No wonder he said to his team "in this world"(the one we have described, the one we live in), "you will have trouble". It's as inevitable as the impacts in rugby. However, he followed that statement up with one that was as astonishing as his previous comment was inevitable: "I have overcome the world." In other words, I have a way of getting through this. A way of getting through these impacts. Whilst there is the undeniable forward look to his destiny at the cross, this man's man was saying there is a way to overcome the world and what it throws at you - by simply not letting it define who you are. You are not defined by your current circumstance, your background, ethnicity, perceived economic value - your definition is not external, it develops internally. Through the relationships that we build. Through the kind of men we become. Through the faith we extend beyond our own limitations. The man's man blew away the final limitation, opening up a way for all men to meet and be comfortable in the presence of their maker.

Whatever, life is throwing at us, has thrown or will ever throw - should never truly define us and  therefore ever truly defeat us. Experiences good, bad and ugly shape us, but true definition is forged through a faith with the friend of all men, who has taken the ultimate hit for us.

Monday, 26 August 2013

preparing for a new season?

Whatever level a team plays at, the run-in to the new season always feels like a shock to the system.  From the end of season to the point at which pre-season training starts, I think there has to be a specialised course that coaches and fitness trainers go on to discover the latest physical punishment techniques. Every pre-season seems to get worse, or is it something to do with the ageing process catching up!!

The physical demands of the sport of rugby are punishing in game situations, but the level of pain in training seems to increase year on year.  It's not as if we have suddenly become unfit from the end of the last season is it? Pre-season is a time for preparation and, as the saying goes, failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

The period before the start of a season is also a time of change and often a time of uncertainty. New players are coming in. Some of your old team mates have gone or retired. The coaching staff may have changed and you could be facing playing a completely different style of game. There could be new sponsors, different kit, even different facilities.  You will certainly be facing new teams following promotions and relegations even if you are in the same league. Nothing stays the same. Everything changes. Even the rules of the sport change from time to time. Change is inevitable. It's how we respond to change that prepares us for what comes next.

Making assumptions about the next season or about our place in the team or our going uninjured for the whole year can be a big mistake. I can remember the very first competitive game we played. A brand new team. Our opponents arrived and swaggered off their bus, buoyed by their teams results in previous years. We on the other hand had been kept firmly in place by our coach and had approached the game not knowing the team until the day before the match. We destroyed them 70-0 and that was in the days when a try was worth fewer points. It was a hard act to follow and the temptation to assume every match would be as easy was difficult to avoid. 

Toward the end of the pre-season, there is a sense of just wanting to get on with the campaign. But there is another hurdle to get over before the season can begin in earnest. Trials. Even though you have played for a team for a long time, you still have to go through the same process. New, fresh, younger up and coming players may have arrived on the scene. Everyone faces trials before the next season begins. The trials precede selection for the next season. 

It's tempting to want the start of a new season to simply roll on from the end of the last, but the new season will also have new challenges.

Life can be the same - physically and mentally demanding, change and uncertainty, making assumptions about what lies around the corner and well, full of trials. Life is also made up of seasons and those seasons do change and bring with them new challenges. A very wise man wrote in the bible in a book called Ecclesiastes - there is a time for everything, a season, everything fits in its place in its right season. How we respond determines what happens as those seasons turn. How we approach the trials will determine how we fare in the next season. 

Another great writer observed in a letter to a group of men called the Hebrews that there is one thing that doesn't change. In fact he was describing a person. The man's man Jesus Christ. Of him it was written: Jesus Christ - the same yesterday, today, forever. In other words in the middle of the demanding, the changing, the uncertain, the trials - he remains consistent in his approach and attitude towards us as men. What a great example of maintaining his composure as a man in the middle of change.  Change is difficult to accept sometimes, particularly if the impact of the change means we have to adapt or stop something to start something new. But as we approach a new season - in sport or in life, lets remember there is one who we can rely on to be totally consistent as a role model, as a mentor, but especially as a friend. The man's man Jesus Christ. 

As we face the challenge of a new season, lets meet the demands, the change, the uncertainty head on, not shying away from trial, but willing to press on in the knowledge that the trails qualify us for the next season and that we do not move forward alone. The man's man has already been there and wants to walk with us through to the other side.

Monday, 15 July 2013

On being an honorary Fijian

Recently I had the honour of standing with these guys. Have a listen to them first and then read how I became an honorary Fijian for a few days.

Over a few days in July 2013 it was my privilege to be involved with the Rugby League Festival of World Cups. What you might say was a rugby union man doing being involved in a league tournament? I had the honour of being invited to be a chaplain to the various Police teams playing in the tournament.  Making contact with the team liaison made it possible for me to be alongside the Fijian Police Rugby League team as they trained and played matches at the grounds of Featherstone Rovers, Bradford Bulls and Leeds Rhinos.  During those few days I was also able to speak to a number of the GB Police Rugby League lads, many of who work in my own county of West Yorkshire - good on you.

The thing that struck me about all of the lads and the staff - playing or talking about their day jobs, was how down to earth they were and the camaraderie amongst them. Being a serving police officer in what are very contrasting geographical locations - Fiji or West Yorkshire is a demanding task and so I commend these guys for their commitment to the job and serving their communities.

To be alongside both teams when they played against each other and against the Aussies was a fascinating insight into the teams, the highs of being selected and competing and the lows of missing out on selection and sadly the impact of serious injury on players, the squad and their watching families.  It was an honour to be there and be involved.

I was impressed with the way that all of the teams approached the tournament and I know from talking with the teams, coaches and players that some of the lads may be returning to the UK later in 2013 for the full Rugby League World Cup. Thanks must go to the sponsors, the Rugby League, their home an host Police Federations, to the players and their respective forces for releasing them to compete. For the Fijians they would want me to add, for sure, thanks to God - for as men of strength, courage, commitment, skill, speed and agility as all players in all of the squads were - many were also men of faith. At the close of every training session and at the end of the games; win, draw of loss, the Fijians create a huddle on the pitch and unaccompanied, sing their thanks to God.  You can click on the link above and below to hear some their songs.

It is my belief that when the voices of men are raised, not in anger or threat, but in unity of purpose, in faith, in serving the community as all of the squads do in their day jobs - then the impact on those around them is evident - drawing people in to engage with them, drawing people in to join with them and stand with them, drawing people in to listen and respond to what is being said.

Many men have raised voices today - some in anger, some in protest, some in pain, some in desperation. Others feel they have no voice or cannot be heard and need others to raise a voice for them.  The man's man Jesus Christ once said this; "if I am lifted up, I will draw men to me" - he was referring to the cross - lifted up to die as a substitute for all men. He was speaking of the honour of being given a place in the lives of men - through relationship being lifted past a remote impersonal entity, to an ever present friend, brother, supporter, coach, guide, leader and mentor.

When men come together to lift up Jesus Christ through their lives - other men are drawn to the reality that they both hear and see.What are our voices saying today? What sound are our lives giving off to those around us?

Enjoy these few clips and lets determine to lift our voices together and lift up and honour the cause of the man's man Jesus Christ - for the sake of others.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Let me have a go at that!

Every now and then someone comes along that seems to strike a chord with the public mood or has the ability to capture the collective imagination of a nation. Sporting heroes transcend the arena and in a way, become public property.

Everyone has a view or an opinion about them, they're talked about in the column inches of newspapers, they're discussed in the bars and pubs up and down the land, they enter into the public psyche and become legends of their particular sport. They become the subject of quiz questions and enter the record books. Of them, it is often said; they are inspirational.

When the New Zealand All Black Sonny Bill Williams used his one handed, out the back of his hand offload to devastating effect, every school boy rugby player wanted to "do a Sonny Bill." England's Chris Ashton's try scoring dives have also found their way onto the muddied skid pans of school rugby pitches. There will be countless other examples form every sport - from kids "slam dunkin" hoops to bending a soccer ball around a defensive wall at a free kick. There are people who just seem to make us all want to have a go.

In his book "Invictus" (previously titled Playing the Enemy) John Carlin outlines how Nelson Mandela used the 1995 Rugby World Cup to engage the entire nation of South Africa as part of his plan to birth a nation against the background of division resulting from the legacy of apartheid. Francois Pienaar the Springbok rugby captain was invited to meet with Mandela. From that meeting grew an amazing story.

The genesis of Mandela's plan, was also the birthplace of a relationship between the two men that has transcended sport. The impact of that meeting with Mandela was inspirational. Pictures of President Mandela wearing the green and gold colours of the Springboks have taken on iconic status. The brief dialogue of the two men as Pienaar received the Webb Ellis trophy from Mandela is equally inspiring: Mandela to Pienaar "Francois, thank you very much for what you have done for our country", Pienaar to Mandela "No, Mr President thank you for what you have done for our country".

Of the man's man Jesus Christ, the bible records in his day, people from all walks of life wanted to go check him out. He was talked about in village inns, religious meetings, army barracks, the infirmaries of the day, on the street and by every level in society. Thousands gathered on hillsides or followed him lakeside. The crowds were so overwhelming, he had to get into a boat to speak to them.

When people saw some of the amazing things he did and heard the things he said, my guess is, many youngsters and even adults gave more than a passing thought to - "doing a Jesus". Who wouldn't want to do something special or say something inspiring. Who wouldn't want the acclaim of a crowd? Then came an event that changed everything. The cross. Wonder who was willing to "do a Jesus" now?  The truth of the matter is, as men, we are expected to do just that - to "do a Jesus" to put self secondary to the greater good of others.

The reality behind the inspiring actions, speeches, shots on goals, try scoring and yes, even performing the miraculous is a lifetime of working behind the scenes when no one else is watching. Developing character in the obscurity of the every day. The man's man Jesus put self aside for the good of all mankind.

When we see the greats, when we feel inspired to "have a go", re-tweet or post on social media a famous quote or inspirational "on-liner", lets go for it and remember too, that there are somethings we as individuals must all have a go at - there is a higher purpose; the purpose that puts self aside for the sake of others.

Monday, 22 April 2013

When your game plan falls apart

I recently went to watch a rugby match in a local county league. The match had significance for a number of reasons:
  •  it would potentially secure promotion for one of the teams
  • I knew a couple of the guys playing in the match
  • it was the first time in years I had watched minor league sport
The team I went to watch won the match and were promoted. However, as a spectacle, it was poor in quality and certainly wasn't a great advert for the game. Despite their clear technical and physical superiority, the promotion seekers somehow lost their focus. They spent large parts of the game commenting on the demerits of the referee and complaining. Once they had lost focus, their standards started to slide. The rapidly deteriorating quality of their decision making, made their opponents seem more competent. This boosted opposition confidence, which compounded the title chasers  problems and led to handling errors and mistakes. In the end, the team were arguing amongst themselves. Despite the scoreline, they were behaving like losers.

Now, you could rightly argue "they won". But for me, this game became an illustration of the importance of focusing on the right things and, doing those "right things" right. Despite the win, it was a shambolic game that could have been so much better. In short, it wasn't a very good advert for the game and had the potential to dissuade the neutral from engaging with the sport.  How often do we allow our standards to slip and descend into a caricature of what we should be? How do others perceive the faith we profess based on what they see of us?

As they lost focus, the volume of handling errors and poor decision making increased alarmingly. When we lose sight of the main thing, we begin to bring into sight things that either don't matter, are peripheral or are simply wrong.

Despite the team being capable of blowing the opposition away, the match started to slip away from them.  However, there was a pivotal moment that altered the outcome. The game needed someone to refocus. Someone had to take it back by the scruff of the neck. Someone had to ignore the crowd decrying every refereeing decision. Someone had to get the team playing the right game in the right areas of the field. Just as the game was about to descend into a farce, one player took things into his own hands and stepped up to take responsibility. His intervention made the difference. He refocused and changed the outcome of the game. In the end, the team ran out comfortable winners, but, it was a poor game and one that deserves to be forgotten.

I'm sure there are times we have just scraped through or have felt our approach has been poor. It's worth analysing what goes on when we take our eyes of the main thing. What causes us to shift focus? Offence? Decisions going against us? Jibes from the sidelines, even from people who are supposed to be supporting us? The intervention of other people into "our space"? Things not going to our exact game plan? We can be so easily distracted And we've seen what loss of focus can do.

At those times, its worth remembering that we can refocus.  The bible has some great advice: Run with perseverance the course marked out for you, keeping your eyes focused on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for joy set before him, endured.. In other words; if we have decided to be a follower, a disciple, one who runs after Jesus the trailblazer of our faith, we need to keep our eyes firmly fixed on him as our focus. Science has belatedly discovered that what we focus our minds on has a strong physiological impact.  The object of our focus impacts the neural pathways in our brains and actually influences our motor functioning ability. Putting it a different way, if we focus on the wrong things, then our game will fall apart! Conversely, focusing on the right thing and following the right lead...