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

Friday, 30 December 2011

Committing to the Tackle

Tackling is a central element in all team sports. The tackle is the cornerstone of defending and gives the tackler the opportunity to regain possession. Rugby is no exception. As a full contact sport, a tackle is made by physically hauling to the ground an opposition player in possession of the ball. It requires courage, commitment and confidence. You can track a player across a pitch, you can chase him, but to stop his progress, retake the ball or prevent a scoring opportunity, you have to make the tackle.

Without tackling, mediocrity can look invincible - that is, a poor side can win, if good team fails to commit to the tackle. I remember one game I played in the day after one of the players birthday. Half of the team were hung-over and those of us who were committed to the game simply couldn't cover for all of the missed tackles across the field. No one wants to play in a game that is mediocre. No one wants to see a half-hearted effort from a team they know can perform at a much higher standard.

We see it in sport and complain, "come on tackle!", yet in life, we allow things to get past us. Building strong relationships takes courage, commitment and confidence. But too often, I wonder if we let things slip through - a poor attitude, a dumb, barbed comment or we let things slip through lack of attention or perhaps more frequently, we let familiarity rob us of the very best. Defending what we value in our relationships should be foundational to our game plan.

The bible has some interesting advice, when it comes to tackling important tasks. The man's man Jesus was confronted with a group of people who said "we will follow you, but we've got a couple of things to sort out first" - his response seemed harsh at first - "anyone who puts their hand to the plow and then looks back, isn't fit for service" - in other words if you are going to commit to the tackle, don't make out you're going for it, then pull out at the moment of commitment. Looking back whilst plowing, creates a furrow that isn't true. Pulling back from committing to relational strength is like letting mediocrity score a try without attempting to make the tackle.

With a new year, we frequently make resolutions to change something or improve in some area. I have a challenge. Let us as men commit to 3 things:

i) commit to the cause of the man's man Jesus Christ
ii) commit to building strength in all of the relationships that really matter (as husbands, fathers, brothers, mentors, coaches, friends)
iii) defending those we truly value, by committing to making the tackle (not letting comments through, not being  lazy or familiar with those closest to us)

When you commit yourself to making the tackle, you take a risk. You risk the other player off-loading or making a pass that releases the ball and you put yourself on the line physically. Yet with courage and confidence that match commitment, we can make the necessary tackles that create impregnable defences

Come on lets challenge mediocrity in 2012 and build strength in our close relationships, families, friendships, businesses and teams.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Festive Fixtures

Going to watch any sport over the Christmas and New Year period is an experience not to be missed. There is a different kind of atmosphere in the ground.

Rugby is well known for the friendliness and banter among opposing fans - with no crowd segregation required, in fact quite the opposite is true. On many occasions I have shaken hands with total strangers at the end of a game, where we have cheered our own, applauded the skills of our opponents, debated the finer points of refereeing decisions (for both sides) and laughed at funny incidents and the wise cracks of fellow fans. But at the Festive games, this goes to another level - with Santa Claus hats, festive singing, mince pies being passed out by people who you've never seen before, seasonal greetings mixed with another kind of spirit and "hellos" and "handshakes", like you've not seen the people sitting next to you for a decade - when in fact they were there at the last home game!!

The players get involved, laughing  and joking, even the match officials seem to be less stuffy. At one festive game, in front of a very large crowd, a rather "stout" referee, jogged up to an incident flagged as a "late tackle" on one of our players, and in a very loud voice, for the benefit of the crowd, said "that tackle was so late, even I got there before you" even louder jeers and shouts from the crowd ..."keep off the mince pies ref"...

But against this backdrop, not quite overshadowed by the festivities, there is a game to be played out. The matches over the holiday period, surrounded by the fun and banter, are often pivotal to the remainder of the season and can, in the mud, snow, rain and wind, be defining moments for individual players - some with international selection on their mind.

As a man of faith, these games remind me of another defining moment, which today is often and rightly surrounded by fun, family and all that a major festival has on offer - the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. Christmas is a celebration. Its a celebration in many ways like the crowd scenes at a festive match. Goodwill breaks out. People who hardly speak, take the time to talk to each other, people share food and banter. But in the same way, now almost overshadowed by the festivity, let us not forget, a crucial game was being played out too, with destiny at its center.

As with festive fixtures, against the background of a crowd filled with festive cheer, the birth of the man's man Jesus, was a defining moment. For Christmas, marks the potential for a turning point in the affairs of every man, wherever his life's journey has taken him so far. What is being played out, is God's game plan for humanity, with Jesus Christ as the key play maker. His birth, life and subsequent death and resurrection, make it possible for anyone to experience the kind of feeling we get at Christmas, throughout the whole year - that understanding that there is a peace, a sense of well being and goodwill toward others and perhaps, the most important aspect, the appreciation that what has been, can be laid aside, forgiven and a man can make new start.

In the same way that a match, an encounter over the festive period can shape the rest of the season for a team, an encounter with the man's man, the Christ of Christmas, can be a defining moment, changing the rest of the "season" for us as individuals.

So, against the background of the festive period, lets spare a thought for the players out on the pitch, recognizing, its game on! Then, pausing, spare a thought for the key player in the humble scene from Bethlehem and recognize that for us too, it can be - game on!

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Strength through Resistance

It was always there. It was like a Medieval stocks mounted on a sledge built from railway sleepers. It sat menacingly in the corner of the muddy training field. The scrummage machine. They say what doesn't kill you, makes you strong. Right. This "machine" was designed for players to practice driving forward in scrums and rucks. Its rough wooden frame and weight made you feel like an ox in a stall.

The heavy machine, usually with the rest of the team and frequently the coaching staff, standing on the sledge part, was the ultimate in resistance training. The forwards had to bind together as a unit and attempt to drive the sledge and its occupants forward.

It wasn't just the physical pain inflcited by the machine.The jibes from the lightweights standing on the machine also strengthend our resolove to ram into the beast and push them off the park.Without realising it at the time, we were building both physical and mental strength. We hated that machine.

But, oh the difference on match days. As a team, we became known for our driving play in mauls, rucks and particularly in the scrum, where we would frequently drive other teams off the ball. The pain of the resitance work, paid back with interest when it really mattered.

Eight men locking arms, binding themselves together, each knowing the other seven would not hold back when it came to the physical exertion required, created a momentum that proved in so many instances to be the difference between winning and losing. The physical and mental strength carried over into other areas of the game too, as you knew someone would always be at your shoulder in support.

The opposition would put up stiff resistance, but we would notch up the effort and usually we prevailed. If we fell short, we returned to the beast of the training field for more resistance training.

Life has a nack of throwing up barriers to our progress or circumstances that seem designed to knock us of track. Sure, bashing away continuously at totally the wrong thing is pointless and requires the mindset to reassess. But there are times in life when we need to recognise some circumstances for what they are - resistance. Discovering that our dreams, aspirations, intimate relationships or the bond of friendships are worth more than the circumstances we face, creates the opportuity for us to either quit or press through the hardships or difficulties we see.

The bible records the sound advice given by the great thinker, writer and practical man of faith, Paul, to his young friend and co-worker Timothy: "keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, discharge all your duties" - don't allow the circumstances you face to de-rail you, press through the resistance and you will be able to complete or accomplish what you set out to achieve.

Resistance can be painful, but pressing through that barrier can lead to the breakthrough that we have been seeking. I've also discovered that when I'm with people of like mind, we can create momentum. Thats true in sport, in business and in our closest relationships. Strength, likemindedness and endurance are a powerful combination.

Our resistance training was painful, but ultimately it built the strength and resolve that overcame the opposition and against which resistance was futile. What are we facing today?

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The Tactical Offload

Tactical decisions often require players and coaches to read and respond to situations very quickly.  
However, far from being snap decisions made on the run, a player with spatial awareness, an understanding of the game and the speed of thought that comes from practising skills, plus game experience, can intuitively make a decision to:

* pass the ball cleanly
* take the ball into contact and go to ground or
* take the contact and offload the ball

Training your mind is as important as training your body.

Each option has tactical advantages and can be deployed by any player on the field. A clean pass in open play, can set the ball on its way to a try scoring opportunity. Taking the ball into contact and going to ground, takes in defenders, allows regrouping and a new phase of play to be started. Here, the ball carrier knows his team will form around him to protect the ball.

The offload is a riskier call, but can be just as effective as a pass or going to ground. The difference between a pass and an offload, is clear: the ball carrying player knowingly commits to contact, taking the defender out of play, but at the right time, releases the ball to maintain the momentum of a move. Very often, the offload is executed at close quarters and in less structured, broken play.

Tactically you are consciously committing to contact for the sake of the bigger picture, knowing another player can be released to continue progress.

Sometimes life calls on us to commit to the contact. We know that by absorbing impact, we can release others to progress. As parents, we often shield our families from contact, knowing that they can make progress, faster and further if we absorb impacts.

On closer examination, there is a big difference between the offload and simply offloading. If, as adults, we unwisely dump every heartache, every economic pressure, every fear onto our families, we would effectively be throwing them what is euphemistically called a "hospital" pass - a wayward slinging of the ball, leaving them wide open to being hit hard.

Tactical parenting, friendship, guardianship and in business, taking the contact to ensure a safe offload to the team, is, as on the field of play, a leadership characteristic. The battles "we" fight and win, do not have to be re-fought by those following us - they will have enough of their own. But the ground we have taken, as in game time, allows them to move on.

The bible notes the comments of the great thinker, communicator and mentor, Paul (the Apostle) to his young friend and follower Timothy: "I have fought the fight, I have run the race, I have completed the course". Paul had taken the impact and fought battles that Timothy had no need to refight and was releasing the ball, having drawn the opposition, leaving a clearer route forward.

We can go to ground and wait for the back up. We could make a clean pass if there is an opening. We could draw the opposition, take the impact and offload to keep the momentum flowing. The offload requires clear thinking, a sense of timing and having someone following you at close quarters. Are we prepared to commit to the contact that releases others?

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Where it all started in 1972

1972 - Mini-Rugby in deepest Gloucestershire
It all started back in 1972. Someone threw a rugby ball at me, I caught it and the rest, as they say is...all about odd hairstyles, funny shirts, 50 or so lads and a muddy field. I found this picture recently, in a very old scrapbook. If you can find me, please feel free to post a comment.
When I rediscovered this old picture, I tried  to remember the names from way back, but regrettably the decades had dulled my memory. However, despite not being able to remember all of the names, I can remember running around in the mud and some of my very early games, as if they were yesterday. Looking back they were great days, but a far cry from today's fast paced, professional game. Check out those old leather rugby balls - if it rained, or the pitch was muddy, they would get heavier and heavier as the game progressed. But that was then, not now. Its good to look back, but life is in the now and in the days that lie ahead.

My speed and fitness levels have dropped since those days in the early 1970s (only marginally you understand). But one thing hasn't changed - my interest in the sport and passion for the game. I can still throw a mean spin pass, make a tackle and recently, in a passing game with a group of kids, I made a pretty good side-step around a friend, who shall remain nameless, but is a Fijian international (you know who you are). Passion still enables you to engage, even though your circumstances, experience or location may have changed.

If you have a passion for something, it can be a powerful motivator and that passion and motivation combined can be a great sustainer. Recently, I have been reading about a man called Caleb. The bible describes him as a man with faith and a man with a never give up spirit. His sense of vision allowed him to catch a glimpse of what the future could look like. 45 years later, he could stand on the hills he had only seen from a distance and call them home. The vision had become a reality, through passion, persistence and, there's no avoiding it, some pain too - because it took graft and effort. But through it all he, never lost sight of what God had showed him all those years ago - until the day he could stand on those hill tops. What kind of a future have you seen?

It seems today, in a fast paced, media driven world, that to delay gratification is a sign of weakness or an absence of "go get". There are some positives in living in and enjoying the "now" moment, otherwise the journey would be dull. But, no matter how quickly we may want to force the pace, there are some things that require time, commitment, passion, persistence and sometimes breaking through the pain barrier. Relationships take time to grow, develop and mature. Lets not be so professional with people that we forget to take time to invest in them.

I had little idea when that photograph was taken, where life would lead me. I can look back with gratitude, from a place I can call home, with a great family, with a faith that is as strong today as the day when I was first gripped by it and Gods compassion toward me.

However, I have discovered that, no matter how far you have travelled, there are still distant hills to be taken, still things to be done, still struggles to win through, still amazing things to see and experience. When others had fallen by the wayside, when others had given up or retired, Caleb was able say "give me this hill country". It doesnt matter when your journey started - why not let God give you a glimpse of a bright future and start on the journey to it today...

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

An Act of Remembrance

In sport, there's always a sense of the unknown attached to away matches. What will the opposition be like on their own patch? You leave the familiarity of your own ground and you have to compete in their arena, their territory. The test in the face of the unknown can be daunting. We call sport combat, but it isn't warfare. Rugby is a full contact sport, but it isn't armed conflict.

When you play in an away game, you can have all of your set plays worked out, you can know all the moves and calls, but it's often the intangible bond that makes a team a team that carries you through the pressure and the physical challenges. But it's not war.

I recently visited a very prestigious boarding school with a team. We played against a backdrop of rolling hills, woodland and the towers of the old school building, complete with turrets and gargoyles. What a place to play a rugby match. You could feel the sense of tradition and history. We made history too ending a 15 year wait for an away win against our opponents. But it wasn't hand to hand fighting or roadside incendiary devices. It was a game. A game, between 30 lads, who clapped each other off the field, changed, sat down and ate a meal together.

I took the opportunity to have a look around. As I walked the corridors and entered into a great hall, I was confronted with a series of portraits of young men wearing military uniforms. There were seven (7) of them in total. Closer inspection revealed they were all former pupils. They had one very distinguished thing in common. They had all been awarded the highest military honour - the Victoria Cross. Seven from one school.

As I read the citations of their heroic acts and the notes about these incredible young men, several who paid with their lives, it dawned on me, these lads had played the same sport, on the same fields we had played on earlier that afternoon. I realised the lads who had played earlier, were these men in the making and what a responsibility I have as a dad, a friend, a coach.

My thoughts turned again to the spirit there had been that afternoon - to win. The bible has a great insight into camaraderie: "a brother is born for adversity and there is one who sticks closer than a brother". I thought of the lads, who knew their team mates were there for them. I thought of the selfless sacrifice of the seven young men, looking out at me from their portraits and of all who were helped by their heroism. I thought of the man's man Jesus Christ, who said "greater love has no man than this, that a man lays down his life for his friends", then demonstrated that love for all mankind through his death on the cross. Truly the one who sticks closer to us, even than a brother.

What an away trip. But it wasn't war. There are those engaged in a more fierce away match. There are families affected by the loss of loved ones and those that carry the scars of conflicts past and present. As the day for Remembrance approaches, let us not only take a moment to reflect, but let's allow the remembrance to make us act: to be the brother for times of adversity, to be a friend that sticks closer than a brother and like many who we remember and Christ who gave his all, let us give something of ourselves daily in selfless acts. After all our great sport is just that, a sport, it's not warfare.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Running off the Ball - the Art of Support Play

Have you ever been involved with something and at the same time felt like a spare part? Or, simply felt like you wanted to take over, through sheer frustration or impatience? I'm not alone then?

It's like not getting your hands on the ball. Sometimes you can wonder "why am I on the park?" Its not easy playing a supporting role. But, as I've reflected on the art of tactical support, I've discovered there are critical moments in sport and in life, when "running off the ball" is a crucial element to a passage of play, or a season of life.

To perform a truly supporting role, even though you might not get your hands on the ball, you still have to run as hard as the player with the ball. Keeping pace with play, backing up, even to the point of tracking a ball carrier all the way to the try line, can be the key to scoring match winning points. Why?

Well, running off the ball has a number of very important tactical functions:

  • it provides a ball carrier with an opportunity to safely offload a ball if he runs into contact
  • it creates an option for an alternative play to be introduced
  • it can create an overlap situation, where you are in the majority and the opposition in the minority
  • it creates a defensive barrier by blocking space for the opposition to move into
  • it enables an attacking player to move forward with confidence knowing someone has his back
  • it allows for an attacking move to continue if there is a breakdown in play by being first on the scene 
  • it enables a pass to be made moving the ball away from the opposition
  • it provides an option to switch a running line and the angle of attack
  • it ensures your team have a first defender if your ball carrier has lost the ball
  • it has the potential to draw or stretch the opposition defence and allow more space for an attacker
  • when the attacker scores, you can be the first person to congratulate him!! (why not?)

As I've thought about each of them,  I turned my thoughts to my life, my family, my responsibilities. Why not re-read the list, but think about it as a father, a brother, a son or a friend or colleague - or even a team mate.

As a man of faith, I have discovered that there are times when simply being there, backing up is really important. The bible has a very laid bare insight into the relationship between the man's man Jesus Christ and the close group of followers he had around him. At what was perhaps the most agonizing point of his life, when he was facing a destiny changing decision, the small group of followers gave in to fatigue and couldn't watch with him for a few hours. A few hours later, despite their supportive comments, the majority of them simply couldn't "run off the ball" with him, to the finishing line - something they later regretted terribly and made amends for through their faith and actions. Knowing someone is there, even if they feel like they're not doing anything particularly exciting, can be a massive boost to confidence, courage and sometimes, continuing with something.

Its easy to talk a good game. Its not so easy to play a supporting role, especially if someone gets the glory for scoring a try or making a touchdown, or firing in a 20yd shot into the back of the net. Its often exactly the same standing and watching a child, or encouraging a teenager (often without saying a word), or releasing a young adult to marriage, or saying goodbye to a loved one at the ultimate call. All of those moments are not about us, and yet in a strange way they are - for how we support, how we "run off the ball", can prove to be a decisive factor. When the temptation is to simply give in to fatigue, or at the other extreme, to dive in and take over, through either frustration or impatience - perhaps we should consider the tactical benefits of running off the ball...

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Piano Players and Piano Shifters

An old, Welsh, coaching friend of mine once described a rugby team as being made up of "piano players and piano shifters".

A few of the younger lads looked puzzled, until the Celtic philosopher revealed: "the grunt and hard work comes from the piano shifting forwards, the fancy moves, running at angles, comes from the backs, the piano players".

The art of the armchair philosopher can be fickle, as he often yelled across the pitch "move you lumps of lard, or, get stuck in you fairies".

The fact of the matter is, a successful team needs a combination of skills, techniques, flair, power and vision. Every position in a team has purpose and every player that runs out onto the field of play has a purpose in the match.

The same is true in life: "every man has purpose and there is a purpose for every man". Our life mission is to find our purpose and live it out. The bible has a window into the purpose of the man's man, Jesus Christ. "for this purpose, Christ was revealed, to destroy the life wrecking schemes of the enemy" - now that's a massive purpose.

No matter where he is from, how he entered this world, no man is a mistake. Every man has intrinsic worth and is here for a reason. Our purpose may differ dramatically and for that reason, perhaps through ignorance, fear or even pride, we are inclined to place value on the known, or seemingly more important. But, I have learned, there is nobility in the purpose a man discovers and is diligent in.

Again there is some guidance from the bible when it notes - one part of a body can't say to another, I don't need you. It would look very strange if we were all one organ or limb! So, we need piano players and piano shifters in life.

The key is in understanding firstly, as a person I have purpose. Then, in discovering I have a
purpose, to work it out in the everyday. My purpose may not be the same as yours. So, let's be diligent in our own purpose and resolve to recognise the nobility of purpose in others. Let us, wherever we can, help our fellow man find his purpose, looking down on none, but valuing all.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Turnover Ball - Regaining Posession

Can you remember that one kid when you were growing up? The kid who would take something that belonged to you and tease you with your own stuff, making out he was going to give it back to you, then snatching it away at the last second.

But can you remember the feeling when you took back what was rightly yours and perhaps with more force than that one kid was expecting! Taking possession back feels good, right?

In sport, making a tackle, then recovering the ball, regaining ground lost to the opposition and especially re-taking the lead, feels good and gives any player, the team and the watching crowd a great lift.

In rugby union, turnover ball does exactly that. With my playing days over, I sit in the crowd or watch  from the touchline, but I still get a buzz when our lads counter ruck, or emerge from a maul with the ball the opposition took in. It's the same when we make a tackle, get back up and re-take the ball. Its almost like taking your stuff back from that one kid!

You see, when you retake possession, you've then regained options. Options that were not available to you when you don't have possession. I love it in American Football, after the celebrations, they literally make a massive team switch from defensive to offensive. When you regain possession - you re-gain options.

Life is the same. Its a harsh feeling when you feel you've lost something - a friendship that somehow has broken down, that loss of spark in a relationship, feelings of mistrust. Life can throw some tough passes at you too: a redundancy, financial hard times or simply that feeling of being sucked into a repeat spiral. Even if life is great, there is always new ground to be taken. New options to explore.

The bible has a great insight, when the man's man, Jesus Christ says "the thief comes to rob, steal and destroy" (we can understand that), but then he goes on to say "but I am come that you might have life - and that, to its fullest expression".There are so many people I know and perhaps even you and I too, that feel they have lost something of what life could or should be.Well, maybe its time for some turnover ball?

No one is saying re-taking possession is easy - after all, winning turnover ball requires a commitment to the struggle, sometimes absorbing the impact. But in the face of the effort required, let's remember, the man's man has committed to helping us make that turnover - if we will ask him. Just for a second, think about how it could feel: when you regain possession, it opens up options. Then, why not ask for his help?

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Wearing my hero's socks!

Back in the days of flared trousers and tank-tops I was lucky enough to get on a school trip to watch the touring All Blacks rugby side. Taken in by the incredible pace and power of the game, I determined I would play like the team I had just seen and in particular, the great, All Blacks captain Graham Mourie.

Before my next game, I went to a local sports shop and bought my own All Blacks......socks. Black with three white hoops around the top. I discarded my school rugby socks, broke the rules and wore my heroes socks. It worked. Over the season, I became the top try scoring forward. I became the only player in an entire season to score a try against an all conquering, regional championship team as they swept every other team aside, without conceding a single try. My achievment even got a mention in Rugby World magazine. I was the English Graham Mourie - well, I was when I was wearing his socks.

Life, like sport, is filled with heroes and villains and I suspect no hero is perfect. However, as teenager, I saw something in someone else that inspired me to reach further. It wasn't really the socks. If it had been, they would have been no more than a luck charm or me following some kind of pre-match ritual. No, it was seeing someone I admired, doing something that I could actually see myself doing. That was inspiration. Something I saw, experienced, that called to something inside of me. The socks were just the way I expressed affinity with my hero.

There is an interesting account in the bible, of a time when a nation's leaders failed to give it the direction it so desperately needed. Sound familiar? For the record, there is a list of those responsible. Not surprisingly, the list contains politicians, religious leaders and the security forces. However, right at the top of the list, was an unexpected group: heroes! On a list of the great, the good and the powerful, the primary responsibility for taking a lead fell to the heroes and the question was asked; where are they?

Now, we may not feel very heroic and we may think the things we do are mundane. But as I look back to my formative years, my hero was simply someone who inspired me to reach beyond my immediate grasp, to travel further, to climb higher. I saw a "hero" and decided to have a go too. I may not have achieved the status of sporting legend, but who knows where I would have stopped or parked up, without the inspiration of a hero.

There's a generation looking for heroes. Sons looking for fathers, the lost looking for hope, captives longing to be liberated from the mundane. Where are the heroes of today? They have just read this blog.
So come on, its time to get our heroes socks out from the back of the drawer and go inspire a generation....

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Crossing the Gain Line

If you want to move forward, be honest, taking a step back is not usually our first thought.

I know for sure that I have stood toe-to-toe, or gone head to head, maintaining my position, not budging, because I believed I was right. Looking back, I now realise, all I did was prove a point without making progress or developing relationally.

Rugby is one of those odd sports that to go forward, the ball has to travel backwards. The motion of passing the ball is a prime example - you must make sure the line of travel is not in front of you. In set play (a scrum or a lineout), the ball can actually travel 10-15m or more, back from the point at which the play started. Once the ball has travelled forward and past the point it started from, the team has crossed the gain line.

There is method in the apparent madness - by passing the ball slightly behind you, the next man can run onto the ball at pace and build momentum.

American Football is another exampe of the ball travelling back to ultimately go forward. The ball pops back from the line of scrimmage and to the quarterback (provided he isn't sacked) who launches it forward to a receiver who is running at pace.

Taking a leap requires momentum to bridge a gap - that requires us to back up and take a run at our target. Yet in life, in our realtionships we all too often crash away at the same old same old, making little difference, damaging what we are trying so hard not to.

Taking a step back not only allows us to regain momentum, but it often opens up another route forward - passing a ball along a line of players moving at pace, opens up options that are not available by simply crashing into the man in front of you every time you gain possession.

The bible has an interesting insight into the mindset of the man of men: Jesus Christ. It describes his attitude to the incredibly daunting prosepct he faced, after he had been tried and condemned to die - despite his innocence. He knew what was ahead of him and yet he is described as confronting death with a sense of what lay beyond it - "for the experience of knowing what lay beyond his personal loss, for others, he endured the cross, not considering the shame attached to it". On the face of it, the cross looked like a massive backward step and yet three days later and ever since, the impact of what he did is still being felt.

In what seemed like a massive step backwards, paying the ultimate price made it possible for anyone, through faith, to be propelled across a line, they couldn't have crossed alone. It was the ultimate stepping back to reach for the gain line.

The essence of team is about sacrificing self interest for the greater good. The nature of true relationship is about sacrificing self interest for the greater good. Maybe it's worth thinking about taking a step back, shifting a position, to cross your personal gain line.

Friday, 30 September 2011

The 16th Man

It was a hard game. We were up against a tough team from South Wales. I took the ball into contact and we set up a rolling maul. Noticing we were close to the touchline, I looked down through the mass of legs to locate the whitewash. To my amazement, I saw a pair of brown, highly polished, reinforced toe-cap combat boots, on the end of legs wearing jeans!

Eventually, the maul was dragged into touch and as we broke away to form the lineout, I could see the boots belonged to one of our lads, sidelined by injury. He had got so fired up with our drive up field, that he couldn't help himself and piled into the maul to add his weight to our forward momentum.

Looking back it was very funny, especially as the referee was totally unaware of where our extra power had come from.

I'm sure we've all experienced situations in life sometimes, when a bit of momentum would be really helpful, an added bit of strength from somewhere or someone. But the reality is, often we have to face things or tough them out alone.

Sometimes, players will say the encouragement of a big crowd can be like having an extra man. I heard a seasonsed international player recently talknig about how they had a special call when an injection of momentum was required or spirits where flagging. On the call, everyone had to sprint everwhere for the next 5 mins. Whilst I'm not advocating running around workshops, offices, school rooms or shopping malls - if it works for you...go for it. However, there is another dimension worth considering when you feel the need for an injection of momentum or need some impetus to keep you going. Remember, God is for you. God is on your side.

The bible has some interesting advice: "draw near to God and he will draw near to you" - if we are prepared to accept the possibility that God is for us, then just as my injured team mate couldn't help but get involved in our forward drive, God wants to encourage you and get involved in helping you make headway.

Who knows how he will show up; maybe through a pair of highly polished, brown boots or through a helping hand, perhaps through a word of encouragement, or a "keep going", from someone already on the journey. Perhaps through a reminder of the strength and resolve you have within you. I don't know. But I do know, if we are ready, so is he.

Blessed are the Referees for they shall be called...

Who would be a referee? My uncle Jim was a football (soccer) referee. Even when he wasn't on a pitch, he was still a referee. We once found him in the middle of town directing traffic. Oh yes. Raised hand to halt the flow, whilst waving drive on (play on, play on) with the other. If we hadn't rescued him, he may have booked a driver and a cyclist following a touchline, sorry roadside altercation.

There was something in him that just kicked in when he saw that order was required where there was chaos. He was like it in life. When he saw someone in need, he didn't stop, then ask for permission to help; he just helped.

By all accounts uncle Jim was one of a rare breed; a players referee. He knew the rules, understood the game, could assess the spirit in which any game was being played and adapt his approach to the game to keep it flowing.

The best games to play in and the best games to watch are the ones that flow. They can be tough physically and emotionally draining, but it takes great skill to judge the mood and interpret the laws of the game to keep a match at a great tempo.

Not all games are like that and certainly not all referees are like Jim. I don't think I'm the only one who has been walked back 10 metres in a rugby match,for questioning a referee, or has been carded for dissent. Equally, I don't think I'm the only one who has stood on a touchline or in a stand or been sat in front of a TV and questioned a referee's sight, parentage, intake of pies or asked whose side he was on. Referees the world over seem to have a knack for generating emotion in players and spectators alike.

As a man of faith, I am intrigued by the words of Jesus, recorded by a man called Matthew. He wroted that Jesus said "blessed are the peacemakers". I have often thought about what this means. Do I have to go around stepping in wherever I can see there is a problem so that I can bring peace? Do I have to be like a one man United Nations mission? Do I have to deliberately look for trouble so I can bring peace?

I know there are times when unless we intervene nothing will change. But the more I've thought about this in the daily context of my own life, I've concluded that the best peacemakers are like the best referees - they create the conditions in which peace thrives, rather than intervening, blowing a whistle to stop play because something has happened. The greatest referees and the greatest peacemakers are those who help things to flow: with a quiet word here or there, a supportive comment, a word to the wise...

As a husband, a dad, a friend or a colleague am I someone who has to be constantly blowing the whistle because I need to make peace break out, or, am I a peace maker who knows how to create and maintain the conditions to keep life flowing. I wonder which one Jesus was thinking about..

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Possession and Position

You have to have the ball to score points!

But, possession alone is not enough. You also have to be in a position to score a try, knock the ball in the back of the net, shoot a hoop or make a touchdown...

Recent games in the 2011 Rugby World Cup have illustrated the point that dominance in possession doesn't always translate into points.

I read the following from a BBC correspondent recently "...impressive in defence with the pack (rugby forwards) completely dominating, but there was an alarming lack of attacking thrust"...( BBC Sport, Sept 15th 2011). In other words you can be in possession for almost the entire duration of a game and still let the other side nick it at the end.

It is possible to lull yourself into a false sense of security if you focus only on one aspect of this combinational duo. We've seen possession alone doesn't give you any points. Similarly, you can be standing totally unmarked, with the try line in front of you, but without the ball, making that dream score is simply aspirational. You can run through phase after phase, in all manner of sports, but unless you cross the "gain line" at best you're moving sideways, but all the time you're expending energy going nowhere.

I doubt if I'm alone in discovering that life can be like this at times. I think I've grabbed a hold of it, by the "scruff of the neck" spending time and effort trying to make things happen, or force things along, only to discover I've made little progress - that can be really soul destroying. I think I have possession, but my position hasnt changed.

The bible has some very sound advice here "where's the profit in someone gaining everything, but in the process, missing the mark totally on who he was meant to become" (Matt 16.26)

We can do it relationally too - going around the same old loop to come back to the same position and sadly, taking up a position, can be very damaging to close relationships - particularly if no-one is prepared to back-down.

However, there is another dimension to winning that sits alongside possession and position - its perspective.

As a man with a faith I learned that the bible insight is true when it says that I can be "seated above with Christ" - it sounds a bit strange as I cant physically do that, - but the key, I've learned, is about perspective. If I sit somewhere, I'm taking the time to stop. If I stop and that place is with Christ, I can reflect on things from his view point; that bigger picture perspective that I often times can't see.

Elevation changes perspective,
perspective changes vision and
vision enables us to see things differently
and make both tactical and yes, the relational adjustments we need.

I may have all the possession, I may be in the perfect position, but have I got the perception to lift my head, lift my vision, lift my thinking? Possession and position are components of a winning team; they're also components of a winning life...especially if we allow God to help us with a new perspective.

Friday, 16 September 2011

What happens when you run into the posts?

When I first started playing competitive rugby, our boots wouldn't have been out of place in a coal mine. The shirts we wore had such long collars that when you turned them up they virtually covered the back of your head. We didn't have body armour and the posts didnt have padding around the bottom of the uprights - which was a slight problem.

Running back in defence, marshalling the boys to get onto the try line and spread across to cover an attack, I ran, bang into one of the uprights! It would have been ok, but for the lack of padding. I was knocked out cold, but despite my prone position, play continued around me.

As I eventually started to come around, through the foggy thought processes and thumping head, I heard a phrase that was at once uplifting and has stayed with me to this day..."get up Manchester, if it had been anywhere else, it might have hurt!!"

As I dragged myself to my feet to rejoin the match, the suggestion that I was "thick headed" was realised, as I played the rest of the match with concussion, speaking total gibberish, but scoring a try somewhere in the mix.

Now I'm not entirely convinced that the sarcastic comment from the touchline was meant to be encouraging, but it certainly fired me up to keep going. Words can have interesting effects.

What we say, however flippant or serious carries it's own weight and momentum. Once things are said, it's difficult if not impossible to take them back. The bible has an interesting insight to what we say, describing the tounge like a spark that sets off a forest fire!

On the other hand, words can be like building blocks. There is a man called Barnabus mentioned in the bible in a time when lots of people were being pushed around, sent into exile or made refugees. His name translated means son of encouragement or perhaps better put "the encourager". From the records, this man always had something constructive to say. There was always an uplifting comment. His nature was like his name.

It's good to feel good. Encouragement is a powerful builder and though it doesn't cost us anything to say something uplifting, it is an increasingly rare commodity. We might not be facing the same threats as the people in Barnabus' day, but why not deliberately chose to say something encouraging to someone today and watch their confidence and their stature grow. Try it, it works - but make sure you avoid running into posts!!

Friday, 9 September 2011

Blue Zone, Red Zone

Its finally here and underway - the 2011 Rugby World Cup. New Zealand get off to a win versus Tonga in a bruising start, with flashes of what to expect from the host nation - Power, pace and points!

With the tournament up and running, aside from some directional input and making the right call in selection, the coaching staff have done their work. Now its down to the players on the pitch to do what they do best - play rugby.

As the tournament progresses toward the real business end, pitching the best in the world against each other, the mental aspects of the game come to the fore as much as the physical and technical aspects.
How teams and specific players respond under pressure can make the marginal difference that turns a game - a crucial penalty kick, a critically timed drop goal, not conceding a penalty in your own 22.

Thinking and acting under pressure comes differently to different people. But there are some principles at work.

In the build up to the first game, I have been thinking about a concept I discussed with a sports psychologist a few years ago; what they called "blue zone, red zone".

The two zones represent the twin elements of just about every type of encounter or interaction.
One being what "you" do: your role, your skill sets - the blue zone. It represents what you can control. The other - the red zone is the blue zone of the person or team you are interacting with - which is out of your control.

The point being, when under pressure, many people try to second guess what the other person or team is going to do. That's fine to a point, as there is a great skill in anticipation, but too often, team structure falls apart when the team or individuals concentrate more on someone else's game rather than their own.

As a coach you can spot this if you're prepared to be objective. You can see individuals falling out of position or getting in each others way. The "rub of the green" seems like its always with the other side.

It goes without saying that there are times when we simply meet a team that is better.
However a good team may be beaten by a great team and still come away having played well and be able to find development opportunities from a hard game - rather than falling apart and suffering a defeat over a hard fought loss.

It's how we respond in pressure situations that can determine what happens next.

The same is true in life. How many times have we stopped being the husband, dad, brother or friend people need, because we have been focused on red zones beyond our control rather than being consistent in our blue zone? It's easy to push the focus or blame on to something we can't control, when often we let our own game plan slip, with obvious consequences.

The bible has some interesting advice that can help us to stay "blue zone" focussed.
Speaking of Jesus, it says, "he went about doing good". There were times when he was under intense pressure - but the pressure didn't stop him from doing what was good. Now that's a challenge, especially when I find it tough to be consistent if its tough for me!

But what does doing good look like for me?

Here again there is some helpful advise from the bible: "man, he has showed you what is good - do justly, love mercy and walk in humility before him" - in other words:

  • don't be biased in your dealing with people,
  • try and look at situations wearing the other persons shoes or through his eyes and
  • carry yourself with integrity and a balanced view of who you are.
Three very practical blue zone principles.
Why dont we give them a try as our blue zone and build them into our game plan? That way, when we encounter red zone as something we can't control - we can respond from a positive position. Remeber, there are things we may not be able to control, but here's the key, "we" don't need to be controlled by "them".
Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Calling for a "mark!"

Have you ever been under extreme pressure? Perhaps that's how you might feel right now? There's a strange rule in the sport of rugby that is a brilliant illustration of handling pressure situations. Any player in the 22m area of their own half attempting to catch a ball and considers themselves to be under pressure from the advancing players of the other team may call a "mark" - when the rule was introduced the player had to make a mark with their boot too - now, shouting "mark" is enough for the referee to halt play, relieving pressure by restarting with a free kick to the catching player. It all sounds a bit gentlemanly in a full contact sport, but the intention of the rule is to provide protection for an under pressure player and stop them being totally flattened when they are focussing on a catch. Calling for a mark is a legitimate defence and requires skill to focus on catching the ball and being aware of an imminent danger at the same time. It takes presence of mind and courage to reach for a high ball under pressure. It certainly isn't a weakness to make the call, as the alternative is a bruising! Sometimes, as a man, I feel I have to take all the hits that come my way and I try to internalize or absorb everything. But even the strongest person has a limit. Bottling things up inside until we explode can be dangerous and too often those who are the closest to us suffer as a result of our lack of communication, withdrawal or release of pent up feelings. John Kirwan, the great New Zealand rugby player has written a very helpful book about his personal journey in dealing with depression called "All Blacks don't cry". It's an honest account from someone at the very top of their game who suffered from depression. It illustrates the need to be courageous in recognising signs and the importance of having a strong support network. Alongside the practical release of pressure from open and honest communication, as a man with a faith, I have discovered that in pressure situations, I can call for a "mark", appealing to a real man's man as a source of help - Jesus Christ. The bible has a very practical description of God (psalm 46) pointing out that he is a "refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble". I know from personal experience, pressure comes and I know that there are times when I have been flattened too. We can try and absorb everything, but ultimately something gives. I have found that making the call isn't weakness: it's a sound, technical and courageous defence. Who are you calling?

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Move away tackler

Tackling is an essential component of team sport.

In what is called the contact area referees have to be at thier most observant.

In rugby, once a tackle has been completed, the player has to make an attempt to move away from the tackle and can't hold the opposing player down, handle the ball whilst on the ground or lie over the ball - the result: penalty.

The tackled player also has responsibilities too - they must release the ball, they can't lie on the ball and they can't play the ball with their hand while they are on the ground - the result: penalty.

It all sounds a bit technical, but the spirit of the law is to keep the game flowing and the referee will call a cautionary "move away tackler"

The temptation as a player, is to do the opposite - to try and gain a marginal advantage. It's not surprising that in a sport like rugby or amercian football, the contact area becomes a very "grey" area. The spirit of the law is stretched to the point that the refree intervenes and...well you know the result.

Life has its "contact areas" too - at work, in our liesure times and specifically in our relationships. How we respond in these areas, the decisions we make, set in motion event chains that have consequences - some good, others well...

There's a bible verse (in Galatians)  that I've often wondered about. It's about someone who faces up to a challenge and with God's help meets it head on, but is then told to keep standing. In fact it says "and having done all, stand" - in other words make the tackle and then get back on your feet and be at the ready!

The instruction "move away tackler" is a massive hint to avoid compromise, to keep the game flowing. After all, when you think about it, you're only in play when you're back on your feet. Now,if I'm smart (and quick enough), after I've made the tackle, by getting back on my feet, I actually become first defender.

Life throws us challenges every day. We have to rise to the challenge and battle through. But we all know, its often after we have been at our strongest or tried our hardest, that we are at our most vulnerable. How many times have we seen a team get caught on the counter attack, just after they have scored?

So the verse finds an expanation and I'm confronted with a daily choice.

As I face my daily challenges head on, I have to recognise my responsibility as an attacker and as a defender. I need to make a positive decision to get back on my feet, rejoin the game and become first defender...of all that I value most.

Both success and tiredness can leave us wide open to compromise -thats just the time we need to hear the call "move away tackler!"

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Spatial Awareness

Isn't it funny watching young kids play a team sport for the first time?

Its classic "herd mentality" - everyone charging around the pitch in a mass of players.

As skill levels rise, one or two may move into space and yell at the herd for a pass or a throw - they stand out because they're the ones who can spot a gap or an opportunity.

The better someone becomes at a given sport, the more they become spatially aware:

* aware of what's going on around them,
* where team members are
* where the play is going next and
* where the gaps are

Another characteristics that grows alongside spatial aware is a sense of timing.

As a coach, one of the most difficult things to convince athletes at any level is "you always have more time than you think".

Awareness and timing are two key elements in developing excellence in anything - business, sport and of course in relationships too.

I've lost count of the times... this week... when the timing of something I've said or done has been at odds with what's really happening.

Sometimes we want to rush in where angels fear to tread, when taking time to reflect and become aware of God's presence can be more helpful to us.

The bible helpfully illustrates this in a man called Jacob. He was so caught up with his own issues that he abandoned awareness and timing. At one point he had to admit: "God was here and I didn't perceive it"

How aware are we that God is actually here, in our busy, often herd like lives?
Take the time to develop spiritual as well as spatial awareness - it can really help your sense of timing...

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Crouch Touch Pause Engage

With the 2011 Rugby World Cup now only weeks away and warm up games in full swing, I wanted to post a rugby themed blog. 

As an ex-forward I journeyed from the back row of the scrum to end my career as a prop. Back then when a scrum was set, teams simply smashed into each other on the refs signal - crunch (that's going to hurt in the morning).

Today the referee is required to use the following instruction: 

Crouch - the front rows crouch in a set position
Touch - each of the prop forwards reaches out and touches the shoulder of his opposite number
Pause - there's a momentary pause - the length determined by the referee
Engage - on this command the front rows come together and conflict resumes!

Reflecting on what is a great sport and the sheer physicality involved today I'm reminded of the hits we take in life sometimes and the times when we have to press forward against tough circumstances or experiences.

I'm also reminded that there are moments in which things stop momentarily and it is at those points that the illustration from Rugby is apt. At the point of breakdown in play, the game is reset by a scrum and the referees instructions Crouch touch pause engage.

As a man of faith I believe that God can use those momentary pauses in the thick of things to help us reset to re-engage with life. The bible has some great advice when it says "be humble before God and at the right time he will lift you up" - for me that's the "crouch". There's more advice in the Psalms when we are advised to "be still and know exactly who God is" - for me that's my "touch" phase - reaching out to know that there is someone there who is also reaching out to me. 

Then there's the part that no player wants a referee to be too long about - the "pause". I have to constantly remind myself that this phase is at the referee's discretion and requires patience on my part. Sometimes the "engage" doesn't come straight away from God and I am learning patience. But when it comes, I know that the timing is right and that I have the signal to proceed. 

I've had to learn that to engage, I have to crouch before someone with the authority I need, reach out to discover that God is there and then on his signal - bang, re-engage with the task in hand. A reset doesn't actually take long, but is an integral part of the game. How are you re-engaging?