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

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The Wisdom of the Gate

The first time a rugby referee pinged me for not entering a phase of play "through the gate" totally confused me as a young player. I was playing in a match in the south west of England - a place noted for its countryside and farming communities. I knew I had been offside - that was why he'd blown the whistle. But as I retreated the 10 yards for conceeded a penalty, I thought to myself "bit odd refering to a gate, we're playing out in the open here."

After a few coaching sessions and starting to understand the laws of the game, I realised he was referring to the area at the back of a ruck where players have to be aware of an imaginary line. This line, denotes the point beyond which if you are not already in ruck you are offside. Its usually marked by the back foot of the player furthest back in the ruck. The offside line runs at right angles to another imaginary line which forms a rectangle around the group of players competing for the ball.

The gate to which my rural referee was referring is the part of the offside line, between the two sides of the rectangle or box. Ah ha, so now, there's a box on the pitch? Confused? Effectively imagine a rectagle on the pitch with players inside it, touching the sides and the ends - the end of the box is the only area through which a player can join the play. The gate.

No wonder the breakdown area is seen as one of the games grey areas. It is ususally the zone in which mose penalties are conceeded. It's because the phases of play represent the "margins" of a game. Here players are right at the edge of a phase of play or following a tackle are at the formative stages of a new phase of play. Getting to grips with abstract concepts, imaginary lines and boxes can be the difference between retaining and conceeding possession.

I guess life has its margins too. The times when we are at the conclusion of something, or we are just starting out on a new venture. We follow similar patterns as we form or develop relationships. There are crucial points at every stage of our experience at which if we get it right we can build momentum. If we get it wrong,  it can take us a long time to regain the ground we may have conceeded. It takes a lot longer to rebuild trust than the moments it takes to break it. There is it seems a great deal of wisdom in the concept of the gate - the right way to enter a conversation, a meeting, a relationship.

Using the gate to enter a ruck is not just a technical inconvenience - there are positive advantages to playing correctly:
  • you can without hinderance or penalty add your weight and momentum to a forward drive
  • you can do the same to halt an advancing drive by the opposition
  • you can actually drive opposition players off the ball and back beyond the gain line to take ground
  • your presence prevents opposition players "coming around the side" of the ruck once the ball is about to enter a new phase of play
Doing things the right way really does make a difference. Who wouldnt want to have momentum in business or in serving people or in a friendship or relationship?

I'm reminded of the man's man Jesus Christ when he said to the team gathered around him, "anyone who doesnt enter through the gate but climbs in some other way is up to no good". He was using the illustration of a gated pen, where the farming community kept the sheep, their livelihood safe.

But he wasn't only referring to protecting the livelihood of farmers. He went on to point out the importance of protecting what is valuable to us as individuals; having security for our thoughts, our emotions, the real you, the real me. He then said something unusual - "I am the gate" - whoever uses me as a gate in life, will be safe. Who wouldn't want to safeguard their thinking and actions - oh how often I let my thoughts run riot and then let them motivate my actions. I for one am glad that the man's man offers us a right way to enter life.

I think my rural referee was spot on with his call: you can only enter life properly through "the" gate. Maybe there is some merit in learning the wisdom of the gate?

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

The Up and Under

In most sports, there are moments in a match that can best be described as "transition moments".

A transition moment can last a few seconds - like the timing of a pass or the flight of a ball to touch, or they can be in a set play such as a scrum or a lineout, lasting over a more prolonged period.

At these moments in a game, the ball is moving, but its ultimate destination may vary from its anticipated destination - in other words, there are risks attached to transition moments. A pass may be intercepted, a ball may not bounce before it reaches touch or a scrum or lineout may be taken by the opposition. But without the inherent risk in transition moments, there would be no game. There would be no excitment.

The "up and under" or the "bomb" in rugby league, or in Irish rugby the "Garryowen" (named after the famous club from Limerick who used it to great effect) is another example of a "transition moment" in rugby.

The "up and under" is a very high kick, played by a team intent on putting thier opponents under pressure from a fast falling, high ball. The pressure comes as they attempt to make a catch with attackers advancing on them at speed. It's often used to relieve pressure when a team has been defending for lengthy periods - in other words it is both an attacking option and a breakout or breakthrough option.

When a ball is hoisted high into the air, its interesting to watch the kicking players next move - free from ball carrying, the player charges forward, unimpeded as the ball is in flight. His goal, to  catch the ball again and press on, or make a thumping tackle on the catcher before he can get a pass or kick away. One thing to notice about this transitional moment is the difference in the forward progress of a player without the ball - whilst the ball is in the air and the kicker is on the move, no player can touch him or tackle him. This is in stark contrast to making progress with the ball, when the player would be fair game to any opposition tackler.

Reflecting after watching a recent game in which this play was executed to great effect, I concluded there are some useful insights we can capture from the "up and under" for sport, life, service and business:
  • you have to let go sometimes in order to gain ground
  • when you release something you have to start to move in the direction of whats anticipated next
  • when we send what we've been carrying upwards we can move forward unimpeded
As a man with faith, this latter point is important to me as I know I can trust the upward glance of committing things to God through prayer. I may not be certain at that point of how it will bounce back to me. It may not be as I anticipate, but I know that I can move forward unimpeded whilst what I commit to God is with him and when the ball lands so to speak, I will know what to do when I need to do it.

But rememering that there are risks to all transition moments, to use the play to maximum effect requires:
  • an awareness of your position on the field of play in realtion to your team mates and the opposition
  • an understanding that relieving pressure has purpose - the creation of a breakthrough moment
  • an appreciation of the need to be prepared to adjust quickly if the outcome isn't what you had originally intended or anticipated and
  • the moment the ball comes back to ground, you may be called on to catch what you have released or to make the tackle that gets it back
Thinking about business or serving or even in developing and growing strong relationships, all of these factors are important in knowing exactly where we are:in relation to others around us, the challenge of opposition and the need to have a plan but with an adaptive mindset as we move and flow with how the game pans out.

Remember what goes up must come down and so standing still is not an option. If we launch an up and under, we must be prepared to move, recognising that we have to take risks sometimes to create transition moments and that those transition moments can lead to breakthroughs...

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

What's your back story?

I am constantly amazed at how frequently those who achieve at the highest level have had to overcome the most difficult of challenges.

Watching the London 2012 Olympic Games was no exception. The memorable image of a young "judoko" looking to the heavens and mouthing "I love you Mum" - her mother having succombed to cancer when the girl was 17. The young diver who pressed through to claim a bronze medal after the tragic death of his father. Another young diver who overcame a previous diving accident that resulted in a ruptured spleen to compete at the Olympics. Another young judoko who had been abused by her former coach but summoned up the courage to speak out and with determination and personal integrity stepped up, continued fighting and ultimately won gold. The incredibly inspiring participation of the amputee running alongside the fastest men in the world - the "blade runner" in the men's 400m semi-final. But, its not only tragedy or hardship that has driven people. Others have had to fight for funding to compete. Others have had to battle for recognition against higher profile sports. Others have fled their homelands to be free from tyranny. Many have battled the elements, training, pushing their bodies to the limit of physical and mental endurance. Truly the Olympic motto "Citius, Altius, Fortius" - Faster, Higher, Stronger is as relevant to the back story of so many individuals as it is to their performance in the arena.

The combination of an outstanding performance and knowing something of the back story of a competitor is an inspiring mix of invincibility and vulnerability. It's the powerful composite of competitive prowess and the almost touchable affinity, that allows us to identify with those who have risen, from among us to achieve sporting greatness - the young boy of 8 emulating his hero on a bike (who among us hasn't tried to be our hero) rising to become one of the greats in cycling world, yet at the same time retains and grows his stature as a true gentleman. In the global village that has been created by social media and the personal scrutiny driven by the global media giants, the modern sportsman and sportswoman are the subject of social media posts and worldwide trending tweets, projecting them not only into our living rooms, but in our hands as we interact with each other via our mobile devices. We live in an age of intrusion and personal examination, but equally, it's an age where the power of influence has never been greater.

The motto of the London 2012 Olympics was "Inspiring a Generation" - in retrospect the London games were inspirational. Using a sporting analogy, the true legacy of the games, as with anything of merit or true worth, will be measured in terms of who from among us will take up the baton as this generation moves on. That's a challenge to me as a retired sportsman, now as a coach and mentor to the younger generation. But the thing that makes me optimistic for the future, not just in sport, but in many areas, is the ability and power of someone else's story to be inspiring. What is your back story? In a way, it doesn't matter if we think our story is ordinary or mundane - as what we may consider normal or ordinary, may be just the thing to inspire another who has only ever seen chaos or abnormality.

The bible takes care to note something special about the stories of individual people. In one particularly inspiring section, it lists by name, ordninary people, who through their belief that things could be different when circumstances were saying otherwise, went on to see the realisation of a dream or a goal. The record of these people uses a great word - faith, the priceless quality that believes something is possible when circumstances are yelling out the opposite. The quality that says it can be done when others say its impossible.

The bible makes another poignant note of how ordinary people prevailed through the most difficult times - it records it was the strength of knowing the man's man Jesus Christ and the use of their own back story helped them pressing on to a different kind of victory - the victory that makes them overcomes in life, with all it was throwing at them. 

What is your back story? Don't despise it. Good or bad, it could be the key to unlocking the inspiration that this, our generation is looking for.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

What Makes A Champion?

What makes a champion? With the London 2012 Olympic Games well underway and medal tallies rising, old and new names are being written into the record books. Newspaper column inches are filled with the stories of the men and women who are writing their own history in gold, silver and bronze. Reflecting on these games, world championships and world cups, I have concluded that there is ultimately only one thing that makes champions. Competition.

It may seem like a statement of the obvious. But no matter how hard or sophisticated a training regime or how mentally tough an individual is, without the challenge of competing, they are simply keeping fit. When I first started training to play rugby union, we were put through our paces, challenged physically, we were drilled in technical skills and worked on set plays against our squad members. Only when we ran out onto the field of play in our first game, did we begin to understand the main requirement of competition - taking a risk with what you've committed to on the training ground. I can remember the score to this day, we won 70-0. We won the next game. Then the next. We encountered stronger opposition and continued to win. Champions emerge from the competitive arena. 

On the advice of a primary school teacher, who thought my eldest son had a nice running style, from observing him in PE lessons (physical education), we decided to enter him in a children's fun race at a local village fair. He destroyed the field, finishing with the rest trailing halfway down the grassy track. In a local takeaway food store I noticed an advertisement for a local athletics club. We joined. I qualified as a coach. My son entered the arena of indoor sports hall athletics. He broke a UK record which subsequently stood for a number of years. He progressed to track and field and became an outstanding hurdler, with high national ranking. He was prepared to take the risk of competing, becoming a champion.

I have two good friends who have won multiple gold medals. One in the Special Olympics, the other in the Transplant Games. Both are champions. Champions; not just from their performances in weightlifting and athletics, but because they faced the risk of competing and prevailed. Both are inspirational characters.

There are risks in competition. The risk that you will be found wanting. The risk that there is someone better out there. But until the challenge of competition is faced, there can be no champions. Life is filled with daily challenges and the true champions, those that rise above adversity, disadvantage, poverty, illness or any other kind of hardship are those who risk their all, risk who they are to contend against their circumstances and make a difference. But life is not only about adversity. There are other challenges in life too - building strong personal relationships, parenthood, balancing the demands of modern life whilst retaining core values - champions in life are those that step up to contend or compete for what is of value, those who retain integrity, truthfulness and can maintain self control. Lethargy and compromise are the antithesis of competing with integrity.

The bible has a really great insight into rising to the challenge of competition. Paul, the great thinker and follower of the man's man Jesus Christ put it this way..."You've all been to the stadium and seen the athletes race. Everyone runs; one wins. Run to win. All good athletes train hard. They do it for a gold medal that tarnishes and fades. You're after one that's gold eternally. I don't know about you, but I'm running hard for the finish line. I'm giving it everything I've got. No sloppy living for me! I'm staying alert and in top condition. I'm not going to get caught napping, telling everyone else all about it and then missing out myself"…  (The Message).

Stepping up as a contender in the greatest arenas of the world or against the challenges life throws up brings us face to face with risk. Many look on. Some approach the edge. But who will step up?

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The Space Beyond the Ball

Seeing beyond the current space you're in to the possibilities that lie beyond is called vision. Going on to inhabit the beyond and make things happen is called application and that takes graft and determination.

Unrealised vision is simply aspiration. The power that drives change is the conversion of vision into reality on the ground.

When still a club coach in Auckland, Graham Henry the victorious Rugby World Cup 2011 coach of the New Zealand All Blacks was asked for a key coaching tip. His response was direct and to the point - "get over the gain line in the first phase".

In rugby terms that means taking possession beyond the point at which a phase of play started before it breaks down again. For example, if a player is tackled, his team are expected to recycle the ball and progress past the point of the tackle and over the gain line, before another tackle stops the advance.

Aspirational? No, because what marks Henry out as a coach is his ability to think about the game, its rules, the role of players on and off the ball and use each as a component to deliver something tactically different. He is deliberate about it, it doesn't just happen.

After the successful 2011 RWC campaign Henry commented "We want quick ball in New Zealand and so we concentrate on dominating the space beyond the ball carrier. We want our supporting players to get under the opposition and to move them backwards. We flood past the ball to create good possession for our strike runners" (The Guardian, Sunday 29-01-12).

Now that's thought through. Practical. It's every player knowing what they have to do to "get across the gain line in the first phase". It's not just great vision. It's application on the ground. If you drive the opposition back from the breakdown, you have already created the space and opportunity to get past the gain line before you even begin to move the ball again.

So successful are the thought through, tactical elements of the All Black's game that it looks like second nature. In fact, when you watch great teams, what started as a vision and was fleshed out on the training ground until it became second nature, becomes endemic in the team and is seen by onlookers and emerging new players as part and parcel of what a winning team does - new players coming into the squad simply follow suit. The reality is, it started somewhere. It was worked through with an initial group of players, but then became the norm. Delivering quick ball from the breakdown by taking the space beyond the ball is now part of All Black game play.

Now there's a great principle at work here - what becomes second nature becomes the norm, what becomes the norm is transmitted seamlesssly to peers and the next generation of players coming through. But here's the key, "every generational shift starts with a deliberate decision".

The bible has an interesting insight into how successive generations learn and understand the significance of what is important. The illustration talks about the strength and resiliance that comes from knowing God - the principle at work was written about by the warrior king, David. He put it this way: ..."examine closely the way things are structured, look at the strength that is built into them,  look at the detail and show it to the generation that is following you - model it, be it".... It's about being deliberate in thinking about what is important and how to demonstrate it.

We may be looking to introduce a change. We may be looking at our own behaviours in an attempt to improve our relationships in business, in serving people or perhaps even in our closest relationships - but remember, there is a difference between aspiration and real vision that paves the way for the next step - application. The transition from vision to reality is the critical phase, but it's where so many either fear to tread or stumble. But that transition is crucial to change becoming second nature.

Working on relationships is not perhaps the most natural thing that men lean towards. All too often we let even our core relationships drift or allow things happen by default - despite the fact that we so easily plan events, schedule tasks, review and change processes. Given people are at the centre of events, task or processes, we cannot afford to alllow relationships to develop by default.

Understanding the dynamics of change and being deliberate in our thinking can be the key to making the right adjustments, at the right time and in the right way. Relationships and the people we interact with are after all at the heart of winning teams on the pitch, in business, in areas of service and in families.  Are we allowing things to happen to us by default or are we being deliberate about change?

Thursday, 12 July 2012

The Tackle Count

"..You can't simply wait for the opposition to make a mistake to regain possession. You have to stop their progress and defend your ground and if you want to get the ball back, you have to tackle with an attack mindset.."

Physically demanding, requiring a sense of timing and technical skill, making a tackle in rugby union doesn't automatically give you possession of the ball. But making a good tackle will:
  • stop or slow the advance of the opposition
  • prevent encroachment into your territory
  • set up the possibility of a turnover
  • bring an opponent down
In life, we frequently talk about tackling issues head on in an attempt to resolve something, to make progress or clear a hurdle on our journey to reaching a goal. But hitting something head on can have consequences. I remember playing in one match against a team made up predominantly of coal miners - I decided to tackle one of their lock forwards head on. He was about 6 foot 5 inches tall (about 1.96m). Going down on one knee as he approached, I launched him over my shoulder - but he smashed my face in the process. I took him down but I paid the price. There are times when a more subtle approach is required and I guess that is true in life too. 

Here are a few key elements to tackling that are worth considering in the context of life, relationships, business, serving others:
  • it sounds obvious, but unlike American football where blocking is legitimate, in rugby you can only tackle the player in possession of the ball - knowing what you are going to be tackling is pretty important, as we too often tackle the wrong things and frequently in the wrong order
  • your line of approach and point of impact are key to an effective tackle - how we approach something and the point at which we engage are often fundamental to the outcome of our interactions
  • you cannot tackle a player who is off the ground, you can't use a straight arm tackle, tackle a player too high or tip a player beyond the horizontal (spear tackles are illegal) - there are ways of handling people if we have to tackle important, sensitive or difficult issues.
All too often as men, we are prepared to commit to the physicality of the tackle on the field of play and in life scenarios, we all too readily fly into conflict situations. But there are some things in life that are even more important than the oval shaped ball. How often do we shy away from addressing relational issues? Alternatively, we fly into them in the same way we would tackle an opponent, when a more subtle approach is required.

Sometimes, making one tackle isn't enough. We can make a tackle and almost stand back in admiration at what we've just achieved, only to see our opponent get up and carry on or offload the ball to a team mate, exploiting a space we have failed to defend. Tackling is such an essential part of the game that to relent is like conceding a game. Recently, I looked into the number of tackles made during an 80 minute game of rugby and discovered some valuable insights.

In the 2011 Rugby World Cup quarter-final, Australia beat the South African springboks in a tough, physical encounter. It was a game in which the Aussies made an incredible 147 tackles. South Africa had the bulk of the possession, but the Wallabies were resolute in their game plan. Tackle after tackle. Tackle, get up, make another tackle. Sometimes two man tackling was required to pull down their giant opponents. 147 tackles.

Now something fascinating comes out of the stats when you look closer. Generally there is a correlation between the tackle count and the number of penalties conceded. In other words, in the contact area, players hold on, don't make an effort to roll away and commit an array of other offences. Match analysts tell us a penalty is conceded every 8.3 tackles. In the Aussie game, that ratio went out to one penalty for every 24.5 tackles. The Aussies only gave away 6 penalties in the entire match and only two were in potential points scoring positions for South Africa. In the second half the ratio was an astonishing 42.5 to 1 - only one penalty given away for every 42.5 tackles. One word summed up the approach that day. Discipline.

The tackle count - their commitment to halting the opposition with an attacking mindset and discipline - their level of concentration, physical courage in the contact area and game awareness won the day. What an illustration. Sometimes we have to get back up and keep tackling our way out of tight corners, whilst maintaining the discipline that prevents us from compromise; taking short cuts, perhaps bending the rules slightly, taking the law into our own hands, not quite being truthful in relationships - building the potential penalty count against our credibility.

Knowing how, when and what to tackle and having the commitment and discipline to work through issues could be the difference between conceding or regaining ground. 

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Holding things together

Binding is the essential connection of two or more players in a rugby union game for the purpose of adding weight, momentum or drive in a set play. How we connect to each other and hold things together, can be the difference between winning and just falling short.

The most critical use of binding - locking onto another player - is in the scrum. The scrum is one of the ways of resetting play following an infringement. The eight forwards from each team lock together to create a single unit and vie for the ball, which is fed into the scrum between the two sets of players. The combined power of 8 players pushing in one direction can be impressive - however, there are times when the scrum breaks up or collapses, which is unsightly and potentially very dangerous from a player safety perspective.
There are very specific rules about binding in the scrum, which if breached aside from the safety angle will result in players being penalised, possession being lost and the potential for points to be conceded.

Inevitably in a highly charged competitive environment, teams and players will seek to gain advantage and will push the boundaries. The scrum is no exception, particularly in the front row - which is front line contact with the opposition. Often described as a dark art, serious scrummagers will try to turn, twist or bore into their opponents to gain advantage. Turning an opponents arm under his shoulder will result in an incorrect pushing position and could force him upwards or misdirect the shove coming from behind him. At its worse, players will twist a player down until the scrum collapses - this is both illegal and extremely dangerous. But enough of the negative aspects. Its fair to say that there are those that would try to undermine - but usually, it's because the fear being out-scrummaged and out-played.

By contrast, with the correct binding, the integrity of the scrum is retained as a unit and....if you bind together,  you stay together, you work together and you gain ground together.

Binding is also very important to the formation of a maul. That is when a player is held up in a tackle and is unable to go to ground. Other players moving into the play from an onside position may bind onto their player or players to gain momentum and drive the play forward.

So, binding together with another player:
  • creates the basis of a team play
  • ensures you are actually in play and in the game
  • puts you at the heart of the game rather than the fringes
  • ensures you're not isolated in an exposed position
  • adds momentum to a set play
  • adds momentum that can drive play forward
  • creates an opportunity to cross the gain line and take ground
Quite a list from simply connecting onto another player properly and for a purpose.

The bible has several insights into the way we connect with others for purpose. It records simply: two are better than one. Who wouldn't concede that battling through on your own can be a lonely place sometimes. Paraphrasing the man's man Jesus Christ, he invited his followers to "bind yourself onto me and learn from my strategic approach to life - when you link to my strength and experience, its not all about the hard life syndrome, we can make it together". Paul, the great thinker, writer and follower of the man's man added that unity of approach to a task, service or living out life itself would ensure completion with purpose and momentum if we could bind together, (just like the scrum), with the bonds of peace or one mind.

Binding together is the connection that drives momentum in teams, relationships, businesses and in the service of others. It's the basis of team work that takes ground and makes things happen. It seems such a simple thing to talk about in the context of a game - how you are connected to another player - but where it becomes second nature, it can be the basis of victory. How and who are we connecting to?

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The Pig Run

Every year was the same. The coaches waited until rain had been falling for days. Then they announced it. We assembled at the foot of a very steep hill for the annual cross country "pig run". The course climbed a very steep track, made a tour of the farm, passed through woodland, emerging back onto the hill close to the start/finish line.The heavy rainfall, combined with what pigs do naturally, made for an interesting running surface. Uphill and running in muck wasn't everyone's idea of a coaching charm offensive. For the most part, the lads tried to edge their way round the worse parts, trying to avoid being splattered with it. But the more they tried to inch their way around and stay clean, the more their feet and ankles sank into what they were trying to avoid!

Several years earlier, a few of us had decided the best plan was to simply attack the course. Pressing on  through the slime ridden reaches of the course, would also mean we could head back to the showers before the hot water ran out! We didn't quite go as far as embracing the grime, but we accepted that to complete the course, we just had to get on with it. So, setting off in a dash, we sprinted the hill, making it to the top as our lungs burned with the strain. Then, confronted with tractor ruts rammed with mud, we had to push hard to make headway through the muck. We rounded the top of the course with our chests pounding. The return journey was relief. On the way back, plastered in the muck we were running through, we just plowed on through the slime pools, splattering the lads still edging their way past the pig pens.

I usually ran it with a good friend. There was no conversation. We knew what we had to do, encouraging each other only with our sheer exertion. When we exchanged the muck of those ruts for the mud and the rucks, equally, without a word said, I knew he was always there backing me up, following up at my shoulder, ready to drive play on. There wasn't much on the field of play we were unprepared for - the ferocity of the opposition, the physical demands or the conditions. The pig run saw to that! I guess we made a mental breakthrough when we decided to press on through the muck instead of trying to avoid it.

I often wondered at the time, why they made us do the pig run every year. Couldn't we run around the rugby pitches or through dry fields and taking in a few hills - like any normal team might? But looking back at the pig run and laugh at the sheer madness of running through pig muck, I realize what it did for us - and it wasn't just on the rugby pitch. I discovered an important principle through being asked to face the pig run. How we respond to adversity so often determines what happens next. I wonder now what we would have done if they'd asked us to lift power weights, or do sprints, or press ups? Ego played a big part back then, just like it always does when young men get together. But the pig run was a leveler. It forced each of us to make a decision every time we ran it. Which route would we take? The route of least resistance or face head on something that at surface level seems humiliating? Eventually, the few, reached the point where we ran together far ahead of the pack, crossing the finish line together - arms linked, so they couldn't separate us. We were all winners. Nobody was going to divide us.

An insight from the bible has been a great help to me as I've had to face up to challenges along my journey. There is an account of a military leader called Naaman. He had accomplished many things for his country. He had faced conflict and he had prevailed. However, despite his strength and ability on the field, he carried the burden of an excruciating skin condition. It really troubled him. A young girl from his household staff, seeing his pain, very courageously talked to him about her God and his concern for this man. Naaman admired the girl's spirit and decided to investigate the possibility of finding relief from his condition. He traveled a great distance to visit one of God's men she had said could help him. On arrival he was told by the man's servant to go wash in a particular river. That was it. No special test? No ceremony? Nothing spectacular?

His offence and anger was immediate. Despite his obvious need, in his offence at being asked to do something mundane, in filthy water, he decided to walk away. A member of his staff realizing the significance of what he was walking away from spoke up. "Sir if they had asked you to do something spectacular, or shown your strength or fighting spirit - you would have done it wouldn't you? So why not do something so simple?" The commander changed his mind. He stepped into the water. What was a test of his faith and his response, led to the breakthrough he needed. He came out of the river clear of his complaint and I suspect a better man for the discovery he made. 

It's not in self serving routines that inflate our egos that breakthrough is found. It's often in very different conditions. He faced a choice, just like ours in the "pig run" - to press through or walk away. Which route will you take today?

Friday, 15 June 2012

Pick & Go

Sometimes we need to be deliberate in our actions. Simply responding to situations as they arise will inevitably put us on the back foot. Sure, there are times when we need to react as sudden or unforeseen events occur. But equally, there are times when we have to decide - it's down to us. It's now. We have to take a step forward.

In rugby union there is a play which is aptly named the "pick and go". Quite literally a player picks up the ball and goes forward. There are some key points to consider about this move. A player making the move has to:

  • have the vision to spot a gap or a space to move in to
  • accept that he is creating an opportunity for others to exploit
  • have the courage to go knowing he will ultimately meet resistance
  • go with the conviction that his movement will create a momentum which others can add their weight to
Usually pick and go is put into effect at the base of a ruck or a maul - that is a phase of play that has involved    direct engagement with the opposition, in which energy has been expended to recover the ball and often where forward momentum has been lost. Frequently, at these points in a game, or in our life experience, business activity or in serving other people, an injection of pace or energy is required to regain momentum.

The pick and go can be used to exploit the space around the side of a ruck or to attack the space left by retreating defenders. Unlike many moves in rugby union, where the ball has to first travel backwards before attacking the gain line, this play, is a "go forward" move. Its a direct attack on the gain line. (That is the point beyond which you gain ground on the opposition or competition). When played to its full effect, other attacking players are able to bind (hold) onto the advancing player, adding their individual weight to the momentum, driving the opposition back beyond the gain line. Now that would be a great way to regain the initiative in all areas or walks of life wouldn't it? - knowing that if you were to make the slightest move forward, others would join in support, adding weight to your purpose, initiative or vision.

The bible has an interesting insight into the mindset of a young fighter and his assistant. They had watched the inept attempts by those professionally qualified to repel the relentless attacks against the freedom and well being of the people. Their possessions, family life, businesses were being destroyed and their moral was being undermined. Even though today, we may not be facing such physical challenges, life can be pretty relentless in its demands. we can often feel drained by an unending daily cycle that can easily wear us down and halt any momentum we may have had. 

Together they decided to take action. Their mindset was "if we make a move, we might get some assistance, but if we don't we're going for it anyway" - help did show up - God helped them. Then, when others saw the momentum these "game changers" had started, they joined in and the result as they say is history - a famous victory. They essentially had a "pick and go" spirit!

Now, not everything we encounter in life requires a fighting response. But our life experiences, business ventures and even our close relationships often require initiators to make things happen. Initiative, like the pick and go move, can take us beyond the routine or ordinary. It's worth noting that often, those who initiate something are not always those that finish off a move. But it's equally worth noting that finishers can only operate if someone has been a first mover. Sometimes an initiator can make the break and run all the way to the line, scoring the points themselves. But invariably, they have to be prepared to pass, offload or go to ground and reset the play. The job is to be aware of the need for a momentum shift and be ready to initiate that shift. 

A pick and go can work from any point on the pitch, where someone has the courage to step up, pick up and press on. What challenges are you facing? Do you need to kick start something in your life, family or businesses? A first mover, initiator - a pick and go expert could be what's needed. But are we prepared to be the one who spots the gap, picks up and goes for it? If we do, who knows where help will come from? If we make a move, God is never very far away.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

The Close Season - finding rest

Recently, I was struck with just how short the time is between the end of one sports season and the start of the next. Modern sportsmen and women seem to be constantly competing, conditioning or carrying injuries! The intensity of top level sport requires year round preparation. Competing as a hurdler, my eldest son had the added complication of preparing for an indoor and outdoor athletics season. Logistically very interesting and physically and emotionally demanding.

Investigating further, I discovered that three days after the grand final of the championship in which my own rugby club had competed, the lads were back in for pre-season. Admittedly our season was over a few weeks prior to the grand final, but I think you get the picture. Even if there are longer periods between actual seasons, there are other competing demands such as tours or international call ups. Its a tough environment in which to stay at the top of your game, the demands seem unrelenting. I guess life itself can seem pretty unremitting at times too.

Rest and recuperation are essential ingredients in ensuring a return to the physical demands of competition. But with training and conditioning environments frequently as vigorous as competing, its often very difficult to find time to fully rest. One of my great coaching mentors used to tell us "you have to be fit to train" and he was right! Progressing through a grueling regime and then breaking into the competitive season often left us as mentally tired as we were physically. You can travel so far on your internal energy reserves and then they become depleted. You can equally travel on the adrenaline rush of the highs and lows of wining and losing. But eventually, you will need rest. I guess I am not alone in needing the first week of a holiday to simply come down from the stratosphere, through the atmosphere and back down to earth. There's always a slump too. I noticed it  in my family at the end of terms in education or the end of a particular project phase in work. Finding rest is important. Finding rest for your mind is essentially - although not always as simple as it sounds.

Scientists and doctors tell us there are different types of stress. Some forms of stress fire us to activity and are linked with the positive aspects of motivation and momentum. Other forms are destructive.When stress levels are very high and persist for prolonged periods of time, serious physical, emotional and mental damage can be set in train. Finding rest for our mind is essential. My wife recently told me to take a day off and just go do something that I enjoyed. I spent the day drinking coffee at a favorite cafe, getting a haircut and going to watch a rugby 7s tournament. It was strange actually taking a day off just for me. But she was right. It worked. As I sat drinking coffee and writing, it dawned on me, I felt relaxed. In the relaxation came refreshing. I went home happier, more relaxed and with more of a focus on our relationship.

Back in the day, our close season involved switching from rugby to athletics or cricket. I suppose the old adage is true, a change is as good as a rest. But there is a sense in which a real rest is better than a change. The man's man Jesus Christ understood the need for space and mental recuperation. He would often withdraw to a solitary place. Not to become introverted, or to brood over the public adversity he often faced. Nor to find relief from the continuous pressure brought by handling crowds of needy people. He would get away to recharge and rest his mind and pray. As a man of faith, I have discovered that prayer is a great stress reliever and a way of rediscovering and refreshing that faith.

The man's man Jesus recognized the importance of rest. At one the most pressured times, when his team couldn't even find time to eat, he insisted they come away to a solitary location to get some rest. His invitation is still valid today: "if you're feeling weary or weighed down by the load of responsibility or the weight of life in all its complexity is getting to you - come to me and find rest. Rest for the "you" that nobody else sees (rest for your soul). Scientists and medics, therapists and counselling experts tell us that articulating how we feel carries great value - not an easy one for men, but who better than the man's man to confide in as a man. There is a rest that refreshes and aids recuperation - its a simple conversation away with a man who men can trust.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The Power of a Shout

Have you ever stood in a wide open space, thrown your head back and just shouted for all you're worth? If you haven't tried it, go ahead. It's really invigorating. On a deserted New Zealand beach, facing the crashing breakers and looking out across the blue green expanse of the ocean, I stood with my arms outstretched and yelled "Freedom" - holding on the end of the word as long as I could, in true "Braveheart" fashion. Now stay with me on this, as far from advocating something crazy, or doing something that would disturb the peace or cause offence, there is an interesting dynamic attached to a "shout".

Something happens physically, emotionally and mentally when you give a shout. It's even better if there's a group of people all shouting the same thing. In a crowd, it can become electrifying. Sports teams frequently remark on the lift the crowd can give them.

In sport there are some great examples of "a shout". None more so than the "Haka" in rugby union. A feature of many of the Pacific Island teams, but probably best know as the pre-match challenge thrown out to opponents of the New Zealand All Blacks. 15 men standing in formation, facing their opponents, issuing a challenge with the menace and foreboding of the onslaught which is to follow.

England World Cup winner Will Greenwood writing for the Daily Telegraph and in his book "Will Greenwood on Rugby"(1)  tells of his personal experience ..."stare into the eyes of an All Black during the haka and you see a deep cold darkness. What you glimpse is a man's soul and it draws you in...the crowd disappears and your mind fills with the deafening voice of a nation asking you a simple question; these boys will do whatever it takes to win, how far will you go? that moment no matter how you got there, you have to decide..." Powerful stuff.

I like the underlying theme in what Greenwood says. In the challenge of the shout, you see a man's soul. In other words, something of the real man is seen through the shout. I guess that is true of the negative aspects of "shouting" - you see the real man for sure. But, there is a gulf between shouting and a shout. Between a rant and a shout. Between a voice raised in anger and a shout projected from deep within the soul of a man.

Scientists tell us that there is a physiological response when we shout - neurotransmitters in our brains are triggered and chemicals released through the pathways in our brain prepare us physically and mentally for challenge or engagement. It's not just science that has something to say. As a man with a faith, the bible has something to say about the power of a shout. It cites so many times the shout that armies raised before conflict. It also details another fascinating instance - "shouts of joy and victory echo through the tents of those who know God". In other words, these men understood the were winners in life and could raise a shout that was an affirmation of what they knew inside. They could also simply raise a shout, because like my experience standing on that New Zealand beach, it simply made you feel great - that is the "joy" part. Celebrating life, something coming from deep inside of you that wants to say "Yes!!"

Before a game, we would stand in a huddle and begin to jog on the spot. We would build it up to a run, then in unison, we would shout, counting off the numbers from 1 to 10. We would repeat the exercise and then run out onto the field ready to engage. My son's team gather in a similar huddle, a different generation, but linked arms they shout "1,2,3, squeeze, 1,2,3,squeeze" as they press into the huddle. Then they're off to engage.

Back to my beach experience. Did anyone hear me? I don't know. Was I drowned out by the sound of the waves? Probably. So why did I do it? Because at that moment, in those circumstances, like the guys back when the sound echoed through their tents, something from deep inside of me wanted to break out and celebrate and accept the challenge of life head on. Try it for yourself. There is an incredible release in the power of a shout.

(1) Will Greenwood on Rugby (Simon & Schuster 2012) ISBN 978-1-84983-715-6

Friday, 18 May 2012

The art of the sidestep

I have actually sidestepped an international rugby player and it wasn't in a dream. Are you impressed? I was.
Regrettably, it wasn't in my time as a player. Throwing a ball around between dads, lads and a friend who is said player, I took my chance.

I took a neat running line. The angle of attack (not bad for an old forward) was good. He moved in for the tackle. I ran straight at him. Then, almost at the last moment before contact, I planted my left foot firmly out to his right side as if shifting my direction. Then, with the sweetest of movements, I pushed off my planted foot in the opposition direction (his left) and zipped past him on my original line of attack. Side stepped him!

It gets better and more elaborate each time I repeat the story. As I touched the ball down, my imagination created the winning try for the British Lions against the All Blacks at Eden Park. Then through the stunned silence of the Kiwi faithful, "not bad for an old man" rang out around the famous old stadium. Not bad for an old man! That brought me back to earth and the reality of the rough patch of ground where we were playing Still, I'm allowed to relive it from time to time.

The thing is, the sidestep isn't seen as often as it used to be. When executed by the skillful runner, outwitting the attacker, the sidestep looks like an art form. Modern coaching techniques and running through phases, eliminating risk and retaining possession have probably all added to the sidestep being surpassed as a means of not just beating, but outwitting the opposition. If you operate the sidestep every time you approach a line breaking opportunity, you are going to be read as a player - unless of course your opponents cognitive abilities are sparse... But used to its full effect, the sidestep still has that "element of surprise" and psychologically sends a signal to the outsmarted player "I've got the measure of you". You were about to ask me a very physical question but I'm not prepared to answer the question you are asking me. Instead here is a question for you to answer "how come I outsmarted you?"

Have you ever been in a situation where you have been asked a question that you feel has overstepped a line? Or a question that is being asked for a motive other than seeking the obvious answer to the question? There are times when being asked a question doesn't warrant or deserve an answer. Simply because someone asks a question - doesn't mean you are required to give an answer, particularly if the motivation, like a would be tackler, is to stop your progress, upset your momentum and rob you of what you are carrying.

What we carry in life is an essential part of the "who" we are. Our core beliefs, our dreams our aspirations, our experiences, our memories. Regardless of whichever sphere of life we look at; family, faith, sport, leisure, business - our core values shape who we are becoming. They are of course shaped and "tempered" (bashed like steel) by our experiences. Not all beating is beneficial and its part of our life's mission to safeguard what we carry.

I think the man's man Jesus Christ would have made a great rugby player. He developed the sidestep into an art form - used against those who were out to rob, disrupt or discredit what he was carrying. Now before I go further, I'm not talking about the squirming mess that is the modern politician, who tries to worm his way out of answering questions or avoiding the issue. No. The man's man demonstrated the pinnacle of self control, not rising to the malignancy underlying the motives of many of his questioners, including the "wrecker of humanity" - always there to rob, steal, kill or destroy -  the enemy tried to knock Jesus off course with bogus questions that were aimed at derailing his purpose. His response? The sidestep that illustrated brilliantly how to avoid being sucked into answering the wrong question and posed the right question back to his tempter.

As men we need to develop the awareness and perception in life scenarios that allows us to sidestep the potential for derailment. Sidestep wrongly motivated questions. Sidestep inappropriate relationships. Sidestep the compromise that ultimately requires cover up upon cover up and eventually collapses in shame. Its not always about brute force and bashing away through life, relationships, business or church - sometimes, with a sense of timing, skill, agility on the move and above all an awareness of the intent of the opposition, the sidestep is the best tactical play.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Everyone Needs a Carrier

In 80 minutes with 29 other players on the rugby field, how often do you actually get your hands on the ball? Once you've got the ball can you make any forward progress? If you assume possession is split 50/50 - not always the case, you have 40 minutes to make an impression, whilst 15 other very determined people try to stop you.

Recently I came across some statistics from the 2012 6 Nations Rugby Tournament. One stat that stood out from the others was the Top 10 Ball Carriers. At this point a definition would be useful and I am grateful to Opta Sport ( for the following: "...a player touching the ball has deemed to make a carry if they have made an obvious attempt to go forward and attack the opposition with the ball in hand"...

Now I like the sound of that - a carrier is someone who makes a conscious decision to engage with the opposition to make progress by overcoming their resistance. That's what marks out a carrier. A willingness to take possession and advance, knowing there will be resistance, but going ahead anyway.

The stats showed there were players who made more than 50 and up to 60 carries across the games they played in. The top carriers had their hands on the ball and were advancing against the opposition something like 13 or 14 times in every game. Wow. Assuming 50% of possession - that's a personal, physical encounter every 3 minutes when your team is in possession - now that's a lot as there are 14 other players on your team. Allowing for setting scrums, lineouts, penalty kicks, all counting the clock down, ball carriers become pivotal players when you have the ball.

One team had 5 players in the top 10 and accounted for something like 240 carries. It's clear that these are the "go to" players when you want to make progress. Of course 5 players cannot win a game on their own, but these 5 certainly influenced the results and made game changing contributions.

So why focus on ball carriers? They epitomise "taking the game" to the opposition and gaining ground.The have the following characteristics:
  • they have courage and are committed - to step up to the task and engage
  • they have to have strength and skill - to make a break and keep the ball alive
and they need two other things without which they cannot succeed - supply and support. Without a good supply of ball or the support of other players, the strength of these power house, game changers will wane as they fight on unassisted.

They need to be supplied with the ball and the support of their team mates once they have created the momentum the team was looking for.  Every team needs carriers. In fact, every relationship, family, team, business and church or other organisation needs carriers - the "go to" people who can make things happen. The problem is they are in short supply. 5 men across 80 minutes assisted by their 10 team mates can make a difference, but they may not always win the game. In the 24hour, 365 day tussle we call life, carriers are in even shorter supply.

The bible has an interesting insight into carriers or "go to" people. There is an account of the various groups of men that made up an army that had been assembled for a campaign. In amongst the fighting men was a small but very special group of warriors - they were described as men who "understood the times and knew what to do" - they were the "go to" people, the equivalent of our ball carriers. They were part of a much bigger force, but their perception of what was going on around them and their accumulated life wisdom and insight marked them out. Knowing what to do when others don't know what to do makes you a "go to" person. Having an appreciation of what is taking place when others are ignorant of circumstances or are being swept helplessly along by life's pressures marks you out as a "go to" person. These men were and still are in short supply, but are needed more so than ever.

A ball carrier is marked out because he makes a decision to step forward and engage. Being prepared to step up and be counted has a price tag attached. It will mean exposure to contact and a willingness to take the knocks. But without carriers - "those who understand the times and know what to do", in order to gain momentum and take ground, unlocking otherwise closed off routes for advancing - teams, families, relationships, businesses, churches and society at large will make little progress. Everyone needs a ball carrier at some point, but are we prepared to be the carriers that are in short supply? Understanding the times and knowing what to do requires commitment and courage, strength and skill - but if we will step up to the mark, there will be suppliers and supporters backing up. The need is for carriers...

Friday, 4 May 2012

Elbows, margins and the Police

They were big. They were strong. They were brutal in the contact area and tackle. They were the police. Every player stood over 6feet tall. The match had "physical pounding" written all over it. Yet, somehow, we managed to scrap for enough ball to scramble a win. To this day I still look back and wonder how we did it. The force came at us with force and we used the only advantage we had - speed, to out run them. However, it came with a price tag. It wasn't easy. It wasn't pretty. Those of us who had to win enough ball for our fast players to out run them, paid the price phsyically.

I remember jumping for a ball in the lineout, to be met with a well placed elbow to the face. I came down with the ball and a busted lip. Everywhere we met contact across the pitch our casualties were mounting. But there, at the margins of the game, where we were being out muscled, where taking the contact was as much a mental challenge as a physical challenge - because you knew what was coming - that is where the game was won. To be fair to the police team, after the game they were great but on that pitch, on that day, we knew we had been in a fight.

Sometimes we look for the spectacular. Sometimes we look for the easier route, the one with least resistance. But often in the sports arena and in life too, things are won and lost at the margins. We dont like to think of a narrow escape or only just making it. But, only just making it is better than not making it and a win is a win however you measure it.

The Olympic 100m crown will be won by margins measured in tenths or even hundredths of a second. In Formula One motor racing, after driving nearly 60 laps at an average speed of around 195kph (and that equates to a very long way) the winning margin is measured in seconds or even parts of a second.

Just because the margin of victory is so small compared to the effort required to win doesn't mean the Olypic runner or the F1 driver are any lesser champions. In fact, its very often by the narrowest of margins that the greatest of champions emerge. Why? Because they have prevailed over strong opposition. They dont quit or back down when the going gets tough. Quitting is an option and there are times when we have to consider other options, but when a breakthrough is so close, when it is what is needed to safeguard the things that are of true worth - friendship, intimate relationships, destiny shaping connections - is quitting that great an option?

Jesus the man's man operated at the margins. He was there at the margins of society where the bereft of hope sat at home weeping for a lost loved one or wayward son. He walked the market places where honest hard working people struggle to make ends meet. He was there in the dusty back streets where the women carried they young and the kids played in the dirt. He was there with the people that society had labelled as marginal - who just like any one else simply needed a break. And he is still there. Standing somewhere in the shadows - you will find Jesus. He's there to say press on, don't give in, dont give up. If we look for him, he's there. His greatest victory, the cross, was truly at the margins of human existance - but he didnt quit, he prevailed.

Sometimes life is won and lost at the margins. Some days we just make it. Better to just make it than to slip away without a fight. We didnt quit against the police. We battled on through the physical pounding to record a famous victory. The call from the man's man standing in the shadows is to press on, dont give up. What are we battling against today? Take a glance toward the margins, toward the shadows. That could just be where your breakthrough will come from.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Inglorious Moments

Come on, we've all had them. Something snaps inside and boom! I can remember very clearly one of my most "inglorious moments" in a rugby match. I was totally destroying the opposition number 6 beating him to every breakdown, tackling him when he was in possession and stripping the ball from him. I was having a great game. But I now only remember it for my "moment". The lad didn't like the fact that I was outplaying him. So using some very strong language, he said "if you do that again mate, I'll have you"....Crack! Wrong thing to say to me.

It was like someone had pressed a very big red button marked "how dare you accuse me!" Alarm bells, steam hooters, emergency buzzers and fog horns were sounding in my head. I said back to him "yeah? any day!" Well I thought I had said it. In fact, right in his face, I had shouted it so fiercely, the teams playing field hockey on a nearby pitch heard me and stopped to watch the action. I didn't think to stop and analyse what would happen next. It involved my fist and his face.

Since then I've done plenty of other things that I'm not proud of, using self defence or self preservation or anything as an excuse. All of them if I'm honest, inglorious moments. Off the field, my mind and my mouth have had their fair share of inglorious moments too. I doubt if I'm alone.

I know its no excuse, and we try to rationalize it, but in adrenaline fueled scenarios, where we are challenged by tiredness, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually and events are moving at pace we can so easily:

  • make a wrong assumption about the motivation behind an action
  • retaliate if we are provoked - some people seem to know which big red button works
  • feel aggrieved at a decision that goes against us
  • feel falsely accused - oh boy do I know my rights
  • feel manipulated, undermined or used
  • totally lose all sense of objectivity
  • seek out revenge - I "will" get my own back
  • lose control and let a wild outburst or stupid action take over
Particularly as men, we can feel our competence or sense of masculinity has been challenged or questioned. Our judgement gets clouded and we become irrational and stop thinking clearly. Another classic response is to depersonalise or project blame away from ourselves. Our language becomes; "the" passage or play, "the" relationship, "the" bills, "the" marriage, "the" kids. The reality is it's my marriage, my relationship, my kid, my job and of course its my attitude. Actions have consequences - in a game, we can be sin binned, sent off or even reported to a citing commissioner. Off the field emotional wreckage hurts. Relationships can be damaged irreparably.

Being able to take an objective view and beginning to understand that my actions, attitudes and adrenaline fueled reactions have consequences is a good starting point to reducing the frequency of my inglorious moments. Over a long time of making mistakes, I have discovered that who I am privately tends to come out when I am under pressure. So, the more I work on the who I am and who I am becoming, when the pressure situation arises, my personal intensity and stress levels don't rise with it. Most of my inglorious moments have come when I haven't stopped to think. The reality is, even in the split second, we have a choice to make. Make no mistake, sometimes those choices are not easy to make, even though they are the right ones.

Rudyard Kipling put it this way "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you but make allowance for their doubting'll be a man my son".  The bible has a succinct way of expressing the same thought "a prudent man gives thought to his steps" - in other words, before you start down a particular road - think about where its going to lead to. It isn't weakness to take a step back and disengage with the inclination to raise a voice or a fist. Sure there are times when someone with passion has to speak out against injustice, but here we are dealing with the destructive side of personal volatility.

There is an interesting contrast in the bible account of a mob that descended on the man's man Jesus. He had been falsely accused. He had been betrayed by someone close to him. When the mob approached him to take him down, Peter one of those with Jesus, pulled out a weapon and injured a man before he was stopped from causing further damage. Sudden uncontrolled rage. By contrast, Jesus simply said "I am the one your looking for". Peter's response to the mob was anger and the mob's response to him was the same. Jesus' response was calmness under pressure. The mob's response was to literally fall back - the sheer presence of this man, his personal strength of character and integrity produced a reaction in them. We know he was arrested and tried in what was humanities own inglorious moment. But the ultimate victory was his because he showed by the choices he made under immense pressure who he truly was. I know what my reaction to the mob would have been - inglorious. But now, I am finally learning that I have a choice. And as I make that choice, I am no less of a man. In fact I become more of a man.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Affirmation through testing...

As very young rugby players, we were easily impressed when our points tally read like a cricket score. Our individual points totals increased and the battle for the forward or back with most tries scored was more of a motivator than sticking to the game plan. Today, with try and losing bonus points, heavy scoring will certainly add value to respective league tallies. But the reality is, huge scores against very weak opposition, prove very little and probably tell us no more than we already were aware of. Aside from risking a few  more training ground moves, there is little to be learned from thrashing the opposition.

No matter what we may say outwardly, after a convincingly and easy win, deep down everyone wants to be tested and tested against the best. Sure no one wants to be on the end of a thrashing, but the tougher the opposition, the more seems to be drawn out of stronger players. The testing ground is also the proving ground. Can we step up a level? Have we got what it takes? It was tougher to beat the rugby teams drawn from police forces or the mining and steel communities or the armed forces, but when we won, man, it felt good!

As my own sons have got older, I have smiled to myself as I've watched them look to test themselves against "the old man". With one it was sprinting and hurdling. A test of speed. There was a time when I could keep up. It didn't last for long as it soon became apparent that he was going to excel. The best I could do was act as work out fodder, watch him fly and press the stopwatch! I actually ran a 400m hurdle race once at the same athletics meet, to prove I was in the zone - I completed the race, but from that point it on I learned the hard way, it was all about him not me!

With the other son, its all about mock rugby scrummaging technique. Getting lower than me and driving me backwards. A test of strength. Its also about throwing passes to me that land not in may hands but my midriff. Its all about finding a level. Wanting the test. Wanting to know if they can make it. Wanting to know if they have what it takes. And you know....that's ok and that's right and they should be allowed the space to do that - so long as it comes from the desire for growth and finding their place. As dads, brothers, friends, coaches we have a massive responsibility to recognise what's taking place and react in the right way. Its not about me taking offence, its about the importance of their challenge. Its about helping release guys to be who they can be. That's what the best coaches and leaders model. Its not about putting them down or forcing them to be something they are never going to be. I've learned over time, for our sons and for our daughters its about the power of affirmation.

Affirmation is important however young or old we are. The real key to success is in the who we are becoming not in the what we are doing.

I've seen too many great relationships dragged down by the pressure to perform and live up to something unattainable. The testing, the trial isn't about us doing something to be accepted. That would be self defeating as sometimes we win, sometimes we don't. But the trial the testing is more about us finding out what we are made of. Who we are. Without the trial without the testing we wont know what we are capable of.

God understands the way men work. So many people miss-read him. He doesn't want men to perform to be accepted. If that was the case, I guess like me, you'd concede, we mess up quite a lot of the time. He wants us to succeed as men and in the same way that we make room for the young guns to come through, He understands the importance of showing us we are accepted through relationship as sons, not on personal form or performance. He equally understands the incredible power of affirmation. The bible has a brilliant illustration of this. Just at the point that the man's man Jesus Christ was emerging into his life's calling, before he had done anything openly - God said openly of him "this is my son and I am so impressed with the man he is".

Running out on to the pitch, knowing who you are, knowing you have the affirmation of your team mates, knowing you have what it takes is a great boost. The same is true in life. The challenge is, there is a generation that are pushing, pressing for the tests, the trials wanting affirmation. Lets not block them, lets help unlock them and their potential - I wonder what kind of a team we could make?

Saturday, 7 April 2012

I believe we can fly...

Some things can only be achieved by a leap of faith.......
Have you ever wondered how far you could go? How much you could achieve? I guess we could all confirm our aspirations and just as equally, we could recite our list of reasons for not climbing higher or stretching further. 

We seem to have a knack for settling - but don't you just sense there's more out there? There's more to be achieved, accomplished, lived out? You see, I believe we can fly...

In rugby union, there is a set piece play called a lineout. This play takes place if the ball has either been kicked or carried out of the field of play. The game restarts by the team in possession throwing the ball down a mid-line between two rows of players. Each side will have a series of coded calls designed to mask their intentions from the opposition. However, the primary purpose of a call is to engage a specific player - to get him off the ground, to get him moving, to let him know - this ball is yours.

I took this picture at a championship game and it so neatly sums up for me the essence of reaching further, climbing higher, being on the stretch for more. 

As a man of faith, I believe God wants every man to have purpose as a man and be a man with a purpose. In other words, for men to realize that they have intrinsic value in who they are and in discovering that, to use who they are for a cause - to meet a need, to provide, to help, to support, to add strength, to add weight. Who wouldn't want to be a better man, a better husband, son, brother or friend?

I love the drama of the photograph:
  • the player has jumped in response to a call 
  • he has the support of his team mates to lift him, to give him a boost, to take him higher
  • the ball is meant for him
  • if he takes it, the entire team benefits
  • does he catch it?
The crucial dynamic at work in taking possession of what is intended for him, is for the player to jump at the right time and take a hold of what's coming his way. Now that requires strength, courage and a sense of timing. I read recently that on average a ball will be caught something like 3m to 3.5m off the ground. That would place a players head something like 10 feet off the ground - now that's a long way to fall - but you know, if we take a risk, I believe we can fly...

Sure the player in the picture is under pressure:
  • he has to trust the call and the thrower
  • he will have the challenge of the opposition
  • he will have the expectation of his team mates
  • he will have the anticipation of the crowd and
  • he will have the watchful eye of the referee
But....unless he jumps, he may never catch the ball that was intended for him.
The great thinker and writer Paul wrote these wise words of guidance for men in the bible..."I want to get hold of what God has got a hold of me for"...Sure, there are many reasons for us staying on the ground, but what about allowing for the possibility that there may just be more? Paul is saying I know there is more and I want to take hold of it with both hands. I want to get to grips with the man I know God wants me to be.
That moment of being in the air, stretching upwards to take a hold of the ball is exhilarating, but you're going to come down pretty soon and that's exactly where we re-engage with the game - with the ball!!

There is a call that God has coded just for you. We have to trust that call and the thrower. Its a call to join a noble cause, a call to purpose, a call higher, to stretch further. Its like the ball that has your name on it. But how far could you go? How much could you achieve? If we are prepared to trust the call and take that leap: I believe we can fly....

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Men Need the Fight

Back in my playing days we were a mixed bunch of lads. Electricians, farmers, office workers, builders. But as soon as we pulled on the team shirt something happened. We became a team. The shirt is a great leveller. The cause is a great uniting force. There's something powerful when men unite for a common purpose. The physicality of the contact and the hits, the exertion in the scrum and driving mauls. The elation of making the tackle and turning over possession. The ecstasy or the agony at the final whistle - no matter the result we stood together. I have a feeling that whatever we did away for the game, we were better men for being part of something that required us to commit ourselves to others, to excel as individuals but acknowledge that it would take all 15 of us to prevail. We were better men having given something of ourselves to the fight. Men need the fight. But the fight needed men. Today I have to adjust to watching from fhe sidelines or coaching, but there is still enjoyment in the camaraderie and the banter on the touchline. But I still miss the hits, the physical tussles, making the tackles. Today it's a different fight. It's showing the way to the lads coming through, showing this generation the importance of the fight, how to engage as team,  how to excel firstly as men, then as players.  Men need the fight. The man's man Jesus Christ understands the importance and the longing of men to engage in the fight - he pulled together 12 guys from different backgrounds and set them on a course to change the world. He knew they would face tough opposition, criticism and open conflict. But there was a fight. The prize - the liberation of people contained by dead religion or the limitations of sad or inflicted circumstances or the cruelty of tyranny.  That early team were as different a bunch of lads as any rugby, soccer, baseball or football team, but they  were unified by the cause of "the" man.  Make no mistake, when they were asked to take up a cross and follow - they knew exactly what he was asking. But there is no gain without the fight. The great writer and follower of Christ, Paul, understood when he said to his young friend Timothy, fight the good fight of faith, lay hold of the life that really counts and will last beyond just our physical lifespan. He knew that men need the fight.  Men need the fight and perhaps as after the game, we may just be better men for engaging with the cause - better husbands, better fathers, sons, brothers, better friends. Better men. Men need the fight and....the fight needs men.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

How did I end up here?

Have you ever stopped and asked yourself "how did I end up here?"

Sometimes that thinking can be deliberate - that's reflection. Sometimes, we get a sense of something  and over time we see it - that's realization. Other times, it takes something or someone external to our situation to shed some light - that's revelation. However our question comes to us, its generated by an awareness of us either ending up somewhere we never thought we'd attain to, or being in a position we never intended to be in when we set out.

As men we are not good at reflection - we can have a tendency to get our heads down, engage in contact, thinking we are being courageous, but missing the bigger picture. In sport, its about scoring tries, making touchdowns, hitting home runs, shooting those hoops. In business its about, hitting those targets, making a margin that will produce a return. In serving others its about making a difference to them, not us. In relationships its about us, not me.

In rugby union, there is a move called "the rolling maul" - hey that sounds like life doesn't it? The move starts with a player in possession of the ball engaging in contact with an opposition player. Provided the player can stay on his feet, other players from each side can "bind" onto their respective players, trying to wrestle the ball away from the player in possession - the important thing is, if you enter into contact and a maul forms, you have to maintain forward momentum. Your team mates will try and drive you on and the opposition will try and drive you back.

It can be a very effect tactic, particularly if you have a physical advantage and can travel across the gain line. At other times, it can descend into a wrestling match that is going nowhere, other than sapping the strength of the combatants. Recent law changes have given players and referees some important guidance. Provided there is momentum, the move can continue. If the maul stops - the referee will reset the game and hand possession over to the opposition. Quite a responsibility for the team taking the ball into contact then? Quite often the better referees will let players know - sometimes, you will hear them shout "use it or lose it" - that's the point as a player stuck in the middle of a mass of players, with no chance of shipping the ball, you think to yourself "how did I end up here?".... the point being, when we committed to engaging in contact, our intention wasn't stalemate or conceding possession.

The man's man Jesus Christ, notes something about the way in which men start to engage and the effects different contexts have on us. He used an illustration about ground conditions. Seed sown by farmers lands on ground which may be experiencing different conditions. Some ground is rock hard and the seeds bounce off it and are picked off easily by predators. Its not much of a game if we can be picked off easily, especially if we think we are hard. Other conditions are shallow and the seed doesn't stand much chance of making it - how often we are shallow about things that are really important - especially relationships. At other times ground conditions can be thick with weeds that simply choke the life out of anything that starts to move - a bit like getting stopped in your tracks in a rolling maul. At other times, the ground is good and the results are great. Who would set out to be picked off or through being shallow lose something of worth? Or who sets out to have the life choked out of them? No one.

The offer of Jesus Christ is to help us as men to reflect on where we are right now, to see that there is a big picture that we are part of and to be there with us, driving us forward, being that great support to us, mentor, coach, life strength conditioner. Perhaps the best question we can ask ourselves as men, no matter how we arrive at it (through reflection, realization or through revelation) is "how did I end up here?" - perhaps that can be a starting point to regaining or refocusing on our part in a much bigger picture - how about it?

Friday, 16 March 2012

Line Speed & Keeping Shape

In sport, having a solid defence is a key element of building a strong team and creating a platform from which to launch attacks. There is little point in making great scores if the back door leaks away any advantage you've worked for. I guess that's true in life, business and in church scenarios. However, being overly defence minded can have a detrimental impact on the ability to think expansively and there, we must make sure our approach is a balanced one. Simply defending not to lose makes for a dull game. Life, business and faith without adventure is just marking time.

Recently, I was watching a 7 a side rugby tournament. It was fast and furious, with tries and tackles, pace and power. It was exciting stuff. The ability of teams to score was directly related to how the other team organised their defence and managed their line. One side in particular stood out. They were using their line of defence as a way of putting the team in possession of the ball on the back foot. The were forcing errors and turning over possession. How did they do it? Line speed and keeping their shape.

Rugby is a sport in which to advance, the ball has to initially travel backwards - this is true of an individual pass (it cant go forward) and from a set piece such as a lineout or a scrum. The ball travels backwards from the line of play and only when it has crossed its starting position has a team crossed the "gain line".

A cleverly organised defence, who are quick off the mark, can attack the space between and effectively force the other team backwards. This can be used to repel an attack and to take back lost ground, even though the "defending" team do not have possession. When line speed is combined with keeping the defensive shape, would be attackers have no gaps to exploit and have to play laterally (flat). That makes them an easier target to hit in a tackle. So, defending isn't negative or neutral. With shape and line speed, it can be a force for creating momentum and retaking possession.

Watching the team working together for each other was impressive. In fact, they were the team of the tournament, going on to become champions. There's something great, something noble about men standing together, with a common purpose, working as a team. There is a sense of camaraderie, being part of something bigger, a sense of achievement. There is good humour and a sense of we all stand or fall together. Working and striving together for a purpose can be the struggle, the trial, the crucible in which heroes are forged. A man without purpose is aimless. A man with purpose has a sense of identity and dignity.

The bible has some interesting observations about line speed and defensive shapes.

In times not dissimilar to today, a special envoy called Ezekiel noted that in his generation, when God was looking for men to stand up and be counted, no one could be found who would rise to the challenge of forming a defensive line for the sake of the vulnerable or those who had yet to reach their potential. There were gaps everywhere, breaches in the defensive line and the vulnerable were being preyed on by those who were exploiting the gaps. What an indictment.

Thankfully in other generations, the call was heeded. To each generation, God's call to men is the same. "Who will stand in the gap for the land?" Being a defender often means putting yourself on the line for the sake of another. Who wouldn't want the safe keeping of the vulnerable or to create the safety in which others can grow to fulfil their potential. But is doesn't just happen. The call is still the same in this generation - come on, "who will stand in the gap?" Who is prepared to work the line?

Friday, 2 March 2012

opting for the blind side

Open side or blind side? Contact or pass? Offload or go to ground? Cross field or down a direct channel? Pass or kick? Do you feel exhausted just reading those options? Most sports present players with a myriad of options at every point of play. Making very speedy assessments, evaluating the options and making a good choice are what marks the top players out from the crowd. In fact, making smart decisions is at the heart of how most things turn out.

One of the things young players take time to understand is, you've always got more time than you think you have. I guess if we looked at life in the same way, we'd probably conclude, we've made some rash decisions or leapt to a conclusion very quickly. If only we had time to consider the options.
So, why do many teams persist in playing down the blind side - put another way, why do teams look to play down a narrow channel rather than the much wider option presented by the open field of play? You see it often when there is a scrum or a lineout (throw in) - a team will set off down the narrowest part of the pitch. Why?

Here are three simple observations - the blind side:

a) its an attacking option in its own right - there is an element of surprise, especially when the defence are on the back foot, or they are spread across the open side. As an option you run the risk of taking more than a fair share of contact or being knocked into touch, but its attacking potential is great.

b) its a tactical play for widening out the open side even further - teams will continually go to the blind side and run the narrow strip of the field to draw defenders away from the open side and into contact, taking them out of the game - by releasing the ball quickly the potential for an open side attack can be siginficantly improved

c) its sometimes the only option available - when the defence is stacked against you, this may be the only option open. Sometimes, you've just got to commit to it and go, prepared for the impact.

Taking the obvious, wide open option is the route that many take.The bible has an interesting take on the blind side. Looking for and finding the narrower way is described by the man's man Jesus Christ as the way that leads to life. Who wouldn't want to follow a route that leads to life? Taking a different route certainly wouldn't be a smart choice.

Jesus Christ understands the narrow way, after all, its the route he followed. Yes he was a great teacher. Yes he was an outstanding person. Yes he did some outstanding things. But perhaps the most outstanding thing was when he stepped across to the narrow way, the blind side. In taking the blind side, he wrong footed his critics, opposition and the wrecker of humanity. It is recorded that the man's man put his reputation to one side, took up the role of service and in incredible humility took the full impact of our failings. His blind side, was a cross.

What a choice. But, just like a player going down the blind side draws the opposition defence, he opened up the field of play for us to make progress. That's impressive. Back to those sporting and life choices. We could simply roll with the crowd or we could look for a narrower way. The blind side. If we're prepared to find it, it leads to life - now that's stand out from the crowd stuff - but are we prepared to look for it?

Friday, 24 February 2012

When running through the phases isnt enough

Structure and process are important. There can be no denying that without form, or some kind of pattern, sport, business, church and life in general can degenerate into a collection of unrelated events or stilted movement. Process is important to ensure there is continuity and to take the focus off living for events or the spectacular and a continuous need to hit a high. Sometimes, we just have to keep on  with life. In sport, keeping the score board ticking along is important. In rugby for example, running patiently through the phases is key to making progress and securing possession. However, there are times when pressing "refresh" or introducing a shift or a change is essential to being a winner.

I was listening to a commentary from a rugby match recently and the summariser said "that's 35 phases, they have worked through, they simply can't break through this resolute defence". That set me thinking "either the defence was strong", or perhaps "the other side were totally bereft of ideas or didn't have players with the ability to see beyond a one dimensional model of play. Doing the same thing can be strength sapping and safe at the same time - you see, there is no risk attached to process.

Some of the most exciting games of rugby I have seen have been those in which an individual player or a team totally disrupt a standard pattern of play. They can see gaps that others cant see. They have a speed of thought and spatial awareness that can spot open spaces behind defenders. They have the perception to realise the norm isn't working and something else is needed. The line between success and failure is determined by the risks we are prepared to take on the field and sometimes in life.

Broken play is messy. There are risks attached to chipping a ball over someones head into space and trying to run through. There is the possibility that a forward getting into a line of slick passing backs could totally miss-time a pass and give away an interception. But its exciting. Especially when the alternative is 35 phases of grind and lateral movement. Lets not be too harsh on players with their heads down, engaged in their personal battles with their opposite numbers. After all, when you're in the thick of the action, it can be difficult to see the bigger picture, particularly if you are personally under pressure.

The bible records an incredible moment, when the man's man Jesus invites his friend Peter to climb over the side of the boat, defy convention, his own fears and the natural order of things and step onto water. Whatever your belief system, I guess like me you'd accept its a pretty spectacular or radical thing to ask a man to do. But then, that's what the man's man did and still does. He challenges the notion that simply running through the phases is enough. God knows, life can be pretty mundane and he equally knows how we respond to it. The challenge he offers us is to see it from a different perspective. To maybe take a risk on something different - after all, isn't that what faith is - taking a risk, a step into the unknown or unfamiliar?

If running through the phases isn't getting you anywhere near scoring the try or making that touch-down, or hitting that home run, you've been striving for or aiming at - how about you try stepping out over the side of the boat, take a risk, do something different - the neat thing about what Jesus asked Peter to do, was: it was no more than he was doing himself - that's what I like about the man's man. Are you happy running through the phases? What do you need to do differently? Listen for his voice above the sound of the wind and the waves, he may just be asking you to step out of the boat....

Friday, 10 February 2012

11 things playing the advantage gives you

Lets face it, being a referee can't be easy. Everyone has an opinion about every decision you make or about the ones they think you miss. Learning the law is one thing, applying and interpreting it is another level.

One area that allows a referee some discretion is - the law of "advantage". Summing it up, a referee can allow play to continue after an offence has occurred, if, in his opinion, he thinks you would be disadvantaged by stopping the game. In rugby, there is no time limit, the referee is the sole judge of when any advantage has expired or, if in his view, no advantage is gained, he can stop the game and reset by awarding a penalty.

As a player, the advantage rule is great. At the very least, you know that the referee will stop the game if you can't make the most of the scope you've been given and award a penalty. At the other end of the scale, you're free to carry on unimpeded to perhaps try something you may not have taken a risk on, without the advantage.

I started to think about this in a playing context and also in a life context.

The bible has some really useful advice, when it tells us that the "man's man" Jesus Christ came to bring liberation - that is freedom from containment, freedom to find the true expression of life that was always intended for us to express. The advice is very simple and yet so often, we complicate it with stop start thinking - here it is: "it is for freedom that Christ has set us free".

Putting it simply, God has called "advantage", He wants us to carry on playing it out, without hinderance or being impeded. So many people think that God wants to keep whistle blowing - stop, starting, "you cant do this, you cant do that" - nothing could be further from the truth. He has signalled "advantage" and its game on!

Here are my 11 things that playing the advantage gives you. Read them first in the context of the game. When the referee signals advantage, he has made his intention clear; from that point, until he decides otherwise, he is looking out for you and for your benefit. Then, read them again, but this time, think about "the" highest authority looking out for your benefit...

When you know the referee has signalled advantage:
  • you can attempt something riskier or more creative
  • you can be more expansive in your play
  • you're not contained by the offence that's been committed against you
  • you are in control of the next phase of play, even if the current one breaks down
  • you don't have to resort to retaliation - that's been covered by a higher authority
  • someone has seen you were mistreated but can see the potential for you to keep going
  • you can keep going so long as the route is clear to do so or at least until this phase stops
  • you're not wasting your time or energy complaining about what has happened to you
  • you're making progress under direct authority that is on your side
  • where there's space to play, you can just keep going
  • the opportunity to complete what you were attempting is still on
Go on read them again. The next match you watch when the referee signals or shouts "advantage", remind yourself that if we chose to listen, God is calling "advantage" over our lives. Our challenge is to hear the call and play on to fully realise the opportunity he is signalling.