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, 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.