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

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

Thursday, 17 October 2013

The Inevitability of Impact

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 26 August 2013

preparing for a new season?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 15 July 2013

On being an honorary Fijian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 24 June 2013

Let me have a go at that!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 22 April 2013

When your game plan falls apart

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Singing for the Unsung Hero

In every team, in every club, in almost any organisation, there are always people who come to be known as "stalwarts". It's a bit of an ugly sounding word, but its meaning is far from ugly. A stalwart is someone who is loyal, particularly over a long period of time, and is able to be trusted. These are the people who can be counted on in terms of reliability and hard work. Often, they are the people who have been there the longest and have seen out the highs and the lows and remain resolute supporters. Others journey through a club, for example as emerging talent, flourishing around the club stalwarts, then move on to higher and greater things. These are the lads who donate their shirts to the club, framed and with a signature. To find the stalwarts, you often have to consult the club's record books.

I always like to have a look at the photographs in club houses as I've travelled to different grounds. I look for two groups of people. The stars who have emerged from humble beginnings and those who are the club record holders - those who feature in every team photograph over a prolonged period. They are the foundations around which teams and clubs are built. Often, they are the unsung heroes, known only to those who they have helped or supported, coached or mentored.

Every team needs stalwarts who are the central spine around which teams are built and around which the emerging talent flourishes.

Recently, I decided to have a look at the number of appearances some longstanding players had made for particular rugby clubs. Starting with my old club, I discovered that there was one stand out player who had made a staggering 571 appearances. That has to be some kind of record. Unless the team were desperate for players or unless he was the chairman and held the purse strings - there has to be no other reason than total consistency for a player to sustain a position in a team for that long. It is remarkable. A stalwart.

Yet the most remarkable thing about this particular player is, outside of the club and perhaps the immediate local community, nobody would recognise his name. Yet for me he is one of a band of stalwarts that are the unsung heroes of the sporting world. But we should celebrate the unsung hero. Without them, lack of continuity would undermine cohesion and eventually the culture.  In many large organisations, the movement of people across the business operates at pace and is seen as a way of hot-housing or fast tracking key people. With such rapid turnover, few stay around long enough to establish process and to carry the accountability that attaches to responsibility. Often, accountability is left to the stalwarts. Those people often seen as the overlooked or the plodders. These are the people who need to be celebrated.

The headline in a New York Times article at the turn of the last century said this "the unsung heroes of the engine room". The article went on to describe how the stokers and the engineers of a large, stricken passenger vessel kept the boilers at full capacity and the power supply on, whilst the vessel was engaged in a rescue mission. Eventually they capitulated to the power of the sea, but without them others would have perished. Unsung heroes. Stalwarts who could be counted on for their reliability and hard work. The great writer of much of the Bible's new testament, Paul observed in his letter to a group of people in a province called Galatia "if we don't become weary in doing good, not giving up or quitting, we will bring in a great crop just at the right time" - Paul was encouraging people to keep going, to be and to become the stalwarts in their community, in the group of people that were gathering. The same is true in family, in serving other people, in businesses and in churches.

Everyone is looking for success in whatever sphere they are operating. Without the unsung heroes, they may have success for a period, but the presence of stalwarts, those whose names may never be know or whose shirts are never framed and hung on the wall - is one of the key ingredients of moving from being a successful club, team, business, church to being one of significance. Stalwarts are the carriers. Not just of the ball up the middle of the park, but of the vision and the drive. Sure, look for the portraits, the photographs, the signed shirts and representative honours and lets celebrate, but lets also give a big shout out and have a song ready for the men who make 571 appearances.

Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Front Row Union

In which sport can you call someone a hooker without them taking offence? In which sport can you describe a man as being a loose head or a tight head? In which other sport does the weight and force of momentum generated by 16 men travel through the body and shoulders of 6 men locked together head to head?

In what has euphemistically been called the Front Row Union, prop forwards and hookers (the numbers 1, 2 and 3 in a rugby union team) are assigned to a unique band of men, who's task in life is to bring stability, strength and structure to set plays (scrummaging and lineouts) and who are expected to display courage, commitment and contact in open play (rucks, mauls, tackling).

Some consider the union to be a self-preservation society. A protective group for those who have been known to stray on the right side of the law occasionally. A safe haven for those practising the dark arts of worming, twisting, wheeling and boring, alongside the more conventional requirements of engaging, binding and driving. Some say the "union" is merely the creation of those who cannot comprehend these men mountains - weaker souls, who consign the front row to a corner of the training ground far from the self declared fleet of foot, who wear clean shorts and un-muddied jerseys. But with nick names like Raging Bull and the Beast who amongst us would argue a point?

Ask a cartoonist to draw a picture of a rugby player and almost without fail, they will sketch out a thick set, Neanderthal looking specimen. Said Neanderthal would be sporting mishapen ears and/or nose, possibly accompanied by facial scars and invariably a large overhanging stomach. Away from the enlightened, perception is king. In previous decades, in which there was a healthy ignorance of the techniques employed by the members of the front row union, a young player would often be consigned to the front row if his shape looked odd alongside those who could pass out of both hands or sidestep. You became a prop if you were on the slightly large side and slow.  You were a hooker if you were half decent at throwing in straight or if there were too many flankers.

However, with rule changes that have been introduced to make the scrum a place of relative safety and that have for many years permitted the lifting of lineout jumpers - the shape and pace of the modern front row forward has evolved, far from the cartoonists image. In the modern game, front row forwards have to be athletes, whose strength and stamina are unquestionable and who provide both the stability to secure possession and the prowess to regain it.

If the old adage is true: forwards win games and the backs decide by how many, then to allow the free flow of play, you must have possession. So, regardless of the decade and arguments about the greatest sides ever assembled - the requirement for front row forwards is undeniable.As long as there are scrums, rucks, mauls, lineouts - in fact rugby - who wouldn't want men of strength, courage, physicality and technical ability on their side?

The bible records a battle involving an Israeli army. The account points out that the ageing spiritual and political leader, chief justice and strategist Moses,  had set out the plan for the battle. Not unlike a tactical game plan. To support the effort on the ground, he was to keep his arms raised, with his staff held high - as a symbol, illustrating the victory that would come. The fighting was intense. The battle wore on. Though he was a great leader, Moses tired physically. His arms eventual gave way to fatigue. Without the symbol to inspire them, the battle started to slip in favour of the opposition who sensed their opportunity - until, two men came alongside Moses, to physically prop up his arms and raise again the symbol for victory - evidence of Props bringing stability and strength and re-establishing the platform for victory. Needless to say the Israeli army prevailed - because of the props.

Unless we want to retreat and leave the field of play, life requires us to engage and do battle with it. Its a fact. To advance, to make a mark for good, to secure possession of what is of value to us and prevent it being snatched away by circumstance or neglect, requires commitment and courage. Sometimes life demands that we seek out the help of others or perhaps more poignantly we see the need of others.

The battle was secured by the Israeli army because strong men stood alongside leadership to provide their support and momentum. How frequently in business, in the service of others, in the church and especially in family life, is there a need for a special breed of men to step forward. Men who will  raise a hand to be counted in. Men who will provide support, strength and stability.

The front row union is not a closed shop. It is not a collection of mis-fits. It is not a secret brotherhood. It is a band of men who will stand in the front row, who are prepared to bind together and engage directly with opposition and give everything they've got for the greater good or the bigger goal. Businesses, communities, churches and families all need support to drive through positive change for the good of all - are we ready to engage? If our rugby cartoonist was to sketch out the man that I am, would I appear as a caricature or would he be compelled to sketch out strength, stability and stature?