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Rugby Wisdom Podcast - Robbie Deans, All Black, coach and former player, currently the head coach of Japanese club Panasonic Wild Knights.

August 31, 2020 5 min read

August 25, 2020

Craig Wilson was born in England and is currently the mens and women's head Coach at Yale University. Wilson was internationally capped for the Hong Kong National Team and has represented professional academies at Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints. He has played in both the Scottish and Hong Kong premiership and coached the India National Team at both XV’s and sevens.

“Start with the playing group. Start with what they want to do and why they want to do it."

Craig Wilson:Welcome to Rugby Wisdom in 3, the impactful podcast that does not impact your time. My name is Craig Wilson and I’m your host. This show is all about sharing rugby wisdom, and I would love it if you share this podcast with a friend. On today’s Rugby Wisdom in 3, I’m joined by Robbie Deans. As a player, Robbie is an All Black, and he also represented Canterbury on 145 occasions. As a coach, he is the most successful Super rugby coach in history, winning five Super rugby titles, and another two as manager with the Crusaders. Robbie was the Wallabies head coach, and since 2014 he has been the Panasonic Wild Knights head coach, winning three Top League championships.

Robbie Deans 2011 cropped.jpg

Robbie, welcome to the podcast.

Robbie Deans: Thank you very much, Craig.

Craig Wilson: Look, it’s an absolute pleasure to have you on. A man with a lot, a lot of coaching experience, so let’s get straight into this. What advice would you give to coaches to set them and their teams up for success?

Robbie Deans: Sure. Three decades into three minutes, it shouldn’t be too hard. But it’s a great question, because we all need as coaches, we need an idea in mind in terms of where we’re going. So, I have spent a bit of time thinking about this over the years and created what I call my own compass. For ease of management, I’ll put it into three bins for you.

Essentially, the first focus is start within. Start with the playing group. Start with what they want to do and why they want to do it. Secondary focus point would be a short-term focus combined with a long-term outlook. Thirdly is what I call the care factor, basically dedicating to your people and to their purpose. Sounds simple, but we can probably talk for a day on each of them.

I’ll start if you look on the first instance, so I’ll start with number one, starting within, the what and the why. Back in the day when I first started coaching, it was very much all about the coach. That was my experience as a player and that was probably what I brought to coaching in the first instance, but I very quickly learned that it had very little to do with me and a lot more to do with the playing group and what they aspired to and getting their needs met. And yes, as a coach I had a little bit of knowledge, courtesy of some background in the game, but it paled compared with what I didn’t know. A challenging but rewarding experience ever since. But the more I’ve learned to start with them, not only in terms of their understanding with skills, for example, but also understanding with what the challenges are, the things that are getting in their way, and to come to understand those you need to ask questions.

So, it’s very much the art of questioning becomes one of the critical skills. Because as I say, you can’t solve the problems you can’t see. So, it’s very much about empowering the players, and in terms of the motivation, the underlying motivations, the why they want to do the things they want to do, that’s both individual and collectively owned. If you can work hard at identifying something that the whole group owns, can act as a binding and driving mechanism, it’s a huge advantage. Because that’s the stuff, those underlying motivations are the things that come out when it gets difficult. So, to be able to create, and own, and drive that is valuable.

In terms of short-term focus, long-term outlook, it’s pretty straightforward. You gotta deal with the first things first, what are the needs, where are individuals at, where’s the group at, what are their strengths, what do they need to add to what they can do? And anything they can do without thinking about it is a strength. And you need to get balance in life, as well. So, yes, there’s outcomes, yes, there’s accountabilities, but there’s always gonna be another day coming, so you need a healthy mindset in terms of always working to be beyond where you are at any given time.

And there’s three key focus areas to that end. Physical, mental, and social. And the great tendency I think when the game first went professional, we focused very much on the physical. We’ve now come to understand that you gotta cater for each leg of the stool or you get unbalanced and it collapses. They’re all as important as each other, and from a coaching perspective, we need to stay connected, and engaged, and engage our people to hopefully maximize that balance.

The care factor is an obvious one, particularly over time. I thought when I started coaching, I’d be coaching for one year, so I wanted to make the most of that year. I’m still doing it. Still enjoying it. The critical element is, as I said right at the start, it’s not about you, it’s about your people and the things that they want out of the game, and to ensure that you’re helping them to achieve those things. To that end, you need to be a lot more solution-oriented than problem-oriented. Anyone can find a problem, but it’s their ability to find their way past those problems and treat those challenges as learning opportunities.

It’s also a part of our responsibility as coaches to challenge, create some construction tension so that we’re always stimulating the group and helping them to learn, and ultimately helping them to own that growth, which is the ability to lead, and the reality is they all do lead through their choices. Sometimes they’re not aware of that, but the more we can help them in understanding that their choices do impact on the people around them. But ultimately in terms of that care factor, the critical thing is while we focus on what they can do and what they do do routinely, and we bring a reality to that, and that’s our job is to monitor and reinforce the things we’re chasing, but also enter if we need to redirect.

But the underlying motivation for us is caring for the people concerned, and that it’s about what they can do and what the do do routinely. It’s not about selection. It’s not about outcome, win-loss all the time. So, you win on the weekend, or you’re not in the group, you’re outside the group, or you miss a tackle, doesn’t mean you’re no longer a good person and a valuable person within that context. So, that’s important for us in terms of our influence to engage with our people on that basis, because you’ll find you’ll just get so much more out of it and it’ll be a win-win.

Robbie Deans Bio
Born 4 September 1959 in Cheviot, New Zealand. Now head coach of Japanese club, Panasonic Wild Knights.

He was head coach of the Australian national team between 2008 and 2013.

Deans previously coached New Zealand's prestigious Crusaders for eight seasons. From 2001-2003 Deans was assistant coach of the All Blacks.

As the coach of the Crusaders, Deans has won more Super rugby titles than any other (three Super 12 titles and two Super 14).

He played for Canterbury, at fly half, and fullback. He was capped by The All Blacks 19 times and is All Black 841.

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