Wade Gilbert finds Irish rugby ‘really curious about learning’
Renowned coaching consultant impressed by culture at Connacht and Munster
Ireland’s Bundee Aki jumps on teammate Johnny Sexton with Jordi Murphy as they celebrate winning the third Test against Australia in Sydney. Photograph: David Moir/EPA
Dr Wade Gilbert, an internationally renowned coaching consultant, sport scientist, award-winning professor in the department of kinesiology at California State University and adviser to many high-profile teams across multiple sports is spending a week in Ireland at the behest of the IRFU and the union’s head of coach development, Matthew Wilkie.
He is scheduled to visit all four provinces – he has already been to Connacht and Munster – and part of his remit will be meeting players, coaches and academy managers. Yesterday he spoke to about 100 IRFU rugby staff at a hotel at Dublin Airport on the theme, “Building a High Performing Culture”, before returning to the city centre and a meeting with Ireland coach Joe Schmidt.
The Canadian-born California resident has spent time with with Cricket Australia, New Zealand Rugby, Melbourne Storm, South Sydney Rabbitohs, the Canadian and US Olympic associations, US Soccer, the Toronto Maple Leafs to highlight a selection, as well as being given access to and studying the methods of a litany of outstanding coaches in American football and basketball.
He has written a book, Coaching Better Every Season (2017, Human Kinetics), and also serves as editor-in-chief of the International Sport Coaching Journal. So what did he make of the Irish provincial rugby culture? “In Connacht, I had the chance to meet with all staff, all coaches, sit in on team meetings, watch training sessions, and also with Munster, both head coaches and coaching staff wanted more. They were very curious, lots of questions, they wanted to learn.
Thirsty to learn
“Those two head coaches [Andy Friend, Connacht and Johann van Graan, Munster] are in different stages of their careers and development, but both very thirsty to learn and very open to learning. Even the players too, they were very curious.
“My interactions are quick, half an hour, 20 minutes, over lunch, but they’re taking notes, asking questions, players saying, ‘You’ve got me thinking about this idea, can I call you?’ For me, it’s encouraging to see that those two environments are like that because you can go anywhere in the world and see pretty similar training environments and the way people do things.
“It’s really how they approach their craft, their work. The fact that they’re really curious about learning, really open to learning and asking questions, that is world class. The results might not always show that but they’re at least acting like a world-class environment.”
He argues that an insatiable appetite to learn is a common characteristic in successful people inside and outside sport. “You can never be comfortable where you’re at. There’s this quote from Carol Dweck, the Growth Mindset author: ‘Becoming is better than being.’ You’re never done; you’re always an incomplete product. That’s important for the athletes to know too. You’re never done and you’re never comfortable with your success.”
Gilbert was on his third visit to Ireland; his second, last year, saw him present to GAA coaches at Croke Park. Did he notice similarities to rugby? “No, and I wasn’t aware of how distinct GAA is from rugby and other sports, and the significant role that GAA plays historically in culture and Irish sport.
“I understand there are some tensions there, especially with a sport like rugby that’s trying to grow and how that impacts, at the youth level, the decisions that kids make and where they spend their time. It’s an interesting dynamic to me to see how this will play out.
“But I was fascinated by it and really inspired, in some ways, by the GAA community and how they keep their culture and promote their culture. They have a very strong identity and purpose. It’s to keep the culture, keep the tradition, keep it alive and keep the flame alight. It’s very impactful and powerful.”
He recounts an interesting story that has as its backdrop Legacy, James Kerr’s book in which he was given carte blanche access to the All Blacks rugby team and took those insights and came up with basically 15 practical lessons for business and leadership.
“I talked to Steve Hansen [New Zealand coach] about that after it came out and they didn’t know there was going to be a book, so they were kinda ‘The guy wrote a book? We just thought he was coming to see what we do’.
“It didn’t bother them after that because it doesn’t matter if you see what [they] put on the wall and see what [they] do because it is not a recipe. You can’t take what the All Blacks do, put it over here in Ireland and it’s going to work.
“What they do is marinated in who they are, that’s New Zealand culture. That’s not a team-building activity, that’s who they are. [Others] can look at how they do things [but you can’t just transplant it in its entirety and guarantee success]: look for the principle not the practice. We got to do a Haka? No you don’t. But maybe a pre-game routine that connects us to our values, okay. So it is the principle not the practice.”