Developing Healthier Team Dynamics: Sharing your ‘why’

A man who knows his ‘why’ can bear almost any ‘how’ 

Viktor Frankl

After a bruising fixture over the weekend in which we suffered a heavy loss, it was important for us as a coaching team to reinforce the huge steps forward the team had made. We did some lighter training and a team debrief early in the week.

It is impossible to not judge yourself against the scoreboard. This only becomes an issue when this is your only (or most important) measure of success.  We have worked hard to evaluate ourselves against our ability to implement our game-plan. Viewed through this lens, we were able to see far more moments of success and progress than we possibly did in the immediate aftermath.

Prior to our longer mid-week session, I had asked the team to watch a documentary about Sam Burgess (link at the end of the article). After England’s poor show in the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Burgess was held up a scapegoat for a litany of management and team errors that cost the host nation dearly. This documentary looks at his career in Rugby League with the South Sydney Rabbitohs and is narrated by team owner, Russell Crowe. It is a must watch for fans of sport as it outlines a backstory to one of England’s greatest league players and how he came to take the field in a fixture with all of his brothers – 4 Burgess boys in total.

The opening credits, in which Crowe explains what he means by the term: ‘Sparkly-Eyed Man’ captures many of the same sentiments that I am hoping to instill as an educator and a coach:

I have this theory about a certain type of player…I call it the ‘Sparkly-eyed Man’. He’s a guy who can be as vicious as he needs to be, he can do anything he needs to do in the course of the 80 minutes to bring a result for his team…his will to win rises to any occasion. But the moment that final whistle is blown, he’s a completely different man. He’s able to laugh easily, he’s good with kids, respectful to women. He appreciates life and he’s grateful, which is why, he’s the sparkly-eyed man. He has that thing built within him to never quit and if you are going to do something, you do it the utmost of your ability.

This analogy of being a relentless worker and a fierce competitor on the pitch and being a good person off it, must be the goal for us as coaches. I need to celebrate those who demonstrate such qualities and hold them up as role-models who reflect such values. We must find time as coaches to help shape people and not just players and we need to upskill ourselves in how to do this. I have been to countless CPD events that honed my knowledge of tactical and technical elements of the game. It is only more recently that I have started to explore how I can develop the ‘people-shaping’ and character-building elements of the coaching craft; I have much to learn. How can we help to create an environment which helps to foster such people?

Throughout the documentary, we see Burgess’ journey from playing as a kid all the way to the very top of the game. We see how he cared for his father who was diagnosed with Motor-Neuron Disease and he had to physically carry him when his condition worsened.

Crowe’s tribute to Burgess’ father after he passed away is touching and explains much about how he was so eager to return to Sydney after his stint with Bath around the time of the RWC. As part owner, Crowe is responsible for helping to shape the environment of the club. He created one that Burgess could not live without. In effect, the Rabbitohs were family and Sydney was home. Even if England had won the RWC, the draw of returning to such an environment must have been immense.

I spoke to the group how Burgess’ relationship with his father reminded me of the loss I suffered when my own father passed away. I then gave them my backstory of how I managed to get into rugby and was lost to world of Irish dancing forever! It was important that, if I was expecting the team to share their stories, I had to have something of my own to share. It also allowed us -starting with small stakes- to share our ‘why’. In this case: ‘Why are you here, playing rugby? Who helped you along the way?’

After this, a few of them recounted stories of how they have had family members who suffered from terminal illnesses. There were some of the group whose own tragedies I was aware of but quite a few I of which I was completely oblivious. I wondered if others in the team were hearing this for the first time too and what that might mean for both the sharer and the listener…

Lynx ran a campaign a few years ago called ‘Men in Progress’  and I used a clip on motivation to explore ‘why’ each of the our team play rugby. Most talked about their early forays into the game. Others ranged from how family members got them involved or encouraged them to take part. Quite a few talked about how the game was a form of catharsis where they enjoyed the emotional release and a chance to express themselves physically.

The young men I coach are good athletes beyond rugby and I was really interested in digging into the differences between some of the other sports in which they excel. One spoke of how he relishes the defensive aspects of football but in rugby he gets a chance to be an attacking threat in space on the wing. The school where I teach is a renowned rowing institution and it was fascinating to hear some of the pros and cons of being part of a crew as opposed to a rugby team. One talented oarsman liked the variety that rugby offered and the team dynamics while he heralded the immense sacrifices and Trojan efforts that rowers endure to get ready to compete.

As we went around the room and listened to each other, I could not help but feel a greater sense of belonging and hoped this was something others were experiencing too. After each story, I thanked them for sharing and tried to delve a bit deeper into their stories. I know that some of them shared tales of loss that cannot have been easy to express and I am so glad they felt comfortable to do so.

This session was a way into the project and a step forward in creating an environment for what will unfold in the coming weeks. It was a good place to start and I hope that we can start to explore each other’s stories as a team in more depth and detail.

Slamin’ Sam: The Sam Burgess Story:

Lynx Men in Progress – Motivation:

Lynx Men in Progress Website:


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