Reflections on ‘Project Apollo’

This piece is based on using a theme in rugby coaching. The theme I chose to explore with an U15s schoolboy’s team was ‘Project Apollo’ and the people and events within NASA that led to that famous moon landing. I also tried to merge my work on ‘Character Coaching’ with it.

Where did you hear about ‘Themeing’?

A few months ago, I saw and interview on the 1014 about how Canterbury Crusaders used a theme around Muhammad Ali and I was intrigued. They used the language of boxing, referring to moves or plays as “Hooks” or “Jabs” and their man of the match awards were a pair of boxing gloves signed by the rest of the team. They also explored aspects of Ali’s character in redeeming himself after years out of the sport. They found how his story could also be their story and unite them throughout their season.

The following questions came to mind:

How do you choose a story that will work with your team?

What does “themeing” look like in practice?

How do you find a story that you belong to?

Why do you talk about rockets so much?

Around the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing last summer, I found myself gripped by this story. The deeper I waded into the subject matter, the more fascinated I became. While planning ‘Project Apollo’ things seemed to emerge from this story and could resonate with the young men I coach. I also wanted to continue some of the ‘Character Coaching’ I began last season when I explored the idea of ‘Redefining Masculinity in Rugby’. Could I use ‘Project Apollo’ as a way to illicit opportunities to coach character traits within the team?

Early Planning Drafts of how last year’s work on masculinity could merge with ‘Apollo’

What did it look like?

We aimed to have one 15-20 minute presentation on a different aspect of ‘Project Apollo’ each week and these sessions would take place in a classroom before going out to training. All of the presentations were available to the group to look at and review in their own time too as we posted all of them on Google Classroom (where teachers can post work for students and other resources.) Sometimes these sessions were done as a larger squad of two teams and at other times in smaller units. Where possible, we would repeat core messages on the pitch from the project. This was our attempt to bring it to life for them and make sure it had the desired impact.

One of our classroom sessions

Did it work?

I would like to think we managed to put something unique to this playing group and that they learned a lot about themselves (and rockets) in the process. As coaches we are (I am) guilty of copying others. ‘Project Apollo’ was exciting because of how different it was for us: coaches and players. In an end-of-season questionnaire, many players reported ‘Project Apollo’ allowed them to reconsider their goals and to push themselves and aim higher. As an educator, that was really wonderful to hear and cuts to the core of why we work with young people.

What did you learn?

When you start to consider ‘Character Coaching’ and how you can try to inspire young men to become better people, you have to walk-the-walk too. I provoked them by saying:

Our goals are too small, we need to think bigger. At the moment, you are talking about flying a kite – we want to go to the moon…

It was all well and good asking the players to think bigger but could I do the same? What challenge could I set myself that would test the best of me? And so I decided to run 5k everyday for 60 days. I had tried something similar during the summer (I initially set out to run 5k every day in July and ended up doing 50 days in a row) but that had happened during my holidays where opportunities to get out and run in the sunshine were much easier. Could I go 10 days longer than that, in the wet and cold, when I was working long days and coaching in three different environments and when I was spending at least 2 hours of my day in the car?

Before I began, I wrote down every possible excuse I would come up with to not run. The fact that I engaged with almost every possible excuse made it easier to silence those doubts. Had I not done this, I would have easily given in and not managed to complete all 60 days.

I wrote ‘back spasm’ twice – this happened but I managed to run in later that day when it eased up. It was not pleasant…

Another aspect of ‘character coaching’ that has made an impact on me was becoming a Crisis Volunteer for Shout. When I started exploring mental health with a rugby team last year, I realised how little I knew about the subject. Throughout the past few months, I have trained and taken shifts on a weekly basis where I try and support people who are at a real low-point. This has been an incredibly rewarding experience and I have learned so much about an area that is so crucial to be aware of when working with young people. It is also a service that we promoted throughout the project if anyone wanted support during a moment of crisis.

Who do you turn to in a crisis?

Will ‘Project Apollo’ work for others?

After being asked to be on Russell Earnshaw’s Magic Academy Podcast, I had a lot of people tell me they liked the sound of Project Apollo and were going to try it out. My advice to them was to avoid an ‘Ikea’ approach i.e. make it their own. You need to think carefully about who it is that you are working with and how it might work for them. I will definitely use Apollo again but only after thinking about the group to whom I am pitching it.

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