Coaching Through Themes: Shackleton’s Endurance

Last summer I joined the rugby coaching team at the Honorable Artillery Company (HAC). Having explored themes in coaching with a schoolboy side this year, we decided to use one for the HAC.

“For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave…”

Robert Browning, ‘Prospice’ – Shackleton’s favourite Line

Ernest Shackleton was an Anglo-Irish explorer who failed at every attempt to reach the South Pole. None of his quests were successful in their original aims. But such was Shackleton’s brilliance: his willingness to change course, adapt to the task at hand.

Staring relegation in the face with the HAC 1st XV at Christmas, it was the story of Shackelton’s Endurance expedition to which we turned. While staying up was the target for the remainder of the season, there was the chance to reassess the club and shape a new direction for years to come. It is easy to class both Shackleton’s and the HAC’s stories simply as being ones of ‘survival’ but they are far more than that. The true essence of both are threefold: Purpose – Leadership – Teamwork.

When we traveled to Horsham in January, we started to sow the seeds of Shackleton’s story. We spoke about taking something from the game and that we were in a fight where every game and point would count. While we ended up on the wrong side of the scoreline, we were able to take solace in the fact we took a bonus point for tries scored. The expedition had begun.

Purpose: Do Your Job

One thing was clear from reading about Shackleton: how fiercely determined he was they would all survive. He maintained order on the ship, ice and lifeboats by each man fulfilling a purpose. The crew were made up of all ages and talents but Shackleton made sure they all helped out.

Geologist – Seaman – Surgeon: These men had very different areas of expertise, but the floors needed scrubbing so they got to it.

Likewise, each member of our HAC squad were going to have to play an important role in ensuring we stayed up. This was especially true of the turnover of players we had experienced due to injury early in the season. Players would need to know what their job was in games. This would correspond to their position, other teammates, the game-plan and the opposition. “Do Your Job” became a mantra to focus on the next play and lead to overall success.

Leadership: Time to Step up

Shackleton had a clear vision by which he would secure the safe return of all 28 souls on the Endurance. He had able deputies around him, namely Frank Wild who was aligned with ‘The Boss’ but also a favourite among the crew. In Wild, Shackleton had someone who could keep spirits high while also being a sounding board for his ideas.

Our captain this season was Rory Bell who has always been someone willing to lead by example. Two others stalwarts of our team are Larry Anfo-Whyte and Charlie Esberger. Our leadership group really stood up in the most testing of times when we played Beckenham, a relegation rival, during Storm Dennis.

A group of people posing for a photo

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During the game, Belly had smashed his nose (Above: 4th from left, front row) and was replaced. Larry (Below: Back to Camera), as vice-captain, steered the team to a bonus point victory in miserable conditions. Charlie (Below: Left) was a Trojan who lead the charge in terms of work-rate. Whenever I see the image below I always think of the word ‘Empty‘ because of how much the group had invested in that victory.

As it was Larry’s birthday, we wanted to present him with a gift and so gave him a bottle of Shackleton Whisky. What we later realised was that Larry shares a birthday with a certain Antarctic explorer…Sir Ernest Shackleton himself!

Teamwork: Embrace the fight

One of the unique aspects of the HAC – one reason it is the best club in the world – is that the players run it. Fixtures, kit, payments for officials, fundraising, liaising with catering or groundstaff, social events are all coordinated by the playing group. Between them, they manage to put out three teams each weekend and an ‘Ocassionals’ side from time-to-time. Despite the name, the Honorable Artillery Company does not have very many servicemen within it: the players are running the club while working full time jobs. Such responsibility requires a sense of leadership and teamwork that other clubs cannot replicate.

This challenge would really show us who we were as a club; I was convinced that if we “embraced the fight”, it would bring out the very best in each of us.

Shackleton’s own words on the ‘fight’ are captured in his diaries:

“Now comes the actual work…the fight will be good.”

Ernest Shackleton en route to the weddell sea

Legacy: Where to next?

Unfortunately, we were denied the chance to see out the fight this season. The sudden stoppage in March left us in the relegation zone and so that has become our fate. I still feel that the experience has made us a better club having endured it together. There are many lessons we have learned and I am eager to go again next season.

The HAC is unique and I am privileged to be a part of it. In recent weeks, we said that whenever we saw or heard anything to do with Shackleton, we would remember the HAC: the friendships, the craic, the dressing-room, the pints afterwards and all that we conquered and did not conquer together.

“By Endurance, We Conquer”

Shackleton’s Family Motto and inspiration for the name of his ship
Antarctic Reflections from Shackleton’s Diaries

If anyone is interested in joining the HAC for our next expedition, feel free to get in touch with me – Dave Sharkey – on Twitter: @teachingsharks – or Rhys Davies: Rhys.Davies@london-irish.com

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