Coaching & Development, Performance | Sep 13, 2021
Head of High Performance Mike Anthony discusses the organisation’s performance pillars.

As Mike Anthony, the Head of High Performance at New Zealand Rugby explains, one of his organisation’s major challenges is to combine efficiency and effectiveness.

By John Portch

A prime example is the role of players in both theirs and the team’s development. In New Zealand, the tradition is for players to take an active role.

“They need to own and drive the culture, the standards and the programme,” Anthony tells an audience at June’s Virtual Leaders Meet: Evolution of Leadership. “Everyone talks about how we’ve got a great culture, where it’s tied to ‘brotherhood’ or ‘sisterhood’, but a true performance culture is where they can hold each other to account; and I think if you can empower your athletes, and you’re just having to sit back and lead and manage rather than always coming in on some of that stuff, then that’s a true performance culture.”

The players have an element of psychological safety, where they feel able to take interpersonal risks in pursuit of their self-development without fear of any negative consequences. In that vein, Anthony describes player performance reviews at the end of a week, which strike a balance between challenge and support. “The expectation is that the player will come in prepared for the review of their performance and they will lead the conversation,” he says. “It’s a great opportunity then for the coach to see their level of self-awareness around their game and where they’re at relative to their views.”

There are occasions, however, when it still falls on the coach or the practitioner. “Sometimes you’ve got to deliver a message,” adds Anthony. “I think it depends on the structure of your week; if we’re going week to week and want to move on from a performance and get some things in place, you’ve got to find a time to do that. You want to get your athletes up to speed. If they are getting up and presenting in front of their peers, it is time consuming – a hell of a lot more time consuming than if you just do it as a coach or whatever your role is – but I think the long-term benefits are massive. It’s how you bring them with you and, with time, it’s pretty organic in terms of the conversations that happen in the room.”

The pandemic and its impact on the nation, which has adopted some of the world’s most stringent measures in the fight against Covid-19, is another challenge from which New Zealand Rugby continues to emerge.

“I think the big rocks haven’t changed from a strategy perspective, regardless of team and programme,” says Anthony. “We’ve still got to focus around recruiting, developing and retaining the right players and coaches. I think that’s the critical piece and it’s got more challenging.”

He cites the pull of other sports. “Rugby is seen as sort of the national sport but the opportunities across other sports I think are great. We’re certainly not an early specialisation sport, and we encourage our kids to play multiple sports and develop skills in social settings that are wide and varied, but that piece [retention] is critical.”

Rugby union is the most popular sport in New Zealand but the nation’s success across a range of sports, including 32 medals at the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, increasingly compete for young people’s attention. In rugby terms, there is also the potential pull of more lucrative overseas markets. Yet, for all that, the nation’s best players tend to spend their prime years pulling on the jersey of the All Blacks and the Black Ferns. “I think our contracts team here do a great job and we’re quite innovative around retaining our best players.”

There is also that question of development – “holistic development,” as Anthony calls it. “We have six pillars of development and it’s as much about developing a person as it’s about technical and tactical competencies. We’ve learnt that it’s not a linear pathway; there’s multiple entry points along the way and we have to be open to those. The ‘norm’ might flow through a more linear path but we get some gold nuggets that drop in along the way.”

Another pillar involves surrounding players with the best practitioners. “We talk about building a single rugby team. So how do we, across New Zealand Rugby, have a single rugby team who’s focused on getting the best out of the players in their competition and [helping them to] ultimately be a Black Fern or an All Black or sevens player then going and playing in pinnacle events?”

“The last [pillar] is leading the way the game is played for us on and off the field. Environments are critical. People have got to enjoy the game, whether that’s six or 26, we want them to have a love of the game because that’s going to help with retention.

“How do we build competition structures that allow our players and other people involved in our sport to thrive? The innovation piece around the way the game’s played; having a really positive approach to change. We have got some people who are traditionalists. How do we open minds in order to say we want to retain certain parts of the game but we also have to be adaptable to some change along the way?”

Finally, Anthony addresses the fact that New Zealand Rugby’s finances have taken a hit during the pandemic, with staffing numbers reduced by a quarter. However, the plan is not to “hammer”, as he puts it, the organisation’s prize assets, the All Blacks and Black Ferns.

“How do we provide competitions and generate revenue and feed it back into the grassroots of the game and continue to thrive and being athletes through to the pro game?”

A difficult question but one New Zealand Rugby will strive to answer while adhering to its high performance values.

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Mike Anthony also features in our latest Performance journal. The cover star for this edition is Gareth Southgate, the Head Coach of the England men’s football team, who leads the way with his reflections on defining and developing resilience. Elsewhere we spoke to the Arizona Diamondbacks of Major League Baseball, as well as British Wheelchair Basketball, who run some of the finest programmes in the sport. Edd Vahid of Premier League club Southampton FC also penned a column focusing on talent pathways.

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