Leadership & Culture, Performance | Jan 10, 2022
Quins transformed their season without a head coach figure by giving their players autonomy, engendering trust, and a providing a sense of fun.
By John Portch


  • Understand your values – they provide your framework for change

  • Give your teams and athletes a say in your transition

  • Change should be fun

The situation

Harlequins won English rugby union’s Gallagher Premiership in June 2021, just six months after Paul Gustard departed as Director of Rugby with the team sitting seventh in the table. The team went on to triumph without a head coach figure [Tabai Matson was appointed within weeks of Quins’ success], relying on Head of Rugby Performance Billy Millard, the coaching staff, and, most significantly, the input and cooperation of the playing group to transform the club’s fortunes.

The first step

The key stakeholders felt that Quins had the right personnel in-house both on and off the field but that the club had lost touch with its roots. Players were underperforming and there was a distinct lack of energy. They sought the counsel of performance coach Owen Eastwood, who would conduct 52 interviews with players and staff as he looked to develop some recommendations.

TRUE values – reconnecting with Quins’ original characteristics

Eastwood quickly unearthed characteristics that lent themselves to a neat and powerful acronym: TRUE, which stands for ‘tempo, relationships, unconventional, enjoyment.’ “Owen said this acronym had been around forever,” says Millard. “‘Tempo’ – Harlequins play with tempo. ‘Relationships’ – everyone says relationships are important, but we live and breathe that. Our relationships are the foundation of what we do. We’re ‘unconventional’. As [prop] Joe Marler says, that means we can do whatever we want. Pretty close. And enjoyment, so T-R-U-E. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s Quins for nearly 160 years.” The team’s performances reflected these values and results swiftly improved. Eastwood, who joined the club’s board in August, adds: “Just through some changes in the environment, different philosophies, all of a sudden, this team had this unbelievable amount of energy.”

The next step: change through competence, autonomy and belonging

Quins’ approach over the subsequent six months has its roots in self-determination theory, which suggests that people are motivated to grow and change by three innate and universal psychological needs: competence, autonomy and belonging. The point is made onstage at the 2021 Leaders Sport Performance Summit in London by Dr David Fletcher, the Senior Lecturer in Performance Psychology and Management at Loughborough University, who points out to Millard and Quins scrum-half Danny Care that the club seemed to park competence in the first instance [subsequent results testify that it came] to focus on autonomy and belonging.

What did that focus on autonomy and belonging mean in practice?

In terms of autonomy, the playing group was given a say in team matters, which led to the abolition of the captain’s run training session on the eve of games – a bold move in rugby – and the reduction of meeting times. Care says: “You could just see the change in our whole energy when we turned up to the ground; there was a buzz, there was a vibe, there was a freshness about us. Mentally you’re not frazzled.”

In terms of belonging, players were given demonstrations of trust. “It was definitely different to what I’ve been used to,” adds Care. “I’ve never felt more trusted, empowered, respected, but also then there was a massive responsibility on us as senior players to lead it and the younger players to follow.”

The result: success… and fun

Harlequins won the Premiership, but Care is keen to point out that they had fun doing it: “We said we’re going to go back to our roots, back to what we feel is the way we like to play rugby, do it with a smile on our face. And we went and did it. It was good fun.”

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