Former Leeds Rhino Kevin Sinfield captained his team to seven Super League championships and two Challenge Cups during a glittering playing career. Following his retirement, he was hired by the Rugby Football League in 2016 as Rugby Director, where he now oversees six England teams. In the first of two exclusive pieces, he reflects on the transition from athlete to administrator.
By Kevin Sinfield
Having played professional sport for the best part of 20 years, I always thought I had to make a lot of sacrifices to get anywhere. Successful sportspeople have a load of different areas they’re particularly strong in; resilience and hard work and perseverance, dealing with adversity and dealing with success. They’re all key elements. The one thing I got out of my whole playing career was that you can have all these different attributes – be quick, strong, powerful, skilful – but if you don’t have a good attitude, I never felt you could get the best out of yourself. And ultimately we all want to make the best of what we’ve been given.
Moving into performance and into the administrative world, that’s what I wanted to be as well. That’s why I’m motivated about performance more than other areas; you’re constantly looking for those little improvements and little ways to get better and ways of improving the programmes you’re involved with. I’m passionate about development and I’m passionate about kids playing sport full stop. I think we’re not particularly in competition with other sports; if we have enough people playing sport then rugby league will get its fair share.
The transition from player to Rugby Director at the Rugby Football League (RFL) has been a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. Throughout my career I thought I’d prepared myself really well; I was fortunate enough, while I was playing, to be able to study for two degrees: a BSc in sports science, which took me five years to complete, and, at the age of 31, a Masters in sports business, which took three years. I did that at night school, which was really difficult juggling family life with my playing career and studying at the same time. Thankfully I got through it and I was in that position for the last couple of years whilst I was playing where I could really enjoy it and know that I had something to fall back on; that I had another plan.
You’re constantly looking for those little improvements and little ways to get better and ways of improving the programmes you’re involved with.
But playing becomes a way of life: training, the amount of sleep you need, the diet you have, the social life you don’t have – you just get used to living a certain way and then suddenly you have the freedom to make choices again. The satisfaction I got from playing and playing well and getting a good win with the team probably far outweighs anything I’ll find within this new life that I find myself in – you almost enter a new world where you’re bouncing from meeting to meeting; you can get a couple of hundred emails in a day and that’s normal life for some people but for someone who’s used to be being outdoors on a rugby pitch or in a gym or preparing their body for what’s to come on a weekend it’s very different. I think I’m slowly adjusting to it but it’s been a lot more difficult than I first thought. I can understand why it’s so hard for people to change careers in any walk of life, but to come out of professional sport and go into an office-type job is very tough.
When I first started, I came to sit in the performance department to help our Performance Director, Jon Roberts, with some of the rugby-based decisions. Sadly, he moved on; he’d been there a number of years, very smart, very intelligent and an excellent bloke. We then faced some difficulties as an organisation; we had a Sport England funding cut along with lots of other sports and some staff were made redundant. But I suppose I saw an opening. It was a World Cup year, 2017, and the programme wasn’t running as it should. There had been a breakdown in communication with some of the Super League clubs and the national team and how it was operating. As in most sports, there’s often a club versus country row or an issue of some sort, but I’m really passionate about England, I’m really passionate about World Cups; I was fortunate enough to play in three. I couldn’t sit back and allow our players to go to a World Cup where we’ve not prepared properly and not made it the experience that I’d previously gone through. I wanted them to be in the best possible place to go and win a World Cup in Australia, which is arguably the most difficult thing you can do in our sport.
2017 was spent putting our England programme back on track, which I really enjoyed. I was working alongside some players I’d player with, as well as getting to know some of the younger players.
I want players to have some of the opportunities and experiences that I was given while playing for England and hopefully we can make them better than what I experienced
Working with someone like Wayne Bennett, arguably the Sir Alex Ferguson of the rugby league world, has been fantastic. To go through the planning and through the World Cup, to watch the team perform as it did, was absolutely excellent – and now we’re moving on to the next four year block.
Since January, I’ve been charged with running our international teams. There’s six of them: England men, England women, England wheelchair; and they all have World Cups in 2021. On top of those three, there’s England Knights, which is our emerging England team, then England Academy, our U18s, and then England Youth, which is our U16s. We’ve put together what we called an EPU, an England Performance Unit, which will look after all those six teams; we’re trying to up standards, up behaviours, up the environment, with the ultimate goal of winning three World Cups in 2021.
It’s a fairly big task but I’m pretty passionate about England, I want us to do really well, and I want players to enjoy wearing the badge; I want players to have some of the opportunities and experiences that I was given while playing for England and hopefully we can make them better than what I experienced. That’s how I’ll be spending the next six months; my contract ends in December so I’m not quite sure where that takes us but certainly whatever happens at that point in time, it would be great knowing that we’ve put some programmes and some systems in place that allow England to be in a great position for 2021.