For Jamie Tout, the memory of the New Zealand women’s rugby team’s journey to Ireland for the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup is still vivid. There is more than 11,600 miles between Wellington and Dublin and there was talk beforehand of whether or not the team – better known as The Black Ferns – would fly in business class or premium economy.
By John Portch
It was not, however, a long discussion for Head Coach Glenn Moore, Tout, and the rest of the Black Ferns’ performance staff. “We forfeited business class pretty early on in our preparation,” Tout tells the Leaders Performance Institute. “We preferred to go to Ireland four days earlier and use that time to settle and adapt, to go out there and play well rather than get the extra legroom or the extra glass of champagne.” It was part of a revamped programme that saw the Black Ferns win the World Cup for a record fifth time.
“We’ve always thought about how we can do things better with the resources we’ve got,” continues Tout, who joined The Black Ferns performance staff in 2013. After a 2-0 victory over Australia in the recent Laurie O’Reilly Series, New Zealand have now lost just one of their last 21 matches stretching back before the World Cup. It is a remarkable feat by a finely-tuned side whose efforts stand as testament to the coaches and support staff that push the team on towards ever greater heights – often at the expense of more affluent rivals.
“We haven’t always been the most resourced team, which is not a reflection on the significant support we get and we can’t compare ourselves to the All Blacks as a fully professional team. We’ve been creative and innovative in using our technology and tried to use our money well.” Flight bookings do not tell half the story in this journey of athlete optimisation and here we detail six steps that returned the Black Ferns to the pinnacle.
- The staff identified areas for improvement
In 2014 New Zealand crashed out in the pool stage of the World Cup in France having won the previous four editions of the tournament. It brought home the fact that what it took to win in 2010 was no longer enough and that systems and processes needed to evolve if the team were to return to the top. That experience in France ushered in significant change, including the appointment of Moore as Head Coach in 2015, and saw the staff implement a series of initiatives designed at helping the players reach their potential. “We take a lot of pride in the systems we have implemented since 2014,” observes Tout. “There would be 15 or 20 things you could put your finger on and say that’s changed between now and then and that’s a by-product of better reporting, a by-product of understanding the things that win us games on Saturdays and by-product of the idea that if I’m measuring something physically do I take that back to the coach – what can he learn from it as well? I don’t like measuring things for the sake of it and we try to use our data more effectively and more efficiently than our competitors can.”
Three years on, Tout explains that this approach has altered the face of the team’s preparations. “What best practice looked like didn’t actually lend itself to what was happening because we were having to get athletes ready for four-day turnarounds, which wasn’t conducive to physical preparation. But now we have the data to back-up whether it’s a four-day or seven-day turnaround – we’re not intimidated by that anymore and don’t mind if we have to land on a Tuesday and play on a Friday.”
- A more sophisticated approach to analysis
The Black Ferns’ staff’s enhanced understanding is a by-product of greater accuracy in analysing players and performance. “We became confident in our ability to compare players. For a long time we were saying that the backs had a really high work-rate and were travelling the most distance; and that’s a really shallow way of looking at things when you start to look at the amount of impacts, accelerations; forwards obviously have a lot more of those but the backs cover a lot of distance. There’s now an ability to compare forwards and backs more accurately because we’ve interpreted it over a period of time. If we tried to do that early on we’d have had half the knowledge – and that’s a dangerous thing.
- Performance conversation starters are easier to identify
With more data and knowledge at hand, the staff and The Black Ferns have greater scope for conversations around what it takes to win and performance. Tout says: “It has allowed me to have some robust conversations with Glenn at times because we can go back to the evidence and say we know when we’ve done these things in the past, we’ve played our best when our week looks like this, when we track like this.” Nothing is taken in isolation, so while Moore may ask for a different level of detail to a player, Tout is able to converse with both and all stakeholders have access. “There’s some things I’ll share with the coaches from a coaching level and they’ll understand those numbers and there’s some things I’ll share with a sports scientists, and that’s a greater level of detail; and then there’s information you’ll share with the player, from a player’s point of view, the things they want to focus and drill down on.”
- The staff are prepared to be challenged by players
It is not just with Moore that Tout can expect to have robust conversations, the players are empowered to approach members of staff with their own questions – and you’d better have an answer. “It’s always centred around what’s going to make them better,” says Tout, “and if we’re prepared to share a training metric or physical metric with them then we have to be prepared to be challenged. If you share a number with them about how many sprints they’ve done or they ask how far they’ve run or what they need to do to be better in the next game – if you can’t answer that it’s probably not worth sharing it with them.”
- They don’t throw the baby out with the bath water
Three months prior to the 2017 World Cup, The Black Ferns were defeated 29-21 by England. There was not, however, the same introspection that accompanied their defeat to Ireland at the 2014 World Cup. “That loss was a good opportunity for us to go back and look at where we were at,” reflects Tout. “Just because we lost we asked ourselves have we got actually got it wrong and some cases the answer was ‘yes, we did get that wrong, there are other ways of improving’. In other cases, there wasn’t, we were actually on the right track and you don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. But it’s certainly important to keep reassessing.”
- Develop empathy for the person behind the athlete
Under Moore, The Black Ferns have strongly promoted the idea that they are people first and foremost; long before gender or any other qualifier comes into the equation. Performance plans are easier to implement when delivered with empathy for the person behind the athlete. “We just thought of them as rugby players,” explains Tout. “We can’t rely so heavily on data to the point that we don’t think about the person. We’ve got some good programs and GPS systems in place but we’re dealing with real people; and because we’ve got such a strong tie to family and such a strong tie to their work life after rugby then we have to be considerate of that. That’s not to say there aren’t unique things about all athletes – there are – and we’re positively thinking and reviewing things or dealing with more specific life changing events, like athletes coming back from pregnancy. We’re considerate but ultimately they are rugby players.”