Why rugby deserves respect

All Black’s manager Darren Shand on his sophisticated approach to training

With two World Rugby Cups under his belt—and the number one ranked rugby team in the world under his care—New Zealand All Black’s Manager Darren Shand knows a thing or two about sculpting powerhouse athletes. In November, Shand was interviewed by English sports broadcaster Georgie Ainslie at a members-only event held at Equinox’s new E St. James club in London (opening December 20th). They chatted about the importance of staying cool under pressure, nourishing the brain, and why Shand doesn’t use the word ‘weakness’ with his players. Furthermore listened in on the interview.

On rugby as New Zealand’s national sport:

“Outside of the urban scene, rugby is what holds communities together. Some people survive by their rugby clubs, so it has become the fabric of the country—it’s often what defines us as a country. Most of our young players today have been brought up as proficient rugby players, it’s all they’ve ever known. Kids have a ball in their hands, and it becomes intuitive or ingrained.”

On the importance of recovery:

“Preparation is everything. If you don’t get Sunday through to Friday right, you fail. We talk a lot about recovery. After a match on a Saturday we know it takes 60 hours to recover, or 60 hours until players can train again at a high level. There’s a lot of ice baths, a lot of sleep, and eating the right foods. In the beginning of the week we focus on feeding the brain to develop clarity and understanding, we have a day off to recharge in the middle of the week, and the end of the week is about bringing in some intensity. On Thursday, we train for 30 minutes at the level that we play, get the players breathing hard, and Friday it’s up to the players to train themselves. It’s a structure we don’t change because we know it works.”

On teaching athletes to deal with pressure:

“We spend a lot of time talking about and understanding how to deal with pressure and what happens in the brain. The game is really about making good decisions when you’re under pressure. We have all sorts of tools now to look at every moment in the game so we’ve become quite clinical about it—we’ll ask them ‘what were you thinking, what was your process.’ We teach them to focus on task, followed by task, followed by task, because generally what happens with pressure is you get diverted. If you’re on task, you don’t get diverted into that emotional state. If you can deal with pressure, you can deal with expectation, the scrutiny, the consequences, and that fight-or-flight mechanism that kicks in.”

On finding motivation:

“Rather than say, ‘I’m good at that but I’m really bad at that,’ we say, ‘this is a great part of your game, and maybe let’s pick one thing to strengthen.’ I don’t like using the word ‘weakness’ and I don’t like using the word ‘feedback.’ Instead it’s, ‘this is what I’d like to see next time.’ That whole model creates a sense of wanting to get better.”

On beating boredom:

“It’s all about balance. When we design the week we need there to be a focus on performance, there needs to be stimulation, and there needs to be fun. We’ve talked to researchers about the importance of fun, and so before every meeting we play games like ‘how well do you know your partner?’, sing karaoke, or play touch rugby like you do in the backyard. The art of coaching is doing the same stuff over and over again because you’re trying to get the same outcome, but it helps to create some variety within it.”

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