Munster – Ending the semi final drought

“Quality means doing the right thing when no one is watching” Henry Ford Winning is about more than just simply performing on the day.

It is about creating an environment of excellence where you provide your players with the best opportunity to deliver on their ability time after time.

Leinster Rugby has been held up as an example of excellence on and off the field for the past number of years.

The success on the field has been built on a strong business model and a production line of talent being produced through their academy/school structure.

Leinster won an unprecedented double last year and backed that up with a run to the Champions Cup final last weekend.

If you take time to follow Stuart Lancaster’s Leadership Development Program on  YouTube it is easy to see the culture of excellence they have built. 

Factor in Munster’s long losing sequence in Semi-Finals and there is hardly any point playing the game this weekend. Right?

Well first off Leinster are coming off a loss. The manner of their defeat will have hurt them and no matter the circumstances losing like winning can become a habit.  

Heineken Champions Cup Final, St. James’ Park, Newcastle, England 11/5/2019 Leinster vs Saracens Saracens’ players celebrate at the final whistle Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Gary Carr

Second, if you look closely at Munster’s semi-final defeats in Europe especially, almost all were away from home, four to the eventual European champions and the three teams that lost their finals did so by a collective six points.

Such are the margins in elite sport. Are Munster a million miles away? I think not. Is it possible Munster can win this weekend? Absolutely.

A collective will to win is often more powerful than individual talent. It is commonly accepted within sport psychology that there are four major performance skills for all elite sportsmen and women, these being technical, physical, tactical and mental.

None is more important than the others but all have influence. Quality coaching in all four areas is essential. 

From my perspective I would argue that equally as significant is an organisation’s culture. These are all areas that can be developed with the right people pulling the strings. 

It is my experience that a team that is well run, well coached, and driven by a collective culture of excellence are always a threat.

It was a collective belief in something bigger than themselves that drove Munster to two Heineken Cup wins. Have Munster lost that culture? What is the culture of this current group?

Munster Rugby Training, UL, Limerick 13/5/2019 Forwards coach Jerry Flannery and backs coach Felix Jones Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie

Some would question whether Munster have the correct coaching platform to succeed from a tactical, physical, technical and mental point of view?

Perhaps and It is disappointing to see two popular home grown coaches leaving the set up. Maybe the issues off the field are influencing those on.

One thing is certain, the challenge for the Munster coaching structure this weekend is to instil a resilience to previous setbacks. Easier said than done? Not necessarily. 

In my experience there are 6 fundamentals to building resilience in a team. Resilience: When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower” – Alexander den Heijer

But the goals set must be about personal markers of improvement. Every player must achieve personal performance goals that will collectively raise the standard of the performance. The more we focus on the outcome the less we concentrate on the task.

Heineken Cup Final, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales 24/5/2014 Toulon vs Saracens Toulon’s Jonny Wilkinson kicks a penalty Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie

1: Awareness: Create awareness of what went wrong. Review past errors and plan to avoid a repeat. Ensure individual and collective responsibility for recovering from setbacks.

Sounds logical? How often do you see teams repeat the same mistakes once the pressure is on?

2: Goal setting: Set realistic goals to overcome the set back. The key to goal setting for anything in life is not to become obsessed by the outcome.

Obviously Munster at the weekend want to beat Leinster and reach the Final of the Pro 14.

For example Dave Alred (Jonny Wilkinson’s kicking coach and current performance coach to Francesco Molinari) worked out a pre-shot routine for Wilkinson which allowed him to block out distractions and solely focus on the quality of his contact.

Because Wilkinson’s pre shot stance allowed him to feel confident that he was aimed correctly at the target he was free to solely concentrate on a quality strike happy in the knowledge that more often than not he would be successful.

3; Control and Influence: Create an understanding of the things we can control and the things we merely have influence over.

We simply have control over our personal preparation and performance not the result. However we can influence the outcome by our actions.

One of the common things I work on with athletes is their ability to manage distractions. Distractions take our focus from the things we have control over. Mental triggers and visualisation are common forms of approach to do this.

4: Reframing: Reframe past experiences: “It is not events but our opinions of them which causes suffering”. Epictetus. How you view past defeats has a massive impact on how you view next challenges.

5: Trust in Teammates: Win as a team, lose as a team. The reason the Navy Seals make training so difficult is to create an environment where when your back is to the wall you can draw strength from knowing that your teammates have been through the same preparation and are willing to suffer with you.

6: Culture of Excellence: What is your why?  Every great athlete has a ‘why’ to perform. Whether they are motivated by a pursuit of excellence, Banister chasing a four minute mile or Floyd Mayweather making more money there is an internal drive that keeps them motivated .  

Guinness PRO14 Semi-Final Qualifier, Thomond Park, Limerick 5/5/2018 Munster vs Edinburgh Munster’s Keith Earls scores his sides second try Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

Renowned Sport psychologist Steve Peters, author of the Chimp Paradox and the man identified as a major factor in the rise of British Cycling, was asked to carry out a review on the Dublin Gaelic football scene prior to their current run of success.

The areas he pinpointed for improvement where all to do with off field excellence. Change the culture, change the success.

Is everything off field at Munster giving the players the best opportunity to succeed? Does the culture at Munster need changing?

Henry Ford once said that “Vision without Execution is Hallucination”. Maybe but that’s a conversation for another day.

For now I ask one simple question. Is it possible that Munster end their semi-final run this weekend? They unquestionably have the talent. As a Munster fan let’s hope for quality execution.

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