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Niall O’Carroll: The “Why” Behind Boks & Irish Women’s Hockey Success

In my day job, I met with a pharmaceutical company this week who specialises in cell research for the treatment of incurable diseases. Their mission statement was ‘To give people hope where none exists’.

It struck me as being something that would make motivating your workforce relatively easy I would imagine. It struck to the heart of what I believe in my approach to High-Performance mindset. What is your why? Great teams have a collective and individual sense of purpose.

2019 Rugby World Cup Final, International Stadium Yokohama, Yokohama, Japan 2/11/2019 England vs South Africa South Africa’s RG Snyman celebrates with Rassie Erasmus after the game Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie

Rassie Erasmus in his excellent speech in the post Rugby World Cup final celebrations corrected a journalist who asked him about feeling pressure in the build-up:

“In South Africa, pressure is not having a job. Pressure is one of your close relatives being murdered. Rugby shouldn’t be something that creates pressure, it should be something that creates hope.”

It gave a brilliant insight into the mind of the World Cup winning coach in his preparation of his team for the biggest game of their lives.  He spoke of his captain Siya Kolisi and his life struggles to get to this point:

“It’s easy to talk about going through hard times and struggling to get opportunities, but it’s tough to tell people that there were days when I didn’t have food or shoes to wear.”

“And when you sit down and think about it clearly, and think there was a stage when Siya went through stuff like that, then he sits here as captain holding this trophy. That should sum up what Siya is.”

2019 Rugby World Cup Final, International Stadium Yokohama, Yokohama, Japan 2/11/2019 England vs South Africa South Africa’s Siya Kolisi celebrates Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

Kolisi, who grew up in a poor township of Zwide, just outside Port Elizabeth on the Eastern Cape, flew his father abroad for the first time to watch him represent his country in Japan:

“Growing up, I never dreamed of a day like this at all. When I was a kid all I was thinking about was getting my next meal.” This is why many South African commentators speak of this win having a massive impact back home.”

It is very hard to compete against a team who are well-coached, have individual excellence but most of all have a collective ideal to work towards.

England showed it in their semi-final defeat of New Zealand. It proved to be their final and possibly they dropped their motivation subconsciously thinking the job was done before they played South Africa.

2019 Rugby World Cup Semi-Final, International Stadium Yokohama, Yokohama, Japan 26/10/2019 England vs New Zealand England’s Manu Tuilagi scores a try Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie

The All Blacks were quite similar in their destruction of an Irish team who had beaten them twice in recent times and had replaced them as world number 1.  It is hard to compete against a team with a why.

As a leader, it is increasingly difficult to keep teams motivated to repeat their performances over and over. This is where keeping players mindset on the moment and the process of being excellent rather than the outcome of winning is so important. Oddly this is something that Joe Schmidt admitted to losing sight of this year.

2019 Rugby World Cup Quarter-Final, Tokyo Stadium, Tokyo 19/10/2019 New Zealand All Blacks vs Ireland Ireland’s Head Coach Joe Schmidt during the post-match press conference Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

He said in the aftermath of defeat at the World Cup that:

“After the November series, we wanted to make sure this was our target and maybe it consumed us too much and we got distracted from the focus.”

Rory Best echoed this with his admission that:

“Maybe we have been looking at this for too long and been so focused on it that we forgot to win some of the little battles along the way over the last 12 months.”

With that in mind how exciting was it to watch the Irish Women’s Hockey team secure their place in the Olympics with a sudden death shoot out goal by Limerick native Roisin Upton.

Investment in Hockey in Ireland up until last years world cup success has been laughable. Success has very much depended on the excellence and commitment of individual coaches. It is little known that The men’s team had to raise much of their own funding Through the drive of their coach Craig Fulton to go to the Rio Olympics.

Women’s FIH Olympic Hockey Qualifier Second Leg, Energia Park, Donnybrook, Co. Dublin 3/11/2019 Ireland vs Canada Irish players rush to celebrate with goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran after she makes the save that sends them to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

The Women’s team who performed such heroics at last Summers World Cup had no shirt sponsor up to 4 weeks before they went to London and paid much of their own way there.

What was particularly impressive in the performance this weekend was the fact that this remarkable group of players have achieved so much over the past 12 months with different coaches.

The upheaval of losing their head coach Graham Sharpe a few short months ago who understandably left an organisation where fighting funding is common to take on a professional role in New Zealand followed Craig Fulton’s (former Men’s Head Coach) decision to take a professional role with Belgium who have since won the World Cup and European championships.

For most teams, this kind of change in structure could be debilitating but these extraordinary women were driven by the pursuit of achieving something none of their predecessors could manage.

A first Olympic appearance. Qualification for an Olympics in Hockey is a particularly difficult task as there is no such thing as a handy draw. The Irish ladies earned their home draw based on their World ranking after a wonderful world cup silver medal.

Many of these players had tasted shoot out defeat 4 years ago when trying to reach the Rio Olympics. This drove them on. They had a collective vision.

Chloe Watkins spoke of the belief and vision team coach Sean Dancer had imparted to them:

“This was just a step in the process. Making it to the Olympics and medaling there is where he wants us to go.”

Chloe Watkins
Women’s FIH Olympic Hockey Qualifier Second Leg, Energia Park, Donnybrook, Co. Dublin 3/11/2019 Ireland vs Canada Ireland’s Chloe Watkins celebrates qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Like any great coach, he created the vision and drove them towards their dream goals whilst not losing sight of day to day improvement processes.

Dancer and his highly talented team kept focus on their target and the processes to get them there. So much so that Roisin Upton , having missed her first attempt, when called upon was ready to show courage to deliver for her team.

Whitney M Young Jr, American Civil Rights leader once said:

“It’s always better to be prepared for the opportunity you never get than unprepared for the one you do.”

Upton and her teammates proved they were prepared for their opportunity. Like Rassie Erasmus’ South Africa they showed that a collective vision and hope are near on unbeatable.

3 November 2019; Roisin Upton of Ireland celebrates with friends and family after qualifying for the Tokyo2020 Olympic Games after the FIH Women’s Olympic Qualifier match between Ireland and Canada at Energia Park in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

I for one will be glued to the Olympic Hockey next summer. Best luck coach Dancer and his troops.

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