Business

Saturday 20 July 2019

Ahead of the pack: Lessons from Irish rugby's elite

He last donned a tracksuit in 1994 but Irish Independent Business Editor Donal O'Donovan togs out to find out what Munster Rugby can teach the business world about success

A big stretch: Donal is put through his paces at Munster's High Performance Centre
A big stretch: Donal is put through his paces at Munster's High Performance Centre

Knights of yore made pilgrimages to get the rub of saintly relics, less to atone for their violent ways than for any edge it might give them in the bloody business of crushing their enemies.

The compulsion to be around a winning formula runs deep.

And that's at least part of the why I find myself an unlikely pilgrim in the pre-dawn damp of 7am on a winter's morning at Munster Rugby's swish High Performance Centre at the University of Limerick, tagging along with nine high-flying business executives as they kick off an intensive leadership training programme. The High Performance Centre is where Munster's elite players are based for their working week.

We are here to see if Munster Rugby's approach to success on the field can help their firms gain an edge in real life. The course is a newish venture, part of Munster's effort to commercialise its on-field reputation - capitalising on the brand, the club's in-house expertise and ties with experts at the University of Limerick.

In the early morning gloom, I try to remember the last time I owned a tracksuit. Definitely before I went to college, so 1994 at the latest. I'm not a high-flying executive either, but facing a day being literally put through my paces that's not bothering me particularly.

The course runs for two and a half days. I'm only staying for Day One, but I've been encouraged to participate fully. That means fasting overnight before getting a full set of bloods done, my body weighed, measured and put through a series of exercises and positions to assess balance, strength and condition with UL's sports scientist; all before breakfast.

As you'd expect, Munster Rugby looms large - it's a rest week for the club, but players drift in and out of the gym and team rooms. Dinner on the second night is with a group of players including Chris Farrell, Jack O'Donoghue and Tommy O'Donnell. There's also a session with Jerry Flannery, a Munster stalwart as coach and former player.

We each get a Munster training kit to wear throughout the stay. The itinerary is packed - shifting from gym to classroom and even kitchen.

Being match fit

Repeat demand from employers suggests that the course is delivering on the not inconsiderable investment - €4,900 per participant including hotel and food.

The 10 participants met briefly the previous evening in a nearby hotel for a quick pre-course orientation with Munster's Enda Lynch. They are a friendly, informal group from a mix of sectors and range from chief executives to senior middle management.

While players go about their business in the background, it's really the behind-the-scenes team that the course taps into, and in particular their overlap with the university. All of the sessions are expert-led. Our gym work is with trainers who both have PhDs - Dr Brian Carson and Dr Mark Lyons.

The emphasis is on practical activities that can be picked up easily and repeated often, more or less anywhere. The biggest reason people don't exercise is because they don't know how, we're told, so they run our group of non-elite athletes through very manageable basics. Even I can keep up.

We do a lot of resistance training - using big rubber bands - that can be ratcheted up or down depending on individual's strength and condition. The overall message is clear. For Munster's star players, turning up match fit is part of the job. The corollary is that turning up work fit matters in business, too, it's just the fitness level required that's different.

Nutritionist Dr Catherine Norton also straddles academia and sports. The UL lecturer was Munster's full-time lead nutritionist for three years - a job that involved constantly tweaking 72 meal plans for 72 players weekly - with changes based on the player's own physical position and whether they were in recovery from injury, building condition or preparing for a match. Interestingly, while Munster's elite and academy players each get a meal plan tailored to their energy and nutritional needs, they have to cook it for themselves.

"At Munster we talk about the 24/7 athlete, but that's about being 'on' all the time. It means living in a way that the player presents prepared when they are needed," she explains.

Unlike on the field where it's the 80 minutes on match day that really count, most business people have to perform most of the time. But the principal doesn't change, you must eat well to have the energy to deliver.

Taking personal control

The advice is practical, including the emphasis on taking personal control of diet and meal planning - particularly for those in our group whose jobs can involve a lot of long-distance travel, hotel stays and long, or unpredictable working hours and schmoozy meals.

One simple exercise that struck me was when we were asked to sketch a typical day - with a curved line to show the times we were most busy. On to that we jotted the times we ate. It was striking that I very often eat immediately after I've been most busy - a recipe for having too little energy when it's needed and eating badly when I shouldn't.

Psychology is the other big part of the package. Munster's head of HR Claire Cooke, a psychologist by training, plays a key role alongside UL's Dr Patrick Ryan, a senior clinical psychologist at the university. Both have one-on-one sessions with all of the participants as well as group discussions

Before coming to Limerick, all of us have had '360 degree evaluations' - a survey sent by the team to a mix of our work colleagues, family members and people in our communities about each participant's leadership style and approach. Participants also each complete a "state-of-mood" survey before arrival - which forms the basis for a one-on-one with Dr Ryan.

The results can be a bit of a jolt, especially if what other people think differs significantly from how we perceive ourselves. But the emphasis is on the practical - including a reminder that working lives can't really be separated from home and social lives - so that the tools for navigating one area of life apply in different measures to the rest.

The focus isn't on avoiding stressful or challenging situations - which in fairness wouldn't really work in a course aimed at highly performing executives any more than it would for professional rugby players.

"If you can manage and regulate yourself as an individual, you can do extraordinary things," Dr Ryan says.

The unifying theme is self-discipline, self-awareness and self-regulation. Ironically, that seems to suggests an approach to leadership that couldn't be further from the cliché of the hard-charging Munster rugby star driving head first through the thick of a maul, until you remember that it takes a lot of patience and self-discipline to set up the maul in the first place.

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