Stuart Lancaster is considered to have one of the best rugby coaching minds in the world. He has huge experience at the top level of professional rugby and has been involved in numerous successful teams.
He began his coaching career while working as a PE teacher in Kettlethorpe High School in England. The nature of a PE teaching role just naturally draws you into coaching through extra-curricular sports teams. He had plenty of success as a coach across a variety of sports including soccer and cricket at school’s level as well as rugby, the sport for which he became best known.
He came from a strong playing background too, playing for Wakefield RFC and Headingly RFC at club level, while he represented Scotland at underage level through the parentage rule and a Scottish mother. In his mid-twenties, when rugby went professional, he signed a contract with Leeds Tykes and went on to be the first player from the newly formed club to play over 100 professional games.
Towards the end of his playing career, he successfully coached the Leeds Tykes to promotion to the premiership, England's elite professional rugby competition. Simultaneously, he was up-skilling himself and became one of the first to attain a level 5 coaching badge with the RFU. He left Leeds Tykes to take up a role with the RFU, overseeing the development of the elite underage rugby structures before going on to coach the England U20’s and England Saxons to huge success.
Lancaster replaced Martin Johnson as England interim head coach in 2011 after Johnson resigned his position after the Rugby World Cup, when some of the players made bad headlines for the wrong reasons; ie off-field antics which brought some very negative media coverage. Lancaster saw his primary objective as facilitating a fundamental change in squad culture! As such, he left some high profile players out of the squad - for discipline reasons.
This culture change brought about an increase in fortunes, even if they failed to win championships, finishing as Six Nations Runners up on four consecutive occasions from 2012 – 2015. His time as head coach of the English Senior Rugby team didn’t end as planned however as they failed to qualify from their group when they hosted the Rugby World Cup in 2015, bringing pressure from the media to resign.
From those difficult times, he needed a change and sought to learn from others. He traveled the world to see how other high performing teams run their programmes across a wide variety of sports, including baseball, American football, premier league soccer and Super 14’s Rugby. He has often suggested that he does not know it all and that he is constantly willing to learn.
He has had challenges in his personal life too that may have enhanced his capacity to deal with setbacks in his coaching career. His playing career was cut short at a young age when his hamstring was ripped off the bone in a training practice drill at 30 years of age. His father also passed away as a young man, leaving a large farm behind that needed to be farmed. Stuart left a teaching post for a period to help his brother run the farm before continuing to pursue a career in teaching and sports coaching.
One of the most honest and brightest thinkers and speakers in professional sports coaching, he sees the bigger picture and is very grateful to be in the position to be doing what he is doing for a living - now a senior coach at Leinster Rugby. At a recent coaching conference in Dublin for the Gaelic Athletic Association, he gave some his inner most views on coaching and coaching science.
His starting point was about the nature of the coaching dynamic. He asked the question; "Is the coach principled or are they a principal?" He gave what he considers to be 10 non-negotiable principles for success – many of which tie in with the concept of transformational leadership!
A great example of his development of this was relayed in a recent radio interview on Newstalk’s “Off the Ball”. At an early stage of his managerial tenure with the England Senior Team, he requested (un-known to the players), that each player’s parents send a letter to him about what it meant for them to have a son represent England. The letters were handed to players at a team meeting during a training camp, where players were asked to read them aloud in front of the group. Many welled up in tears through the process. Needless to say, through this exercise alone, many players found their why!
Keith Begley is an accredited performance psychology provider with the Irish Institute of Sport.
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Performance psychologist - accredited with Irish Institute of Sport