I have always had an interest in coaching and helping people get better whether in sport or business. It has always been in my blood and even when I was a player, whether it was with London Wasps, Blackheath or England Sevens, I was always working on team cohesion and improving communication.
An injury while I was still playing allowed me to kick off my coaching career at grass roots level. When my playing days eventually came to an end I was able to embrace it fully and my hunger to learn led to RFU coaching awards. A leadership course run in conjunction with the Ashridge business school also helped further to shape my approach.
That coaching journey has also included the England Sevens side – during which time we won an unprecedented four consecutive Hong Kong 7s titles – and a stint with the RFU National Academy where I also did a lot of specific scrum-half coaching with the likes of current England internationals Danny Care and Ben Foden.
More recently I took charge of the Kenya Sevens side but there has also been plenty of XVs coaching along the way in the Premiership, Championship and National One and I am proud to be able to say that I have coached at all levels within the game – both men and women.
That quest for experience and desire to develop as a coach has taught me many things and a number of people have been a key influence throughout my time in the sport. I have also learnt the things not to do, the things that didn’t make me feel so good as a player, and you try not to make those same mistakes or at least package it up differently.
My approach has been heavily influenced by the time I have spent with Warren Gatland, both as a player and as a fellow coach. He enjoyed great success with Wasps and has since gone on to even greater things with Wales and the British & Irish Lions and I learnt a lot about what makes a successful culture and environment and how he operates.
I was also fortunate enough to work with former England captain Nigel Melville when he was the Wasps coach. In me, he inherited a No.9 who had never been coached to pass a ball properly and he had to take me apart and re-build me and that process gave me a good grounding of how to break things down and put them back together. For a naturally instinctive running scrum-half that was a hard thing for me to grasp and while I never became the best passer I significantly improved in that area and it certainly complimented my running game.
Different things from different coaches have helped mould me into the coach I am today, Gats’ man management, Nigel’s technical excellence, but it is important to understand that you never stop learning and I have also taken a great deal from my on-going interaction with other coaches from around the world on the Sevens circuit.
I talk a lot of rugby with the likes of New Zealand coach Gordon Tietjens, former South Africa and now Kenya coach Paul Treu and Australia’s Mick O’Connor. There’s a lot of rugby experience there – both in union and league – and you tend to swap and share scenarios and ideas often evolve out of that. There are no black and white answers, there is no right way or wrong way, there are just different ways to approach things that are all designed to bring the best out of your players.
The end result is my own philosophy and I am all about the environment and the culture. It is so important to create a hard-working environment because I firmly believe that whether you are the most talented player or the least talented player, you always get better with hard work. You need that discipline, attitude and that work ethic. Within that my coaching approach is heavily based around the basics. You have to be able to do the basics of the game very well because they are the ‘non-negotiables’. You simply can’t play the game at the highest level if you can’t accurately execute those basics.
Then it is about creating an environment where players feel challenged but also engaged and empowered to explore the decision-making and the problem-solving that you need to master if you want to get better at understanding the game.
The game is a puzzle and it is about giving the players an environment that allows them to come up with the right solution. As a coach I want to ensure they have a menu of options they can go to depending on what they are faced with on the pitch. The best players work out the solutions to those puzzles very, very quickly and that comes with experience and repetition. I try to coach them to recognise what the problems may look like and then work out what solution will work in that scenario.
I am very much about creating an all-encompassing environment with really clear values such as hard work, honesty, integrity as the foundations – but there must also be appreciation that you never take the basics for granted.
Have you got a question for Mike? Post it below and we’ll put it to him in our Twitter Q & A this Thursday – #AskMike