Sometimes when talking to coaches about coaching, Joe Schmidt uses the analogy of a car.
As huge as he is on detail, his advice is not to clutter athletes with too much feedback in one go; filter it, otherwise they’ll be like the overwhelmed L-plate driver, and end up lost.
Paul O’Connell wrote, in his autobiography, about how Ireland in 2015 didn’t train as hard as they had for previous World Cups, before correcting himself, in his diary of that campaign. “That’s wrong, actually, it’s more we haven’t trained as long; it’s been about training with intensity for shorter periods.”
Schmidt would have been aware of burning up unnecessary fuel; there are times, he says, when you have to switch the engine off.
International rugby management he likens to a Formula One pit stop — he and his crew have to be so cohesive, precise, and on-task because that car has to be out straight away.
But sometimes it will go off course. Sometimes, he says, the car will even end up in the ditch, just like Ireland did when losing to Wales 12 months ago, their second defeat of that Six Nations campaign. At which point his advice is to ignore the pundits and papers and all external noise; instead, grab the map that’s the data, come up with a strategy and route and then sell it to the rest of the team.
Just like all things with Schmidt, there’s a reason he uses such a metaphor. His real genius is not so much his knowledge of rugby, as remarkably comprehensive as it is, but his knowledge and mastery of how to coach it.
He’s world class not just for WHAT he coaches, but HOW he coaches. And as an aspiring coach like O’Connell himself observed from his time with Schmidt: “Great coaching is often about imagery and cues.”
The science and research back it up. Nick Winkelman, the IRFU’s head of athletic performance and science, routinely speaks to coaches around the country, and indeed the world, about the acquisition of skill. And from the studies he has both conducted and studied, athletes attend to, perform, and retain a coaching instruction much better if it is both interesting and personal. The brain craves saliency and novelty, so the best coaches, like Schmidt, feed it.
O’Connell has spoken about how Schmidt used the image of a mackerel to describe how he wanted his players to react when they were on their backs with the ball after carrying. To stop the poacher from getting on them, he wanted them to contort, rotate, swivel, “like that mackerel that had just been pulled in and was jumping around on the bottom of the boat”.
There’s another dictum of Winkelman’s that Schmidt applies: say the most with the least. O’Connell noticed that most other coaches he worked under lacked Schmidt’s concision. “Some stopped the video and said, ‘Look at Paul there. If he could just move his body around a bit more to stop this poacher and then maybe place the ball a little further out…’ Joe gave the team a bunch of triggers, cues, we could say in our head and kept ramming them home until they became second nature.”
The image of the mackerel was one such cue. ‘Body Ball’ was another to help make sure his ball placement was spot on as he’d hit the ground. “If somebody didn’t do enough to shake off the poacher,” O’Connell explained in, “some of the more forceful guys like Eoin Reddan or Johnny Sexton wouldn’t be long letting them know about it. ‘That’s bullshit! Fucking Body Ball!’”
If there was a ball on the ground in training, everyone nearby shouted ‘Scraps!’, the trigger to dive on it.
For Schmidt, delivering the message as precisely and succinctly as possible is paramount. He’s spoken about how he’s learned from Frank Dick, the former athletics coach who speaks widely to coaches and business leaders. Dick was working with Cameron Sharp, a 200m Commonwealth champion, instructing him to ‘drive out of the bend’. It was only making Sharp’s performance blunt. Don Quarrie, the Olympic champion in the event, intervened, observing that ‘Drive’ implied making long contact. He suggested ‘Lift off the bend.’ Words are like inches — indeed they are inches. A couple of them can make all the difference.
That’s the detail Schmidt operates at and has Ireland operating at. As team performance analyst Vinny Hammond put it so vividly at the DCU Applied Coaching Workshop Masterclass back in January, when a Six Nations championship like the 2015 campaign can hinge on a late Jamie Heaslip tackle in Murrayfield, you need to study and prepare “a shitload about the very little matters because a little can matter a shitload”.
It’s why, for all his amiability, Schmidt won’t hesitate to pull up and call out a player on the training ground. “Oh, no doubt, he’ll bark at you,” says Shane Jennings, who won two European Cups under Schmidt at Leinster. “But instant feedback is a good thing and being ruthless is a good thing. You have to have that accountability. A fella might be nice and get on with you and leave things off but you might not win a lot with him. There’s a reason behind Joe shouting at you.”
A bit like today’s adversary Eddie Jones, Schmidt believes in sometimes cutting a player, letting him bleed for a bit. But he’ll also help him in the bandaging process too.
“Joe won’t mince his words but he’ll always soften them later,” the ever-observant O’Connell noted in.
"He might come over when you’re looking at training on the computer and he’ll crack a joke and explain where you went wrong. ‘How many three-point games have you been involved in? That play — done right — could win us the game on Saturday.’”
Again: care a shitload about a little matter because that little can matter a shitload.
Jennings was on the receiving end of such exchanges, on the training ground and in the team room, but crucially found them as constructive as they were honest. “Anyone can say ‘You did that wrong’ but they may not then have the solution. But he’d help you come up with the solution and that gave you something to focus on in training for that week. He’d say ‘Listen, let’s look at your stats of your performance. Your clearout was not as good as it has been, so now let’s look at improving it.’ Then he might suggest, ‘You need to work on your placement’, or ‘You need to work on your top shoulder.’ It was very applicable, so you could go, ‘Okay, now I can actually work on that and improve on it.’ That’s the difference.”
Schmidt himself has said, “Coaching is continuous feedback.”
Players don’t just need it, they want it. In Tom English’s excellent, Johnny Sexton and Andrew Trimble both spoke about Schmidt’s predecessor Declan Kidney with a sense of frustration as much as a fondness. “At times he wouldn’t tell you the truth,” said Sexton. “I said it to him, ‘I need to know why I’m dropped so I can improve it. I don’t want to hear that I’ve done nothing wrong or I’m going great.’ At times I wish he was harsher with me.”
With Schmidt, there was no such reticence. There were times Trimble bemoaned that he was getting the kind of candid feedback he yearned from Kidney. “Joe gave him a hard time at the start,” Sexton told English, “and Trimbs was a bit down about it.
I said to him, ‘Trimbs, he’s not on your case because he doesn’t like you, he’s on your case because he sees something in you and wants to bring it out.’
Months later, Trimble was scoring a championship-winning try in Paris.
Schmidt can be sparing in his praise but it’s all the more effective in its selectivity. Because it works the other way too: a little matter done right can matter a shitload.
“When you do something good that 99 percent out of a 100 wouldn’t see,” Tommy Bowe says in, “he’ll be the one person who will have spotted it and he’ll congratulate you on it.”
“He’ll show it on the television, in front of everybody,” Johnny Sexton concurs in the same book, “and you feel like a million dollars.”
Put it all together and there can be few teams operating in high-performance sport that have such faith in their leader. Man City under Pep Guardiola, perhaps, Donegal with Jim McGuinness back in 2012. Ireland under Schmidt are in that rarefied sphere. As Gordon D’Arcy has put it, “Belief in the process comes from belief in the man.”
Part of that process, according to the man himself, is to let players lead. They have one of the most active and engaged leadership groups in European international sport. Sometimes he’ll hand preparation of sessions over to the players and let them drive it.
“I have the GPS,” Schmidt has said, “I help them, but they drive it.”
The result is the car is motoring well, heading in the right direction.