Since the Under-20s Six Nations Championship kicked off mid-June in Cardiff, I’ve been honoured to spend time every week with England Rugby’s U20s players. And it was a truly special moment for players, coaches and fans alike this week when the boys sealed the Grand Slam with a 27-17 win over Italy, following impressive victories in all other games.
Leading Edge are privileged to have worked with England Rugby since 2017, designing and delivering a series of off-field activities focused on character and leadership development for the U20s – England’s next generation.
Most of these robust sessions have taken place away from the game, so this opportunity for me to go into camp as the team’s Mental Skills and Leadership Coach – to work with players in a live setting, one that really matters from a competitive point of view – was exciting indeed. It meant a lot to me and to Leading Edge.
From off-field to in-camp
Working within Covid-19 restrictions meant creating development experiences for the players outdoors. Although I was cleared to see the players under strict rules, I wasn’t in their ‘bubble’. Therefore, our sessions would begin by meeting at the hotel steps before heading off for a ‘task walk’ to run through the activity. We’d then set up at an open space (with trees nearby for rain shelter!) and make a start.
This wouldn’t be my natural approach or setting for developing mental skills and leadership within a group, but interestingly this weekly ‘routine’ – a set point in time between games when players knew time was put aside for them – went down very well and they truly embraced the sessions.
Needing to resource activities differently because of the restrictions stretched me. When I coach at Dragons Rugby, I value the ‘casual collisions’ – those moments when bumping into one of the lads around the ground turns into an unplanned catch-up on something we’ve worked on the week before, and a chance for a quick look at how things are going.
For the England U20s, I needed to come up with new ways to connect on a one-to-one level between the weekly skills sessions. WhatsApp became a great friend for this, whether sharing video clips to back up the learning with new challenges, or getting in touch for informal check-ins with individual players or smaller player groups about specific development.
Mental skills and leadership journey
I’m always chuffed to be involved with Leading Edge’s development work with the U20s and, as I mentioned, it’s mostly off-field, away from the game. So this chance to support as a live coach and enable players to experience the stepping stones of a mental skills journey, alongside their competitive rugby journey, was very special.
Across five sessions, we touched on setting out the type of environment and culture desired by the lads, followed by a self-awareness piece looking at strengths and weaknesses and understanding each other’s preferences, with a focus on introversion and extroversion.
Another important part of this journey was around self-regulation and how our emotions can be easily hijacked – drawing attention to how critical it is that we understand the workings of our brain. Our session on being a leader (being able to speak up at the right times and getting familiar with different forms of leadership) focused on both individual and collective responsibilities. We concluded with the massively important communication element, getting comfortable with giving each other feedback, particularly how to pass on information in a highly pressured sports environment and how it’s really all about practice.
Having seen these young players do what they do on the field and getting to know them during the tournament as I have, it doesn’t surprise me one bit that they went all the way to securing the Grand Slam. They showed bags of resilience in their opening game against France, making a stunning second-half comeback after trailing 19-3 at the break. This incredible focus and dedication set the tone for their approach to the championships.
Of course, if you play sport professionally, you love to win! But for an U20s group, it’s just as much about developing great players. The feedback from these sessions around mental skills and leadership has been fantastic and confirmed that this different approach has anchored these sessions in their memory. Players have described how much they’d benefitted from these skills sessions running alongside their technical and performance development.
The boys have impressed me on and off the field during this Under-20s Six Nations, and this has only boosted my existing feeling of pride and fuelled my excitement to see where their futures take them.
From us all at Leading Edge, massive congratulations to England Rugby and the Men’s U20s on an outstanding tournament. I’ve loved working alongside you again.