Singalongs, angry mums, and zero banter: the fascinating secrets to Fiji’s 7s success

Fiji pray before the 7s tournament in Paris
Fiji pray before the 7s tournament in Paris Credit: AFP

Ahead of the World Rugby Sevens Series in London this weekend, British coach Ben Ryan, who led the Fiji sevens team to a historic first Olympic gold medal at Rio 2016, talks about the game-changing methods he used to build a world-beating team.

To discipline a 16 stone rugby player, have a word with their mum

"When I arrived in Fiji (in 2013) after coaching the England sevens team, I spent the first six months learning about the local culture and I found that in the Pacific the head of the house is really the mum. I knew that if I got to know the players’ mums I could use that knowledge to help deal with any team problems and to make sure anything I wanted to implement as a coach would be respected. I used that system a lot if there was a problem with a player."

Make individuals accountable to the group 

"One of my first challenges was to take high tackling out of the players’ habits. If somebody did a high tackle in training, rather than point out the possible consequences of a red card or a penalty in a tournament, I got them doing horrible fitness drills instead. For every high tackle, the whole team did 400m repeat runs.

"Although it was old-school, that advice also came from their mums who said that if I wanted the players to learn something I had to show them the consequences straight away in a physical manifestation. Because of that we were the most disciplined team in the Olympic Games."

Keep all key messages simple and direct

"The first thing I did was set up a simple programme so that everybody had complete clarity about what was required of them. We didn’t have a thick playbook. It was one A4 page with tactical ideas, standards, team rules and discipline. There were no grey areas on the programme and everything was black and white. Because we kept things simple, players understood the direct and simple connection between getting things right and winning a gold medal.

"Over time, if there were any small side issues, like a player turned up late or wasn’t eating right, the boys would pick up on it with each other before I had to intervene. There is nothing wrong with a straight-talking conversation with someone if it is done in the right way."

Ben Ryan puts the message across

Bond through singing and talking

"We sang together as a team twice a day, in the morning and in the evening. This was called the lotu and the players would pray and sing songs together, then hug and go to breakfast. In the evening lotu, players would read a passage from the bible that they could relate back to rugby and if anybody had anything they wanted to say - sometimes a player would just apologise for not being at their best in training because of this or that – they would do so.

"As a coach, it meant there were no blind spots and we were present all the time. Lotu means ‘church’ in Fijian and I felt this daily experience really bonded us."

Build a united team through kindness not banter 

"We had some important team rules: don’t swear in training and don’t criticise anyone.

"I had zero tolerance around banter. It is so common in rugby, people take the mickey and think they are being friendly but really it is a form of bullying and it makes people the butt of the joke for the benefit of everybody else. We always had fun but I insisted players were positive about each other.

"The players all had each other’s backs. If anybody was not feeling great, they would do what they could to help. Players were away from home for a long time in Rio, they got homesick, they missed their kids, they had arguments with their girlfriends, and I wanted the other players to rally around each other and help."

Encourage individual responsibility

"I wanted the players to have a sense of self-awareness and a sense of responsibility. They would carry all their own kit. They would be nice to staff.

"As an example, we had two suspected heart attacks on a plane journey and the stewardesses were panicking because they were supposed to be serving lunch. Our boys stood up and said: ‘Don’t worry, we will serve lunch for you,’ and so off they went, up and down the aisle, the Fijian rugby team serving chicken or fish. That awareness was what made this team so strong. They learned that they could be kind as people and ruthless on the pitch at the same time."

Visual learning is incredibly powerful

"I am not a coach who likes to sit in classrooms and do lots of analysis which is common in modern day sport where you can have paralysis by analysis. The best way the Fijians learned and respond to training, particularly as most of our boys left school before they turned 16, was by being shown things visually. They were very good visual learners so everything I did was either on the pitch or in the environment I wanted them to learn about.

"By working this way, we gleaned results with fitness and tactics incredibly quickly."

Focus on the 20pc that really matters

"When I came to creating a team strategy I planned out every day for two and a half years before the Olympics. The plan was that detailed. Once I had a formulated my strategy I wanted to focus on quick wins so I used Pareto’s Law which suggests that 80pc of your success is dependent on 20pc of the things you do.

For the Fijian team, that meant getting fit and eating right. We did a lot of running on heavy ground like in sand dunes to get fit and build mental resilience. And I encouraged them to focus on portion control at meals because their culture is to focus on today, not tomorrow, so we had to change that. Once we got those two changes in place, the results were instant." 

Skip social media and talk face to face 

"When we got to Rio we took all the players’ phones away from them before they got on the plane and we kept them until the end of the tournament. I thought they might borrow the women’s team’s mobiles so we took the phones off them as well.

"There are so many distractions in the Olympic village and I wanted to cut that down and give ourselves the best chance to stay focused. I insisted we always met together and ate together. That can be hard as you are in a tower block with hundreds of athletes and some might be Olympic tourists, losing in the first round and then partying all night, so it’s not a perfect environment. But those small things helped us to maintain focus."

Taking risks can lead to life-changing rewards 

"I took a big risk going to Fiji because I joined the team not having signed a contract and not knowing how much it would be for so I just jumped in there. But my instinct was to give it a go.

"Sometimes you take risks in careers and this is one that turned out very well after we won gold in Rio. After winning the gold medal I was made a chief. I am the first non-Fijian to be a chief and that honour is only given to you if they feel you are one of them. Only last week they put my face on a commemorative coin and a banknote. That was not something I thought would ever happen when I stepped on the island three and a half years ago." 

The final leg of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series takes place in London this weekend, accelerating the growth of the sport following its successful Olympic debut in Rio. www.worldrugby.org/sevens-series

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