In the small New South Wales coastal town where I am staying over the New Year period, there is a rugby field.
It is similar to any rugby field in small country towns across the globe. Established well over a century ago, built by the generosity of generations, the soil is fertilised by blood, sweat and camaraderie.
Each day over the past week as I walked to the beach for an early morning surf it has been impossible to miss the lone muscular figure working out at the old ground.
Shirtless in the heat of the morning sunshine, his highly athletic physique told me he was a rugby player. I watched as he completed a well-constructed session of agility, footwork and sprints before he started his kicking practice.
As a chorus of camouflaged cicadas croaked out a wall of noise from the gum trees that surrounded the old ground and a family of late-rising kookaburras laughed out their morning territorial rights, our ‘little mate’ – wearing old school black boots – was joyously in the grind of chasing his dream. Torpedo bombs and 50-20s kicks were on his skills ‘to do list” for today.
Every second day he was out there, doing his workout before the sun delivered its peak heat. By the look of his build, every other day he was lifting tin in a gym. Not bodybuilding, but science-based power and strength training.
On the fourth day I saw him practising I waited until he had finished his exhaustive session, then walked over to say g’day.
He was a polite and courteous young man. He told me he had a training contract with a National Rugby League club. A country boy seeking his opportunity.
Training contracts are notoriously stingy. Sometimes there is no pay at all, just the chance to be taught by highly knowledgeable coaches and learn as fast as humanly possible from the gifted professional players that surround you in the hope of showing the head coach that you have what it takes to make it in the big time of the NRL.
A carpenter by profession, he had a supportive boss who gave him as much time off as he needed to hunt down his big dream. Time off but no pay.
I had never met him before, but I know his type very well. The American basketball coach Rick Pitino describes them as a ‘PhD players’. Not doctors of philosophy but Poor, Hungry and Driven.
They are the teammate that every player wants at their shoulder. The dedicated trainer who maximises whatever talent that the genetic lottery provided them with. The obsessive competitor who meticulously prepares for every match. The fighter who will never concede, no matter the circumstance. The mongrel dog, with fur standing erect alone the ridge of their spine, who will never back down from a scrap.
They may not be the most talented player on the team roster, but they are the type of player that every coach wants to have in their squad. Tough, trustworthy and, in my experience, fiercely loyal to the team and to their coach who provided them with the opportunity.
Preseason training for the rugby codes in Australia starts in November, then takes a break over the Christmas and New Year period, before another six weeks block across January and February.
When I asked him why he was training with such intensity at a time of year when he was supposed to be on a break, he just smiled and murmured: “There are no days off for me”.
Quite often the best junior players don’t make it to the top because they don’t develop in their youth the work ethic required to reach the pinnacle of their sport. Talent is essential for success but by itself, undeveloped and uneducated, it will fail.
Every successful rugby player learns how to grow their intangible spiritual skills. Practising with meticulous and deliberate care, repetition builds the strong mental grit necessary to endure in a gladiatorial sport. With an icy determination, players learn how to become high-quality professionals. They learn how to do whatever it takes to not only get the jersey but to wear it and win.
This young man was growing the essential personal leadership traits required to master his craft that every successful player must acquire.
As the great mind skills coach Ali McCaw puts it: “Under pressure you never become your aspirations. You become your worst habits. So build habits of excellence.”
When the clutch play is required and the pressure is at its maximum, the ingrained habits players learn on the practice field will surface in the game. If your personal standards at practice are not high enough, then your performance will reflect that.
You will play like you train. So you must train how you want to play.
Under the blazing Australian sunshine, this young man was building his own excellent habits that hopefully would stand to him when it came his time to perform under pressure.
If selected in the final 30 contracts of an NRL club, the minimum wage is $150,000 a year. At his club there is one contract remaining vacant for the 2023 season. He believes that if he can perform outstandingly during January’s practice sessions he can earn that last precious piece of paper.
We shook hands and I wished him luck, but we both knew that luck would have nothing to do with his success or failure.
He got into his car and drove off to a building site to do a day’s work to earn some money. Next Monday he will head back to train with his club to be judged on his skills, work ethic, contribution to the team’s culture, mental strength and leadership.
All the essential habits that he had been practising, with rigorous determination over his supposed holidays.
As he said, for those who want to make it, there are no days off.