I’m standing before a wall of memorabilia in the rugby clubhouse at the University of California, Berkeley. But more than that, I’m standing before a wall of history dating back to 1882, and even as longtime men’s coach Jack Clark is talking, the volumes it speaks are deafening.
“We’ve run out of room on these walls, so it’s a big deal when we replace something.” He points to several more recent photos: “It takes a lot to get up here now.”
Clark nods toward a piece of memorabilia enclosed behind glass: “That’s the axe we played Stanford for. We’ve played for that axe for a long time.”
“Does it ever go back and forth?” I ask.
“They haven’t seen that one in a while,” he replies, smiling. “But they had it in…they’ve had it in the last 25 years or so.” This memory appears to chafe, and he switches topics.
He gestures toward photos of Cal players who have represented the USA national team over the years; the many who have played professionally abroad; a shot of the 1924 Olympic team. Cal’s connection to rugby greatness in this country is a direct pipeline.
“We had seven players on the last Rugby World Cup team in ,” he says. “I mean, that’s phenomenal, that’s more than anyone else. We’ve had more international players, more professional players than any team out there. We have really good players on this year’s team, as well. But our profile isn’t that we get the cream of the crop in rugby. We get a sampling of that, and a lot of guys with good SATs. We develop players. You come in and we get you from where you are to where you want to be.”
Clark took over the head coaching position at Cal in 1984. Since then, the team has established a veritable dynasty, snagging the 2013 collegiate rugby 7s championship, a total of 22 national 15s titles (including 16 of the last 20); a winning streak of 98 domestic games from 1990-96 and one that lasted 70 games, until 2003; one in U.S. collegiate competition that lasted 115 matches between April 2004 and May 2009; and one in 15s of 63 straight matches that lasted a period of time spanning 2010 through 2012.
He is a loved and loathed figure in American rugby — his detractors argue that he is a bit of an asshole, while his supporters laud his propensity for straight talk. When it comes to the topic of winning, both are entirely beside the point.
Clark’s coaching style includes almost no scrimmages, and very few drills that involve full contact (i.e., there isn’t much tackling). So, how do they dominate so completely? They drill culture above all else and, put simply, they know how to win.
“I think our winning percentage is probably 90 percent or close. We’ve been chasing excellence for a long time,” he says. “We have a performance culture where the byproduct is winning, versus ‘We’re all about winning.’ That’s not really how we think.”
I asked him if he could boil down what it takes to create this kind of culture into a few simple points, and while of course this is an impossible task, he gave it the old college try. What he came up with could feasibly apply not only to sports, but also your place of employment and possibly even your family…except for this first point, that is.
1. LOVE CONDITIONALLY.
Jack Clark: You and I could go to the sports page today and open it up and see some sports team calling themselves a family. It’s what everyone does nowadays — they call themselves a family. In reality, it grates on me a little bit because my concept of family is unconditional. There’s my screw-up brother down in Huntington Beach. I love him, but you don’t want him on your team, I promise you. Family means unconditional, whereas high-performance teams are highly, highly conditional organizations.
Jack Clark: I saw a quote the other day from the financier Warren Buffet. He said, “I won’t work with anybody I don’t like, trust and admire.” When you start looking at people who are really successful, who are part of successful organizations, the last thing they are is unconditional. We’re pretty highly conditional here.
Jack Clark: I think they’re saying they care about each other. I think that’s pretty important to care about each other, but it’s too loose to me because it takes it to another place. It’s like, hold on: If what you’re saying is you care about each other — that’s going to help us win, that’s going to make it more enjoyable to be together, because god knows we’re going to be together a lot. To Warren Buffet’s point, we like, trust and admire each other.
But, it’s kind of exclusive. There was a legendary football coach that died about 10 years ago named Bo Schembechler at Michigan. He has this quote that I think is the greatest quote. It has to do with recruiting and who you want on your team. He says, “Well, if you ever really want a guy and you don’t get him, that’s OK. He’ll only beat you once a year.” I think that’s kind of catchy. Then this old boy clears his throat and says, “On the other hand, if you get the wrong guy on your team, he’ll beat you every day.” There some truth to that.
We want talent on the team, but one wrong guy? That can really hurt you.
2. BE THOROUGHLY ACCOUNTABLE.
Jack Clark: After the game Saturday we kind of know what the injury toll is, but things do get worse overnight sometimes. So we do a med check straightaway on Sunday morning, followed by a regeneration strategy, followed by this long meeting.
The first thing we say is what we did well. That collaboration is not just between players and staff — it’s sometimes between player and player, where somebody’s going to say, “I thought we tackled really well.” And somebody else is going to say, “I don’t know. I think our defensive structure was good but we fell off a lot of tackles.” “I agree with you.” “Hold on, we did well around the fringe but not on the corner of the defense.” It’s that level of detail. I’m going to facilitate that and I’m going to let it come out. So, it’s collaborative, is the thing.
Then we’re going to do the same thing about what we didn’t do well, and what we have to build on. We probably already have the game coded by then. The coaches have stats and we’re going to start presenting some information to them. But while it’s fresh in the players’ minds, we want to have them make those lists.
Jack Clark: When we get caught up in our coaching, we’ve got to force ourselves to talk about what we’re doing well. But it has become part of what we do — we open every meeting with what we did well. We never cut that list short — we always build upon it. It’s got to be real, though. It can’t be stuff that is kind of halfway true. It’s got to be real stuff. Make that list as long as we can. Spend so much more time on your strengths.
Jack Clark: We look at all of our performance measures. Primary phase is a category, and there are penetration stats we would keep in primary phase. We talk about secondary phase, we talk about decision making, we talk about defense, we talk about restarts. We try to capsulize all that into a point on a graph on the wall. “Where are we, here? Are we here, are we here? Where are we?” There’s a little bit of, “No, down. Okay. There. That’s it.” Then we can just play with that week to week. “Did we improve?” “Yeah, I think we got a little better.” “Now, the opposition wasn’t very good so let’s not get carried away that we’re all that. So maybe we’re just here.”
There’s a bit of gimmick in the whole thing, but how do you get 65 people coming along with where are we today when they all have individual performance goals? At some point they’ve got to understand that although the team improved, I didn’t improve. I had a shocker. Or although the team was kind of flat, I had my best game. They’ve got to fit themselves into that whole team thing. But if we want them to think team first, self last, we’ve got to give them some opportunities to do so.
Jack Clark: We’re very transparent. We’re willing to live with the data for a while, live with our performance for a while. There’s a lot of “My bad” nowadays. You know, if you say “My bad” quickly enough no one can say anything to you. But if we don’t play well, we’re not willing to sweep it under the rug right away. We want to understand why we didn’t play well. We don’t want to fault any generalities. If we think we did play well, why is that? How can we build upon that? I think if you’re going to have a really thoughtful approach, it’s going to be scientifically based, it’s going to be system-based. It’s going to imply honesty.
3. SHARE A VOCABULARY.
Jack Clark: There’s a coach on campus here who just asked me to look at his team’s values. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, because this was a really well-paid coach who’s in a high-profile sport. But this team actually wrote the word “California” in a circle, all the way around. Below the C they put everything you could possibly imagine: commitment, courage. Sometimes there were like 70 words for each letter — you can’t believe in all that stuff. He was like, “Did I miss anything?” “No, of course you didn’t miss anything. You’ve got everything — but putting ‘I’ for ‘intelligence’…listen, at some point those aren’t values. Those aren’t things that you’ll fight for.”
Jack Clark: We buy into six or seven things that are interconnected, that boxcar together to create a system. Now, might there be the odd freshman that would miss a couple? Maybe. But they would get the major definitions right because they’ve heard it and they’ve heard it from the other guys on the team. We talk about this. We spend a lot of time in meetings, too, remember. A lot of sports teams probably don’t spend enough time in meetings.
4. PRACTICE RESILIENCY.
Jack Clark: I think what matters most — outside of talent — would probably be the culture of the team: developing a really resilient, embedded team culture around performance. It’s like anything else: You’ve got to rep it. You’ve got to talk about it on day one and day five and in the middle of the season and at the end of the season.
Jack Clark: Our mindset is how we filter our values and how we talk about them. I think it’s important now, more than ever before, because there is a lot of entitlement. But we say our mindset is “entitled to nothing, grateful for everything.”
We’re really happy when people do something for us and somebody washes our clothes or somebody puts on a meal for us. Anything that we get, we feel really grateful for it but we don’t really think we’re entitled to much. I mean you ask how do you become resilient? Well, that’s kind of it. I mean, you don’t expect much — not from the ref, not from the opposition. If you’re playing into the wind in both halves, that’s just how it is. We just don’t expect to get a break. That makes you tougher in a way. We don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what happened to us and why did it happen to us and woe is us. We just get on with what’s the next most important thing, which is our definition, by the way, for mental toughness. We borrowed that definition from a really good Australian cricketer. I always thought it was the cleanest definition of mental toughness I ever heard.
Jack Clark: The ability to focus on the next most important thing all the time. If you only think about it when you’re under pressure, that’s the thing you don’t do. You live in what just happened or you’re worried about what could happen next, and you allow all that emotion to flood you as opposed to just being an operator and going right to the next most important thing.
Jack Clark: I’ve done a lot of research on organizational behaviors. I’m a long way from a social scientist, but I really care about that stuff. When you research teams and cultures, you find that the teams who are really tough and resilient wear it on their sleeve. They carry toughness with them, like “We don’t need the best product, the best market, the best everything, we’re all pretty tough people here.” Coworkers will talk about each other that way. You’ll pull them off to the side and they’ll say, “Oh yeah, that won’t make her quit. I’m just telling you right now. Put a water hose in her nose and she isn’t going to quit.” They’ll celebrate it.
When I go down to New Zealand, I go to the International Rugby Academy. That’s where you can see people say goodbye to each other by saying “kia kaha,” which means “be strong.” Fathers say it to daughters and moms say it to sons. Be strong. It’s like saying “Have a nice day” here or something. How do we celebrate toughness? Where do we see it? How do we love each other up when we demonstrate it?
5. EXPECT EVERYONE TO LEAD.
Jack Clark: We say that the definition of leadership is the ability to make those around you better and more productive. It’s a skill to us. Leadership isn’t a rank — it’s not only for the coach, it’s not only for the captain, it’s not only for the seniors. It’s a skill. Some guys develop big toolboxes with a lot of leadership skills very early on in their careers. Other guys, even when they’ve been here a while, might not have really comprehensive leadership skills. We’re all trying to get there. In our minds, just like there’s a glossary around the technical side of the game, there’s a glossary around the cultural side of the game. This builds commonalities of values that we all believe.
We open up the leadership model; it’s not just the conventional model of the minority leading the majority. I just don’t happen to think that’s all that powerful. If I’m the leader, that means everyone else is a follower. I’m not happy with that.
Jack Clark: As you get older, your intellectual property should get better. You should become a better leader over time because you’ve had more experiences and you’ve had to be a leader in different situations — when things are going really well, when things were not going well, with difficult people and with people who inspire you. At some point, you’ve had all kinds of teammates and you’ve seen good teams and bad teams. Over time, if you look at leadership as a skill and not as a rank, then I think it’s possible to say, “This is something that I’m going to get better at over time.” I think when we really get it right — and we don’t every year — but when we really get it right, we have a lot of people on this team contributing to the leadership of the team. That gets pretty powerful. That’s magical, almost, to see a bunch of people trying to make each other better and more productive.
This isn’t a situation of too many cooks in the kitchen. This is the difference in defining leadership by rank or ability. We say it’s an ability, it’s a skill. It’s like teaching somebody to pass a rugby ball. They start out not so good and in the end they become great off both hands. Well, leadership is a skill just like that. We have to be able to teach people to do it.
Jack Clark: I think in a culture that values leadership as a skill, a person can ask himself at any point in time, “Am I demonstrating leadership characteristics now or am I lost in my own little world?”
Jack Clark: Selflessness is the ability to speak with the team’s voice and to lose yourself in that whole team. We say team first, self last and we mean it. It’s funny how this plays out. Sometimes one of the students will ask for a meeting because they want to talk about playing time or something. They’ll sit down and they’ll start asking the question and they’ll be fumbling around with it. Finally they’ll just say, “You’re going to ask me what’s best for the team, aren’t you?” And I say, “Of course.” That’s the first lens that comes down on every decision we make. Now, if somebody has some drama going on his life that’s really bad, we’re all going to rally around that person. This is not meant to say that it’s all about the corporation and not about the individual. If somebody’s got something going on in his life, we’re all going to pull up our socks and support that person and look after him.
In general, though, on a day-to-day operational basis, what are we doing and why are we doing it and who’s doing it and who’s being asked to do what? All of those things get filtered through what’s best for the team. The team likes that. There’s merit in that. You can process any piece of business that comes before the team right through our value system.
Jack Clark: The NBA basketball coach Pat Riley wrote a good book called The Winner Within. Now, if you’re an NBA basketball coach you’re coaching gazillionaires. The shoe company pays them — you know, they’re making 20, 30 million dollars a year or more. So they don’t really have to ever play hard, they don’t really have to ever do what you want them to do. Riley has a chapter in this book that’s called “The Disease of Me.” Symptom No. 6 is “constant feelings of underappreciation.” If you’ve been on teams you go, “God, I’ve played with that person. I know that person. I know what a distraction they were.” So, a value like selflessness, this idea that in making decisions, team comes first, self comes second — you get this done and it solves 10 problems. If your choice is that you just wait for individual drama, 65 guys all have something wrong. Try to process all that on a daily basis and you spend more time keeping everyone’s nose pointed in the same direction than you do actually trying to beat the opposition or trying to improve as a team.
So, I encourage the guys to become intellectual about this. The great social scientists will tell you that it takes 10 years and 10 thousand hours to be great at anything. Well, these guys have all been on teams for 10 years. They’ve had good teams and bad teams and good teammates and bad teammates and everything in between. I want them to use all of that experience, I want them to feel like they’re an expert at it.
6. IMPROVE RELENTLESSLY.
Jack Clark: If you run through our value stuff, we believe in constant performance improvement. We say it’s not just enough to win. That’s kind of an old thing. If you go back to legendary basketball coach John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success, you can get some performance over results. It’s there. We believe that and we believe that we should be getting better. We think that we should accept that burden. If we’re going to work at this as hard as we’re working at it, then we should be getting better from week to week, month to month, match to match. There should be improvement.
This is one of those things that you learn over decades. It turns out there are two kinds of teams. There are teams that are getting better and there are teams that are getting worse. There really isn’t that much in between. We kid ourselves that there are plateaus somewhere, but really, if you’re not getting better you’re most likely getting worse.
Jack Clark: Reality is so stark that there really is no other option other than we have to be able to get better, and we have to be able to document that we’re getting better. It can’t just be what’s the score, because the level of the opponent plays a part in that, and the conditions plays a part. It has to be performance-generated data, not results generated.
Jack Clark: It’s not about who your daddy is or how great you were last year or who are the returning All-Americans and who are the seniors. The currency that is exchanged in any high-performance team, whether it’s business or sports, is performance in the moment. Not your potential, not what you did last year, but what are you doing right now. If you want your voice to resonate on a high-performance team, you buy into this meritocracy. You buy into this idea that it’s performance based.
7. GET A GREAT COACH.
Jack Clark: In coaching, I think it’s important to have really strong technical basis where you’re applying science in the right way. You’re using notational analysis, you’re using video analysis. You’re effective at teaching motor learning skill. You follow best practice in all of those things. You’re not going to take the team’s talent to its potential without a really strong technical approach. That’s everything from the overall strategies that the team employs to match-day tactics to the preparation of the team. We are sick around here about capturing data. We are neurotic about capturing, sorting and publishing — at least internally. I think the only number we don’t publish is body compositions because that’s not cool to do. You can’t do anything around here where we’re not going to rank it 1 through 65 on this team. That rank might be in your unit, it might be in overall rank, it might be both. But everything gets captured and ranked and internally published.
We’re always auditing our efforts to assess if we are on the right track. Where can we get better? That’s created a real honesty to the team — we’re OK talking about what we don’t do well.
Jack Clark: There’s a term in coaching called fence-posting. If you can imagine building a fence, you dig a hole and you put the post in there and you walk about 10 feet and you dig another hole, you walk another 10 feet and dig another hole. That’s kind of what you do in coaching. You’ve got to consistently talk about checkpoints in a collaborative fashion with the team, have the team talk about them. You’ve got to make the values and the mindsets surrounding them come to life. You’ve got to make them real and not some slogan on the wall — a very real belief system and value. If you ask us about leadership, we’re all going to use the same definition. You go in the bookstore and there are 30 meters’ worth of books on leadership. It’s not that any of them are wrong, it’s just that they all have a different take.
8. VALUE TEAM.
Jack Clark: We celebrate team, talk about it and build on it. I talk to a lot of our teams on campus. I guest-lecture in the business school, so I have a lot of opportunities to talk to groups of people, especially in a team setting. Most of them don’t cherish that they’re an expert in team. They get lost in the fact that they aren’t an expert in their sport yet. They confuse that with being an expert in team.
Jack Clark: I get to sit on our high-performance committees. I’ve chaired them before, so I’ve been a part of the groups trying to create a narrative about what do we do in sports. This has been a question people have been wrestling with for a long time. I think we make a hash of it because I think we say things like “We work hard,” “There’s competition” and all that. It’s as if saying that the average student isn’t working hard, though. Of course they are. Some kid in a lab at 3 in the morning is working hard. I don’t think that many of the things that we do in sports are proprietary. But, I do think that there’s one thing that we do that is highly proprietary and is not taught anywhere else, at least on this campus. Does anyone else learn about team? No. There’s only you and the campus and the campus life. There aren’t teams, there aren’t people that understand how teams work.
I mean, might you work on a project with a few other students from time to time? Yeah, you might, but you’re going to stretch calling that a team because the volume’s not there, the duration’s not there. It turns out what we’re doing is pretty important. It can’t be about shiny goblets in the showcase. I’m pretty bored with that. I’d just as soon be on top of the podium as anyone else, don’t get me wrong, and I want my players to throw their arms over their heads and be the best. But this has to be about something a little bit more meaningful than that. Team is proprietary and it’s meaningful and it changes status quo.
How will world poverty be solved? How will education be solved? How will devastating disease be solved? Is it going to be some brilliant dude or gal that says “I’ve got an idea here”? No, it’s going to be groups of people pulling together in a team. I happen to believe that if you matriculate this program with a PhD in team that you’re going to be really well prepared to go participate on one of these meaningful teams somewhere — maybe in your own family. Maybe that’s the team we’re talking about. Maybe it’s in a business. Maybe it’s in tackling these problems. But I think it’s a wonderful skill to have.
[photo credit at top: ESPN The Magazine]