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Next entry: The Brazen Careerist on how to get a job you're not qualified for
Previous entry: James Tooley on how the poorest parents on earth are leading the way in education
Tuesday February 05 2008

imageI’m a rugby fan, and rugby is on my mind a lot just now, probably because the Six Nations Championship is just getting under way.  I’ve quoted at length from Clive Woodward’s book, Winning! already, the bit where his father forced Woodward to give up soccer and switch to rugby, by sending him to HMS Conway.  Woodward’s time at Loughborough University was very different:

If HMS Conway represented the darkest period of-my life, my time at Loughborough University was one of the brightest. I spent the better part of four years there, and those years were a great contrast to my school days.

That’s the great thing about university. It’s an environment where you can try and do all sorts of things and not have to worry too much about the risks. You can make mistakes and it doesn’t have to matter that much. You learn. The real world isn’t always so forgiving.  University is a relatively safe environment not only to learn subjects, but also to learn about life.

Woodward’s Loughborough story illustrates very well the difference between people who do well at university and people who waste their time and other people’s money.  Woodward chose Loughborough.  More exactly, he chose one particular teacher at Loughborough.  He had a clear idea of what he wanted to learn there, and who he wanted to learn it from.

Loughborough is, of course, the country’s top Sports Science university today, and it was the top place then, when I arrived there for the first time, brimming with anticipation. Good people from all kinds of sports all over the UK went there because they could really train properly - it was a real centre of excellence with superb facilities. Most sports were amateur in Britain in those days, and Loughborough drew in all the really talented people from a wide range of sports.

So you had to be pretty talented both academically and at sports to get there in the first place, but to me Loughborough was also just four years of real enjoyment. And I ended with a degree, a BSc in Sports Science and Technology. Things have changed since my day, with the course now demanding A’s at A level to gain entry. All I wanted to do was have four years at university, doing the things I liked doing best.

But above all:

Basically, I went to Loughborough for one reason, to play my best rugby, and for one man, Jim Greenwood. If I was going to play for England, it made sense to go where the best coach was. I wanted to see how this guy would help my game. Rugby was an amateur game then of course, but Loughborough was the closest I would get to playing at professional level. I was that little bit slighter than some of the others, but pace, as in all sports, tends to be the deciding factor. As well as pace, I wanted to compete by playing differently, thinking differently.  So naturally I was eager to start working with Jim Greenwood.

Note the point about how Woodward was basically there to enjoy doing what he most loved to do.  I don’t believe that quality in education is determined by the alleged quality of the subject or activity you study, so much as by the enthusiasm and intelligence with which you study it.  If you want to be a hotel manager, and you study hotel management with passion and intelligence, that’s far better than doing a “proper subject” like maths or English literature, but listlessly and with only dumb obedience, and with your heart not in it.

Jim Greenwood had played for his home country, Scotland, and had been selected for the British Lions, so I knew he had been an outstanding player who understood the game inside and out. As it turned out, Jim and I had experienced similar frustrations in the game. He too felt there was so much more to be done on the rugby pitch, that there was so much more to the game than most people were aware of.

His whole ethos was different, and he basically taught what we would now call a standard fifteen-man rugby game compared to the then preferred style of ten-man rugby being played by the national side. In the latter, the focus is on the forwards. Keep it tight and power the ball down the pitch, basically out-muscling the opposition in the forwards, brawn not brain.  England were well-known for the size and strength of their forward pack, and they habitually used this style of play. Jim Greenwood’s style was almost the complete opposite in terms of central focus: use all the players on the pitch wherever possible all of the time - everyone had a role to play, even if you were on the other side of the pitch.

Jim’s book, Total Rugby, the only rugby coaching book I’ve ever read, first came out in 1978 when I was at Loughborough. It was way ahead of its time, and has since become a closely studied classic, especially in New Zealand. It’s now in its fifth edition, and I enjoyed writing a foreword to it only last year.

So here was this Scotsman, a lecturer at Loughborough in the middle of England, flying in the face of conventional wisdom and re-writing all the rule books in the process. I loved it. It was exactly what I’d been searching for since I first began playing rugby at Conway. I played for Jim for three years, captaining the squad my last two. I respect his views on the game more than those of any other man in rugby. We’re still in contact to this day, although he’s well and truly retired in a little village up in Scotland now. No man has done more in our time to singlehandedly transform the modern game of rugby than Jim Greenwood.

For a start, under him we practised weight training, analysing the opposition, and other forms of conditioning, including diet and nutrition programmes that were just way ahead. Outside Loughborough there weren’t any clubs doing that kind of training, though they were starting to do it in the southern hemisphere. It so happened that Greenwood’s ideas and style of play were concurrently being developed, in the emerging schoolboys sides in Australia, the same group of players who would go on to demonstrate in the eighties how a well-executed running game could so thoroughly dismantle a side focused on ten-man rugby.

It’s a sad fact that Jim Greenwood never coached a side at international level. As for England, in that era it was unlikely that anyone who was not English was ever going to coach the country. But I have a feeling that there was more to it: I think the conventional rugby establishment of the time were scared of the likes of Greenwood.

They simply couldn’t take in the ideas of visionaries like him because his ideas would have shaken up a lot of their coaches in the way they played. It was too far from what they knew and believed in, and introducing substantially different ideas would have exposed their real lack of knowledge. To do it Greenwood’s way would have required them to coach a team to take risks in front of a packed house at Twickenham - English rugby was not about innovation or risky play.

Jim continued to be ignored by the various unions in this part of the world, so he went to Japan and is responsible for the lively style of Japanese play today. His concept of Total Rugby is the antithesis of play-safe rugby. Total rugby is an open game in which every player is encouraged to show what he can do as an attacker, defender and supporting player. Jim’s book has become one of the game’s most important coaching manuals. Even in his seventies the man is unquestionably one of the world’s most highly regarded rugby coaches. Jim Greenwood is in the National Coaching Foundation’s inaugural Hall of Fame, and has also been elected as an official Legend of Scottish Rugby.

He really was the premier strategist of the game.

My point is, when you’re around twenty, you need to be looking for a teacher who excites you, and ideally, excites you as much as Jim Greenwood excited Clive Woodward.  I have another picture here of Clive Woodward.  Those are easy enough to find.  But I’ve looked and looked for a picture of Jim Greenwood and could find nothing.  If anyone can supply a link to such a picture, I’d be most grateful.

I can’t resist also quoting this next bit, by way of a bonus, about other champions and other coaches:

But Loughborough wasn’t just Jim Greenwood.

One of my direct contemporaries was Seb (now Lord) Coe, the legendary middle-distance runner, Olympic champion and in his day world record-holder over 1500 metres. While I was at Loughborough I had a chance to see how he trained: the psychology, the nutrition, all the things that go to making a champion. His coach was George Gandy.  And just as I had gone to Loughborough to meet Greenwood, Coe would have gone there to meet Gandy.

It was great to watch Coe do something incredible, like twelve consecutive 300-metre runs, walking in between with Gandy screaming at him. I can remember sitting there thinking, Imagine if we had a rugby team that were as powerful and as fit as that? It would be a world beater, no mistake.

Another of my contemporaries, John Trower who threw javelin, went on to coach Steve Backley to an Olympic bronze medal. I often sat next to John, who spent half his time in the gym, and I was just fascinated to learn from him and the other people around me in different areas of sport. My unspoken thought was always, Why is rugby so far behind? Why were we so ridiculously amateur?

Interestingly, many of the coaches that I eventually brought into the England coaching team hail from Loughborough themselves, and so I have more to be grateful for from this institution than just my own education.

Old boy networks start in all kinds of places, not just Eton.

There is so much more to university education than merely getting in to one that other people are impressed by.  In my opinion this posting has shown you a textbook example of how to choose a university (by choosing an individual teacher), and how to get maximum benefit from it when you get there.