When Harry decided to Fail: Your off-field lifestyle will predict your professional success

(*Part 1 in a three-part series on Ownership)

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

**Harry’s story

I got to know Harry during his final year of school as we were considering offering him a professional contract to attend our academy the following year.

He was perhaps one of the most talented young players I had seen at school level, almost being as well-rounded a player as others in his position at top professional level.

He had immense pace, could kick the ball a mile and was very powerful for his stature, never backing down on defence. Besides that his position-specific strengths were also exceptional. I really believed he had the ability to make it all the way to the top.

Around the time of finalising his contract, whilst in the middle of his school rugby season, he committed an offence serious enough to warrant expulsion had we been living in a time when discipline was still a clear line. It seems today that all forms of punishment have to be weighed against the possibility of upsetting the guilty party. Perhaps a strong penalty would have been the best lesson for his future. In the end he came off with a warning and we ended up still contracting him. 

We should have followed our hunch and allowed him to pursue his future elsewhere, as the next year would prove to be a massive test of our own disciplinary systems. The repercussions of his total lack of responsibility, and our failure to dish out proper punishment, played a part in one of the worst group cultures I had seen in my time working with teams.

When cause and effect are the worst of friends

It wasn’t long before Harry showed us that his ‘brush with the law’ at school didn’t teach him any meaningful lessons.

In his very first week at the academy he led his clique of friends to arrive late for a training session smelling like a distillery. They were consequently ‘rewarded’ with some laps to sweat out (and expel through other oral means) the alcohol in their system.

He led a half-hearted apology on behalf of his posse and promised to never transgress again.

A couple of weeks later he broke our code of conduct protocol by drinking in his apartment, which led to another disciplinary meeting and a stern warning. 

The rest of the year became a comedic exchange between unprofessional, arrogant ill-discipline and uncertain, ineffective application of consequences on our part as management. 

When Harry and his group of followers burnt a hole in the academy apartment’s coffee table with a hookah pipe coal, nothing happened. They were warned with some physical training and apologised, but kept their places in the academy and the team.

It was the same story when they were regularly caught drinking and smoking in the same apartment on numerous occasions. (Players could drink and smoke if they wanted, but not on the academy property). Always ‘sorry’ but never sorry enough.

We had no less than five disciplinary meetings with Harry and his mates and besides his usual empty ‘sorry we won’t do it again’, he started adding another regular tune:

‘But the other players are also doing it so it’s unfair to punish us’. The ‘others’ (who happened to be his teammates) just happened to be responsible enough to not get caught. His ill-discipline had now added the blame game to his resumé. He also accused the apartment ‘housemaster’, in charge of monitoring conduct at our facility, of targeting and purposefully trying to catch them transgressing. 

When he was finally summoned to a formal disciplinary hearing, his defence remained the same: ‘But the rest of the team are also doing it, we are being unfairly targeted’. 

The labour consultant, appointed to facilitate the hearing, took the liberty of reprimanding him for not even expressing the slightest sign of remorse and for shifting blame as a strategy to improve his own ends.

By the end of the process the consultant left the outcome of the hearing to our management and, again, Harry walked away with a warning. The only difference was that, this time, the warning was written down.

It only Takes one drop to poison the watering hole

Harry’s poor discipline influenced a very talented, albeit impressionable group of friends, to also follow him into social disrepair for the season. The way this group was allowed to buck the system led to a very unhappy team culture and eventually resulted in an enormously talented intake to underachieve on their potential as a team.

Sadly, although we had some strong positive leaders in the group who were also top performers, the space created for the troublemakers to take control led to our leaders giving up on their will to sacrifice for the team. Some of them even left for other teams the following year as the perceived toxic culture was not worth their long term commitment to our structures.

Fast forward a couple of years and Harry has since missed out on any further forms of contracting due to his poor performance. He also dropped out of a university rugby scholarship due to his dismal academic results. He ‘surprisingly’ blamed his rugby commitments for his failure as a student. (On this occasion he neglected to mention that most of the ‘others’ who were also playing rugby and studying, even more difficult courses than his, all passed their years).

None of the friends he kept at the Academy have made it further in the game.

Straight Talk to performers

It doesn’t matter how good you think you are. If you manage to maintain an ill-disciplined lifestyle off the field, it will eventually catch up to you. There is no escaping this fact. You might be good enough and receive enough lucky breaks and favours from kind coaches to get you to a level of professional representation, but once you get there, you will be exposed as quickly as you can open your next bottel of beer.

There are so many top athletes who are immensely talented that failed to reach the true heights of greatness because their personalities were just too much to bare with. They failed to realise that they are part of a team and that they are responsible for the performance of one part of its collective effort. After a while another player with just as much talent but twice your character will arrive and replace you.

If you are prone to being disciplined or feel you are ‘misunderstood’ or ‘marginlised’ or ‘targeted’ by a coach or manager or leader in a team, take a serious look in the mirror and ask yourself why. Most of the time it is something you can take responsibility for and fix yourself. Don’t play the victim, play the boss and own it.

It goes without saying that often discipline problems stem from deep-rooted social challenges. If you feel misunderstood and you are really struggling to face mental challenges, which leads you to lash out as a way to deal with emotional pain, then it is still your responsibility to reach out and get help. Almost all teams and top organisations have support structures for mental health issues and offer assistance as part of their performance programmes. These are here to help you grow, so make sure you plug into them as you would any coaching resource.

10 NFL Players Whose Careers Went Downhill From Off Field Issues: From the TOTAL PRO SPORTS YouTube channel

Think of how can apply this to your real life:

  • Cultivate your responsibility muscle and take ownership for events in your life by thinking in terms of opportunities rather than challenges;
  • Don’t ever blame the economy, weather, emotions, feelings, capabilities, resources or situations. The really big outcomes occur when you act in the eye of these storms. My best time to run is when I can go outside in the cold and pouring rain with my longs, layers and a shell and stride through the billows of exhaling steam whilst pumping my running playlist in my ears. Likewise to take on the scorching heat at midday and sweat away my stress before earning that ice cold shower afterwards;
  • Make a point of never blaming anything ever again, even if something else really was the cause of your problem. Complaining and shaming won’t solve your issue. Rather take ownership of the solution and get going on fixing the problem straight away;
  • If you feel mentally drained, or worse, have a deep-rooted mental challenge that has been keeping you down for a long time, seek help and talk to someone who is qualified to help you. It might even be great to just start sharing with a friend or family member that you trust enough to share with.

*My next post will focus on taking responsibility for the outcomes in your life by building an identity that portrays successful behaviour, instead of the opposite.

**Harry is mostly based on a single player who was in our academy a couple of years back, but he is also a representation of a couple of ill-disciplined players that we had to deal with over the years.

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