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Thursday, April 10, 2008


This is prompted by a discussion and posts by Just Call Me Coach, and is another example of Business Lessons from the Rugby Pitch (the title of one of my upcoming books).

There are two related issues that I want to discuss; the recruitment of players from a competitor, and making promises of advancement to players.

The recruitment of players in itself is not an issue. It’s a natural part of the game. Colleges recruit players from high schools, club teams recruit players from colleges, and higher level teams recruit players from lower level teams. The issues arise when the recruitment methods are questionable, or clearly cross ethical lines, and this is when the term Poaching comes into play. Generally, poaching is claimed when the team losing the player doesn’t want them to leave or the recruiting team uses aggressive, or questionable, tactics in their recruiting.

Of course, in some areas there’s no real issue of poaching, because there’s only one team to play for. This is especially true in the Western U.S., where towns that can support rugby teams are often hundreds of miles apart. That makes if difficult, at best, to recruit someone who doesn’t want to move to where you are just so they can play for you. But in many areas, there are several teams close enough so that you have a choice of which team to play for. Because these teams are usually competitors on the field, that competition flows over into the recruitment of players.

The questions that we want to answer here are when does recruitment become poaching, and what allows players to be lured away from their current team? For the most part, players are free to choose the team they want to play for, and will play for the team that fits their needs. There are many variables that a player weighs, including the win/loss record of the team, their views of the coaching staff and other players, the organization of the team and the way practices are run, the selection process for choosing starting players, and the amount of playing time they can expect based on their abilities. And let’s face it, to play rugby you have to be somewhat competitive, so you want to play for a winning team and you want the most playing time you can get. If you’re currently a starting player for the top team in the area, you probably aren’t going to be recruited away. You may be poached, however, if the poaching team gives you something or compensates you in some way that overcomes your natural tendency to stay where you are. It’s that compensation, in whatever form, where the problems lie. That’s when ethical or legal lines tend to get crossed and when people cry foul.

But because players want to reach the top level of the game, they always have an eye open for new opportunities. They’re naturally open to recruitment. To keep players that might have opportunities elsewhere, you have to look at the intangibles that keep players happy and want to stay with you. Those intangibles include things like giving the players a voice in the team. As a coach or team manager, you’re in charge and you have goals for the team, but instead of declaring the rules from on-high, allow your players to provide input and feedback. Listen to what they have to say, and incorporate their good ideas into your operations. Also, winning games is a great reward, but an even greater reward is the acknowledgement of your contribution. There are 15 players on the field at a time, 7 reserves, and any number of team members that slog through practice week after week. No one person wins the game. The person who scores is supported by a minimum of 14 other players. Recognize everyone’s contribution. Cheer the players who supported the score, and recognize those players who show up to practice week after week, year after year, even though they don’t have the ability to ever make the starting lineup. Without them pushing themselves and providing support, your starters would soon begin to slack off and become complacent. Make all your players feel like they belong and are a valuable part of the team, and they’ll continue to come back, day after day, year after year, in all kinds of miserable weather and with all the aches and pains that come from playing rugby. Players stay because they want to, not because they have to. Make them want to stay and you won’t have to worry about poaching.

The other issue is with making promises to players that you might not be able to keep, or have no intention of keeping. These promises usually involve advancement, and play into that desire of players to move up towards the starting lineup, gain more playing time, or moving into a more desirable position. I could go on about this, but the bottom line is do not make promises that you can’t, or won’t, keep. You’ll lose all credibility and respect, and may lose some great players. You should have well defined standards and criteria for advancement. Stick with them, and of course, let everyone know what they are and how they can meet them. The movement of players to other positions works the same way. Let everyone know the criteria and standards for each position and what they need to do and how they need to perform to be considered for each position. And if players express an interest in trying out for another position, encourage them. Conduct tryouts for the position, and use your objective performance criteria. If the players know what is expected, and they are objectively evaluated, they will know at the same time as you whether they are capable of playing in that new position and whether they have a shot at making it in that position. As long as you’re objective and fair, there will be no hard feelings if they don’t make it. If they don’t make it, but are still interested, help them gain the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in that position. They’ll benefit, and your whole team will benefit.

Now, simply substitute employee for player and company for team, and this discussion is about business instead of rugby. It’s amazing the business lessons you can learn from the rugby pitch…

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