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Rugby Today: How did/do you balance working as a professional with playing/coaching professionally?
Mike Friday: Let me begin by saying that I am apart of the lot that played for free as an amateur. Yes, I am that old. The game went professional while I was a young man finding my way as a chartered surveyor. I had come so far with my education and I decided that I would not stop at that end point at the expense of playing rugby. So I set my determination to do both. If you want it enough, you will find a way to get compromise. That’s essentially how I went about my rugby and working life to start with. When I was in the process of getting qualified as a chartered surveyor, I had to sacrifice a tremendous amount in my social life. I trained with my team and when everyone else would go home to play, rest and relax, I would go to work in the evening. I did that for a year in order to meet my qualifications. After my qualifications were met, I attempted to resign from work, almost like taking a sabbatical, to commit to being a fulltime professional rugby player. But my employer asked me to carry on working while playing professionally. I was fortunate to have a flexible employer to allow me to do both, however, I had to make the personal sacrifices to do both and I gave up my free time to maintain my professional qualifications. I was prepared to make that sacrifice to get to where I wanted to go.
That’s essentially the approach I have also taken with my coaching career. I have had to find the balance between what I do on the rugby field and what I do off and most importantly, how I deal with players and the playing community. Each player has both rugby and personal ambitions and I try to allow them the confidence and the comfort not to compromise the things they have outside of rugby. I feel that supporting them in their outside endeavors makes them better rugby people and they are better characters. I am a great believer and I encourage players to find that balance as well.
I have players who are not in residency who I don’t want to compromise their studies for rugby. Players need other things in their lives because they cannot rely on rugby for the whole of your life. If they have other things going on, it makes them a more well rounded, holistic person, not just what I call a “rugby bore” which is someone who can’t hold a conversation outside of rugby, has no interest in anything else but rugby. The rugby world is quite an insular bubble and it’s not the real world. I’m always advocating that. I want a content rugby player on and off the pitch that has other things in their life because it makes them more balanced, focused, and concentrating when they are in the rugby environmen
Rugby Today: As we approach Olympic qualifications and presumably qualify for the 2016 Games, do you hope to expand the number of players in residency?
Mike Friday: If we can get the necessary funding, ideally, we would like to get the right players here and we have to enable them to have the things in their life. Even the players who are in residency here, I want them engaged in doing other things. Some of the players are working and pursuing their college education. I want to increase the squad to 25 residents leading into 2016 because I need competition. Competition means that complacency is not allowed. I need them focused on rugby but the programming has to allow and encourage them to do other things outside of the sport. Again, if they are just focused on rugby, they will become bored and stale. I need them active in mind as well as in body. I want all my players to feel really good about themselves. If you have a happy player off the pitch, you will generally have a happy player on the pitch.
My vision is to have 25 fulltime players in residency at the OTC. I recognize that it is going to be a hustle for USA Rugby to accomplish this but far from impossible. Candidly speaking, I want those 25 residents to not have to live like students. I want them to be able to enjoy a few things in life that they should be able to enjoy and not worry about whether they can afford their rent and food. These players are representing their country and their nation and if they are able to achieve Olympic qualification, especially from where they were in the world ranking a year ago, which is nothing short of their own hard work and resilience and determination, then it’s only fair that they enjoy a few comforts that come with representing their country. That’s ideally where we need to get to in order to give ourselves the best opportunity of shocking the world in 2016.
Rugby Today: What motivates the team?
Mike Friday: If someone had said to me that we would be ranked 6th at the start of the season, I would have told that they are absolutely mad. Again, it is a testament to the application of the players. Everyone says that the success is due to me but that’s far from it. This is not about me but the hard work of the players, the strength and conditioning staff, management, and complimenting solid recovery that has allowed us to create the right kind of team where everyone understands their roles. I simply provide clarity on what’s expected from the staff, players and myself. We have created a learning, teaching and self regulating environment with strong values and discipline and you have the choice to be apart of it. If you choose to be a part, you are on the ride, which is not easy. We were secretly chasing a top four spot but Hong Kong and Japan was a reality check. Our performance against Samoa and Kenya were honestly true testaments to where we are. The top tier nations are ranked above us. That is all. From this point forward, we will see if we can break into that top five. If not, we aim to nail top six that gives us a springboard to move forward into the Olympic qualifier rounds. We are motivated to make a Cup final or win a Cup because we are not that far away. The reality is that we are recognized in the world as a tier two nation. We will not become a top tier team on points. We are only going to get our 50/50 if we knock the world champion out. That’s the challenge, call it retribution, call it the underdog, call it whatever you’d like. That’s the fuel that drives us forward. No team on this circuit wants to play the US, which is respect within itself. However, we don’t want to be the team that ‘s got lots of potential. We want to continue to be the team that no one wants to draw out of the hat. Our challenge is to put together all the bits of brilliance we have demonstrated into consistent play.
Rugby Today: What happens after Olympic qualifications?
Mike Friday: Well, with the World Cup just around the corner, some of our players will switch over to play 15s. In light of that, we will change things up for Pan Am games, giving other players an opportunity to represent with the goal of winning gold. The expectation will not drop a bit although we will give other players an opportunity to step up, creating more depth in the pool. The reality is that no one has a divine right to their jersey as folks are finding out on this series. It’s not what you did yesterday but what you do now and what you will do tomorrow. You are only as good as your last game and every player has felt that and whether they take it as a compliment or not, that’s the reality of it.
Rugby Today: Beyond fitness test and skills, how important is the “X Factor” in a player’s performance?
Mike Friday: I never pick the best 12 players. I pick the best 12 that fit the balance of our squad. If I only need two speedsters and the best 3 players are all speedsters, then only two are going. There are certain things that are non-negotiable on the fitness skills but the tolerance level depends on other attributes that they may or may not bring to the side. It is about the recipe, not the ingredients. It’s not just about their rugby but it’s their characteristics as people. It’s a team game. The blend of the team, how the team plays together and the different combinations are all a part of the cocktail we put together. The players sometimes don’t agree with how we put it together and that’s okay. It shows that they care. But at the end of the day, the boss is still the boss and as long as I can explain those decisions and have those frank and honest conversations so that they have an understanding of what is needed and expected, then there is transparency. Players crave clarity, interaction and feedback and we should always be willing to give that feedback whether positive or constructive. I am a big advocate of communication. It’s a trait of emotional intelligence. I have experienced the spectrum of the different athletes I have coached ranging from under 12 boys to women’s internationals. As a coach, I have had to mold myself around the squad that I have. It’s not “my way” but our way and communication is at the core. You are only as successful as the players that play for and with you. That’s the essence or what we are trying to create.