Energy sappers vs. energisers

I have had experience being ‘that person’ who just brings everyone down around them. It is not pleasant, least of all when your coach sees whats happening and threatens to kick you off the team because of your behavior. He pulled me into his office and said “I don’t care that you are constantly improving and arrive on time at every session. Your skills are definitely on par and you have a really good shot at making the team for the event. But if you continue to try raise yourself up by putting others down I will kick you out the club.”

It was a HUGE shock to the system. Some things he went on to discuss I never even realized I was doing it. He put me on a week’s isolation so I could stop affecting the others and take a deep introspection period. I was embarrassed. I was angry. Then I was upset to tears. I have never pulled my socks up so quick in my life before. I was the starving dog outside desperately eager to get inside and eat what everyone else was having. I hated being left out like this but most of all I hated myself for becoming that person. I wanted to be part of the team more than I wanted to be an egotistical semi-successful athlete. Mostly because the team was doing something pretty cool and it hurt to not be a part of it. It was clear. Be a small part of something great or a great part of nothing. Ego and negativity were not welcome here.

Before leaving the office the coach handed me a photocopy of a page from a book. He highlighted a few lines and said, go read this. Go have a think and if you show improvement, then I’ll allow you near my athletes. Until then you must show you have understood what you did wrong and you have a desire to change.

This passage changed the way I thought. It was an extract from Clive Woodward‘s book called ‘Winning!‘. It described his journey as a coach that eventually transformed the England rugby squad into the 2003 World Cup winners. It sums up the best description I know of a person who steals your energy and the one who gives it back ten fold. Read it and have a good long think about what it says. In fact, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know a stitch about rugby. It is a great read and can give great advice on how to run a top-notch organization.

winning“I was a hard fact to accept, but I realized that for two years I had been making some fundamental errors on player selection. Certainly, I had been selecting players on their merit and the strength of their performance in games, as I had promised the players I would in our first meeting at Bisham Abbey; however, a critical factor in selection had eluded me. It was thanks to our visit with the Royal Marines that I first put into words something that my instincts had been telling me all along.

On the last day of our visit, I’d asked several of the senior officers for an honest assessment of the players in their drill teams. They looked at me cautiously, careful to not overstep their mark.

I waited.

‘Ok, if you want to hear it,’ eventually began one of the senior training instructors, dropping his voice to a whisper and leaning forward in his chair in the officers’ lounge. ‘There are men in your squad whom we wouldn’t go into battle with.’ He then rattled off names in quick succession.

The other instructors all nodded their heads. Obviously they had discussed it.

Quite frankly I was amazed. They had listed all the players who in my own mind had question marks over them. Yet all were players whose rugby skills and talent you simply could not fault.

‘But why? What is it about these players? They’re clearly great at the game. Why wouldn’t you go to war with them?”

‘It’s not about their skills, Clive. It’s about their attitude and their effect on the team. There are hundreds of soldiers who can run for three days, think on their feet, and handle a weapon. But some of them simply aren’t suited to working in high-pressure team situations. It might be the smallest trait, like a bit of a moan when the going gets tough. Under normal circumstances that wouldn’t have any effect. But in high-pressure combat situations just that one negative trait can destroy a whole team. We are trained to identify these clues because the consequences for us are so serious. It’s the difference between life and death. One wrong team player can sap all the energy from the group.’

In two days these Royal Marines had confirmed what it had taken me two years to figure out. I guess that’s why those guys don’t jump out of helicopters with just anybody. Unfortunately, I could do nothing more than catalogue these thoughts. We were eight weeks out from the World Cup. It was not the time to do anything about it, but that conversation would linger in my mind.

To the people in the room at Pennyhill Park I admitted I’d made a mistake. I had weakened the team by hiding behind those players, even with their all too obvious experience. I admitted that, if I had my time again, I would make the hard choice and bring in the new players immediately so that they could gain experience sooner. I would have much rather have lost the World Cup knowing we had chosen the best team. It would have been easier to live with myself in the face of defeat if I knew that least I’d done what was right and that the team ethic had been kept intact. I’ve often thought since that we actually would have had a greater chance of winning. Post World Cup it was now all about making the correct decisions under pressure.

Energy sappers into energizers

For the previous month the Marines’ words had been ringing in my ears.

It’s not about the skills. Its about attitude and the effect on the team. One wrong team player can sap all the energy from the group.

This is exactly what happened. I sensed that it was essential to find a way to bring this lesson into the elite squad, but it was a difficult concept to grasp. I looked up a few words in the dictionary. The definition of ‘sap’ was perfect. That’s exactly what players were doing when they complained about conditions, pressure and the workload required to be champions, or when they resisted change. International rugby is hard enough without those added distractions. What we needed was a team without any energy sappers. What we needed was a team of energisers, people for whom there was no personal price too high for winning, who were open to new ideas, who were willing to contribute to the team and keep everyone’s energy levels high.

Energy Sappers

Sap. V. bleed, deplete, devitalize, drain, erode, exhaust, undermine, weaken, wear down.


Energy. N. drive, efficiency, exertion, fire, force, intensity, power, spirit, stamina, strength.

When I shared these definitions and explained what they meant, the players sat in silence. Many knew what I meant and exactly which player I was referring too. No names needed to be mentioned. Even those new to the elite squad recognized the truth when they saw it. Patently, there are good teams and there are bad teams. I think energy sappers are the biggest obstacle to success. Every team that ever exsted has struggled with this problem at some time.

I went on to explain the point I was trying to make. ‘If ever I have to talk to you about anything other than your ability to play rugby, then you are potentially sapping my and everyone else’s energy. Let me make this clear. When we run out on that rugby pitch it’s like the Marines jumping out of that helicopter. We cannot afford any weak links. If I think any of you are becoming energy sappers, first I’ll meet with you in private and we’ll discuss it openly. However, if that fails, you will not be selected in future.’

‘I do everything humanly possible to switch over the energy sappers. If I can’t switch them over, they have to go. It’s a tough call, but it’s a necessary one. I believe entire organizations can be brought down by just one energy sapper who is not confronted and sorted out soon as you are aware of the problem.”




6 thoughts on “Energy sappers vs. energisers

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