Why internal theming works in sport (and in business)

Author Matt McILraith’s new book Crusade On! Celebrating 25 years of the Crusaders outlines why internal theming is such an effective management technique, in business as much as it is in sport.

Internal theming has always been an important part of the Crusaders’ approach, writes author Matt McIlraith.

The creation of a unifying theme at the start of each campaign, which reinforces the collective sense of purpose, and acts as a reference point for all involved during times of stress, has been a critical ingredient that has brought and held the team together.

Its effectiveness is best judged by the results it has helped to achieve: 11 titles in 25 seasons.

One of the key aspects of the theming work has been its inclusiveness, which is why it is such an effective management technique, in business as much as it is in sport.

Everyone who is part of the group – players, coaches, and management staff – are encouraged to contribute their ideas.

Each has a stake in the outcome, so share in the accountability that goes with it, if the pledges made to conduct themselves to an agreed set of behaviours and values, are not upheld.

It is a system that works, and it served the Crusaders well through some difficult experiences, although it is also one, as long-serving midfield back Tim Bateman explained in this extract, that required a fair bit of thought, to continue its evolution.

The Crusaders focus on internal theming was a legacy from the team’s earliest days when the high-profile sports psychologist Gilbert Enoka was brought on board by Wayne Smith.

Smith, who had employed Enoka with his teams previously, became the Crusaders’ second coach when he took over a side that had finished last in the inaugural Super 12 in 1996.

Adding the use of a sports psychology was one of the initiatives he introduced to try to bring a professional edge to the management and coaching of the team, and quickly reaped results.

After finishing fifth in Smith’s maiden season in charge, the Crusaders won the title the following year, and have barely stopped winning since.

Current coach Scott Robertson was a member of the side Smith coached for three years between 1997 and 1999.

During that time, Robertson learned and embraced the team bonding technique, instilling it as a key plank of his own coaching and player management strategy.

Among Robertson’s players was Tim Bateman, who had yet to celebrate his 20th birthday when he debuted for the Crusaders in 2007 in a team coached by Robbie Deans.

A part of the team a year later, when Deans guided the side to his fifth title before controversially departing to coach Australia, Bateman left Christchurch himself in 2010, heading to Japanese rugby.

He returned in 2017, having played for two clubs in Japan, as well as the Hurricanes, in between.

Having originally headed back to Christchurch to retire, Bateman was coaxed out of that decision by Robertson, who was looking for leaders as he put together a team for his first season in charge.

Instead of putting his feet up, Bateman found himself providing an influential voice in the planning, most notably around the themes that linked the wider playing group with the regular match night squad.

“It started in 2017 where the theme was to be the ‘Kings of Super Rugby’, which we centred around Muhammad Ali and the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ fight against George Foreman from the When We Were Kings movie,” Bateman explained.

“Every week [before every game] there would be a different focus around that boxing theme.

“When we played the Hurricanes, it was to ‘lead’ with the right hand.

“Ali hadn’t done that before, so when he used the tactic against Foreman, it had worked really well, as Foreman hadn’t prepared for it, and Ali won the fight.

“We ‘led with the right hand’ by changing our defensive system for that night, from what we normally did.

“This allowed us to totally shut down Beauden [Barrett], who their game revolved around, because they weren’t prepared for what we did.”

With Barrett’s creativity supressed, the Crusaders were able to suffocate their opponents, holding the Hurricanes tryless during a 20-12 victory.

Against the Bulls in Pretoria the week before, the theme had been ‘death by 1000 cuts’.

The saying, which originated from a lingering form of execution during the nineteenth century Qing Dynasty in China, focused on attacking the lumbering Bulls from everywhere, slowly draining their energy until their ability to resist was neutralised.

The plan was carried out so effectively, the Crusaders piled on a record score at Loftus Versfeld, with Bateman scoring one of the 10 tries during the 62-24 rout.

The themes were invariably ingenious.

Bateman came up with the idea to represent the players outside of the regular match night squad with a name of their own, to complement the overall team theme.

This was a good way of keeping those players who were not involved on game-night, and so could have become disenfranchised, connected to the group.

“That first year, we were the ‘Brawlers’, in so much as we were the ones preparing the ‘fighter’ for the fight at the end of the week, so we needed to prepare them as best we could.”

In 2018, as they bid for consecutive titles, the theme ‘Purple Rain’ was adopted by the team.

It was taken from the successful Melbourne Storm rugby league side, who had a host of similar characteristics to the Crusaders, including overall win statistics, as well as being the defending champions from their competition.

“We were the ‘Kings of Super Rugby’ and Kings ‘reign’, which was the tie-in, hence the purple ‘rain’ theme,” Bateman explained.

“As the ‘non-playing group’, we became ‘the Stars’.

“When the purple ‘rain’ [storm] hits on the Saturday night, people don’t get to see the stars, but they are always there shining in behind the storm, as we were, and if the storm clears, they will come out and shine again.”

After two championships on the bounce, the ‘Kings’ chased gold in their 2019 theme.

“The currency of Kings is gold, so that year was all about chasing the gold,” Bateman explained.

“We used the two-time Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt and the San Francisco-based Golden State Warriors basketball team from the NBA as our inspirations.

“Both were chasing their third straight titles, as we were.

“There was a bit of a throwback to the ‘Me/We’ theme [the theme the first Crusaders team to win the title, in 1998, used. Robertson was a member of that team].

“The ‘Me’ came from Bolt, in terms of what was each individual doing to prepare themselves? Golden State provided the ‘We’, as a team trying to be the best that it can be.”

Once again, Bateman supplied the tie in for the players outside of the match night squad.

“The DDs were the ‘bolts’ of the [Golden Gate] bridge.

“The bolts of the bridge are not seen, but they hold it all together, which was our job within the team, so we were the ‘Bolters’,” he explained.

“For the preparation each week, our role was to tighten the team’s bolts, so it was sharp as it could be, come game day.”

Back-to-back-to-back titles illustrated their sharpness.

It also highlighted just how much truly inclusive themes, that all staff are involved in the creation of, can impact, as a management technique.

While the key to the Crusaders’ use of themes has been the simplicity of the message, in relation to either the team or the campaign, the authenticity in terms of how it was created has also been critical.

This has ensured a collective buy-in that has been a constant since the team started, meaning that while the themes themselves continue to evolve, the value of the management technique that creates them has not had to change at all to remain relevant.   

Matt McILraith was media manager at the Crusaders for the 2007 and 2008 campaigns, was part of the All Blacks’ management in 2002 and 2003, and was with the Wallabies between 2008 and 2013, becoming the only media manager to attend the Rugby World Cup with two different major nations. Ten Years of Super 12 and Red, Black, and Gold – the autobiography of Robbie Deans, are among his previous titles. Crusade On! is his fifth book. Published by Bateman Books, RRP$59.99.

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