Neil Craig (elite coach) reflects on the importance of trust, humility and key supporters in bringing out the best in yourself and those around you. These qualities are what we aspire to as Universal Men.
Haven’t we all, at some point in our lives, believed we were bulletproof? You might have made the mistake of soldiering through hard times without support. Neil Craig, former Adelaide Crows Head Coach and current mentor to Eddie Jones with the English Rugby Union Team and consultant at the Gold Coast Suns, knows well that great skill and ability does not preclude you from stress, fatigue, self-doubt and criticism – even the best of us are still only human.
Fostering a deeper understanding of the people in your life can improve your capacity to support them, just as communicating effectively about your own life can open space for your network to best support you. Making the time each day to build this rapport and trust is essential in maintaining the wellbeing of the individual and the team. For Neil, the “soft skills” of observation and listening are key to fostering elite performance and play an equally integral role in our professional and personal support networks. These skills help you pick up on subtle changes in behaviour that may signal that a team member has a battle on their hands, rather than putting it down to being moody or uncooperative. While the depth of your relationship will determine your response to them, it is important that we have self-awareness to park our own “stuff” and exercise empathy and support for those around us.
There are many roles within your personal support network. Your friends will provide you with an escape from stress. Your brothers will help you chew the fat on the big issues in your life. Your family will provide morale-boosting support as your biggest fans. However, one of the most important roles that can take time to find, energy to use and humility to truly benefit from is that of Coach/Mentor. Often drawing on more life experience than you have available, your Coach is not interested in making decisions or creating change for you – their role is to listen to your thoughts and anxieties and then ask the questions that challenge your thinking and lead you to an answer. They demonstrate enormous care for you in their honesty and offer alternative ways of thinking and behaving. Importantly, they allow you to find your own path in your own time, even if it were not the road that they would choose. Yet, they are always there when you come trudging back from that road, providing you with the security to make a mistake and find your own solution.
Even as a leader, it is vital that you have a mentor. A leader expects his team to be sharp, yet so often we fail to keep the leader sharp as well. Having a mentor who allows you to set yourself up for the day by downloading thoughts, bouncing ideas, delegating tasks and providing alternate perspectives helps you lead effectively, responsibly and with your own wellbeing in mind. However, this support is not something that you should just accept for the sake of it. You must actively seek it, want it and engage with it – the alternative is to neglect your own wellbeing to the detriment of the whole team.
It takes a great deal of humility to seek a Coach and there aren’t many of these people out there in our lives. However, when the student is ready – in a space that accepts you are not all-knowing and all-powerful and you are seeking a mentor – you may be surprised who appears. For Neil, you deeply miss that Mentor when you find yourself without their ability to keep you thriving.
Honest feedback and communication is one of Neil’s most essential tools when working within a team. Within his own career, Neil has received plenty of feedback – not all of it positive! Yet, his most successful teams raised issues respectfully and with trust that feedback would be taken on board. Despite the initial shock, feelings of anger and denial, it is important to sit with feedback. When you or your team deliver feedback with the best intentions at heart, it shows great respect and trust within the team environment and creates a psychological safety that fosters growth. That doesn’t make it a comfortable environment – in fact, Neil notes that it is inherently uncomfortable! Often, hard truths are laid bare on the table. However, with the right intentions and a whole team commitment to improvement, great things will come.
Psychological safety, and trustful communication takes time to develop within your support network. The rules of engagement and boundaries of behaviour are established through trial, error, feedback and adjustment. Neil believes that building that flow of communication and feedback requires a friendly curiosity. Exploring and understanding WHY someone is choosing a particular behaviour is most important. A natural, friendly curiosity rather than a need to improve performance must drive the initial conversation, particularly to determine if there is more going on than meets the eye. Offering a potential starting solution to explore together helps the conversation to be solution focused.
Every Universal Man requires a network of friends and colleagues who can serve as confidantes, observers and sounding boards, prepared to challenge your beliefs and behaviours. This support network is what allows you to function at your best. However, it takes great humility to admit that we can’t go it alone and to engage your network of support. Having the courage to accept your own vulnerability and need for support can take you to even greater heights.
Pricey and Grego