At Athlete Assessments, we love to celebrate success, especially when it’s a third D1A National Championship win in four years.
Which is exactly what Saint Mary’s College of California’s Head Coach Tim O’Brien achieved when he led the Gaels to their third National Championship victory this year.
And while we won’t be giving away all the secrets to their hard-earned success, we will share a few strategies that helped get them over the line. Strategies that you too can implement to ensure success, because after more than 10 years of working with the best of the best, we know, as Tim knows, that the people side is what sets winning teams apart.
According to Athlete Assessments’ Bo Hanson, one of the greatest challenges a Coach faces today lies in connecting with a younger generation of athletes, something Tim has made a priority and one of the reasons he was able to achieve such success not once, but three times out of four.
“Tim has managed to not only connect with his athletes, he has built long term relationships with them through things such as shared pre-season experiences,” Bo said.
“Engaging his team in activities such as hiking and camping trips means there are opportunities to develop strong bonds through adversity. And the uniqueness of these experiences is evident through the fact that many of Tim’s athletes, having grown up in a city or suburban environment, had never camped or hiked mountains prior,”
“When a Coach shares their world, athletes usually reciprocate and let the Coach into theirs, but with Tim it starts with him reaching out to them, and this is just one quality which sets him apart from many other Coaches.”
Coach O’Brien said he worked hard to build a great team culture and set high standards for his players.
“I have indeed taken guys out into the back country, way out into the back country. I also take the lead guys on an annual ski trip to Idaho in in December and its today’s leaders combined with leaders from previous seasons. Our house gets crowded but watching the guys together (this year was 17) all talking of their past experiences, is pretty cool. That ski trip really glues the leaders with the past leaders who become mentors and sounding boards for the current group,” he said.
“Strategies that were implemented in these pre-season activities and at training were then taken into every game by the players and they took full responsibility for their performance,”
“The St Mary’s team have built relationships with each other and this is what happens when each player believes that success is driven through relationships. It has become a cultural strong point of this program.”
“Achieving synergy and athletic harmony is so important. I always use rowing as my foundation point with the team—the ability to have 4 or 8 (15 for rugby) thinking, moving and working as one when you are on the verge of blacking out is how we train and hopefully how we play.”
St Mary’s Flanker Alec Barton agreed saying it was trust among team members and Coaches, and great relationships that ensured their third Championship win.
“We work all year for this, running through the hills early through the season and building relationships,” he said.
“We talk about staying composed through the game and the only way we can stay composed is by trusting in each other and working off of those relationships.”
Composure is another strategy the Championship team called upon to ensure victory time and time again.
“The ability to manage your emotions to ensure you are in the most productive state to compete is a skill most elite athletes develop to some degree. It also includes the ability to stay composed to make quality decisions,” Bo said.
“This is something we worked on a lot with St Mary’s and something they became very good at,”
“We used breathing as a technique to achieve this state of composure. It’s about being able to assess and control your breathing through taking a deep breath in and slowly releasing it and repeating several times until you feel in control again. If you cannot control your breathing, you have lost control of yourself.”
St Mary’s College Rugby Union Team Captain Kevin O’Connor said he practiced his breathing daily as it helped him to find his neutral self.
“The breathing technique Bo taught us helps with controlling my temperament, especially when faced with difficult situations. It helps with my fitness as well, especially after a conditioning session,” he said.
“When I feel short of breath after a grinding run, I use the breathing practice to help me expand my diaphragm and the upper part of the lung where athletes usually never fully utilize.”
Coach O’Brien said the team ‘breathing time’ had become a special place for each individual.
“I ‘keep my distance’ during breathing time. As a team, we stop and breathe during each training session and it’s a time reserved just for the athletes to find inner peace, strength and resolve. No Coaches barking at them, no team members demanding and no opponents challenging them,” he said.
“I have found these moments of breathing, when applied consistently and properly, to be the critical differentiator in match play.”
Bo said gaining a better perspective and the ability to literally or metaphorically take a step back and see the situation from a different perspective, to see the bigger picture, is a huge factor in being a resilient athlete, something Tim had instilled in his team.
“When we are stressed we can get so focused on what we are doing that we lose sight of the bigger picture. It’s important as tough athletes that we have the ability to reassess then re-enter the competition,” Bo said.
“Tim’s exceptional knowledge about the game and his attitude towards getting the best from his players has earned him the reputation of being one of the best coaches in the league. There is undoubtedly more to come from him and his team.”
About Tim O’Brien. Tim O’Brien’s rugby career began as a 17-year-old, with the Palo Alto Rugby Club. Tim’s father, Kevin, a Stanford Peninsula Rambler and Palo Alto rugby player, introduced him to the game at a very young age and he’s been passionately involved in the sport ever since.
After a highly successful playing career, Tim was appointed to the St Mary’s Head Coach position in 2001, and has been revered and highly respected by past and present players since. Over the past 16 years as a volunteer, O’Brien has masterfully built a perennial collegiate powerhouse at Saint Mary’s College. Saint Mary’s, with an undergraduate student body enrollment of less than 1,100 male students, has gone to four straight Division 1-A National Championship games from 2013 through 2016, winning USA Division 1A National Championships in 2014 and 2015. The Gaels also won the Division 1A National Sevens Championship in 2016. Under his leadership the Gaels program maintains a 99% graduation rate, and has produced over 40 All-Americans and six U.S. Eagles. Tim’s establishment of a rugby board, internship and mentoring programs, and Coach development opportunities are the drivers of the Gaels program and coupled with the game itself, make St. Mary’s a special place. His endless dedication to advancing and growing the sport of rugby is clearly defined by his work as a Coach, catching the attention of many and contributing to the growing popularity of collegiate rugby in the United States.
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Where to from here?
Many of the winning Coaches we work with know that the most significant contributor to consistent, high performance is not what most people assume.
The 2008 Olympic Study found that the most significant factor in achieving a medal winning or personal best performance was a strong Coach-athlete relationship, with high athlete self-awareness coming in second. Profiling is the fastest and most effective way to develop the people side of sports programs.
At Athlete Assessments, we believe in the Coach. We believe they are the most influential person in an athlete’s sporting life and have the greatest impact on their athletes’ performances.
We also know that it’s imperative for Coaches to develop an athlete as a person, effectively communicate, and to persistently look for new tools and techniques to improve performance.
It doesn’t matter how technically brilliant you are, unless you can get your message across and connect with your athletes, your coaching will be limited. Find out what great Coaches get right.
ATHLETE TOUGH Program
If you want to know more about how to help your athletes learn how to take control of the mental side of sports, you should check out our newest program – ATHLETE TOUGH. Our Handbook & Video Series has been produced by 4 x Olympian and 3 x Olympic Medalist Bo Hanson to answer the call of Coaches wanting to know how they can build mental toughness in their athletes. We have dedicated an entire program to uncovering the strategies that create and build toughness. For your copy, and 15 chapters full of proven strategies to help your athletes become, and stay, ATHLETE TOUGH, visit this link for more information and to view a sample chapter and video!