Dane Coles is arguably one of the world’s best and most dynamic rugby players. In the combative position of hooker, Coles regularly goes head to head with front rowers around the world in both Super Rugby and International Rugby and is a Rugby World Cup Winner.
In this article, PDP Editor, Dave Wright spoke to Dane about his player development journey, not specialising too young, the types of coaches he responds to and the value of mental preparation in performance.
Dane Coles grew up in a small town on New Zealand’s Kapiti Coast, about 45 minutes north of the nation’s capital, Wellington. He has fond memories of his childhood there, saying “we didn’t have things like PlayStation back then”. He remembers “constantly being outside playing all kinds of sports, including rugby league, touch rugby, softball, football and cricket”. As Dane puts it, he “just gave everything a go”.
Despite the lower North Island of New Zealand being a rugby heartland, it may be surprising to hear that Dane’s school wasn’t really “a rugby school”. However, this may be what helped him on his way to rugby success, as he managed to make the school’s 1st XV at the age of 14. The following year, aged 15 Coles played in a tournament for his province, Horowhenua-Kapiti, which resulted in him making the New Zealand U17 squad.
It was then that he decided to give rugby “a really good crack” and see where the journey would take him.
Initially, that journey from school XV to World Cup winner began by being “smashed by big scores” while playing for Horowhenua-Kapiti. But, as Dane says, “we were just happy to be playing against some of the bigger names in New Zealand rugby at the time.”
We start our interview discussing those early formative years.
How much of your development as a young player was coach led versus free play?
I was quite lucky really, my old man coached a fair bit and we had another good coach called Ray Hayward. There were elements of coaching, but they kept things pretty basic. Looking back, I think playing with so many of my good mates probably had a bigger influence on me than the coaches. It was mainly about going out and enjoying yourselves and playing with your friends, but my Dad and Ray were a pretty good coaching team. In my last year of school we managed to win division three and they guided us along the way; we had a fantastic team culture.
As a young player what kind of coaches did you respond to or look up to?
It’s funny, you know. You come into contact with a variety of coaches along the way. I think the coaches that gave me the enjoyment and freedom to just play worked best for me, especially when I was at school. I think sometimes now it all gets taken a bit too seriously too soon. Back then it was all about learning the basics and more than anything creating a really good team culture and having fun with your mates. Even now I look back on those days as some of the best of my life. I generally didn’t respond that well to coaches who were really hard on us or who took the fun out of the game.
You spent five years playing domestic/provincial rugby for both Wellington & the Hurricanes Super Rugby before making your debut for the All Blacks in 2012. What lessons do you take from your time at that level?
The first big lesson was the realisation about how much hard work you have to put in to become a professional rugby player. When I first cracked it at domestic level I was just happy to be there and I think that was reflected in the way I played – I wasn’t very consistent. Some coaches – especially one of the bigger influences of my career, a guy called Richard Watt – helped me so much with the ideas of hard work and preparation. Then there was Jamie Joseph, he coached the Hurricanes and was notorious for being a hard man. He helped me focus on putting my head down and working hard during the week, preparing professionally during the week and not getting complacent that you could just turn up on Saturday and expect to play well.
It took me a couple of years to figure it all out, really. I had to learn the importance of looking after my body, managing the nutrition side of things and so on. I’ve had different coaches along the way who have all added value to my game.
What influence have team leaders at all levels had on you personally and how important are mentors in your opinion?
They have been absolutely huge. I have been pretty lucky to play with some special players. When I began playing for the Hurricanes I was behind Andrew Hore who was a big influence on my work ethic and what it takes to be a professional. He was a pretty established All Black at the time and was someone I looked up to. I would always try and watch him, see how he did things and try and learn from him. From there I was also very lucky to spend a lot of time in the All Blacks with Keven Mealamu. It’s not until you get to spend time with those guys, just chew their ear off and watch how they do things that you realise the value of mentors. All of these things just help you learn and add value to your game.
Can you give us your view of how important and how engrained Rugby is into the New Zealand sporting culture?
In terms of how I got into the game, I probably didn’t have much of a choice! The old man got me into a club and from there I was away laughing! Growing up in New Zealand it’s hard to escape, especially as a young fella. Most young Kiwis dream of growing up and being an All Black, doing the Haka and pulling on that black jersey. The All Blacks hold a pretty special place in New Zealand hearts and there is a real expectation on the team to win and be the best all the time. There’s a lot of history there and the New Zealand public hold them in such high regard.
As a player, what value do you believe player ownership within a group and accountability to your teammates adds in a team environment?
It’s huge. Its essential to have ownership within the group to gain trust from your teammates. Trust is a key ingredient to making a team successful. A classic example in my own experience was winning the Super Rugby title with the Hurricanes in 2016, the first time the team had done it. We had strong values around accountability, knowing your role and being a good person. Ideals like that make a massive difference to team culture and can be the difference when it comes to winning a championship. It’s not just about turning up on a Saturday and playing, there is a huge amount of work that goes on behind the scenes during the week to make a team successful.
As a professional athlete, how do you balance the challenge of trying to be the best in your position whilst being thrust into the spotlight as a role model?
Nowadays it’s exceptionally difficult for players. There is a lot of scrutiny on rugby players in New Zealand. I can say with honesty that I’ve not been perfect and have made mistakes throughout my own career over the years; but the reality is, it’s your job, you have simply got to adapt and maintain high standards. If your name gets dragged through the media it has a big effect on your family and those close to you, so you have to be aware.
When kids look up to you that’s pretty cool. The best thing I can do is make sure I give kids the time of day. Giving a signature or a bit of time is only a couple of minutes of your day, it doesn’t take much effort. Being an All Black means you have to make the right decisions, maintain your discipline and ensure you don’t let anyone down.
Can you elaborate on how you approach the psychological side of your personal playing performance?
I put a massive emphasis on my psychological preparation. It’s an area that’s become more important to me in recent years and something I have only really been taught about since becoming an All Black. When you’re consistent in your preparation it helps performance. I’ve got a set routine that I have worked on developing over the years and I’ve made sure I go bone deep with that. If I’m consistent with that routine, it gives me the confidence to go out and perform at my best.
In your view, what makes an effective or successful coach from a player’s perspective?
Player management is something that’s huge to me. Players will all respond to different types of coach. When Mark Hammett came into the Hurricanes setup he may not have been seen as the best coach by some, but he cared for his players. He was big on family and culture. Steve Hansen is someone who can be hard on players but he gets the best out of them. For me, it’s about someone in-between. You want someone who cares about you but they have to be honest with you and, at times, hard on you.
What advice would you have for young athletes trying to maximise their own potential?
It took me a while to realise this myself. For a long time I went through the motions a bit, but now I know it’s about giving it a really good crack and working hard. When you get to the early teenage years, you have to knuckle down and do everything you can to achieve your goals if professional sport is what you want. Work ethic is huge, but more importantly staying humble, keeping your feet on the ground and working your arse off to get to where you want to be.
What advice would you have for coaches trying to create the best possible environment for players?
Get to know your players. It’s important that coaches don’t come into an environment and just do it their own way and utilise the players to help them. There’s a balance that can be achieved out of having a leadership group, finding out what works for the players and then putting your own twist on it. Knowing your players will mean you can manage the group.
What attributes do you think most top players have in common in your experience?
Preparation and simplicity have been stand-out ideas to me that some of the best keep at the forefront of their game. If you get preparation right and don’t overcomplicate your role, you know your role in the team and don’t worry too much about other people’s jobs then you’re on the right track. Mental skills work will also ensure players get to the next level. It’s an area that perhaps some players aren’t keen on, but I firmly believe it helps performance. Finally, the most important is to play for the love of it. A lot of the guys I’m lucky enough to play rugby with still get a massive amount of enjoyment out of the game.