How did a lad with a paper round in Middlesborough come to be a internationally renowned coach, whose advice and guidance is sought by top sports teams and businesses across the world?
Russell Earnshaw, or 'Rusty' as he is known to most people he comes into contact with, loves coaching. From a personal viewpoint, just sitting in a room listening to the maverick coach makes for compelling listening. As a player, he can be immensely challenging, but he is also innovative, individualistic and informal – which makes for a lively playing and training environment.
Take as evidence, this feedback on the Magic Academy website, the coaching company run by Rusty and his co-director John Fletcher.
"Russell Earnshaw treads a fine line between genius and nutcase."
And that feedback, which is Earnshaw's "favourite feedback ever", symbolises what sets some coaches apart – an ability to get the best out of people by applying coaching science; human empathy and adding a dash of a little something extra.
As a player, Earnshaw won two Varsity matches while at Cambridge University. He also played for the Barbarians against Germany. At club level, the lock/back row played Premiership rugby with West Hartlepool, Bath and Rotherham. While at Bath, he was part of the team that won the European Cup. He then moved to Division One side Worcester, where he helped the squad gain promotion.
Earnshaw also had a career as a Rugby Sevens player, competing in the 1998 Commonwealth Games and the IRB World Series until 2003.
The coaching career took off while Earnshaw was still playing. He says it was "by luck rather than design" after he was called upon to fill the shoes of someone who had just left a post. Whatever the pathway, there was never much doubt that Earnshaw would make his way into the world of coaching at some point.
At Doncaster he helped with the coaching and then joined Pertemps Bees as player/coach for the 2007/8 season. It was two years later at Birmingham & Solihull Rugby Club however, that his ability to bring out the best began to shine through as he came to the rescue of the team and led them successfully out of the relegation play-offs.
On the international circuit, in 2007 Earnshaw started coaching the England 7's team and in the six years he was with the team, they won numerous matches and titles, including two back-to-back Dubai World Series titles in 2011 and 2012; the Twickenham Sevens in 2009 and a silver medal at the Rugby 7s World Cup in Russia in 2013.
Earnshaw spent a two-year period teaching Economics and coaching rugby at Eastbourne College, before returning to the RFU to join the coaching staff on the Talent Pathway, where he headed up the Coach Development programme.
Now Earnshaw, along with fellow former international rugby coach John Fletcher, is a director of the Magic Academy, which offers coaching and training to athletes, sports teams and businesses.
Just a short while in the room with Earnshaw and you notice that he has a deep sense of respect and empathy for the people he coaches. He avoids picking at players' and teams' weaknesses, preferring to focus on the positives. But, he points out, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
"Because I work across sports and businesses helping support coaches in their contexts, every situation is different. I can be very challenging, I have some biases around stretching people to be as good as they can be. I also tend to notice the positives and prefer informality. When I am coaching, the environment and relationships within the group are critical for me."
As a mentor to coaches, Earnshaw is equally challenging. Some of the questions that Earnshaw asks of coaches are simple but often over-looked issues:
Do we always stand in the same place when we coach, or do we move around to offer ourselves a new perspective? Is everyone included in the session – including injured players?
Other questions are pure 'out of the box' thinking. At a recent event with the England Cricket Board, Earnshaw suggested asking the players to bat with someone else's equipment. His point: how do players deal with unfamiliarity and the stress that causes?
Then there is his use of the wider world for context and relevance. A reference to 10th man theory, courtesy of the movie World war Z – where people are encouraged to see the potential risk in a situation even though the common perception is that there is no risk – resonates with both businesses and sports teams. The message: we are often too quick to succumb to overconfidence bias and ignore potential problems, we should always be prepared to face disruption.
For Earnshaw, there are five main factors that lead to a successful coaching programme:
- The environment in which the coaching is taking place,
- Consideration of the individual needs of each player,
- The relationships that build between coaching staff and players, as well as the relationships between the players themselves.
- Listening to everyone in the group, and giving each person equal respect.
- Creating a healthy coaching environment in which people feel confident and supported if they challenge a view.
At a recent talk at London Welsh rugby club, Earnshaw emphasised how important it was that all team members should be given equal airtime and respect. The talk was centered around the use of the Coach Logic platform and how players could develop their own views based on video clips. The important role for the coach here was to allow all players to express their views and not always listen to simply the senior members of the club. This was, he said, a great way to foster an open discussion between players of all ages and experience levels.
When it comes to technology, Earnshaw is a big fan. It is yet another source of information and learning. But, he cautions, "it has to be used well. It can inform coaches and give them both objective and subjective information to support them becoming better decision makers on and off the pitch."
When it comes to his own development as a coach, Earnshaw is typically generous and open in his appreciation. He has been influenced by a wide range of people, from legends of the world of sport such as Nigel Redman Kevin Bowring and Keith Lyons, through to Google's head of creative capability development, Kirk Vallis.
But also, he says: "I have learnt something from every kid I have ever coached including (probably more than most) my own."
Coming from someone else, that would sound like a cliche; from the mouth of Russell Earnshaw, you know it is absolutely genuine.