How John Pryor adapts training to culture

Over the past few years, perhaps no coach has influence my coaching more than John Pryor. Currently the head of strength and conditioning for Fiji rugby in the lead-up to next year’s World Cup, Pryor has decades of experience in the sport working for Japan, Australia, and top clubs in both countries. He has a unique ability to blend the art of coaching and sports science, and also objectively critique his own performance.

Thankfully we’ve had several chances to pick his brain recently. After the 2015 world cup, we sat down and interviewed him to reflect on his experience with Japan and their novel use of some concepts of Frans Bosch. Last year he put together a video for us that demonstrates his approach to robust running. And just last month he shared some thoughts on his process to make training better and identify transfer. If you want to learn more from Pryor, he’ll once again be on the faculty at GAIN 2018.

» Learn more: Become a member and watch Pryor demonstrate his approach to robust running and implementing the concepts of Frans Bosch. You can also learn from him in person at GAIN 2018.

This month the theme on HMMR Media is culture. So far I’ve shared some insights from the business world and we’ve collected input from the experience of coaches like Vern Gambetta and Nick Hill. This is also yet another area where Pryor brings a lot of experience. Most people think about culture in terms of how a team acts and behaves, but for Pryor it is more than that. It is also about where the athletes are coming from. Last month I got a chance to talk to him about his experience of transitioning from working with Japan to working with Fiji, and how that impacted the decisions he made in training. Our full conversation is below.

Martin: At GAIN last year you shared some stories on your experience in Japan, where you’ve worked in several capacities for nearly a decade, and your first impressions with Fiji, who you have been helping since last year. To me they highlighted a big factor we overlook when discussing team culture: the role of the broader culture of the surrounding community. Team culture is not created in isolation, and sometimes that means coaches need to train athletes differently to promote a strong team culture in a different environment. In Japan you worked with Eddie Jones to create a game plan and training plan that leveraged of Japanese cultural traditions. Now that you are in a new culture, what are some of the coaching changes you’ve made to help the Fijian culture strength the team’s culture?

John: I’ll give you an example from weight training. Fijians like to work either competitively or collectively. They either want to compete 1-on-1 with each other or work as a team collaboratively. If I calculate your 1-rep max and go through and set your programming based on percentages, that kind of concept would not appeal to most Fijians. The idea of individualized detailed programming like this does not really fit their psyche.

Now a pure strength coach might think that our approach is terrible, but we program exact weights, not the reps. Players might go in and we’ll have 80kg, 120kg, and 160kg for the bench. The first set we’ll have them go until they have 3 left in the tank and then drop out. Then get them competing through those various loads. When we do that we get a great intensity in our weight lifting. When we don’t do that we might be underlifting or get the calculations wrong. In Japan the training was highly individualized, but we’ve found that being less individualized works better in Fiji.

Martin: Athlete buy-in is also a big buzz word now. This is also tied to the culture the athletes come from. You’ve talked a lot about your robust running approach. At GAIN you mentioned this was quiet easy to implement in Fiji, despite little experience with it. Why was that?

John: They are quick learners in Fiji. In terms of the motor learning aspect of some of the Bosch applications of coordination and strength, they pick it up very quickly since it makes sense to them. Maybe they have an affinity for efficient movement, but I think it also comes from their cultural experience.

For the most part, top players leave the island at around 19 or 20 years old. They see these young kids leave the island at 95 kilograms and running 10 meters per second. They are fast naturally. Then the same kid comes back after doing years of bench and squat and coaches on the island notice that his posture is a bit different, he’s lost some agility, and five years later the same player is even stronger, benching 180 and squatting 200 but he has become a crash-style player. With less speed and agility. This has happened very often.

They have seen so many players lose coordination as they gain strength. So they are open to the idea that there might be a better way through specific strength and coordination-based training. The distinction between specific strength and general strength is just very logical and understandable for them. They feel that they have a gift of free-flowing movement in rugby, and I think they do. They see this as potentially being damaged by bad training and understand the new approach intuitively.

Martin: How would you approach the topic differently in a culture that was more resistant to this type of work? I’m sure you run into that when monitoring athletes and discussing  day-to-day training with their club coaches. Would you compromise and include less of this work? Or modify the exercises? Work to educate them as you gradually introduce them?

John: I am not sure about this. I haven’t had many people argue and resist my methodologies. It may be in part because I place a high value on explaining my approach carefully, and I am happy to be questioned along the way. I told the players at the beginning, that I would watch, listen and learn before I implemented to many changes. So as Damian Marsh and I made changes, we were able to justify and explain each one. And it helped that the players were feeling and performing better.

Martin: I heard an anecdote recently about a European coach that went to Signapore and failed due to his failure to adapt his approach. In Europe he was a very open coach, asking and utilizing athlete feedback. In the west this is seen as a forward-thinking approach, but in Singapore it only caused his athletes to doubt his knowledge and credentials since he kept asking questions. Coaches need to be flexible based on the culture they are working on. Is there anything you have changed in your coaching style in Fiji vs. Japan?

John: I’m much less bossy in Fiji. In Japan I’m sure many of the players were scared of me, but that’s part of Japanese teaching. I definitely wouldn’t do that with the Fiji guys. If I want to really challenge someone or pull them over the coals, I would do that 1-on-1 and not in front of his friends or the group. That would be very disrespectful and not fit the team culture. In Japan that is part of daily life.

Martin: As an outsider, it seems like the element of play also has a more central role in Fijian culture compared to Japan. Has that impacted training at all?

John: 100%. I’ve been getting help here from Greg Thompson. And I hope to engage him until the world cup. We have a philosophy that every session starts with a fun or competitive game. I don’t know if you follow the stuff Greg does with his kids at school, but I brought him in to consult and we use some of the similar stuff. We example we might play rock, scissors, paper and if you win you chase or if you lose you have to turn and run. It’s silly stuff, but we keep using new ignition games. After a block in June we sat them down for feedback and they said it was great; it gets them energized where it might distract other teams. In fact they wanted more games.

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Martin: Would that have worked in Japan?

John: We might have used it as a novelty occasionally, but generally no. I would just yell out to start. The fact that I said something was enough reason to do that. The Fijians like a clear explanation and a reason for doing something, then they nod their heads and collaboratively or collectively enthuse each other.

The Fijians players are scattered to the four winds. Wherever there are around the world, they are playing rugby where there are just two or three Fijians on the team. When they get back to the team, they love it since they love being in each other’s company. So there is no need for bonding and I don’t need to make any games to bond them. They are more bonded than any other group I have worked with before. But the games serve other purposes.

Martin: How do you learn about the culture you are stepping into? Did you do research or talk to others beforehand?

John: Not really. It is mostly through osmosis. I am a big believer and shutting up, watching and listening when you are not running the session. They have a lot of daily rituals like lotu every evening at 6pm. It’s a prayer meeting, but they will review how things are going and if a player did something wrong they will address the group. Its a central part of player culture.

You also have to ask questions when someone is likely to answer them. If I ask someone how they are feeling when there are even two people nearby, nothing is likely to come out. You have to find guys at a time they are likely to speak. Normally in private or small groups.

I also had a little head start with Fiji as I had worked with Pacific island players before, although primarily Samoan and Tongan. I thought the team might be resistant to hard work but I was wrong. It’s been a nice surprise. But I now have to keep working to find the best training system that suits their needs: physiologically, musculoskeletally (if I can make up a word), psychologically and culturally. Our Fiji Training System document is something that I am continually updating, reviewing and editing.

Martin: Thanks for taking the time to share some insights and best of luck in your upcoming preparations.