If you let down my team, you'll be out: Martin Johnson sets out his coaching ethos

At the 2009 Global Sports Summit in London’s Renaissance Chancery Court Hotel three weeks ago, Martin Johnson joined England cricket coach Andy Flower, Fabio Capello and Mike Holmgren, who won the Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers in 1996, in a coaching forum where he set out his coaching philosophy.

Johnson conceded that he was a novice compared to Capello and Holmgren, who boast a combined 38 years as head coaches in football and American football respectively.

However, while the latter have dealt with the pressures and the vagaries of preparing teams, they have not led them across the white line and into battle, as Johnson did so remarkably as England’s Rugby World Cup-winning captain.

Ivan Speck listened in and here presents the highlights of Johnson’s contribution.


Rugby has come a long way. When I first played in ’93 we had two coaches and the team were more player-led. The captain and senior players led the team and that’s changed tremendously since professionalism.

We have a coaching management team of 16 or 17 people with the England side, including medical guys and fitness. My job is to manage those guys as much as manage the team. The difference when you are playing is obviously that you can lead by example. If the team get flat, and there is no emotion, you can lead that physically.

When you are the manager or coach you cannot do that, you have to do that in different ways.

The biggest thing you have to learn to do is trust your players, get the right people around you, the right group of players and let them lead the way.

Martin Johnson, England manager

The long haul: 'Winning the World Cup was the pinnacle, but what I remember is the six years getting there'


In a team sport, whatever you decide are the rules. If you don’t follow them you are letting your team-mates down. That’s the key. I didn’t play individual sports, I love team sports. I played football, rugby and cricket, sharing and being involved with all the players.

So while you can be different characters and you encourage that, there’s a line that says if we decide this is important, this is what we are going to do and we will do it.
If you don’t want to do that then you have a simple choice of not being involved with the team. Everyone makes a mistake here and there, but ultimately if you want to do something differently, and you let the team down and create difficulties inside the group, then you should not be there.


I was fortunate to play on the team that won the World Cup. People said: ‘What’s it like to lift the trophy?’ Yeah, it was great and that was the pinnacle, but actually for the players that did it it was six or seven years getting there. That’s what it was all about.

That’s what we remember as much as winning the final game. It’s almost like the symbol of it is lifting the trophy, but the years of ups and downs, losing some important games, winning and building yourself into a team capable of doing it, that’s far more important than the one game or one tournament.

Yes, it’s important to finish it off and do it. Sometimes you won’t, but to say that it’s been a waste of time trying to do it is wrong because that’s what you are in the sport for, to strive.

Striving, having bad moments and losing games, getting criticised by people who don’t really know what they are talking about, is all part of it. As long as you stay true to what you are trying to do then you can be happy in yourself that you are going in the right direction.

Martin Johnson the captain of England celebrates with the Webb Ellis

The end of the journey: Johnson hoists the Webb Ellis trophy in the Telstra Stadium


When I started playing, we had a forwards coach and a backs coach. Now you have the attack coach, backs coach, forwards coach, scrum specialist, defence coach. Rugby coaching has developed from an amateur sport where you hardly got coached at all to being a professional sport, all in the space of 10 or 12 years.

You talk about strength and conditioning. When I joined Leicester, the weights room was under the stand. It’s now the press room. There’s a £1million facility now.

As I said, I have about 17 or 18 guys under me, including medics, two full-time physios, a doctor with the team, nutritionists, kit guys wearing GPS so you know how many metres they’ve gone and how fast they’ve done it.

You can go to the nth degree with everything in a multi-faceted sport like rugby and American Football. The difference in Mike (Holmgren’s) sport is that you have offensive
and defensive players. Our guys do both, so both the attack and defence coaches work with them, so you have to get the balance right over how much to train them.


People love the myth of the big team talks before you go out and what that does to a team. I played 500 games and I can probably remember three or four of them. It’s a very difficult card to play and you have to know when the time is right to be able to do it. I speak to our team about half an hour before they go out, then the captain deals with them pre-game.

As captain, I could feel it in the week whether we were going to be in the right frame of mind for Saturday and on the Wednesday or Thursday you could relax mentally because you knew the guys were right. But other times you could feel they were not right, that there was complacency or over-anxiety.

A little bit of fear is healthy, I think, before a game. Controlling it is the right thing for players. Particularly with big contact sports, you look at the guys you are playing with, you don’t have to say anything, a nod of the head that says: ‘I’ve got your back and you’ve got mine,’ is going to do it.


I don't worry personally about losing my job, about somebody else doing it or about criticism. I worry about not doing it well enough. I don’t worry about me, I worry about our team being successful and me doing a good job.

It’s self-induced, the pressure you put on yourself. I want to do the job well. When I became an England player and then England captain, what a great honour, captain of the British Lions, what an honour. But if I don’t do the job well, where is the honour in that? You have to do the job well.

To achieve anything in life, in sport, to be a good player or a good coach, it comes from you. If you set your standards low and you are happy with mediocrity, you will not rise to where we’ve got to (Capello, Holmgren, Flower).


All our sports are individual but there is a massive cross-over. One of our guys was at British sailing last week seeing how they interact. Sailing and rugby, what do they have in common? There is always something you can learn, if you go away and pick up one thing you take on board as a coach or player it can help.

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