Q&A: Ben Ryan on life after becoming an Olympic legend – and Fijian chief – as coach of the island’s gold-medal rugby team
The last few months have been a whirlwind for the Englishman, but he has some massive plans for the future after leaving the islanders
Ben Ryan became a living legend in Fiji after guiding their rugby sevens team to gold at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Back in Hong Kong for a flying visit for the HKRU Long Lunch, he sat down for an enlightening talk about the aftermath of that historic triumph, becoming the first foreigner to be made a Fijian chieftain, working with the New York Knicks and top CEOs, a book and possible movie about the Olympic story, and setting up a Pacific Islands Super Rugby franchise.
How crazy have the last few months been?
I don’t feel like I’ve ever stopped really. Obviously we had the time in the Olympics after the competition to try to take it all in and probably the No.1 thing that surprised me was how many people watched the sevens and the impact it had on the global scale. The New York Knicks players knew about Fiji sevens, they’d watched it in the locker room and were amazed with the athleticism of our boys and the similarities of the offloading and passing in basketball. The media attention from China, the US and from countries that have no history in sevens or rugby showed you that the Olympics just lifts everything on to a higher level ... even if you won a World Cup in 15s, I doubt anyone would bat an eyelid in the US or China, but Sevens and the Olympics is completely different.
Did it surprise you the impact the Games made?
I think post-tournament it did. We felt like it was another tournament going in ... afterward was when it began to hit home. Everyone knew the story. The Olympic Village afterwards when we went in to dinner people were turning and pointing at our boys. They didn’t really know how to handle it all I think, it was a massive surprise to all of us. We got everything perfect going into the Games and after the final I think all of us were blown away by the level of media hype around the town.
Did you party in Rio, or are they not those type of characters?
The boys were banned for any sort of unhealthy food for months and months so as soon as the Games were over they demolished the McDonald’s in the Athletes’ Village – and that’s fine if that’s the one thing they wanted to do, there’s far worse things you could get up to in Rio. We went to watch Usain Bolt win the 100 metres, went to the beach volleyball, had various trips to very cool TV studios and met lots of different people. We went to the Nike store and a couple of the boys got their gold medals out and were suddenly swamped by all these people. You forget that the general public have never touched or felt an Olympic medal and our boys are just giving them out to put round people’s necks. I went to the track and field, I love athletics. I had accreditation that got me into the warm-up areas and all that and met coaches from all the disciplines and learned a lot. And sure, I had a few beers as well.
What were some of the things you learned?
I met Jamaican track and field guys, cycling, hockey, volleyball, all sorts really. When you get to the high-end international level, we all have the same problems with teams and challenges and you learn so much from different people about how to overcome those. At the Olympics there’s coaches there that have huge experience at world level from different sports and I just wanted to gain as much information and suck them dry of their knowledge, and I’ve continued to do that, whether it’s with the Knicks or various other organisations I’ve been around in the last few weeks.
You take anything from anywhere
Absolutely, there’s things you take and you plagiarise. Whatever it is, there’s things basketball teams might do around their offence or defence or their yoga or meditation that the Knicks are doing and your mind starts ticking as to how you would apply that in your sport. There are so many challenges we all have that are the same: management of players, discipline, the framework you put around your teams on-field and off-field. If you’ve decided to stop learning as a coach you’re dead in the water, you’re never going to sustain any success in the long term.
Is it mostly about mentality, dealing with groups?
How you pass a rugby ball is how you pass a rugby ball so I’m not going to other sports to learn that stuff, but take the NBA: they have 96 games in a season if they go to the play-offs, they’ll often have a Saturday game, then have to get in a plane and fly four or five hours across time zones, then play the next day. So recovery, a small team like sevens, they’ve got to be tight-knit, they’ve got to absorb ups and downs. So you learn stuff like that, you learn relationships and how to improve those. Mindfulness, clarity of thinking under pressure, all these different things. Some of it reinforces what you think you’re doing, ‘We’re on the right track ,’ other things make you think, ‘We’re better than other people,’ other things are like, ‘We should be doing this.’ You’ve got think laterally as a coach and that’s not trying to be clever that’s just doing your job.
How did the Knicks link-up come about?
I’ve been around there for the last couple of weeks. Literally hanging out with them and asking stupid questions and seeing how things run. I’m a good friend with their director of training and conditioning Erwin Valencia who’s an incredibly good operator and very humble. He’s the first Filipino to work professionally in both the NBA and MLB and he’s outstanding, outstanding. They’ve been very welcoming and to be courtside when they’re training, to be at their games, to have a look at how they recover, to chat to some of their superstars, guys that are on US$25 million a year and they’ve got to be effectively managed and got to have a drive to want to be good, all these different things.
Spending time with NY Knicks & hearing words like kindness, mindfulness & care is so uplifting. You can be high performing & Kind pic.twitter.com/aJ02mS2WtW
— Ben Ryan (@benjaminryan) October 12, 2016
[A conference called Leaders in Sport] mutually just set us up basically and said look Ben’s looking to do this and this and the Knicks were like yeah we saw the guys play we’d love him to come in and share some knowledge and bounce ideas off each other and talk around leadership and teamwork and everything else. I hope some other opportunities in American sport appear as well, because there’s a lot we can learn.
NFL, NHL, Major League Baseball, they all have different challenges [and] things that transfer across. I want to make sure when I go into my next role I’m better, I’m more rounded and I’ve improved. I’ve also set up a little boutique consultancy to go in to various clubs to look at their culture and see where I can improve basic stuff that doesn’t require money.
And you’re working with businesses and CEOs?
CEOs and HRDs often get in their positions based purely on their expertise and not on their leadership skills, and they don’t know what they don’t know. They’ve not had those lessons in leadership ... I’m doing some mentoring and also being a sounding board and there’s some companies that are looking at me to go in for specific reasons. It might be around the culture of the board or different things. Again, I go in and ask stupid questions and am just a fly on the wall ... at the end I give a report and hopefully I’ll have said some stuff that’ll make an impact. It’s no good me just going in and telling stories unless there’s a what’s next. So you have to give them actual physical things they can change.
It’s not like you’re standing in a meeting room with a flipboard?
No, and I’ll never be doing that. You go round and have conversations with everyone. It might be people working in the canteen. In New York a taxi driver will tell me what he thinks of the Knicks and how they should improve and it’s all just getting as much feedback and as much of the story as possible. You ask a guy who’s cleaning the offices at Nasa what his job is and he’ll say ‘Helping put a man on the moon.’ You need everyone in your organisation to actually feel that they’re part of the success. At Twickenham when I left three years ago they had an all-staff meeting and asked anyone directly involved in the success of the England team to stand up and about a dozen people did out of 500, the coaches and everyone else. If your culture is right, the groundsmen, the cleaners, will also be able to stand up and go, ‘On Saturday when England beat Australia I feel I’m part of that because I do this and that helps the team.’
It’s maybe quite common for people high on the org chart to get into the mindset of not speaking to the little guy?
I think those guys don’t make a connection between a conversation with the guy who opens the door for you and the success of the company. If you’re at the top of the tree and connecting to everyone at the bottom and actually care and value them, then that guy’s going to want to care more about the business and do as good job as he can and espouse the virtues of the company. The good CEOS walk the floor, they spend time with all the staff, they make them feel wanted ... you can’t do that on a once-a-year thing, you have to be consistent in your behaviour. I use the line, ‘The standard you walk past is the standard you become.’ If you walk past someone who throws a piece of garbage out the window and you don’t do anything, then that’s your standard. It’s the same in business and in sport, if someone’s late for practice and you don’t pick him up on it, then you’re happy for people to be late for practice, that is your standard. So you have to be consistent in your behaviours and for people to be like that they have to understand the connection between what you’re doing and how that affects success.
Has your phone been ringing off the hook with job offers?
I handed in my resignation about four months before the Olympics because I didn’t want anyone to read into what would happen or not happen at the Olympics into my decision. I was always in for four years with Fiji and at the end of that I wanted to leave on a high, be the first Fiji coach not to get sacked and that’s what happened. So people were aware of my availability and we had some good offers and I’ve got some good offers on the table at the moment, but I’ve said to my agent that we’re not looking at anything full-time for until next year. There’s some consultancy jobs with different unions around the world and the things we’ve just talked about that I want to do. I don’t want to have a break from work, I’d work 24 hours a day if I could, but I want different challenges and different environments and I want to learn.
And there’s a book coming out?
Tom Fordyce, the BBC Chief Sports Writer was my No.1 target to ghostwrite, we decided rather than write a book about the journey and management lessons from it, we’d just write the story. And hopefully from there there’ll be some interest perhaps in a script for a movie. It is an amazing story and when you dig into the stories of the players and where they come from and the whole journey, it would make a great couple of hours. I think the book will be highly entertaining and from there hopefully that will lead to a spin-off and we can do some stuff around leadership. A friend that spent some time with me that works in Hollywood said the world needs to know a bit more about Fiji and be a bit more Fijian in their outlook about simple things. You can be kind, and relaxed, and [still] ruthless and winning. We wanted to show that they’re important traits and you don’t have to be selfish which a lot of people are in elite sport, you can be open, you can be nice to people and you can be winning. And Fiji have proved that in the last 24 months.
Have you had producers and scriptwriters get in touch?
Some Chinese have approached us, a very famous director whose name I’m afraid I can’t remember at the moment. We were going to do a documentary about the Olympics. It was all in place with Frank Marshall, who produced the Bourne films, The Color Purple, The Sixth Sense – we had all the money ready to go and they just couldn’t agree with the IOC on the footage from the Olympics so at the last hour they pulled it. It’s more likely now that it will be a [feature] movie with actors etcetera. We’ve had some interest, but it’s tentative, so that’s why we think the book might be a nudge in the right direction.
What a crazy decision from the IOC.
They agreed to give the producer the footage but they said anything he wanted to use they had to say yes or no, but he was like, ‘It’s my artistic license, I need final say.’ It’s a shame, looking back it would be awesome. Hopefully the story’s still going to be told, that’s the good side I guess.
Just going through some old notebooks from 3 years ago - excuse the handwriting... pic.twitter.com/QvLb2R5T6N
— Ben Ryan (@benjaminryan) September 20, 2016
How did you escape Fiji after the celebrations?
The moment I left the CEO just showed me on to the airplane to say goodbye and he said, ‘Does this mean we have to advertise the job now?’ I said, ‘Yeah...’ I hope I’ll be back. I’ve got good friends there and left on the right terms. My last couple of days I was named chief of one of the provinces, they gave me three hectares of land and I’m the first non-Fijian chief. It was beyond all expectations, I got the highest honour they can bestow on you, the CF as it’s called, and it was just amazing.
What powers does a chief get?
You get the land – I can never sell it, but I can build on it and operate a commercial entity. The plan would be to have a yoga and surf retreat, it’s on a really good surf break, and obviously employ locals to build it and work in it and profits would go back into the province. That’s down the track but it means that I’ll always have a relationship with Fiji ... One other thing I’m really passionate about is how can we make sure that 15s doesn’t become an afterthought on the island. The No.1 thing is to have a Super Rugby team on the island, with academies on Samoa and Tonga and potentially a longer term plan to have a second Pacific Island team, then a generation of coaches, physios, managers, a stadium, tourism – that’s something I’m really excited about trying to get a group of people together. We can put such a strong argument to Super Rugby and World Rugby that they can’t say no. We have a lot of people that want to put a lot of money into a franchise. That’s in the very early stages but I’m trying to get a group together to push that so that within five years it happens. If I can get that as a legacy or help part of that, that would change Fijian rugby and get them back to consistently getting to quarter-finals of World Cups and bringing the best talent back to the island.
It seems a no-brainer.
They’ve talked for 20 years about it, but no-one’s done anything. But no-one’s come with a rock-solid proposal, here’s the sponsors, here’s the money guaranteed, this is the stadium being built, this is the infrastructure, there’s no reason you can say no. And where Fiji is with franchises in Australia and New Zealand, you’ve got almost 10 Super Rugby teams within two- or three-hour flights in almost the same time zone.
How important was Hong Kong and the Sevens for you and this amazing story?
Vital. I thought when I was with England I was never going to win Hong Kong after seven attempts and about four semi-finals and a final. When I came with Fiji and we won our last two, the last one in particular was very important because it was basically a rehearsal for the Olympics. We knew that when we left Hong Kong having won it and got things right it gave us real confidence that we were on the right track in terms of how we were going to prepare for the Olympics. Hong Kong is the closest you can get to the Olympics ... it’s still the spiritual home of sevens and will always remain so. I don’t think you can ever say you’re a successful sevens coach if you haven’t won Hong Kong. I thought that was going to elude me and then to win the last two was the icing on the cake really for these last two years.
And you’ll be back?
I’m sure I’ll be back in March in some capacity whether as an ambassador for HSBC or as a guest of the union. It’ll be very weird, 10 years, I’ve done the last 85 tournaments in the World Series so for me to be back will be kind of weird, but at the same time it’s nice sometimes to take a breather and step back and get ready for the next challenge.
How do you see the World Series this year?
The door’s wide open for South Africa. They’re consistent, I think they’ll win the World Series and might win it by an landslide. They were unlucky the last two years, kept consistency, lost a couple of players but have a very good framewrok, very good set-up and are probably the most professional setup and the only ones of the top three without any real change. New Zealand will have new coach, some of their older players retired, Fiji obviously changed coach and lost players. It’s going to be a wide open series in many ways but I cant see anybody challenging South Africa.