7 Powerful Lessons: inside Melbourne Storm’s formula for success
Edward Crossin, edwardcrossin.com
The numbers tell (some) of the story
In the dance and dazzle of numbers, rugby league has been unfashionably late. The American sports codes are steeped in statistics. Some of rugby league’s leading practitioners have looked at the American model to pioneer innovation for their own NRL clubs.
While Australians look at the statistical models of the Americans, the Americans could learn from the Melbourne Storm, a success story that rates as one of the most consistently excellent sporting organisations in the world.
On statistics alone, three numbers highlight this achievement:
- Melbourne Storm have played in six grand finals from the last eleven seasons;
- The only time the team missed the final series was in 2010, when the club was stripped of its points. Yet it is remarkable and important to highlight that, even with no incentive but pride remaining that season (the NRL’s penalty included the team playing for no points), the Storm still would have made the play-offs based on their win percentage; and
- Storm’s Head Coach Craig Bellamy CV boasts the highest win percentage of any rugby league coach, past or present. On the eve of last year’s Grand Final, Bellamy’s record of 367 games produced a win rate of 67 per cent, which is 5 percentage points ahead of the great Jack Gibson and Wayne Bennett.
So there’s the macro numbers.
But zoom in, get closer. Because the statistics don’t tell the entire story. A closer examination of the Storm showcases seven principles that underpin the club’s accomplishments.
- It starts with culture
Culture is often spoken about. But it’s also misunderstood.
In the sport and business world, CEOs speak about culture ad nauseam. They reach for it like an invisible magic potion. Culture says, ours is different, ours is better, ours breeds success.
But at the Storm, it’s not fairy dust. It’s real. It breeds championship players and a champion team.
The Storm’s culture is built on leadership, honesty and humility.
- Culture cannot be copied
Culture is not a cheat sheet that a coach or business leader can photocopy and transfer.
Just ask Stephen Kearney.
For three years, Kearney operated as Assistant Coach at the Storm. Kearney then grabbed a new opportunity as Head Coach for the Parramatta Eels in 2011.
Kearney brought with him the wisdom of the Storm. He spoke about developing a strong culture and ‘getting the systems and structures right’ – the same kind of language that bounces around the walls at the Storm.
But it was a failure. Like building sandcastles in choppy waters, Parramatta’s tempestuous culture and instability undid any chance of those structures being a success.
This failed duplication of Storm’s system highlights the need for strength on and off the field. From administration to the football department, this means every employee buying into culture.
In Moneyball, author Michael Lewis wrote about the culture that General Manager Sandy Alderson brought to Oakland Athletics:
“The system was the star. The reason that the system works is that everyone buys into it. If they don’t, there is a weakness in the system.”
The parallels between Oakland Athletics and the Melbourne Storm are clear.
The strength of the Storm’s culture has benefits in retaining and attracting new talent. The desire to be part of the Storm sees players refuse bigger money. In March, for example, Storm forward Dale Finucane turned down marquee money to stay with the club. Similarly with Sam Kasiano, who has signed with the Storm in 2018, took a pay cut to join the club.
- Culture should be embraced at all levels
It’s the same in the business world.
When I worked in the automotive industry, I learnt about Toyota’s legendary culture. No matter your rank, if you’re the guy cleaning cars in the morning or the guy running a dealership, you must undergo intensive and frequent Toyota training. It instills pride and ownership of the brand – where every level of the organisation has bought into the brand, its culture and its values.
The culture established by Bellamy elevates players to new levels.
When the Storm’s Cooper Cronk recently addressed his team mates at a lunch to celebrate his 300th game, he made the point:
The environment described by Cronk is similar to the dynasty created in the NFL by the New England Patriots. Breathing the same air as the Storm, the NFL team talks proudly about the Patriot Way.
Kyle Van Noy, an outside linebacker for the Patriots, describes the team.
“It’s totally different here. The head coach is established and the expectations of everyone here—from coaches and players—are incredibly high. You don’t want to be the one who messes up.”
The similarities are clear. Both the Patriots and the Storm could be singing from each other’s championship song sheet.
- Keep it simple – execute the basics brilliantly
It’s become an adjective and compliment in league language. Melbourne Storm like.
A team operating at the level of Melbourne Storm brings intensity, relentlessness, exceptional standards and a high percentage execution across all the micro elements of a game.
Other words born out of the Craig Bellamy era include systems and structure.
Listen to the words used by Stephen Kearney, Kevin Walters, Brad Arthur and Michael Maguire. All have worked as Assistant Coach with Bellamy. All echo Bellamy’s philosophy.
Storm’s intensity of high expectation is amplified by coaching simplicity.
On the eve of another Grand Final berth in 2016, Nick Tedeschi described the Storm’s simple effectiveness:
“The genius of Craig Bellamy’s coaching is not showing how smart he is but by proving how simple the game can be, which is why he’s the NRL’s best boss.
The story of Melbourne Storm’s Cheyse Blair really is the story of Craig Bellamy. It is the story of what great coaching is and the influence that great mentors have on their team and each player.
Prior to arriving in Melbourne this season to add some depth at outside back, Blair was a below-average player who couldn’t hold down a first grade position. After playing 22 games for the Eels in his 2012 debut season, he managed just 22 over the following three years, dumped from the wooden spoon Eels team and then in and out of a declining Sea Eagles team. His handling was poor (16 errors in 13 games for Manly) and he was a defensive liability.
Blair is no superstar, he would be the first to admit that. But he is a player who is now playing to his maximum capability, one who is contributing consistently to a very good team.
The key to turning Blair’s form – and career – turnaround has been simplicity. Craig Bellamy gave Blair a role and it could not have been simpler: run hard and make your tackles on the paddock, train with intent off it.
That is the subtle magic of Craig Bellamy. He gets the best out of all his players. The genius of his coaching is not showing how smart he is but by showing his players how simple the game can be.”
Players in the twilight of their careers have delivered their best football while at the Storm. Think of Brett Finch, Bryan Norrie, Jaiman Lowe, Ryan Tandy, Clint Newton, Todd Lowrie and Michael Crocker.
Brian Smith’s coaching school was famously complicated. Not so with Bellamy.
On Storm’s training pitch, perfect practice makes perfect. Between the training paddock and the real game, there is no difference. A mistake is a mistake, no matter the arena. And Bellamy will pounce.
Drop the ball at training and Storm players drop to the floor and perform push-ups. It’s a practice so drilled that once a player dropped a ball in a real game and immediately dropped to his knees to perform push-ups.
Cameron Smith has spoken previously about the sometimes boring nature of the team’s repetitive training drills.
From the same player who made only ten errors in the 2016 season, the method might be maddening, but it works.
Zig Ziglar was right:
“Repetition is the mother of learning, the father of action, which makes it the architect of accomplishment.”
This pursuit of perfect execution of the basics is one of the foundations of the Storm’s consistency. Ball control and possession is a key part of that.
Giving away the ball is giving away opportunity to the opposition. The team with the highest completion rates stacks the winning odds in their favour.
In the 2016 season, the team with the greatest completion rates was the Storm with 82%. Which team had the least handling errors in the same year? Melbourne Storm. While the team may have not have won the 2016 Grand Final, they were the minor premiers, which is the ultimate KPI of consistency.
Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater and Cameron Smith were not superstars when they arrived at the club. In fact, once upon a time, these Brisbane players were overlooked by Brisbane Broncos recruitment staff.
Cronk, Slater and Smith were nurtured and developed under Bellamy’s masterful eye.
Watch these players closely. They operate like on-field generals, extensions of Bellamy’s command centre. They are one and the same, united behind the coach’s vision. Pointing, instructing, demanding more of their team mates. The team’s leaders believe in the system and the game plan.
Other organisations deteriorate because they lack leadership and unity. It’s a result of frayed leadership and different agendas, of individuals not buying into a culture. The 2017 West Tigers and 2016 Parramatta Eels are poles apart from the Storm.
The layers of management and leadership at the Melbourne Storm operate in sync. They are culturally aligned.
Each player knows their part. Former Storm player Michael Crocker describes the team’s leadership –
“Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk read the game as well as any coach. Craig Bellamy embraced that and made sure the rest of the team is ready to play off the back of that.”
- Be honest
To be honest is one of Bellamy’s frequent turns of phrase. But it’s more than words. It happens to be one of the elements of the Storm’s culture – truth and honesty.
During Bellamy’s NSW State of Origin coaching tenure, I remember Andrew Johns speaking about the club’s truth sessions.
Leaving ego out the door and only accepting full responsibility, the team’s leadership group would conduct a detailed post game review.
It isn’t just the coach leading these sessions. It is the leadership group of players. In front of the players, these truth sessions are an embodiment of an ethos that expects excellence.
That’s not good enough. You should have been there. That’s not how we do it here.
It’s akin to the philosophy of John Wooden, one of America’s greatest basketball coaches. Wooden brought a fanatical precision to training.
In this interview with Tony Robbins, Wooden reveals that he took detailed notes of every minute in every training session. The notes were three years old, and were used to spot trends and identify micro opportunities for improvement.
Bellamy’s level of precision feels the same. The truth sessions are a forum and examination of the maximisation of potential.
If great minds think alike, Wooden’s words echo the Storm’s ethos:
“Failure is knowing that you didn’t do the things that you should have done.”
- Keep it real
Great coaches bring great life philosophy. In the Bellamy classroom, it’s old school. It’s a school of humility and staying grounded.
Bellamy’s autobiography emphasises the need for good manners, in all kinds of interactions. With fans, with hotel and flight staff.
Speaking about the new arrival of winger Josh Addo-Carr in the 2017 season, rugby league journalist Paul Kent told Triple M that new signing Josh Addo-Carr was shown a video of his try celebration antics from his previous club. He was told:
“We don’t do that kind of thing here.”
Never does Bellamy allow his players to take for granted their privilege.
A Melbourne Storm pre-season typically includes hard labour. As a sledgehammer reminder of the employment alternative for these young men, sometimes this means digging holes.
Putting it all together
Anthony Robbins talks about modelling as a shortcut to success. That is, learn a successful person’s patterns of behaviour and adopt their mindset, and then implement these same elements in your life.
Phil Gould summarises the Storm’s feat:
“Melbourne Storm is everything you want your football team to be. They take kids, develop and nurture them, and turn them into champions. They turn the team into a champion team, and the club into a champion club. Every club would like to do that. Every supporter would love to have a team like the Melbourne Storm.”
Modelling the Storm, in business or in life, is a sure step towards greatness. Because in the business of results, in the pursuit of excellence, there is no greater club.
At the heart of the club’s culture are the never go out of fashion virtues of hard work, honesty and humility. It’s heart is the greatest rugby league coach that has ever lived. Someone from whom we can all learn.
The club is a role model.