Now firmly established as the U.S. men’s rugby sevens coach, Mike Friday knew it was time. If his team were to qualify for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, he would need to become more of a life coach and not as much of a rugby coach.
So he directed his players to get in touch with their emotions and learn to ask for help, a directive seemed to go against the very nature of the aggressive sport.
While it took some convincing at first, Friday led his hard-nosed players into a classroom and had them take personality tests. He wanted them to talk to each other, listen to one another and understand their differences.
“Our game is traditionally played by tough men that don’t show weaknesses, so being able to express that you need support or you’re prepared to offer support is something that’s easier said than done,” Friday said.
The team-bonding sessions, as unconventional as they were, have produced historic results for the Americans.
Despite having a roster that has remained mostly unchanged over the past few years, the Eagles have used their improved team chemistry and newfound coping skills to enjoy a level of success never before reached by the team.
The U.S. earned its first-ever No. 1 ranking in the World Rugby Sevens Series this season – the series’ 20th, and the Americans recorded their fourth consecutive silver-medal finish at last week’s HSBC Sydney 7s in Australia.
“We’ve started thinking more about how we interact with each other and how we motivate (and) support each other, and I think that’s helped a lot,” said Ben Pinkelman, a 2016 Olympian.
“And a lot of that has come from the staff encouraging us to do that.”
The top four teams in the series standings following the series’ 10th round in June will automatically qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Games. The sport made its Olympic debut in 2016 in Rio, where the Eagles were eliminated following the pool stage.
After having to fight just to finish in sixth place last season in the series, the U.S. is now tied with New Zealand atop the world standings with 76 points.
The Americans had never earned back-to-back medals on the world tour before placing second at the Cape Town Sevens in early December. They’ve since extended their streak, and have now reached the finals in all four tournaments this season.
“We know it’s still really early, and even if it wasn’t, we always have that underdog mentality because we go into any store, they ask us what we do, we say we play rugby,” Pinkelman said.
“They don’t even know we have a rugby team, so it’s not like we’ve made huge waves in the American sporting landscape.”
Friday has made tactical changes to the way the Eagles attack and play defense. His coaching staff has also mixed up its methods for scouting opponents.
More than anything else, though, Friday said the team-bonding exercises the Americans did away from the pitch have helped them win close matches this season.
On Feb. 3, the U.S. faced England in a tough semifinal match at the Sydney 7s. Going back and forth, the Eagles took advantage of enough opportunities to hold on for a 14-7 win.
“We’re winning more of those big moments than we’re losing,” Friday said. “It’s just unfortunate that we’ve just been on the wrong end of four finals, but that kind of makes us all the more determined to keep pushing on.
“For us to be disappointed for getting four silvers is kind of a testament to how far we’ve come the last four years.”
Friday tried to introduce his team to the character-building sessions shortly after he was hired as the U.S. coach in 2014. However, he quickly realized his players weren’t ready to work on themselves when the team still needed to get the tactical and technical understanding down first.
So Friday put off the classroom exercises intended to teach his players to be more self-aware and in sync with their teammates.
“I moved away from pursuing that until we had those pieces of the jigsaw in place, and it was only kind of last springtime I felt we were ready to reengage in that part of our development,” Friday said.
When that time came, the players — though still reluctant — were willing to give Friday’s feel-good approach a try.
“We’ve obviously been growing and changing things as we go, but I think we’ve just developed so much as a group and as individuals that we’re finally at a place where we’re having more success,” Pinkelman said.
“It was kind of surprising. I didn’t really see that coming.”