[00:00:30.640] - Dave Diggle
Hello and welcome to Brain in the Game. Brain in the Game is a podcast that's specifically designed for athletes, coaches, and parents who are looking to do their sport just that little bit smarter. And I'm your host, Dave Diggle. In this episode 77, we're going to have a chat with the Australian Wallaby captain, Michael Hooper. We're going to talk about leadership and some of the great lessons he's learned as a player over his career. And the more observant of you probably notice that this is our first video podcast, so you'll be able to see this video on our website, smartmind.com. Stay tuned and listen to this great interview with Michael Hooper.
[00:01:09.950] - Dave Diggle
Well Michael, thank you very much for coming in and doing this. As I said to you, the key thing for this is access for young performers, young athletes, young coaches and their parents to get a bit of an insight into what it's like and what they can look forward to. And obviously, you know what I focus on, which is the mental stuff, not just the physical stuff. So we're going to focus on that today. First things first. Had a good break over Christmas?
[00:01:37.800] - Michael Hooper
Yeah, had a good break. There was a lot of weddings. Christmas was great. So it was all shaping up really nicely. And then I got COVID over New Year. So I was luckily not too badly affected. And it's been a good start to the year. It's like probably most people's story over that time.
[00:02:00.090] - Dave Diggle
What do you do to relax? Because obviously the year is full on for you both with Super Rugby, then international rugby. So what do you do to relax?
[00:02:10.650] - Michael Hooper
Well, I'm learning how it takes a while to decompress after the season. Speaking to a couple of people, it takes a week or two to actually stop that sort of mindset of thinking about performing in the game, and all the game has been and improvements, and how you are physically, and stuff like that. So once you get over that period, then I guess, what do I do to relax? I still like to exercise. I feel like I'm a better person in a couple of different ways when I exercise. I'm better in general. So I like to keep exercising. But the exercise just looks a bit different. So rather than trying to tackle and run and do a lot of weights, it's more surfing or swimming or still getting out there and doing some hard runs and things like that. But yeah, it doesn't look the same as what a traditional season does. And then it's always nice to have a couple of beers and unwind, catch up with friends and family because you just don't see enough of them during the season.
[00:03:10.650] - Dave Diggle
When you're doing the unwinding, what do you do mentally? Do you purposely try and say to yourself, 'I'm not going to think about rugby,' or if it comes in, do you just kind of deal with it and move through that. What's your strategy?
[00:03:24.510] - Michael Hooper
If it comes in, it comes in. I think sometimes I wouldn't want to say, 'No, I don't want to think about,' it because it could be a good idea. I think what I'm trying to understand now is learning why a certain emotional rises. So this year has been a foot injury for me; I think about the time I got injured a lot and what would I have done different. So I try to park that sort of thing, which I think is negative. You can't change the past, obviously, but is there something that can improve myself or the team going forward? Well, I don't want to waste an opportunity to think about that. If it's something worth exploring, maybe delve into it a little bit more. But yeah, if it's just replaying old events, then trying to park that. So that is having, I guess, an understanding of the way I think and process information.
[00:04:13.350] - Dave Diggle
What do you do with good ideas? Do you write them down? How Do you recall them? What's your thing?
[00:04:19.710] - Michael Hooper
I did start journaling. I've tried to journal a couple of times, but I have been the most consistent in the last twelve months, probably. So that just looks like me writing down stuff at the end of the night. But that's not purposeful in the sense that I'm not looking just for ideas. That can just be in the sense of how my day was. I think I get the most benefit out of that because, yes, I might forget an idea after it comes into my head and pick up on it later. But if I read back because I'll write an entry, I'll read the day before. What I've realised is reading the day before something that could have been a problem or could have been something that was taking up a lot of my mind the day before, is gone the next day. So how much attention do I need to give what I think is the problem and trying to, if I'm dwelling on something a lot and then a day later I'm like, why the hell did I dwell on that so much? That's a learning thing for me because when I start to realise that I got to put my attention somewhere, yeah, I mean, that's really good for me.
[00:05:24.060] - Michael Hooper
Otherwise it's notes on the phone saying pop a couple of things down revisit it later or call someone about it.
[00:05:30.690] - Dave Diggle
Do you have a network of people you talk to? Do you still keep in contact with other lads during downtime or coaches, or is it just yourself that you keep those ideas to?
[00:05:41.010] - Michael Hooper
I think to a certain degree, yeah. There's an element of speaking to other people. I mean, the thing is, there's always a season coming up, so you can always put time into that. I think it's a great opportunity in downtime to speak to people who are removed a little bit. For me, I think getting a fresh perspective from an outside environment has been really beneficial for me because you can get so tunnel vision in the season with people who are seeing the same things you are. So I find that really helpful.
[00:06:13.960] - Dave Diggle
Nice. You mentioned your foot. How is it your foot?
[00:06:17.820] - Michael Hooper
It's good, been running now for two or so weeks. I've been able, because I've had this long break, to give it a bit extra time. Having COVID and sitting a week in the house didn't help me progress that, so that sort of delayed me a bit, but it's coming along. We avoided surgery up until this point, so, yeah, the mechanical nature of it is working and the pain is going away.
[00:06:46.350] - Dave Diggle
That's good. I guess you're in a sport that doesn't – it's not playing tiddlywinks – injuries are a frequent part of what you do. How do you manage mentally through injuries, and has it changed over time?
[00:06:58.810] - Michael Hooper
Changes over time for me, yeah.
[00:07:00.240] - Dave Diggle
And how you manage that, from a mental perspective?
[00:07:03.140] - Michael Hooper
I remember when I was finishing school, I had a shoulder reconstruction. So my last year of school, which should be a really enjoyable time to play footy, I got right at the start of the season, got cut down. So I missed that great year to play rugby with some mates you've been playing rugby with. And the last time you play rugby with them, probably ever. And I remember going into the physio and I thought, the professionals are always playing 100%, my shoulder was taking a while to get back and go, 'This is frustrating, but it will get back to 100%.' And he said to me, pretty much every professional player playing rugby who's been around for some time is playing with some sort of injury. And I thought that was total bullshit, essentially. I just thought that if you're going out there on the field, you'd be fine. But that's not the case. Everyone has a niggle, everyone has a calf that they'd like to be not as tight or a shoulder that would just like to move like it did when they were 19 or something. So there's always going to be an element of that in professional sport.
[00:08:06.670] - Michael Hooper
But how you deal with that, and do you let that impact? So I've had injuries, despite what people think. I've had significant injuries and I've gotten better at dealing with them. I have been lucky in terms of they haven't been frequent, but being able to deal with them, I've certainly gotten better at and that's, I guess, a couple of things. It's gathering the information. So last year I had a cut to the side of my head, which was a significant cut, and I was nervous going into the next game, putting in a process that you speak about all the time.
[00:08:47.180] - Michael Hooper
Okay, does the doctor think this is a stupid idea? And you get the information there. What does the physio think? And what do I think? How do I feel about playing? So you gather that information, then you make a decision and try to remove emotion from it and go with the facts. I think you add a little bit of emotion: do you want to play? Well, hell, yeah. Okay. Well, can I play and what are the facts? Is it going to get worse? No. What's the worst that can happen? And then you make a decision around that.
[00:09:17.050] - Dave Diggle
And obviously that's changed over time. And that's something that when you watch other players, we're going to talk about the leadership later when you're working with other players and leading from the front with them, when you see them nervous about coming back after injury, a lot of the clients I work with are coming back from injuries and you see them really nervous. Do you share that with them?
[00:09:39.290] - Michael Hooper
Yeah, I do. If people are willing to hear it. I don't think if I was a player in their position and someone comes over to me, goes, Mate, you'll be fine. This is what I've done. You'd be like, well, we're different people. So I think first we'll talk about, I guess you're going to ask me a question, but you've got to know the person that you're speaking to in order to see whether that's something that they could be interested in. And then again, on top of that, how I process information is going to be different to you or say X player, he might think about it completely differently, so he might hear my perspective, but that might not be for him.
[00:10:21.730] - Dave Diggle
Yeah, absolutely. So COVID has been hard on everybody, and I think it's changed and shifted how we think about our preparation, our performance, and what's normal. What's been the biggest takeaway for you going through this COVID period from an elite athlete's perspective?
[00:10:43.470] - Michael Hooper
You'll know, this one. But control what you can control. COVID, there's no rules for this stuff. So, yeah, we're going to be able to play this team next week. Well, no, you're not, because you can't fly into that country. One person goes down or you're a close contact, or you're going to have to stay in this hotel room for two weeks. Six months ago, you didn't foresee that before COVID. Here's your season, here's your schedule. We'll be here and go from there. So controlling what you can control. So you can't change the past, you can't expect to see what's in the future you can control, I guess, how you deal with the information that comes your way.
[00:11:29.050] - Dave Diggle
Does the emotion still arise?
[00:11:30.980] - Michael Hooper
Yes. But then how do you deal with that?
[00:11:33.530] - Dave Diggle
Yeah, absolutely. So I really do want to talk about leadership and, working with a lot of different captains and leaders, I think you're one of the best ones that I've seen. And you have a very unique style and I'd really like to unpack some of that with you. What does leadership mean?
[00:11:55.090] - Michael Hooper
This has changed over time, and thank you for your nice compliment there. What does leadership mean for me? I think leadership for me now means understanding myself really well, and that sounds super selfish when I say it like that, but I don't think it is. And this was taught to me in the sense that if I know what I'm really good at and I know what I'm terrible at, then firstly, I'll understand what I'm good at, so I can help or not help, but I can work with other players and drive the team in certain ways around that sort of stuff. And when I know what I'm not good at, then that's where other people can really drive, because there's going to be people within the team that are excellent at the stuff that I'm not great at, and they will be able to take the lead on that and push that part of the thing forward. That doesn't mean you have to leave it at that and not get any better at it – that said part or whatever. But yeah, I think understanding yourself, being really authentic around what your beliefs are, your values are.
[00:13:05.560] - Michael Hooper
So then people within the team understand who you are, you're approachable, you're consistent around your messaging and who you are, then I think that makes a good leader.
[00:13:17.940] - Dave Diggle
Awesome. If there's one skillset, what would it be? Is it knowing them? Is it listening? What's the key number one thing for you?
[00:13:27.710] - Michael Hooper
I don't know what the key thing is, but self awareness is huge. Self awareness I'm starting to see as being extremely important and probably the main one I'll give you now.
[00:13:39.060] - Dave Diggle
Yeah, we've worked together for a few years, and the reason I made that statement, I think you're one of the best leaders, is I've seen a massive shift in that self awareness, in that ability to lead other people in the last few years. What's been the biggest shift for you to change? What made that change?
[00:13:58.910] - Michael Hooper
A couple of things. One being removed from an environment. So I went to Japan for a bit of time, got to see different perspectives, got to learn off different people, and then, well, I mean, most clear is it wasn't working. And I'm not saying it's working now. I think there's still an untold amount of growth for me in particular that I see. But just straight up wasn't working. So something needs to change and that's what I needed to change. So looking at starting to piece together what has worked, learning from people, I think it's hard when the pressure comes on to change, you go back to what you know. So I think being able to have that bit of time away, get the perspective allowed me to start putting some things in and I guess, what's the word? Consolidating some things that I was starting to learn and people were teaching me, that worked. And like I said, there's so much more growth for me and that's part of it as well. Just having that open mind to want to grow.
[00:15:13.720] - Dave Diggle
Does that excite you?
[00:15:15.010] - Michael Hooper
Yes, it excites me. I think knowing how little I know is exciting because I can only go up. So that's good.
[00:15:25.080] - Dave Diggle
Nice. You said you've learned from a lot of people who inspired you as a leader. They don't have to be sport people, they don't have to be alive. But you look at them and say that's somebody that epitomises leadership to me. Is there anybody like that?
[00:15:47.670] - Michael Hooper
I see some great things in different people, players that I played with; coaches that have spoken to me. And probably not wanting to name one specifically because I think that's unfair, people have been so giving of their information to me. Some people talk about being super self aware and that sort of stuff or authentic around that and then being your best self is great leadership. I don't think there's one certain person, but I've been very lucky to be around some great people.
[00:16:26.350] - Dave Diggle
Have you got a lot better asking for advice? I know when people are younger, it's given to you and you got to learn how to accept advice. Have you got good at asking for help and advice and different ideas?
[00:16:42.090] - Michael Hooper
It's changing. I had to change my perspective on what asking for help looked like. So asking for help I thought was weak. So if I'd ask or someone offered their advice, I don't know, I guess my younger self looks good, or I thought it would look good if I felt like if they thought that I knew it, then I think I've got it under control. And how wrong and how wasted is that to not take a hand when it's given to you. So just reframing how that looked in my mind. So asking for help is not weak. It's actually strong in the sense that you're admitting that you don't know the best way forward and getting someone else who may have done it before or may give you a different perspective can only give you a better result. It can only give you a better result rather than just living up here a bit. So that was a really good change of again, something that was taught to me as well. So gained information from other people.
[00:17:49.650] - Dave Diggle
Nice. So we obviously did a lot of work around mental preparation for your performance and with rugby in particular is one of the sports. I think that there's a huge focus on the physicality of training for you. What's been a shift in how you mentally prepare? Because again, when you look at a lot of younger players, their mental preparation is doing more during the week. Now watching you prepare, particularly when we were on tour, I could see you were very purposeful in how you prepared.
[00:18:22.390] - Michael Hooper
Yes, it's been a shift. I think when you're young, you do things out of instinct. You do things because you know them or you're viewing older players. But when you become a bit more experienced, you start to put more thought into how it actually looks for yourself and working with yourself, the importance of a plan, the importance of needs and wants. So do I want to train every minute of every session? Yes, I do. Is that sustainable? No, it's not.
[00:18:48.100] - Dave Diggle
[00:18:48.400] - Michael Hooper
So what's needed within the week to be able to perform really well on the weekend. And that's been a tough shift for me because I want to play every training session and play every game, but it isn't sustainable to play my best rugby. So you're going to have to make shifts and move the dots around to make it work. And that's trial and error. But improvement is not linear like that, in my opinion. It's up it's down a bit, but you slowly gather momentum. So it takes work and it takes speaking to someone like yourself or other people to help you, again, getting that outside perspective.
[00:19:31.390] - Dave Diggle
Okay. So in leadership and learning that kind of self awareness, as we put it down to earlier, and being aware of what you need to do to bear, how do we as an organisation or as a sporting group, encourage younger players not to have to go through years of just trying to use their instinct or just do what other people do and become a lot more aware of themselves. Is there, from a leader's perspective, an avenue for that?
[00:19:59.780] - Michael Hooper
I think there is. If you can create an environment that the top is working with the bottom constantly, that would be outstanding. So that when the top goes and the middle come through and become the top, that it's just that constant cycle. And rather than a group of players leaving and then falling to a level to then get and just maybe incrementally improve a little bit, why couldn't, if the top went down, left and moved on, that the group below it was already at that level. So they don't have to play catch up or anything. They're already kicking on ahead. And that's what I think is important for us right now, for sure.
[00:20:44.590] - Dave Diggle
There's a lot of focus on mental health in sport, and rightly so, and in life. And we've seen a huge shift towards being very cognisant of the mental health of players and performers and coaches. COVID has done a great job in making us aware of that. For you, from a leader's perspective, what's the importance of mental health and how do we do that?
[00:21:12.970] - Michael Hooper
Well, firstly, being able to speak to fellow players, coaches and being open with how you're feeling and just not being pushed away is paramount.
[00:21:27.220] - Dave Diggle
[00:21:27.520] - Michael Hooper
So the confidence to be able to speak up and we talked about asking for help. It's a similar thing, being able to talk about how you feel, but it's getting the balance right. And professional sport is bloody hard and it's awesome and things are so great in so many ways, but it's hard. So to expect there just to be roses and happy days is unrealistic. And I think to improve as a player, there's got to be the hard times. There's that many analogies for, what, hard pressure makes diamonds and stuff like that. It's the same with rugby and I guess professional sport is hard. Training makes you fitter. So we've got to welcome and lean into tough times and lean into hard things. But there needs to be the support there so that it doesn't fall off the edge. And that's what I don't know how to get right, because there's that many more people who are more knowledgeable on that sort of stuff than I am. But it is an important factor and I think it's getting some great attention now. I hope it can only improve.
[00:22:33.510] - Dave Diggle
Nice. So there's a question I want to ask you about leadership and being a captain. You've had a massive milestone as a captain, and,that's phenomenal. To see you achieve that and to know you and see you achieve that has been fantastic. The difference between being a captain and leadership, is there one? It's a bit of semantics.
[00:22:59.370] - Michael Hooper
But actually, I don't know, I think it might be semantics there. If you're a captain, you're a leader.
[00:23:11.910] - Dave Diggle
I want to ask this question because I've seen people be anointed as a captain that aren't great leaders and I've seen really good leaders that aren't captains. So is there a difference in the roles or is there just a mismatching how we put those people together?
[00:23:27.940] - Michael Hooper
Yeah, I think that's exactly it. Sometimes maybe the best player, the guy that scores a ton every time he walks out for cricket is named the captain because he's the best player, but is he the best leader within the team? Maybe not. So, yeah, there's definitely a difference there. But if you can get both right, then you make a good captain.
[00:23:50.070] - Dave Diggle
[00:23:50.760] - Michael Hooper
[00:23:51.010] - Dave Diggle
Good answer. All right, time machine. If you could go back eight years ago when you first became a captain, what would you do differently?
[00:24:02.650] - Michael Hooper
What would I do different? I would ask for as much help as I possibly could and everyone who offered their assistance, I would take them up on it and I would discuss things with them. I would reach out to different people, not only people offering a hand, I would search for information, I would read books about it. I would work with someone like yourself to understand how I think and how I process information so that I can become more self aware on a lot of things. But would I have done that at the time? This is the time machine question. If older me says and goes back to a younger me and said you need to do this, would I have done it?
[00:24:47.490] - Michael Hooper
I don't know.
[00:24:48.410] - Michael Hooper
Sometimes, and this is what I'm talking about with the hard things, sometimes you need those failures to recognise that I need to make a change. So yeah, great question. But yeah, I'm not sure.
[00:24:59.080] - Dave Diggle
I think that's a gift of this kind of conversation where those younger people can say it's okay to struggle, it's okay to go through those hard times because I can get through those. But hear that there's a different thought process on the other end of that as well. So look, I actually think that is an important thing for young players to hear. That it is hard. You and I have spoken a fair amount over the years about legacy and can you explain to me what you see, what you'd like to leave as a legacy? I'm not trying to get you to leave already.
[00:25:34.780] - Michael Hooper
Push me out the door. Look, I think I've been gifted a lot of great information, great opportunities. For myself to walk out of the door and not try and pass any of that on I think would be a disservice. So the last twelve months changing my tune into again, I'm a novice at this, so trying to improve it. How can I shift to allow some of that to happen? And I can work with one seven in the future and give him one little thing that he may take on then that's one more thing that he didn't have and he could be a better player. So I think certainly wanting to give back in the last couple of years of my career for sure.
[00:26:34.850] - Dave Diggle
When we talk about leadership and particularly with you guys in the Wallabies, there's a great camaraderie amongst the leadership group. But it's a very diverse group. How do you manage those people? Obviously they all bring different skillsets and different attributes to that leadership dynamic. What's your thoughts and your philosophies around shifting and moving information through those people?
[00:27:06.110] - Michael Hooper
What do you mean by shifting and moving information?
[00:27:08.100] - Dave Diggle
Obviously we've got an idea and it's what we're going to do. And then you might have one guy who's really good at communicating, one guy who's got a really good connection with certain group of guys. How do you go about distributing the information in a way that's optimal for the team?
[00:27:30.450] - Michael Hooper
Well, within that leadership group, I guess we all have certain strengths and this is an area that we still need to improve, mind you. But right now, where we are at the moment, we all have different strengths and weaknesses. You mentioned that, but I guess we know that. Yeah, I'm going to take this role. It's one of my strengths. How I deliver that to the team needs to be in a way that is going to be different again. So I guess once it's quite hard to explain, but allowing it to happen in a way that's authentic for that person, that leader, to disperse that information within the team. Have I micromanaged before? Yeah, probably have. The pressure comes on, I'll do something rather than trying to work that, probably have been guilty of that. I definitely have been guilty of that. So trying to work with that, and then if something doesn't work, then again, reassessing it, optimising it, making it better. So I think what we need to have as a group going forward is just great communication and keep working on our communication and have the tools to then disperse that to the wider group because it's easy enough to say, yes, I'll go do this, but then how do you actually do that?
[00:28:50.270] - Michael Hooper
So there's probably a bit more thought that needs to be put into that from us as a group, I'd imagine.
[00:28:56.290] - Dave Diggle
I'm glad you mentioned communication and language patterns again, something I bang on a lot about. Where do you think your skillset is as a leader, with communication?
[00:29:12.110] - Michael Hooper
My skillset? Look, I'll be direct. So I think I'm direct in terms of what I'm trying to say.
[00:29:22.170] - Dave Diggle
Direct, yes, I agree with that. And so that's kind of where I was going with the other question. Do we look for balance? Is that how you do what you do? So if you're more direct, is there somebody in the team okay, if it needs a softer hand here, then I'll distribute that through them, or if it needs somebody who's got a little bit more time on their side so they can spend the time with the younger players, do you actively think that way?
[00:29:49.170] - Michael Hooper
Yes, I'm trying to get better at it. Like I said, I've been guilty of certain things in the past. So understanding that some things take time, and that's where hearing the best opinion is really important and understanding each other, which is, again, we can always get better at.
[00:30:07.770] - Dave Diggle
So what's your plan for 2022?
[00:30:10.650] - Michael Hooper
My plan is to get my foot right, and then I've got my personal plan, but that's my personal plan. First things first is get my foot right, and I've got still another handful of weeks to enjoy a bit of time off and get myself ready for the season.
[00:30:30.990] - Dave Diggle
We've focused a lot on leadership, looked at a lot of different ways that you've grown as both a player, your preparation and as a leader. Yourself moving forward, what's the key things you want to learn? If you've seen what other players have done or other leaders have done, what's the thing on your radar to focus on?
[00:30:54.150] - Michael Hooper
I need to drill down more, I think, still into understanding myself and really knowing how I tick, how I deal with information, particularly on the field, processing decisions around certain situations and dealing with referees and players and strategy. So I need to work more on that I'm probably personally doing that at a low level. So training it, speaking about it in a team room and then working it up onto the field at a training paddock, then under more pressure in a game, and then you nail it, ideally you nail it in a grand final. That's the growth for me. And then always communicating is an area that I think we can all improve. So finding out what's the best path forward so it's not the loudest voice that's heard, it's the best path forward. And that's key.
[00:32:00.970] - Dave Diggle
Nice. So last question. If someone, a young kid, wants to become a leader like you've become, what's the one message you'd say to them?
[00:32:15.710] - Michael Hooper
I think being a leader is a privilege. That is without doubt, I think. You have the ability to work with a team, to go and get a goal that you all set out. So it's a privilege to have that. And I think it should be enjoyed. If it's a burden, because it will be a burden at times, to remember that it's privilege and it's enjoyable. And if you can reframe things, I think that's really great. So a loss is just as a learned opportunity, stay strong. It's not the end of the world. So I think if you're going to do it, expect good and bad times, but it's super rewarding and it's a privilege. And to put yourself on the block, it's worthwhile. You learn a lot about yourself and others. But, yeah, giving advice to a young guy, understand yourself and be authentic and go from there.
[00:33:21.550] - Dave Diggle
It's been a real privilege. Thanks very much for coming in and having a chat. I look forward to being out on the paddock with you soon. Thanks, mate.
[00:33:30.590] - Michael Hooper
[00:33:31.580] - Dave Diggle
What an absolutely awesome interview there with Hoops. Some great pieces of information, some really good insights into the journey that he's been on to become the leader he is today and from the fact that he still wants to keep growing and become a better leader. So if you're a young player, young performer, and you're looking to replicate that kind of leadership in your team, there's some absolute nuggets in there for you to take away. Hope you got as much out of that interview as I did and enjoyed listening to Hoops and his journey. Look forward to seeing you on the next podcast. Until then, train smart and enjoy the ride.