From Rookie Coach to Rugby Executive: Brandon Sparks’ Journey Through Books

11 years ago, I wrote a post for YSC about the Top 10 must-read books for rugby coaches and players. At the time, I was just starting to take rugby coaching seriously. I was coaching college club, some high school, and senior club rugby at the time. I was still getting my feet under me and trying to understand the game of rugby and was consumed with it. This is reflected in my reading list.

Now here we are 11 years later, and I’ve just finished a stint as General Manager (America’s version of a Director of Rugby) of a professional team. While I believe some of those books in the 2012 post (Mind Gym, The Fighters Mind, Winning, and Total Rugby) are still on my ‘must-read list’ for anyone that asks for a book recommendation my new list is reflective of the experience I’ve gained and where I’m hoping to end up in professional rugby.

It was a humbling experience to look back at what I was reading then and how it set me up for the success I’m experiencing today. I was honored when Wendy asked me to update my list based on what I think are my top 10 must-read books (Editor’s Note: Given that Brandon’s original post continues to be one of our site’s most popular articles, the decision to provide an updated list was an obvious choice.). I will warn you that it isn’t as rugby heavy as the last one but if you are in pursuit of greatness, I hope these books are of use to you.

10. “Rugby Revealed” Gavin Hickie and Eilidh Donaldson- Hickie is considered one of the best coaches in America and this book is a great insight into how his mind works. It is a modern-day version of ‘Total Rugby’ with easy-to-understand explanations and a level of detail in its practical portions that will make the application for players and coaches easy in their next session.

9. “Take your Eye Off the Ball 2.0” Pat Kirwan- Football is the standard barrier in sports when it comes to advanced scouting of teams and talent ID and development. There is a lot to learn from football and I believe the next iteration of rugby will be the adaptation and implementation of the specialization skill work that occurs inside of a football team. Kirwan is an experience NFL scout and his book looks at the best scouting practices from his long career. While not everything in this book will translate to rugby there are some great nuggets to enjoy and implement into your team. One of my favorites was ‘the explosion number’ used to assess potential draft picks’ athleticism. The names connected to the explosion number validate its application and is something we have implemented.

8. “Extreme Ownership” Jocko Willink and Leif Babin- While Jocko’s social media presence may suggest he is a meathead rest assured he is anything but. This book helped set the foundation of who I am as a leader. It takes leadership lessons he and his co-author Leif learned from turning around an underperforming special operations unit during the Iraq war. What provides the real lesson is their sharing of stories of applying their lessons, through their leadership consultancy business Echelon Front, to leaders in the business world. My favorite takeaway from the book was the lesson and application of leading up to your superiors inside of an organization and something I think everyone could benefit from learning.

7. “Dichotomy of Leadership” Jocko Willink and Leif Babin- This is the follow-up book to “Extreme Ownership” and is the more powerful of the two books. The book focuses on distilling some of the myths created in their first books and exploring the challenges and justifications of making tough decisions as a leader. The section that impacted me the most was an experience they shared with a soldier who was just not operating at the standard he should be. They spoke about the importance and practices they went through to improve his skills to the standard of the group but ultimately, they failed to do so and removed him. It was a great insight into what you can do and how to handle one of the hardest things to do as a leader to fire someone.

6. “Astroball” Ben Reiter- This book is about how the Houston Astros borrowed Oakland A’s ‘Moneyball’ analytics system to create their own system with a twist that focuses on player development. Player development is a hot topic in rugby right now and this book provides some great thought-starter ideas as to how analytics could be applied to player development in our sport. One of my favorite parts was learning about a social fault line study performed in the Japanese baseball league. The summary of the study is every team or organization has sub- groups that exist inside of it. These sub-groups if managed correctly (cohesion) could account for a positive win difference of three games. This resulted in the Astros recruiting players that could contribute to their locker room by bridging the subgroups and connecting them to make a more cohesive environment.

5. “Soccernomics” Simon Kuper & Stefan Szymanski- This is a fascinating book! Originally titled “Why England Will Never Win the World Cup” this book explores the world of soccer through statistical analysis. There is so much in this book and it is updated for every FIFA World Cup. I enjoyed the financial analysis about why soccer clubs never go away after bankruptcies. But one of the bigger thought-provoking items in the book relates to the role of hair color in the age-grade recruitment process. Once you read that you’ll never look at an age-grade soccer team again! Seriously, if you love data and how it relates to sports you will love this book!

4. “Turn the Ship Around!” L. David Marquet- I gravitated toward the military leadership books. I tend to find the lessons that need to be learned more direct and with better examples than in traditional business leadership books. This book provides clear examples of leader-leader, de-centralized command, and other forms of leadership development through the author’s experience of turning around an underperforming nuclear submarine into one of the top performers in the Navy. The lessons are applicable to the real world and are easy to apply in your current setting. There will even be some parts in the book that will reflect any good rugby coaching environment you’ve experienced.

3. “The Barcelona Way” Damiam Hughes- This book is written in a similar style to “Legacy” by James Kerr. I discovered this book during a deep dive into research on talent development while drafting a white paper on the topic for rugby. The book explores what has made Barcelona one of the top programs in the world for decades despite being one of the lowest
spenders in the transfer market. It is an excellent reference source on how to depend on talent developed in an academy system that eventually produces in the top team. The book is made more interesting by it being written during Pep Guardiola and the team’s historic run over 4-years when they won 14 of the possible 19 trophies. Fair warning, this book is out of print and hard to find. So frequently check Amazon, eBay, and
other reseller sites.

2. “Be the Boss Everyone Wants to Work For” William Gentry- I wish I would have read this book before I wrote my first post because I would have saved myself so many hard lessons. The author takes a different approach than other leadership books by focusing on managing the transition from peer to a new leader with your co-workers. This relates to rugby because so many of us find ourselves coaching or administrating our friends and teammates after our playing career is over. This transition can be messy as we find a way to manage friendships with a new purpose of leading the group and the conflicts that can occur in that. The ‘What you can do to flip the relationship with your former peers (or BFFs)’ topic in chapter 4 was one of my favorites.

1. ”Find Your Yellow Tux” Jesse Cole- I just finished this book but I think the message of how to ‘think differently’ about the experience of a traditional sport like baseball is incredibly important. Allow me a brief tirade, rugby has a tweed jacket and Guinness problem. Now I have nothing against either jackets made of tweed, or the finest beer ever brewed. But I do have a problem with the stodgy traditionalist who seems to occupy the current upper echelon of leadership in our great game and yearn for the good old days. Now back to the book, this book by Jesse Cole will not be read by the above-mentioned people. Jesse is the owner of the Savannah Bananas. He and his team have turned the game of baseball into a spectacle and at times a literal circus. This book is a peek inside their operation and how they embrace failure, think different, and maximize a ‘fan first’ approach to their product. I’m not suggesting rugby takes it to the extreme like the Bananas. But I do believe we all could use some prompts on how to start thinking about ways to promote rugby and engage the public differently. Jesse’s book is a good start for people who agree with that statement.

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