Ep.11 Elliot Dee – Welsh national rugby superstar


Hi everyone and welcome back to the Jacuzzi Performance Podcast. I'm Ed Baxter, and today, we're joined by Welsh rugby star Elliot Dee. How you doing, mate?

Yeah hi mate, thanks for having me on. How’s things with you?

Yeah, all good. Thanks very much for coming on. So first of all, we’ve been talking to people a lot about how the lockdown’s been, but for you, I guess you're back playing games now. How's that been?

It’s been great. Obviously it was a bit of a strange time, it was a long lay-off, probably not touching a rugby ball – or competitively not touching a rugby ball ­– for sort of 4-5 months, but it was also decent for letting the body and mind recharge. Now it's nice to be just getting back to normal really, doing what we’re used to doing day-in day-out.

So you’re playing all your games now without your fans aren’t you? How’s that been going, do you hate that?

It’s a weird one, really. I get asked that quite a lot – it’s probably one of the most common questions I’ve been asked over the last couple of weeks. When you’re actually in the game, it sounds mad, but you almost don't even notice there’s 70-80,000 people watching you; you’re just totally in the game and you can’t hear the noise levels rise or whatever around you. I suppose the weirdest thing is when you look around for the warm-up, or maybe when you come off the field, that’s really when you recognise the crowd noise and if the fans are with you or on your back, and feel the pressure and stuff like that. So yeah, it has been strange, but a lot of the stadiums have got that artificial crowd noise as well.

Have you been playing with that?

We played one game and then it was just really annoying to be honest, so I think most teams have agreed not to play it in the background, and once you’re in the game you’re so focused on what you're doing, you probably don't notice anyway.

Yeah I was going to say, with athletes who are doing an event that lasts 1-2 minutes, they very much talk about being ‘in a zone’. Do you feel like you enter that zone and stay in it for the duration of a match?

Yeah, I totally feel like that. I think the whole lead up to the day really is quite a long time. It can be quite mentally tiring, but I try to switch off in the morning and in the lead up to the game, and then like you said, once that whistle goes – or once you've completed the warm up – you’re totally focused. It’s sort of a different feeling to normal life, it’s not something you can really explain, but you pick things up differently. You break things down a bit slower and you're able to react, so yeah, probably stuck in the zone for 80 minutes. I've said to a few people I don't really like half time because you’re right in there and then have to unwind for 10 minutes, and then get yourself back into it – so it's a strange one, but yeah, it’s not something you do consciously, you’re just used to doing it.

You play a hooker position, so for the guys watching at home who maybe don't know about all the different positions on the field, can you just give us a brief breakdown on what the hooker does?

Obviously, the hooker plays number 2, he’s one of the fat boys up front in the scrum. We throw the ball into the line-out, and I suppose the position has evolved as rugby's evolved – old-school hookers used to be a bit gnarly and, like I said, one of the fat boys at the front who’s in the scrum – but now it’s probably similar to a back-rower in style of play, just trying to be a nuisance on the field, and trying to get as many tackles, carries and turnovers in, but our main job is throwing the ball and hooking the ball in the scrum.

Is that what you've always played? I guess you've been playing rugby from a very young age?

So I'm 26 now and I started playing when I was about eight years old. I started off in the back row, and you know when you’re kids, you have a crack at everything really. I played in the centre and played in the backs a bit, and every forward wants to be a back deep down, but you just sort of fit into what your body type is. I’m not the biggest or tallest bloke, so the back row wasn't going to work out for me. I naturally just found my way into the front row and I've loved it ever since.

You’re only 26, so you’re still very young and have already achieved so much. Where does your motivation come from? Everyone's got a different thing that spurs them on to make them want to achieve, what is that for you?

I suppose for me it came at a real young age watching Wales play on the TV, and this is a bit cliché, but I think every young boy in Wales wants to play rugby when they're older, so that's always been a massive driver for me. And family, I've always admired my parents and how hard they’ve worked, and think some of that probably rubbed off on me. I’ve always wanted to do them proud, my girlfriend and her family – I think the driver for me really is making loved ones proud, and also just remembering that feeling when you were a kid of wanting to emulate the stars on the TV.

Yeah that's cool. So you've always dreamed of being on the Welsh international team and playing a big game, but how was that first time you walked out for your senior first cap?

Yes, I get asked that quite a bit really and it's hard to explain. It’s just a surreal moment you've probably worked all your career for – 10 years of proper hard-working professional rugby, or coming up through the academies – and it's all going to happen in that one moment. You just can't describe it, I think. Coming in on the bus, seeing all the crowds and just catching some of the little kids’ eyes, seeing yourself in those kids and thinking yeah, that was me 10 years ago. It's just an immense feeling of pride really, and when you're actually on the field you have to – well I had to – pinch myself and just think, well I'm here now. It’s done. Just a massively proud moment.

Do you feel like, even at first cap, did it shake you a little bit, or could you still get in that zone, that place you needed to get to?

Obviously I’d be lying to say there wasn’t nerves there and probably scared of letting yourself down a bit really, but I think other people around you understand that as well. I think the coach that picks you, they've all sort of seen other people at first caps or been there themselves and know the feelings that come with that, so it's great to have a good support network around you – and that's team mates, family, coaches, the whole environment in the international set-up, it's all there to help you. And like I’ve found in life, once you achieve one goal, you’re never really happy with that. There’s always something bigger and better to go and chase really.

Yeah sure, I think that's what I notice from when I was an athlete, and the more and more I talk to different people from different sports, it's like ‘yeah cool, but what's next?’ It’s like the athlete mindset is so focused on constant progression, and almost in a good way but also a bad way, that nothing is ever good enough.

I totally relate to that, yeah, you put so much into achieving something and then the actual achievement, or the success, is so short-lived because you're just focused on your next goal. Like in my sport, you could win a Grand Slam on the weekend, but on Monday you're prepping for the next game, and that could be for your club or for a different team, so yeah can totally relate to that.

So one thing that I’m interested in when talking to different people – especially athletes – is what makes them so good. For you, what is it that makes you a better hooker than anyone else in Wales, or one of the best in Wales?

I wouldn’t say I’m better than anyone, but I think a big thing for me is I'm probably not the most naturally gifted person. Genes-wise I’m probably not the biggest, fastest, strongest, most talented, but what I like to pride myself on is that I always work hard. Whenever I talk to aspiring rugby players or kids, or whenever I do public speaking, I always say that hard work will beat talent hands down. You can have a bit of talent, but if you're not committed and willing to stay out there longer than anyone else or put the hours in, then you’re never going to progress. You don't have to have any sort of talent, you can just work so hard that there's no stone unturned, and when you have to perform then you know you've done the work, and it's just there, it just comes naturally.

Yeah love that, I think that’s one of the best things, isn’t it? So many people say they're not the most talented but they worked so hard that when you step out onto the field or step out into whatever your arena is, you’re just confident because you know you've worked harder than anyone else. So we've talked a lot about how passionate you are about your sport and how you pride yourself on hard work – playing at the Rugby World Cup last year, that must have been a pretty special experience?

Yeah it was a great experience, and not just being out there for the World Cup, it was probably the four months of camp, some work before, and even the tour to Argentina where we took a squad the year before to sort of blood youngsters and give them experience – me being one of those youngsters – and yeah, just a totally amazing experience being away in a different culture out in Japan. It’s a crazy place but the people are absolutely amazing, never been anywhere where we've had so much support. This time last year, I remember being in Kitakyushu and there were small Japanese children speaking Welsh to us and singing Welsh songs, and we went out to train and I think there were 15,000 school kids there singing the Welsh national anthem. It was mind-blowing to be honest, how committed they were to support us. That was pretty special.

That’s really cool. Did you find anything really challenging about that environment, you know, whether it's food or the humidity or anything like that, was there anything that was really challenging?

I think we prepped as much as we could. We did two weeks in an altitude camp in Switzerland where we would sleep at sort of – I can’t remember exactly – it took 10 minutes in a gondola, dangling at thousands and thousands of feet just to get up to our accommodation, so we were sleeping at altitude and then training loads to ready ourselves for that change. Then we did another training camp in Turkey, I think it was 40-degrees to get used to humidity and heat and that was tough. No, I like to try everything really, I love the food out in Japan and love the people, love the place – probably one of the strangest things was when family came out to visit, I found that really tough. I know people must think that's crazy; you've been away for so long all you want to do is see your family, and of course that’s what I did, but once I was in a bubble and I found my rhythm, I found it tough to be able to swap back and forth in our bubble and switch off and have family time – and of course, my family has flown halfway across the world, I want to spend as much time as possible with them – but yeah, I found it tough to switch on and off going back and forth like that, and that was probably one of the toughest things for me.

So many athletes have a kind of split personality almost, don't you? You have the person you are at home with your family, then you’ve got the person who's that competitor, that warrior, out on the field?

Yeah and that’s something I’ve probably through lockdown been trying to work on, just being able to compete in the day job and then come home and not be the rugby player, but just be the normal person who likes to enjoy family time and have a laugh and go out and do normal things as well.

Can you talk us through your normal training regime? How many hours you play on the field, how many hours are you in the gym? What goes on in like a normal week?

It differs between environments, obviously being back in the Welsh squad this week, it’s been really good to get back in, but there's definitely an up in intensity and how long the days are, and how much you have to learn and do to be ready. So if I run you through yesterday: we stayed at the team hotel, we were up in the morning – I think I got up at about 7:30 – so they give us a chance to have a decent sleep, we went down and had to do our daily monitoring, and that's measuring hamstring flexibility, a groin squeeze, your ankle flexibility, your weight and then obviously now we've got the COVID testing precaution, so that's a questionnaire. So you get up, you get showered, go down, do that which takes about 15 minutes, then we have a COVID test on top of that – so that was the swab up the nose, back of the throat, not very pleasant – but we’re doing that every couple of days now. I got that out the way, got into the team room at about 8:15 and the environment is brilliant, you couldn't want for anything, the food selection is amazing, so I had my breakfast, go on the laptops where I learn for the morning session, got strapped with the physio and I was into my first throwing session at 9:30. Obviously an individual hookers throwing session is quite important, did that at 9:30 then straight into a forward units session which was pretty intense, bit of a line-out scrum, bit of fitness involved, and that was for about 35-40 minutes, then we were straight into the gym, 45 minutes to an hour lower-body session, and then something that’s different within national camps, we went in the cryochamber – I'm not sure if anyone knows about that really, but it's basically an ice chamber that I think we were at minus 150 degrees yesterday, so you spend like 2.5 minutes in there for recovery after a session. Then we were down for lunch at 12:00, we had a couple of hours to unwind, get any work done on the laptops – analysis and learning some plays for the afternoon – we had a quick team meeting at 14:00, and then we were out to train as a team from about 14:30 ‘til perhaps it was only an hour, but it was really intense. It was a tough session yesterday to be honest, and then back in the showers and the cryochamber again. It was nice because we were allowed home last night, so I got back about 18:00 and got to unwind at home. Yeah, I feel like I didn't stop speaking then, it’s pretty intense in international camps.

Yeah, I think people forget that being an athlete, especially at your kind of level, when you reach the top it’s a full-time job. It's not just ‘oh yeah I play rugby on a Saturday afternoon’ – like it’s a full-time job, you’ve got to live and breathe the sport.

Yeah totally get that. I always get ‘oh you’re living the dream, you just go out and play rugby’, but like I said to a few people in the past, the bit that they see, the game on the weekend, is the reward – the work happens from Monday to Friday. You get out and hopefully it goes well on the weekend and that's the enjoyable bit, but sometimes it's not enjoyable obviously if you have a bad game, but yeah, the work is done in the week really.

You’ve got a really heavy programme there, you’re talking about cryochambers and how you’ve got to maximise your recovery – I know you’ve just bought a Jacuzzi tub, is that recovery-based or is that because you want to have a party on Friday night with your mates?

Probably thinking with both hats on there. Obviously last night, especially now the weather’s dropped, it was nice to come home and get in the tub and relax, and I've got some special – I can't remember the name of them – some special muscle salts for the tub, so yeah it was lovely to go in and relax and stretch off a bit, and probably just relax the mind as well. Just to be able to sit in the garden and enjoy some time, it's nice and comforting. It’s great to be honest, and nice to have the friends over as well. I probably bought it more to do with recovery because I always find myself going to the local spas and using the Jacuzzi, the sauna and then stretching off, it just makes me feel great then for the next day. With a heavy training load you wake up stiff sometimes in the morning, but if I'm using the tub, I'm feeling a little bit better and a little more prepped for the next day’s training.

So just before we finish off, usually we ask the guys on our podcast to give us some top tips on your sport, so I’ve got two questions for you: one, how do you get fired up for a big game, what is it you do to get yourself in the zone?

I've sort of changed over the last year really. I used to be a bit crazy, where I would just have total tunnel vision and I would have to work myself up to feel like I could run through a brick wall using music and positive imagery and stuff – but these days, don’t know if it’s age, I’ve got over the 25 mark, I like to be a bit more chilled, a bit more clear in my vision. I like to listen to more chilled out songs whereas before I’d listen to quite emotional or upbeat songs.

What do you listen to now?

I suppose at the moment I’m listening to The Verve a lot, some old singalongs that can chill me out and calm me down. What’s one I like at the moment? Oh, I can't think, you put me on the spot. I don't know, old soul music and stuff like that I'm leaning into at the moment. David Grey, I like a bit of David Grey.

One final tip, what would be your tip for – you touched on it earlier actually – kind of up-and-coming rugby players who want to get to the level you’re at and represent their country on an international stage?

Yeah I touched on it earlier. There's no other advice I would give to someone who was up-and-coming and wanted to achieve that, then: hard work always beats talent. It doesn't take anything to get up earlier than someone and go out and work harder, or stay a little bit longer on the training field – as long as you’re doing it sensibly and not sort of running yourself into the ground. And it's not just physically, you can work on the mental side of things, dealing with pressure, or being able to switch off away from the environment. When I was younger I was probably totally obsessed, but it sort of paid off if you could say that. But no, just totally work harder than anyone else, or don’t even worry about anyone else; as long as you know that you've put the hard work in and you're working as hard as you physically can, or mentally can, then everything should take care of itself really.

Spot on. Cheers, I really enjoyed that. Good luck for the season ahead.

Thank you very much for watching, and I'll see you in the next episode.