Jacuzzi Performance Podcast

Ep.8: up close and personal with Rugby League legend, Gareth Ellis.


Hi, welcome back to the Jacuzzi Performance Podcast. I'm Ed Baxter, and today, we're joined by rugby legend Gareth Ellis. How you doing, mate?


I'm good thank you, how are you?


Yeah very well, thank you. Looking game-ready there.


I know yeah, well we've got to get the Jacuzzi sponsors on, haven't we?


So I guess, first of all, how has lockdown been for you?


Yeah, it's been interesting really because, as you probably know, I retired in 2018 only to come out of retirement in 2019, but it spurred me on really to play again in 2020 – after enjoying it so much and you sort of rekindle that love for the game again. I was really looking forward to 2020 and what it might bring, and I never envisaged being in lockdown for six months and not doing anything, so it's been an interesting year. It was good in a way, you know, it's been a long time for me since I've been able to have that amount of time off at that time of year in the summer, so it was nice to spend time with the kids and things like that, but I think there was a time obviously when we were really keen to get back at it.


So did that really add fuel to the fire then? You're like, 'I've come back out of retirement. I'm ready, let's get it' and then suddenly – ‘ahh, what's going on?’ Did that add fuel to the fire?


Well yeah. I mean, when I retired the first time around, 2018, it was a real tough decision. You want to make the right call, but you're not sure what the right decision is at the time, whereas I think everything I've been through this year, I'm well and truly decided that I won't be playing again next year. I think COVID's probably been a big part of that, and a lot of it is not so much the physical side of the game – which, don't get me wrong, is tough, particularly as you get older like myself – but the mental side of the game as well, and how much you have to focus that amount of energy into that part of the game. That's what takes its toll really.


You dedicate your life to it, don't you? If you want to be the best and get to the level you've got to, it's not just a hobby or a sport you do, it's your life.


Yeah and that's the thing, you know, we’re probably at training three or four hours a day, but the players that really get to the top of the game are the ones that really commit their lives to it. It's a 24-7 commitment – some big decisions. You can't do the things that your mates do all the time, you've got to say no, you've got to say ‘I can't do this, I can't do that’. You're looking at what time you're going to bed, what you're eating, so yeah, the mental side of it and the decisions you make are not just about the three or four hours that you're at training, it's the other 20 hours that you've got to be really smart with and commit your life to.


Yeah, 24-hour athlete for sure. I guess we touched on it before we started filming, rugby is a contact sport, and especially with COVID, that's what we can't really do – is get close to people and touch people – so in that lockdown period, when you’re fully in lockdown, how do you train for rugby?


Well it was difficult but enjoyable at the same time. We were able to do a few things that didn't have the contact. For six months we'd not done anything in terms of rugby-specific training – more going out for runs in the hour or two that we were able to do it, or go out on the bike. So it was quite good in terms of doing things that we wouldn't normally be doing,  and the weather was really good early on as well so, like I say, it was quite enjoyable to start with and you did things that you probably weren't used to doing – or certainly what I haven't been doing for a long time. And then obviously we were certainly brought back down to earth because we only had a couple of weeks before we started playing again, so we really had to ramp the contact up and get the bodies used to it again.


I was just going to say, how was it that first time someone went straight into you again? How was that?


Even after 21 years of playing, the body had certainly got used to not being whacked about all the time. So yeah, those first few days of contact training were tough, and recovery is a big part of any sport, it’s how we can get ready for the next session. At 39 it's a massive, massive part of what I do now, so I had to pay a bit of extra attention to how I looked after myself in those first couple of weeks.


That must have been the longest period you've gone without any heavy contact in 20-25 years, I guess?


Yeah and you take it for granted, it's just been what I've done for so long. Playing at a decent level, the contact side of the game is tough. I actually really – I can't stand it. I really don't look forward to it in training. When we do it in training it's one of those things; you always get an elbow or a knee or your shoulder or a rib or something, there's always something in training, but when it comes to the game, it's the best part for me. That's the challenge of being a rugby player, it's those personal battles, those duals with your opposition. You're basically trying to get dominance over whoever you're coming up against, so that side in the game’s brilliant, but yeah, in training it's tough work.


So, let's get into your rugby career. Like you said there, you've been playing for 20 years now at the top level, or the level you're at now, so how did that start? When did you start playing rugby?


Well, going right back to beginning, is being an eight-year-old boy. My family are Rugby League mad. I'm from Castleford originally, all the family are Castleford Tigers supporters, there's only my family that wavered on that over recent years and just followed me around. So I come from a Rugby League background and have grown up with the sport, and I've played it pretty much non-stop from that point really, apart from when I was about – I think I was about 12-13 years old – most of my friends were playing football, so I had a couple of years where I stopped playing rugby and played football, but that was quite good in a way because I got that hunger again to go back. I remember asking my dad, actually going and saying, 'Dad, I want to go play rugby again', and I think that was a good period really because it just reignited that love for the sport and probably from that point where I kicked on.


That’s really cool. So, I guess you've grown up around rugby. Eight years old. Family rugby mad. How was it that first time you walked out with that rose on your chest?


I'm not someone who has always been super confident, you know, and 'I'm going to be this, that and the other’. Even going up to probably being about 18 years old, I don't consider myself one of the best players in my team. There were some better – or more talented, maybe – players than me at that time. I suppose what I did have was a hunger to work hard, to train hard, so to go through that stage and then eventually make your Super League debut, and then you're just climbing the ladder bit by bit to eventually pull a representative jersey on – at that time it was Great Britain back in 2003 – it was a magical moment. You talk about career highlights, pulling on a Great Britain jersey, it's like you pull it on and you think about all the people that have gone before you. Growing up as a kid watching test matches against Australia and to think that you're now one of those players, it's quite a surreal moment really. You realise how privileged you are.


You touched on Australia there, seeing them play England or play Great Britain or whoever, but you've actually trained and competed for an Australian team? How was that?


At the time I was playing for Leeds Rhinos which – we were a successful team, we'd gone back to back in grand finals, winning grand finals, but my contract was coming to an end and I had a big decision to make. I was 27 years old at the time and it was either sign for Leeds again who I knew were going to be a really successful team, and they were – they went on and won countless amounts of trophies – or it was take the plunge and step out of my comfort zone really, which is not something I'm really comfortable doing. I'm a person that likes routine and doing all the same things every day, but I've learnt over my career that it's those moments when I've stepped out of my comfort zone and tested myself that's brought the best out of me. So, with that in mind, I took the plunge and went and signed for West Tigers in Australia, and honestly, it's one of the best things I've ever done. Obviously I went over there for rugby reasons, I went over there to try and succeed as a rugby player and become a better player, but it was so much more than that. Living in Australia for four years was absolutely brilliant. We ended up having our first son over there, so the whole package just became – it was a massive part of my life and something I'll remember forever – but, yeah, it was a big challenge at the time. There weren't any English or British players over there at that time. There's quite a few now, so yeah, it was a tough decision but one I'm really glad I made and it's one of my proudest achievements really. While I didn't actually win anything, we came close a couple of years, actually succeeding in Australia is one of the biggest things I've ever done.


That's really cool. Where abouts was it? I've been on quite a few training camps in Australia. I love it, it's just the best, isn't it? I don't think you can really appreciate how good it is until you go. Where abouts was that?


I was based in Sydney, we were living about 10-15 minutes from the city centre in a lovely apartment that looked over the Parramatta River and the mode of transport was a ferry and all of that sort of thing – it was just brilliant. It almost was like a working holiday, that's how it felt. I had a job to do, I was as committed as ever to being the best rugby player I could be for West Tigers, but away from the sport, it was almost like that holiday environment and that we were always going off visiting places and seeing the best of the country. So, yeah, it was a fantastic experience.


Just picking up on something you said a minute ago, you were saying how the best things you've done, or some of the best times you've performed, is when you're really uncomfortable and you don't like stepping out – well, no one really likes stepping out of their comfort zone. One of the biggest things we always say in swimming is ‘get comfortable being uncomfortable’, so that's cool that it translates into rugby.


It probably translates throughout life, I suppose. The fact that you can get caught up in just doing the same things and it becomes life. Just being comfortable, you're in a job that you're happy with – but sometimes if you've got ambitions to take things to that next level you've got to think, ‘right, well I'm going to have to be prepared to make a mistake’ almost. ‘I'm prepared to put my reputation on the line and see what happens’, and it takes some balls to do that.


For sure, yeah.


It's not an easy thing to do but, like I said, I think throughout my career – I've played at Wakefield, that was where I first started, and I was captain at Wakefield and I was doing okay. I'd made representative rugby at that time but I knew that for my career to kick on I needed to move on and that was when I went to Leeds and then the same happened again but with West Tigers, and then probably very similar when I left West Tigers and came back to Hull. It wasn't a popular decision, it wasn't something I think that everyone saw me doing, I think they all thought that I'd probably go back to Leeds, but I chose Hull on the back of a couple of meetings with our owner and CEO at the time and coach, and they had a lot of ambition. And even back then we spoke about things like being a captain of a club that wins a Challenge Cup – the first ever Challenge Cup at Wembley – and for that to eventually come to fruition is just a dream come true. They were moments of stepping out of your comfort zone which is not – like you said, you've got to get comfortable doing that sort of stuff. And it applies to everyday life. It applies to when we're out there training, whether you're doing a field session or a wattbike session or you're out on the field playing a game, there are times in a game when everything in your body is saying ‘put your hand up, tell them you want to come off', but you've got to get comfortable hurting in that way, in that dark place where your body wants to give up but you've sometimes just got to say 'no, I've got a bit more, I've got a bit more to give’. The better you can get at handling that mentally, the better you'll be as a player, because I always look at the opposition and think well if I'm feeling tired, they're feeling tired too, so keep going and see who cracks first.


I love that mentality. So you're being quite modest about how much you've achieved. We were talking about your journey, but you're not actually saying what you personally have done for yourself and also the team. Was it Australia, did you win Player of the Year three times in a row, is that right?


Yeah, that's right. It was a bit of a gamble going to Australia at the time, but it was a gamble I was willing to take for the rewards. I was playing with some really good players at the time, players like Benji Marshall, Robbie Farah, Chris Heighington that all were internationals or went on to be internationals. So, I think it was more the respect. I think they appreciated me going over there and committing myself to being a player. I went over there thinking I was representing England as an English player, I felt like I was representing Super League because I'd played on Super League and all eyes were on me to see ‘oh what's this English kid all about?’ But the actual players themselves in Britain, the club embraced me just as a West Tigers player and that's what I became, rather than being an English player playing in the NRL, it was Gareth Ellis, the West Tigers player. They embraced me, and in return I thankfully produced on the field and I think that respect translated into me winning the Player of the Year three years on the bounce.


Did you like that pressure of going over and – you said it felt there like you were the English guy, you're going over trying to show what England is about and what rugby over here is about, did you like that pressure or was that a little bit too much almost?


I think it's probably what brings the best out of you. You do need that little bit of pressure to push yourself and the biggest thing for me as a player is that I've always wanted to be the player that other players want to play alongside. I wasn't there to appease fans, please fans, because if you become that player that other players want to play alongside, all the other stuff comes with it, and being that player means committing yourself to it and having very high standards – and not really wavering on those standards either. I've played with players that like a laugh and a joke and sometimes take it all a bit too far, but then they don't produce on the field, and while everyone might laugh and joke with them in training, ultimately, when it comes to a game, they can't rely on them and you see that. There's been times where I've made decisions where I am a bit straight-laced and I probably have avoided some situations which I could have maybe had a good laugh and a joke about, but for me, I've always felt that I needed to be…


Get the job done?


I need to be on it all the time. For me to be successful – and like I say, I've always considered myself not particularly talented but hard-working and prepared to go that little but further than the next guy, and I think ultimately that's what earnt the respect of my team mates, and probably the Australian or the NRL public.


Yeah, definitely. I love that you said that because so many times that we work with young swimmers – especially if you've got a group – and there’s one or two lads; 14-15 year old lads trying to have a joke, and you're saying ‘have as much of a laugh and muck about as much as you want, but that's not cool. Winning is cool, working hard is cool’.


That's it and I think players respect that. There’s always that one guy that wants to be the – and I suppose it's difficult for young players coming through because they want to be accepted and they want to fit into the group, and the easiest way to fit into the group is being the funny guy or the one that everyone wants to have a laugh and a joke with or spend time with. The tough way to do it is by earning it – it probably takes a little bit longer – but you're showing that you're in it for the long haul by doing everything right, and then when you get your chance on a game day, you go out there and do it, and the players are like, 'oh this guy's got a bit of something', and that's the respect that you really want to try and achieve.


I really like that. So we touched on it earlier about your first retirement. This is something that really intrigued me. You retired, you've had an amazing career, really successful, and then there's something in you that went 'it's not enough.' What is that? What was that, that made you decide that wasn't good enough, or what was it that brought you back into it?


Well I suppose when I retired at the end of 2017, if I'm being honest, the game had become a little bit of a job. You know, you lose all of that passion that you had for the game as a youngster. If I could go back to being 15-16 years old and someone said to me 'you're going to be a professional player for 20 years, but you're not going to get paid for it’, I'd have been like, 'I don't care, that's all I want to do’. But over the years, it's more the mental side of it that starts to take its toll. Being your best every day and making all the right decisions is actually quite draining. It can get the better of you and I just felt that that's the stage I'd got to in 2017, whereas physically I maybe felt like I had a couple of years left, just mentally I'd gone. I was over the game, I didn't really watch it much at home, I just trained and played it and thought I don't want to be doing anything else, so I came to that decision and then probably I reckon 6-8 months into retirement you start to become a fan of the game again and you start watching the game and you rekindle that love you had as a young lad. You start getting that little spark again, and in 2019 we had a bit of an injury crisis, we had a couple of suspensions and I was actually on the coaching staff then, so I used to join in a few sessions anyway or make up the numbers on a team so we could play some small-sided games and stuff, so I always felt like 'I've still got a bit here, I'm doing alright,' but then it really came to the crunch when Lee Radford at the time – like I said, we had a few injuries and suspensions – he said 'we're struggling this week, do you think you could come out of retirement for a few weeks?' And I thought, ‘yeah, three weeks playing again?’, I've got that love for the sport again, I'll have a crack for three games. So I played in the reserves game which was brilliant because that really took you back to what it was like as a kid. There was probably a couple of hundred people watching and playing against young kids as well that want to have a crack at you. It was really good and so I thought for three games, brilliant, scratch that itch and you can move on. Well, that three games turned into 20 and I'm still here now. So yeah, it's…


Yeah, just never leaving.


That was it, that was the reason I'm playing really. Like I say, I rekindled that love for the game again and just try and enjoy playing.


That's great. I think there's so many people who get to a certain age or point and go 'done, see you later’, and then they really struggle with it – and wouldn't it be good to dip back in and feel like you've tried it again, you finish it off, you get that fix, that high, because I think that's what all athletes chase, isn't it? I was talking to my coach about how it's everything in life as an athlete, you go ‘right, more of that, more of that, better there’ and it's like you need a fix sometimes, don't you?


What's been good probably over the last couple of years at least is you get an opportunity to look back on your career and appreciate the things that you've achieved. In retirement I was able to do that because, as you've just said, when you're playing you're constantly looking forward, you're constantly thinking about the next game. One week you can be winning a challenge cup and lifting a trophy and feeling all the joy with all your family and things, within 24 hours you're back, you're thinking about the next game, it's going to be on a Thursday, and how you can get through that and how you're going to play better at that – and that's just how it is as an athlete. You're just always constantly trying to look for that next little bit, and I think an important message for any young athlete or rugby player is that, if you can go into the gym, you can go through training sessions and think ‘don't just get through the session, just get a little bit better every time’ – that's the only way you're going to head in the right direction. Don't waste the session. Don't get me wrong, you'll know, you don't turn up to every session thinking ‘I feel on top of the world’. You turn up to some sessions and you think ‘this is going to be a tough day today', but you're there, you're doing it, so why not just give it your all and get a little bit better? You're going to do it anyway, so just go get a little bit better.


Yeah, for sure. So, you're touching there on young athletes and what your message would be to them, and you said before you were part of the coaching team so I know that's a passion of yours as well –helping younger athletes, younger rugby players come through – so could you tell us a little bit about that?


Like I’ve said before, talent is not something I particularly relied on. It's been the hard work and I think without being too overly critical to ‘the youth of today’ – as you start talking about as you get older – I don't know what it's like in other sports but I think in Rugby League we've certainly gone down the line of highlighting talent and almost fast-tracking that talent to the top. And then when they get to the top they've not quite got the tools to then take their game to the next level, and I think for me, when I go into coaching – which is what I'm going to be doing next year – the big thing for me will be trying to instill some of that mental toughness into kids so they're not relying on talent alone. It's a big thing when you're young, if you're talented, you do stand out, but when you get to that end of the spectrum where everyone can be talented but they can also be tough, you can easily get found out. So I think a big thing for me would be just trying to instill some toughness and some of those things that I just mentioned before about trying to get a little bit better all the time, don't waste sessions, think about how you can get something out of them. And if I go back to all the coaches I've had throughout my career, it's not so much been the ones that have taught me about tactics and the technical aspects of playing rugby, it's more the ones around mindset and winning – they're the things that really stick in my mind and that have probably helped me in those times that you mentioned, when you're uncomfortable. It's those coaches' voices that come in my mind even now they're not my coach, I still feel like I can't let them down, and I think that's a really important thing to have throughout your career, is those little messages that trigger that mindset.


That's really interesting you say that because there are so many people who I've known throughout my time swimming, and people I know through coaching and stuff, who – they're amazing swimming coaches and technical coaches or whatever, but if you can't coach people and you don't know how to focus on a person and say 'right, let's get this out of you, let's drag that out and make you better than anyone else on the field, anyone else in the pool' – you've got to be able to coach people, haven't you, rather than just coaching an athlete?


That’s right and that's probably where Rugby League has gone wrong a little bit in the past, it has tried to just coach talent and it gets to the point where you actually eventually end up coaching some of that talent out of them. I think you need to understand a person and know what ticks their boxes. Not every athlete is the same. It's quite difficult in Rugby League because you're generally dealing with a group of people rather than individuals, so you do have to be quite smart, and it seems to be the ones that have that ability to put an arm around people, or know when to get the best out of someone, and not everyone – if you're the one having the finger waved at you, at the time you might not like it, but as long as the coach has done it the right way and with the right meaning, I think you'll get the right reaction from that person and the right reaction from that player. So, there's a way to do it and a lot of it boils down to honesty. If you can be honest with yourself and you can be honest with your athlete, you get that mutual respect so that you can almost say things to people and you get the right reaction, because you know what each other’s about.


Yeah, definitely. I think from a coaching perspective, no coach – any good coach – would say something without a reason. No one would say 'do this on the field' and then go 'why?', 'Because I want you to’. There's a reason behind something, isn't there, you're asking them to do something for a reason?


Definitely, 100%. There's got to be a process and a reason for doing it, and I suppose you've got to have that in you to be able to. So if you said 'do this, this and this' and they say 'well, why am I doing that?', you need to have a reason for doing it. Like you said, you'd lose that respect straight away by just saying something and I think that's the challenge for me, going into coaching, because even though I had captained Hull for a few years, the majority of my leadership’s been through actions and leading by example, whereas once I'm coaching obviously I can't do that. The lads know that I've been there and done it but you still can't rely on that, so you have to be a bit more clever with your words and probably draw on your experiences to then pass onto the players.


I love that. So I know we mentioned at the start, we were talking about Jacuzzi – I know they've got a Jacuzzi Elite Performance Centre at Hull, is that where you are now?


Yeah, that's where we are now. The whole building’s branded up with the Jacuzzi and the Elite Performance Centre, and we've got a beautiful Jacuzzi just outside that, unfortunately, we're not allowed to use at the minute with the current restrictions. But yeah, I think I'm the main guy that uses that one because it’s fantastic in terms of recovery for us and relaxing, and getting the jets on all the sore points in your body. It’s been a fantastic addition for us, it's just unfortunate, particularly now with how the scheduling is for us at the minute, we've got very short turnarounds for games, recovery has become even more important, but things like ice baths – we usually use swimming as a recovery tool – we aren't able to do those at the minute. It’s not ideal, given we are having a lot of short turnarounds for games, but we're managing and hopefully, fingers crossed, we will get back to some degree of normality before the season ends and we'll be able to get back in the Jacuzzi.


Just sitting in there as a coach, just kicking back, shouting at people – ‘what's going on’?


[laughs] I don't know how it will go down, kicking all the lads out just so I can get in it next year.


So just to finish off, we like to ask someone for what their top tip would be. So for you, what would your top tip be for an up-and-coming rugby player?


Well, good question. Aside from some of the things you've already spoken about – we have a scholarship system, so kids come through and they join the scholarships and I think it's about 14-15 years old, they come in and have a meeting and the club puts a pitch to them on how they're going to make them a Super League player. I remember the lads coming in and I sat at the back just to listen in and see where they're at, and I was taken aback actually because, like I say, it was probably at the time when I think I'd retired and I was just rekindling that love for the sport again. I remember watching some of the kids and just the glint in their eye they had for Rugby League and the club and that prospect of potentially becoming a Super League player, it really struck me and made me quite emotional, it struck a chord with me and took me back to being that young kid. I had to speak up in the meeting and I said to this young lad, 'how you're speaking now about your passion for the game, how much you want it, remember this moment – because if you can keep hold of just a little bit of that throughout your career, it will go a massive, massive way to making you successful’. I felt like at some stage I crossed over from, you know, it wasn't my job, it became a job and it became where I was almost just doing it because it's all I knew and for the sake of doing it. It took me retiring to realise just how good it was. So yeah, my advice for those kids is maintain that passion for what you do, because it will go such a long way in helping you and drive you to become a better player and ultimately succeed in whatever you want to do.


Yeah, amazing. Cheers for that, that's been amazing. I've really enjoyed that.


Yeah, me too. Thank you very much for having me.


Thank you very much for watching and we'll see you on the next episode.