In my third year with the Townsville Crocodiles in the NBL I was confident we had a group that could give the Championship a shake. In my first year with the club, who had never made the play offs, we were able to attract a couple of marquee players to build the franchise around in outstanding young Boomer talent Sam Mackinnon and one of the best imports to play in the league 1992 MVP Robert Rose. We missed the play offs that year but in year two we finished with a 22-6 record before being eliminated by the Perth Wildcats in the semi-finals. Over the second and third season we added veterans Pat Reidy, Andrew Goodwin and Mike Kelly and I felt very optimistic about our chances. We had a bye weekend scheduled around the mid-way point and I wanted to see if we could arrange some sort of team building activity to propel us into the second half of the season and a run at the Championship.
I had earlier received an email from a local guy named Ritchie Gibson who had a business that specialised in such things. NBL teams receive many of these types of proposals on all sorts of things from motivational speakers to wonder supplements, most usually end in deleted folder but for some reason I decided to follow up this one.
I arranged to meet Ritchie and his partner to discuss what I wanted to do and to listen to what he wanted to propose. Ritchie had spent about 12 years in the military, I’m not sure exactly what he did but he appeared to be the type of guy who could easily live under a rock for 2 months then sneak out and slit your throat!! If the Aussie had gone in to take out Bin Laden I expect Ritchie would have been well qualified to be in the squad.
I met many military people in Townsville, the Lavarack Barracks in one of Australia’s biggest army bases and the town is full of current and ex-military personal. I have found these blokes to be honest, no BS, dedicated souls and overwhelmingly good men.
Anyway after listening to Ritchie for five minutes I was confident he knew what he was doing and I had total trust that he would run a great event for our team. The event was to feature two endurance activates to set the foundation for what was to come which was an overnight team building activity that would test the players spirit, teamwork and ability to deal with adversity in the extreme. Ritchie emphasised that for the overnight adventure to be successful it was important the players had no idea about what was going on and how long it would last. He convinced me it would have a very positive impact on the group and I was in.
I met later in the day with my assistant coaches Andrej Lemanis and Shane Froling and told them of the adventure, both thought I was crazy, both were very sceptical but it was full steam ahead.
The first phase of the adventure was a team cycle ride up Mount Stuart which overlooks Townsville. The road is very old, very steep and took about an hour for each player to compete. Ritchie spoke to the group about toughness and never giving in and I think the guys thought, this isn’t going to be too hard.
The next day we met on the beach looking out towards Magnetic Island, which looks relatively close to the mainland but is actually some 8 kilometres away. Ritchie has arranged some single and double kayaks and the objective was to paddle over to the island, do some more team building activities and then paddle back again. Standing on the shore it didn’t look so tough! Some 2 hours later the first of the group made the Island, as the rest struggled ashore I think everyone figured that was so tough that we surely would be catching the ferry back to the mainland, but no, after some more team discussions it was back in the water for the trip back. The sea had turned a little nasty and there was about a one metre swell, high enough that you couldn’t see anything but waves around you most of the trip. To make matters worse some of the kayaks had been stored incorrectly and the sun had turned them banana shaped so paddling them in straight line was definitely a challenge. I was in a double kayak with Andrew Goodwin and it was actually scary at times making that long trip, it seemed to take for ever, probably only about two hours but I can remember feeling totally buggered by the time we actually made it to shore, I can only imagine what it was like for those in the single crafts.
Once everyone made it to shore we met again to debrief on the adventure, we got some good feedback and I think most of the guys thought this was the end of it, but it was just the start! We had one more session with Ritchie scheduled for the next day which had been advertised to the players as some sort of fitness circuit. By this time the players thought Ritchie a little crazy and most were looking forward to seeing the end of him.
Two days later we met at an old army barrack for what the players believed was the final part of the Ritchie Gibson adventure which was to be a gruelling fitness circuit. This lasted for about an hour with everyone totally exhausted by the end. To everyone’s surprise there was more to come. It was now about 4pm.
For the next four hours the team proceeded to hike along the coast line of Townsville towards an area known as Pallaranda. Along the way the team did a series of team building activities designed to test their lateral thinking, ability to work together to problem solve and to trust each other.
Now remember the players had no idea how long this was going to go for, along the way I let them all know that their wives, girlfriends, mums and dad had been told they were going to be home a little later – they had actually been told they weren’t going to be home at all. It was summer in North Queensland so it was bloody hot and people were starting to get a little stressed with how long this team building exercise was going for.
It was now about 8pm and the group was divided into two teams. The challenge was to get five large truck tyres to the top of “Many Peeks” hill which was a RAAF training site, the hill had a private road that was steeper than any legal street road around, the players had to roll these tyres up the hill by any means. Most used their bare hands and it was again a gruelling challenge. Once the group reached the top it was starting to get late and no one had eaten since this whole event had started. Ritchie produced several cans of baked beans and some bread and said “here’s dinner” with torches in hand I can remember hands covered with black soot from the tyres hold slices of bread and cold baked beans being poured on….it tasted beautiful and everyone couldn’t get enough of it.
After the dinner break it was time to get the tyres down the hill ready for the next stage of the event. By this stage you could see the players knew they were in for a long night, there was a sense of determination among the group and they started to get into some colourful banter with our host Ritchie.
The next eight hours or so involved tracking through a National Park picking up or sorts of equipment that the group had to carry, things like 44 gallon drums, jerry cans, ropes, posts, a car trailer with only one wheel and finding ways to make the load easier to carry among the group. There were also all sorts of problem solving puzzles and group talks on how to work together, deal with adversity and develop a never quit attitude.
The group had no sleep at all and I can remember as we marched out of the park at sunrise looking back at the group all together, all carrying something feeling like I had the right group of people to make a serious run at the NBL championship. Ritchie was walking beside me and I asked him how he thought they had done. He replied he thought they had “killed it” he was quite impressed with how the group of professional athletes had dealt with the sort of punishment handed out to military personal designed to break them down so they could build them up again.
The team met later that day for a BBQ to celebrate the success of the event and it was very pleasing to listen to all the players relive the whole adventure in a positive and laughter filled feast together – no baked beans at this one!
Anyway our season resumed and we went 4-1 over the next five games, then disaster struck. Sam Mackinnon was ruled out for the rest of the season with bone bruising on his knee. Sam was crucial to our success and without him things were going to be very tough. To make matters worse, after that fifth game which was in Cairns, our import Dujuan Wiley went AWOL. To say Dujuan was an interesting character is an understatement, if I had my way I would have sent him home the first night he arrived in Townsville when he arrived to his hotel room at about 4am after a night out on the town, kicked his hotel room door in and then was evicted from his hotel – this was on his first night!!
Well after the Cairns game we had a flight direct to Melbourne for the second game of our road trip which was to be against the Melbourne Tigers in Bendigo. Dujuan didn’t make it to the airport, we had no idea where he was. I rang the club and told them that once he turned up to put him on a plane back to the USA, I didn’t want to see him anymore. We went to Bendigo and got belted by the Tigers by 20, one import down and without our star Aussie player.
We returned to Townsville licking our wounds and trying to figure out how we would regroup, find another import and deal with our next biggest problem which was the Adelaide 36ers coming into our place. The 36ers were hot, still in their golden era under Phil Smyth and you could feel walking into our stadium on game night no one gave us much of a chance.
It was time for the Ritchie Gibson investment in “Tough times don’t last but tough people do” to be cashed in. I tried to deliver the best motivational speech I could before the 36ers game and low and behold we came out and beat them by 16 points. The loss to the Tigers turned out to be our last for the year, we went on a ten game winning streak to close out the season, finishing once again with an equal league best 22-6 record.
We knocked out the Brett Brown coached Sydney Kings in the quarter finals, then the Brian Goorjian coached Victoria Titans in the semi-finals before ultimately losing the Grand Final series with two 3 point loses to the Wollongong Hawks. Given the adversity we had to deal with along the way it was an awesome result.
I repeated the adventure with Ritchie two season later which resulted in us turning around a 3-11 start to the season with a 16 game winning streak to finish the year 19-11 before bowing out in the finals again. (more on that effort another time)
We tried the adventure again in my final season, this time without Ritchie as he had moved onto greener pastures. This time we ran it in the preseason and I can remember at about 4am as the team were shovelling sand into sand bags that we were in trouble. You could see that some of the new team members were going to quit when times get hard. It was a worrying sign and despite my requests to change some of our personal, management refused and it turned out to be my last season with the Crocs.
I am a firm believer in the power of these military style team building activities. I ran one with the second group of AIS players I had, the group included Dante Exum and Ben Simmons, the group formed the nucleus of the under 17 National team who went on to win Silver at the under 17 World Championships in 2011.
My friend Justin Schueller also ran one of these adventures with his Tasmanian under 18 team, they went on to win the Bronze medal at the under 18 National Championships that year (Tassie’s first Bronze Medal) and twelve months later took Victoria Metro to double overtime before narrowly losing to them to take Sliver in the National Championship Game.
In summary, players can be motivated. The military like to take people to a point where there is no other option but to keep going, keep believing, discovering that working together is the best way of dealing with adversity. Coaches, Parents and teachers, dealing with adversity is one of the best fundamental life skills you can pass on.
Ritchie now runs a business doing team building with corporations and professional sporting teams, he has also written a book and you can find him at www.ritchiegibson.com