Interview | Tom Mitchell
Tom Mitchell has enjoyed incredible success with the England team in Rugby Sevens over the last four years, combining sheer athleticism, devastating kicking accuracy & some outstanding rugby intelligence to build a reputation as one of the worlds foremost players. Amassing an incredible 358 points in the 2013/14 World Series, Tom has led the England team on the International stage, so it was no surprise that he had his sights set on the Olympics in 2016, where the game was being included for the first time, "[being captain of Team GB] was my season goal and I'd spoken to the coaches and other players about it... but I didn't really talk it about that much, it was just something that sat in my notebook and below it was a plan of what I needed to do to try and achieve it".
In 2016, Tom made history by captaining the first ever Great Britain Sevens team to the Summer Olympics in Rio; but the build up to the tournament was not plain sailing, "so, the actual selection day was after quite an ordeal; we came together really late as a team, because there was no existing GB set-up for Sevens. So we came together about 12 months out from the actual Games itself, which [gave us a] lot less preparation time than all the other teams. So we'd been through this massive rollercoaster, with this squad of 27 guys from England, Scotland and Wales; we had to get to know each other, we had to understand how each other played while also competing for those final spots, because only 12 people were going to be put in the team.
After coming out of such a high-pressure selection process, how did it feel to make the cut? "When the selection came around, there was a massive sense of relief. I didn't really have anything to say when the coaches sat me down and told me... I didn't say anything back to them, I just walked out and had a little cry on the way back to the car because it was just... thinking that finally, this thing that I had dreamt about doing is probably going to become a reality now. It was an amazing feeling".
When were you told that you'd be chosen as captain? Was it part of the same conversation, or did they tell you later on... "Yeah, it was a double whammy - [they said] you're selected and we want you to captain the team. It was something that I'd set out at the beginning of the year with the aim of achieving, I wanted to captain the Great Britain side".
You had already established yourself as captain of the England team; do you feel the captaincy adds a level of pressure to your role in the squad? "Do I feel the pressure of captaincy? Yes. It is mostly self-imposed, because I really want to deliver a good job for the guys and I really want things to go well. There are different ways of processing that pressure, and sometimes I probably take too much on myself, for how other people are enjoying it or playing. One thing I have learnt to come to terms with is you can only do so much to affect people, but you'll never be able to fully control them; there's always going to be elements that are up to them. You just have to remind yourself that you can only do the best you can, and be yourself as well. This was something it took me a while to realise, the best way of captaining for me, was to do it my way, based on who I am".
You've got players like Riche McCaw; he doesn't shout or scream at his team mates, but leads by example, he expects his team mates to match his own performance, then you've got others like Martin Jonson who would tell his team mates in no uncertain terms if they were not pulling their weight; what sort of captain would you say you are? "I'm not really a ranter & a raver, but at a recent tournament I did absolutely scream at a couple of boys because they weren't doing what I wanted them to do [laughs], but that was just me being a little aggro guy on the field, nothing to do with being captain.
I guess I'm probably... I'd like to think of myself as quite a supportive captain & the challenge for me was when to be more challenging with people. You can support them so much, but sometimes they need to be challenged & its about finding that balance. I'd like to think I am quite approachable as a captain, I've seen captain in the past who are very unapproachable... but my captianing style is very similar to who I am outside of rugby".
You'd already had incredibly success in rugby, but how did you family react to, not just making, but being selected to captain the Great Britain side? "[laughing] Yeah, they were so proud. My mums funny because... I think one of her biggest worries with me, is keeping my feet on the ground, so she takes it upon herself to do that. Dad loved it. They'd actually bet on me, because they'd already booked their flights out to Rio before the selection happened. So I said, if I don't make the team, at least they can go and have a nice holiday!"
With so little preparation time, Team GB were not considered medal hopes at the Olympics. Although the squad included some of the best players on the planet, a lot of them were coming together for the very first time during training. To come away with a silver medal, after putting in stellar performances against rugby seven's heavyweights like New Zealand, Argentina, and South Africa, must have been amazing, but equally tough considering that the gold was there to be won in the final..."I think people probably expect us to be more disappointed than we were. Don't get me wrong, in that moment when we were losing I was so gutted. I came off at half time in the final; but by that point it was looking like it was going against us and we were going to struggle to get back into the game. So I think I kind of got the disappointment out of me during that second half of the final; by the end I was just ecstatic that we'd got a silver. Because, as you say, everyone had written us off, everyone thought we'd be a complete flop because we'd only come together really late, but it all worked out pretty well, and to come home with the silver was... not a bonus, because we had worked hard for it & we earned it but when you're not expecting it, it tastes that bit sweeter".
You've been part of the England set-up for a while now, and earned the accolade for most points scored in the 2013/14 World Series which was in no small part to your kicking abilities. Some commentators have referred to you as an athlete with ice in your veins as you can stay so calm under such intense pressure at the elite level of sevens... "[laughing] It doesn't feel like that on the inside!"
So what is going through your mind in those moments? It's a game deciding kick, the ball is in your hands, your team mates & the crowd are all focusing their attention on you... "It's always nerve wracking, those moments. I think what I've learned over time is just how to deal with those nerves a bit better, and actually a part of that is just accepting that you are going to be a bit nervous in those moments, because you want it to go well for you. I've had good kicks and bad kicks in those scenarios, so when you're fortunate enough, or, if you have a chance to win the game; it can be great when it goes well, but when it doesn't, it can be pretty devastating. Probably the one in the Olympics when I hit the post (during the quarter-final against Argentina) with a chance to win the game... it hit the post and I just though 'oooh God', but luckily we scored straight after that so it was alright! But it's a nice feeling when you get given that responsibility to do it".
When those kicks don't fly between the posts as planned or you've missed a tackle, which happens to everyone at the elite level at some point, how much do you rely on your team mates to pick you up? "We know when we go out [onto the pitch] we've got trust in our teammates, that everyone is doing the best they possibly can and everyone has done the preparation; knowing that, you know that there is no judgement coming with it. So if I make a mistake, I know that nobody is judging me for it, because they all know that I am trying to do my best. And it is the same with all the other guys, all the way through the game - we're backing each other up, and have faith in each other, and theres no judgement that follows it if you mess it up.
The Olympics was certainly the highlight of the 2016 calendar for Rugby 7's, but there is no prolonged off-season; we're already deep into the new World Series, 6 rounds down and 4 more rounds to go. You've just come back from Vancouver where you lifted the trophy - another bit of silverware... "[laughs] it was actually a big wooden trophy... it was brilliant. It's actually been a brilliant season so far for us. It was always going to be a bit of an odd one coming after last year, with all the hype around the Olympics, then coming back into the World Series; fortunately we've kept a lot of the same guys, the squad is pretty much the same as it was last year, so we've got a very strong and experienced group. We've won two tournaments already this year, but unfortunately South Africa appear to be having an amazing year so far and they won the other four [rounds]. So, they're pulling away at the top, but it's nice we're sitting there in second place in the standings, and it's been a really enjoyable year so far, and hopefully we can push on - there's four more tournaments... if we can deliver some good performances, we'll see what points we can get".
And the final part of the series being in London must be great, being with all your family and friends? "every time [at Twickenham] it's special for any England rugby player to play there, but as you say it's the one chance, really, in the year where our friends and family can come and watch us. It'll be awesome, I'll have all my cousins, aunties & uncles - they all come down and watch. They usually dress up as well which is good fun. I'm going to try & get my Granny along this year, she missed out last time. It's an awesome event, and there's always a good crowd there, so it's really well supported. Our best support is always at Twickenham, but as English players, we're fortunate that around the world we do get a lot of good support in places like Dubai and Hong Kong".
You've got a whole list of amazing places you get to go; but with that comes jet lag, comes a completely different schedule away from friends & family; how do you cope with that? "Yeah, it's something that... when you're younger it's great because you just go from place to place & you're not really thinking about it. But for some of the guys who have got kids, it's difficult leaving them at home and its difficult for their partners as well, because they have to look after the kids by themselves. As you said, the jet-lag is sometimes the worst, because you end up just not sleeping properly for months on end. But that's the trade-off I guess, those choices are part of it [playing for England]. You get used to it a bit, you learnt to adapt to the jet lag and things like that... and I suppose you value the time spent at home a lot more... I feel that sometimes when we go away for 2 & a half week or whatever it is, I might be missing out on something that will be happening at home, like a night out with friends or a family get-together or party... but you just make sure you spend time with people when you are here (London)".
Being on the World Series tour, you must spend a significant time living out of a suitcase and swapping hotels every other week; how do you ensure your diet stays relatively unaffected? "Yeah, so you have to be quite adaptable, as a sevens player in general because you're travelling and you're going to different places and you don't know what you're going to encounter, and that's definitely true with food... we had a bit of a shocker in Las Vegas... one morning they told us the wrong time for breakfast, so it had closed on day 2 of the tournament, so we had to have Subway for breakfast because we just had to eat something... then we got the ground & played our first game. Lunch was laid-on for everyone and it was... sandwiches again. We didn't get a proper meal that day until we got home after the last game in the evening. At times like that, you just think you just have to take on what food you can; take whats on offer & make the most of it".
Carb-lovers would enjoy a day of Sevens because our nutritionists says, all we really need on a tournament day is carbs. You're having a 70%-80% carbohydrate diet, which is quite nice because you can really let loose... very satisfying".
Surely not all carbs? "Yeah, unfortunately we're not sitting there eating pizza, although that wouldn't be the worst thing. We tend to have lots of rice and pasta... but because of all the adrenaline and caffeine you end up using [during a tournament day], it can kind of play with your stomach a bit, so I really try and have quite bland foods. So we'll often have, maybe, half a plain chicken breast with plain pasta [laughs] with maybe a bit of olive oil on it".
Have your nutritionists got any key phrases or buzz words or mantra's you have to live by? "Yeah, there a couple of really good bits of advice, which he always tries got get across; the first is with regards to supplements... food is always a better option if you can get it. The other is just about eating a rainbow... so this is a reference to fruit & veg; if you can try & eat a rainbow throughout the day... fruit & veg of different colours will each give your body something different".
Any avid Sevens fan will already know that the World Series take place in some of the most spectacular stadiums, with incredible scenery anywhere in the world. Have you got a particular favourite in the series? "That's tough, but I'll say Hong Kong. It's very tough to decide actually, because of the stadiums we play in, and the crowds are always brilliant. But Hong Kong has just got that something special about it... and I've got memories of playing there at night time... the Friday night game, with the flood lights on & the crowd so excited and cheering for England. The feeling it conjures up, even just talking about it now, it's just awesome. On a par with that is when you play at Twickenham in front of nearly 80,000 people. Actually we had one of those moments; we beat New Zealand in one of the group games, and there was a kick, luckily quite an easy one, that I needed to score to win the game...I kicked that in front of 75,000 people who were cheering for us, that was a nice moment".
You've already had a stellar career, and it looks like continuing for the foreseeable future; is there any one individual who has stood apart as having had an influence on your career so far? "Well I've got my Dad to thank for getting me into rugby. I was always mad-keen on football when I was younger and wanted to be a professional footballer. I was always playing the garden with my dad and I wanted him to make me dive around on the ground all the time, so he suggested that I might like rugby... that was basically his way of getting me into rugby, because he was a good rugby player when he was younger & he always loved the sport. So he took me up to the local rugby club, and that's how I got into it. He's always backed me from then & still does now.
I don't know that I've got any sporting-idols, but I suppose if there was anyone it'd be Jonny Wilkinson. When I was growing up he was the English rugby hero with, obviously, the 2003 World Cup... I look back now at how he used to be with his training, which he looks back on and probably thinks wasn't the right way to do things. But I really admire him".