Aaron Smith and Ben Smith at the Highlanders

Playing halfback requires speed, awareness, and finesse and no one does this better than All Black Aaron Smith. Smith has accumulated 84 test caps, scored 16 tries for the All Blacks and has maintained his number one starting spot for nearly 7 years. I recently spent some time with Aaron and his partner Teegan at his new gym F45 Dunedin South. We took a deep dive on everything from his rise to becoming one of the best 9’s on the planet and the challenges he faced to the technical drills he uses to create a world-class passing game as the AB’s half-back. In this article, we take a look at specifically how he overcome hardship and not getting selected. 

Overcoming Setbacks & Finding A Path Through Hardship

Nobody starts as a superstar. The players that you see now in the professional era are have got to that stage because they’ve put in work and overcame setbacks that others would have given up on. Aaron Smith is no exception to the rule. As a young player, he believed he was putting in the work and making the grade by doing what he thought was his “best” but it turned out to be just above the bar.

After finishing school Aaron was playing premier rugby in Fielding, New Zealand and got a trial for the New Zealand’s Under 19’s squad in 2007. Up against some stiff competition, Smith didn’t make it in but had been telling himself some stories about his preparation that he had put in that were far from reality. 

“I rocked in there and being honest now and looking back I was really undercooked, not fit, didn’t tackle and didn’t want to tackle, missed the under 19’s and was really gutted,”  said Aaron. 

This would be the first hurdle with more yet to come. Missing out on the squad he went away and played his ITM cup season and managed to make the cut for the 20’s squad the following year in 2008. Following his selection, he ended up playing another year in the ITM Cup despite winning a world cup with the under 20’s he wasn’t even getting close to getting a look in the door with Super Rugby. He then received a call from the Hurricanes at the end of that 2009 season, who at the beginning of the ITM cup had promised him a contract saying:

“You’re fat, you’re slow and you haven’t improved anything you said you’d promised you’d do and we’re not picking you for the wider squad”

This was a massive eye-opener for Aaron as he came face to face with the reality of how his actual performance was being viewed versus what he saw of himself. At this stage, he was still hairdressing and his Dad told him to “have another crack you’re only 20 and see how you go with one more season,”. 

It was at this point that Aaron made the change, dialing in his fitness, diet, and habits. Aaron dropped down from 86 kgs to 82 kgs, decreased his 10-metre time from 1.75 down to the 1.60’s and worked heavily on his defence and kicking. 

Here’s a sneak peek at what he did:

  • Started taking supplements (protein, creatine and others) when he wasn’t previously 
  • Started drinking more water each day 
  • Checked his weight daily
  • Planned his cheat meals and his party habits to work towards footy not against it

The results then started to speak for themselves where he was previously running an 18.1 with his YoYo test and ended up finishing in the high 19’s and at the end of his ITM cup season with Manawatu, he received a call from Jamie Joseph of the Highlanders inviting him down south.  

We all know the story from here of young number 9 brimming with energy at the Highlanders to one of the best halfbacks on the planet. 

Aaron Smith and Ben Smith

So what does this mean for you as a player? 

If you’re struggling with selection pressure or under-performing here are the tips that I’ve used as a coach and as a player to get over my non-selection hurdles and even personal setbacks. 

  1. Create a birdseye view of the issue

    Give yourself distance from the actual issue, remember that although the outcome you wanted hasn’t happened it’s not your defining moment it’s only a moment in your life today. This means that you did what you could at the time but you can’t change the past only the future.

    To put this into action grab a pen and paper and write on a timeline the three months beforehand where you felt you could have improved. Like the image below. 

    Goal Setting For Missed Selection

    Then write a timeline after outlining what you think will happen if you went to your coaches and asked for feedback based on what you think your weak points are and why you weren’t selected.

    Then go through and take this to your coaches who selecting and ask for feedback and see if what you wrote down matches up with their feedback. As players, we often see things differently to how they are in reality so this method takes away the sting of not being selected but also gives you a plan to improve based on your own assessment of your game and your selectors.

  2. Tie your actions to your efforts

    Remember it’s not about perfect it’s about effort. When you give your best every single day that’s when change occurs but tying yourself to an outcome that is outside of your control is when change stops. The best thing players can do is tying their effort and energy to getting better each time they step into the gym or onto the paddock.

    There are too many variables as players that are outside of your control like being selected for a squad to make those the backbone of your success. So don’t worry about an outcome that’s outside of your control and worry about what you eat, how much you train and how often you practice because all of those things are in your control. Some of the greatest players on the planet know that true success comes from doing your best but not being upset if you come up emptyhanded.

  3. Walk yourself through the worst-case scenario

    At the time the idea of missing out on a squad may seem like the worst nightmare imaginable but that’s because you’ve only thought about that experience then and there.

    A great exercise for players is to write down:

    a) What would the next week, month and year of my life look like if I’m not selected

    b)  What would the next week, month and year of my life look like if I’m selected

    This exercise shows you that your life isn’t going to change dramatically if you’re selected or not selected in a year from now, meaning that you’ve still got time to make changes. This is really powerful for players as it will give you a full view that missing one team isn’t the end of the world.  

As people and players material you’ve been given genetically, emotionally, intellectually and financially are all malleable. It’s a starting point. We do not control this. You now know that you do control the work you put in as Aaron is a testament to this.

Talent isn’t something you’re born with, it is something you work for. Everyone you’ve seen who has created success has grafted this from continual work and effort.

So what’s holding you back? The answer is nothing. Your success depends on how much effort you want to put in. It’s not appealing, but it’s comforting to know that you are in control of your own life and your own effort. It’s the amount of work you put in on and off the pitch that decides the outcome.

Lastly, if you want to use the program that was developed with Aaron Smith you can view on the on-field passing program here

But more importantly, get out there and outwork and outlearn. 

P.S If you haven't seen our deep dive with All Black fullback Ben Smith check the article out here.

Peter Breen