`Doc' Thornbery By Martin Offiah

23rd January 2015 at 00:00
The England rugby league icon's introduction to the sport was all fun and games, thanks to a man who taught him the value of enjoyment on the pitch

I was 11 years old when "Doc" Thornbery introduced me to rugby. Suffice it to say I owe him rather a lot - my career, essentially.

He taught me the game at Woolverstone Hall, a boarding school near Ipswich. I can't for the life of me remember why we called him Doc. Maybe he was actually a doctor of some sort, I'm not sure. What I do remember is that he was physically a small man but a huge character. So animated, you know? Eccentric.

He used his whole body in grand gestures as he spoke. They were his trademark, part of what made him such an engaging man. And he was so funny. Humour puts people at ease and he used that to his advantage.

He was the sort of PE teacher who never made us play to win, but rather to do our best. Again, that made it fun. Even in the bitter cold, we all wanted to play.

I can't stress enough how important fun is in sport. Mr Thornbery would even get us to pray to the gods of rugby at times, which would really raise a chuckle.

He wasn't concerned with the technical aspects of the sport, he was more keen on teaching us the culture of rugby - about it being a team game, about being selfless. I coach my son's team now and I'm passing on many of the things Doc Thornbery taught me. I try to connect with the kids and be animated and interested, and that's exactly how he was. When I teach rugby I want the team to improve, of course, but having fun is more important. If you don't, you won't get better; it's that simple. That's a concept that's been carbon-copied from Doc Thornbery's classes. I buy into that entirely.

I don't think he was particularly adept at playing rugby, but you don't have to be great at sport to be great at teaching it. Conversely, those who are brilliant players aren't necessarily the best teachers. And Mr Thornbery was the best person to teach boys of that age, at that level. He was clear, precise, simple and fun.

He had a sharp tongue when he needed it, but if you overstepped the mark, a point of the finger and some eye contact was all he really needed. Respect did the rest. Bear in mind this was in a boarding school where punishments were still rather archaic. You'd get slippered - I was caned once - and that was far from a pleasurable experience.

I have fond memories of Woolverstone Hall, on the whole, but I wouldn't send my boy to a boarding school. There was an unavoidable disconnect between me and my parents because I went there, but without the school and Mr Thornbery I wouldn't have discovered rugby.

One last thing I'd like to say about him is that he taught me to be respectful. He taught us all life lessons, the sort of lessons I try to teach to bullies in my work with Balls to Bullying. When it comes to bullying, the emphasis is usually on the person who's being bullied, quite rightly, but we should always remember that the bully needs guidance too.

Martin Offiah was speaking to Tom Cullen. He is an anti-bullying champion for Prospero Teaching's Balls to Bullying campaign. Visit prosperoteaching.com or follow @Balls2Bullying on Twitter

Behind the try line

Martin Offiah

Born 29 December 1966, London

Education Woolverstone Hall School, near Ipswich

Career Between 1987 and 2001 Offiah played on the wing for rugby league teams Widnes, Wigan, London Broncos and Salford City Reds. He also played for England and the Lions. Known as "Chariots" Offiah for his speed, he is rugby league's third-highest try scorer of all time, touching down 501 professional tries. In 1992 he attracted what was then the highest transfer fee in the history of the game


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