June is a great month for rugby, with the Northern Hemisphere big-wigs on tour and most other nations taking part in international matches. With our season over, I’ve had a lot of free time to watch plenty of these encounters. The football World Cup is also in full swing and watching both has reminded me of a phrase that gets tossed about a lot by players and coaches in both codes: “We’ve just got to do the basics well.” Often, this refers to passing and in both sports I’ve been both impressed and disappointed by the quality of passing on show.
I won’t talk too much about football, but will say that even the masters of the simple short passing game – the Spanish – looked ‘casual’ at times, as have many other nations, giving up the ball in crucial situations due to lack of focus. I don’t know football as well as I do rugby, but I wonder if an expert would say that the passing there could be more accurate? I know this is certainly the case for rugby, with many passes going straight to the receiver – or worse, toward the head, shoulder, hip or any other spot that isn’t quite ideal. “Straight to the receiver?” you ask. “Isn’t that what I want?” No, not necessarily. If the receiver is static – waiting to kick the ball or maybe standing flat to make an immediate transfer, a pass directly to the receiver’s hands is probably ideal. The rest of the time, however, the passer needs to aim for a spot that’s in front of the receiver’s hands.
I shouldn’t even have to mention that receivers should always have hands out where they want the ball, yet often see ‘receivers’ not giving a target, practically ‘asking’ the passer to put the ball anywhere from above the head to knees. I’d love to commission a study on it, but am willing to bet that pass accuracy increases when hands are up and stretched out to meet the ball. I also think passers have to focus not so much on the receiver, but keep him/her in the peripheral and really focus on a spot just in front of the outstretched hands. In the photo below, I’d be willing to bet that one or the other hasn’t happened – either the receivers hands were down before the ball was passed or the passer didn’t focus on putting the ball in front so the receiver’s had to adjust. Either way, he’s taking this ball low and has probably had to slow down to catch it. Neither are ideal where the aim should be either to keep moving forward at pace or transfer the ball quickly.
In “getting the basics right”, one can focus on passing quality in training by reminding players to have their hands up and for passers to put the ball in front of the hands, leading the receiver. I think that a pass that’s a tad ‘too far’ in front encourages the receiver to run faster onto a ball. I’ve seen players take such passes and rip through defences either because they sped through a gap or were able to catch and act so quickly that defenders didn’t have time to adjust. Conversely, the body language of someone who’s been given a bad pass tends to do the opposite, empowering defenders to pounce upon the vulnerable receiver who’s lost the initiative. Here is a pass where the receiver’s hands are up and the ball appears to be sufficiently in front such that he won’t have to slow down. I like a pass to be just about shoulder height, making sure I can receive the pass at a level where I can still keep the opposition in my field of view.
Here’s another photo showing how a well-timed pass makes the play possible. If the ball is being aimed at the outer receiver, it’s going for his shoulder and he’s going to get caught in contact. Instead, it’s a hanging pop pass for the inside receiver who is able to run onto the ball and slide behind the defender on the left side of the picture (for a try, if memory serves!).
Too often, I feel, coaches focus on players’ “accuracy” but not specifically enough on “quality” (i.e. happy if they catch, but not focused on where, exactly, the ball is aimed) in unopposed drills where the consequences of poor quality aren’t so apparent. If they’ve had to hop, reach down, reach back, or stutter step to receive a pass cleanly, this isn’t as accurate as the pass should be. This “accuracy” is immediately reduced when pressure is on and a receiver’s ability to act is reduced as a result of a less-than-ideal pass, so why not spend more time practicing passing under game-like pressure situations?
These can be small-sided, challenging games where as many reps can be achieved but require athletes to focus and be accurate or fail. One that I often use requires four groups of players to cross a reasonably-sized square at the same time, completing a full set of passes before reaching the other side of the square. Each group takes up a side and leaves at about the same time, crisscrossing continuously for set amount of time. The pressure of avoiding a collision or holding/making a pass amongst traffic not only increases focus, but I’ve found also increases accuracy. It sounds silly to say – and maybe it speaks more to how my guys prefer a challenge – but I’ve seen greater accuracy in this sort of game than when players do unopposed passing lines jogging down the length of the pitch. One of the club’s junior coaches has started using it and marvels at how well his boys perform, wanting to keep going beyond the set time, determined not to drop a ball.
As with all of my exercises, I outline the criteria for success at the onset and don’t harp on mistakes. Players should know what to focus on and my voice celebrates their specific successes, allowing players to fine-tune their movement memory: “Perfect follow-through, Matt! Hands pointed to the space in front of Joe’s hands. Well done!” I avoid negative and unspecific comments, and only add technical advice when it’s obvious they’re missing something: “Turn your shoulders, Matt. Square to the target.” Instead of fussing over how ‘perfect’ a pass looks, I’m instead mostly focused on the quality of the pass – in front of the hands, quickly transferred with no hang time or arc (i.e. quickest possible path), and well-timed such that defenders haven’t time to adjust.
I think I’m justified in not worrying about how tight a spiral is or a push pass floating without a wobble when I watch the All Blacks. They’re the heralded masters of passing in rugby, showing time and time again over this undefeated year-and-a-half they’ve enjoyed that a well placed pass is all that’s needed to be successful. In their most recent game against England, you wouldn’t call many of these ‘perfect’ technique, but all (apart from the ‘bounce pass’ to Savea) were well timed and well-placed, putting the receiver either in an ideal spot to move it on or to ensure he could maintain his pace toward the try line.
When scoring is the ultimate goal, and especially for junior players who are still developing, let’s focus more on the outcome and not get too nit-picky about supposed “ideal” details that might only frustrate or confuse players as they’re coming to terms with skill acquisition.