I’ve been listening to a wonderful podcast for a few months now called The Perception & Action Podcast, hosted by Professor Rob Gray from Arizona State University. His informative episodes cover a range of topics on human movement and psychology in sport. Often, the episodes consist of him relaying information or examining new research, and I must commend him that he generally does so in language that is accessible to non-academics. Occasionally, he has interviews with other academics and sports science practitioners. His most recent interview, with ASU colleague Nancy Cooke, had me scribbling notes and going back to re-listen to important concepts more than usual. She talks about working with the US military to enhance the effectiveness of their drone teams. Their discussion especially hit home because of my coaching practice and my work life – I currently work in a military museum, and I’ve become very interested in military training and leadership. I’m going to outline some of my thoughts on how Cooke’s statements relate to my beliefs about creating an effective sporting environment, but check out the interview first: perceptionaction.com/22a/
The first concept that jumped out at me was “the rhythm of information sharing”. I’m still learning about Dynamical Systems Theory, but it makes sense to me to consider a rugby team – especially, given how many players we have and the different roles within the team – as a dynamic, complex system. Within that context, athletes have a variety of skills, knowledge, and perspectives – both fixed perspectives about how the game is played and ones which emerge within the game. To me, a “rhythm of information sharing” is absolutely vital, and the more fluid it is, the more effective your team will be. Cooke talks about members of a team having different knowledge that everyone needs to know. Typically, in a rugby team, we have a top-down communication pathway from the fly half and/or scrum half to the rest of the team. I see this even at the pro level: players in position to take advantage of an overlap are obviously not saying anything about it as one of the halfbacks directs play in the other area. Rugby players do often get caught looking inward at the ruck without considering what’s in front of them and those who do don’t communicate it or don’t do so early enough (I won’t talk too much about anticipation and recognition in this piece, but have before and will again so stay tuned!).
Cooke talks about an effective rhythm as having a push-pull nature in a timely manner. The big questions asked are:
- Who has what information that I need?
- What information do I have that others need?
- When is that (information) best passed?
From a life-and-death critical military perspective, this is quite understandable. And while I’m not a coach who treats the game as a win-at-all costs battle, I do love to see a team ‘clicking’ and functioning effectively and efficiently. If ALL of our athletes use these questions as part of how they see the field and interact with their team mates, they will be a more effective functioning unit rather than a group of individuals who are maybe (at best!) working toward the common goal of scoring, but in a random, inefficient manner. While I do think that the halfbacks should have control over how play is directed, information fed to them by team mates who aren’t under as much pressure and who have scanned / assessed their field of vision can only enhance and speed up their ability to make the best decision. When Jonny Wilkinson retired, he humbly admitted that he played his best when he had centres Will Greenwood and Mike Catt feeding him information. Sometimes our amateur athletes won’t have made the best assessment, or the situation may have changed suddenly, but giving an idea of the unfolding play outside of a decision-maker’s field of vision is better than leaving them in the dark to scan/assess on their own in a split second when they get the ball.
I can’t emphasise strongly enough that this sort of thing should not be left until game day. Athletes have to train for this in realistic conditions so they can become familiar with patterns and communicate information accurately and in a timely manner. This is exactly what the military do to ensure both effective execution of their goals and to minimise risk to their lives. I’m no expert in military training, but a few books on modern operations have told me that rehearsal in a realistic and high pressure environment helps soldiers not just become confident in executing their mission, but also allows them to deal with mistakes and unexpected occurrences. I’ve often heard soldiers say “We go back to our training” when a crisis occurs. It makes sense when you consider that they’ve been doing that thing countless times, both the orthodox way and with sudden changes thrown at them, in a training environment that looks and feels the same as the operational one. How often do we do that at rugby practice? A series of boxed drills does not replicate the multiple variables that unfold as a result of the flow of the game and the actions of 30 dynamic individuals. I’m glad our sporting world isn’t as dangerous and critical as it is for the life of a soldier, but I think in the quest to see athletes having fun and playing together as an effective unit, there are some lessons that can be learned from the military’s methodology.
Cooke calls the roadblocks or unexpected changes imposed upon people “perturbations” and they insert them into the training environment so teams can work on their adaptability and resilience. They can develop plans and solutions for those perturbations in case they appear in the operational environment. The more you work on them, the more the ‘unpredictable’ becomes ‘predictable’, or at the very worst ‘adaptable’ with confidence and efficiency. Rugby players typically ‘truck it up’, running straight into contact or kick the ball away when the unexpected happens. Especially in our amateur environment, there are usually alternatives that can still allow us to reestablish the aims of going forward, with support and continuity, re-directing pressure on our opponents elsewhere. In addition to practicing and analysing problems in a realistic environment, rugby players need to make sure they are aware of who contributes what to the variety of ‘solutions’ to ‘problems’ we can experience. Cooke also notes, building on the rhythm of information sharing, that it’s important to know who does what in a team, I think there’s an implication there that trust is vital in a crisis, that the parts can either come together quickly to solve the problem with their various areas of expertise OR work somewhat independently to deal with smaller elements that need immediate seeing-to, reestablishing a flow once those fires are put out.
Here’s an example. Scrum half has got hit while carrying the ball and while we’ve maintained possession post-tackle contest, he’s trapped at the bottom of a ruck…
Typical reaction: Too often, I’ll see the fly half direct forwards to do a pick and go and even when the scrum half pops up after that first attempt, they’ll have a few more that don’t really go anywhere and then they’ll spin in wide without having really disrupted the defence. They’ve had a very simplistic pattern of play – forwards, forwards, backs – without a real purpose or consideration of what’s going on in front.
Did the defence swarm to the ruck seeing that the scrum half might have turned the ball over? Did defending forwards converge on that ruck expecting the typical pick-and-go scenario? Where were our forwards at the time? Or the backs? Where there apparent gaps in the defence somewhere else? Who else could move the ball from that breakdown, and onward to the area of opportunity? What sort of sequence of actions could get us back on the front foot based on our strengths?
Intelligent Reactions: If trained for situations like this, players might recognise that the defending forwards did clump around the ruck. A particularly skilled forward (can’t stress enough training ALL athletes to have a full range of skills) could pass the ball out the fly half, or a blindside winger could come in and do it, or the fly half could and a full back could step into the fly half role… or maybe the forwards could play a short, dynamic play to expose the weak side and drag defenders away from the open side, where other team mates would be setting up for the next determined phase rather than holding their previous positions still holding onto the same move they had in mind a few phases before, though the situation has changed.
Listening to Prof Gray’s podcast, and other readings I’ve done from sport science, has taught me that teams are dynamic systems with many interdependent parts. To train athletes outside of realistic contexts in ways that only creates robots rather than thinking, feeling, analysing, communicating organic creatures who can interact and become efficient in, first, the simulated and then actual playing environment just doesn’t make sense to me. As Prof Gray often says in his podcast, let this be a “call to action”!