Feeds:
Posts
Comments

I was fortunate to hear from a friend that noted RFU coach educator Richard Shuttleworth was doing two sessions in Ontario this week and I was lucky enough to be within driving distance of Ottawa to see his lecture and talk with him afterwards. The following is from the notes I took on the night:

 

Foundations

Whichever style one adopts, having philosophical and theoretical (research-based) foundations help back your approach and, importantly, provide crucial answers to the question: Why?

 

New Zealand Approach

Enjoy

Innovate

Positive approach to change

Sharing information (best can’t get better unless opponents drive them to be better)

Use of technology

 

Top 6 Rugby Skills

Responsible

Self-Aware

Self-Organising

Adaptable (creative)

Decision-Makers

Pressure (resilience)

RFU CARDS approach (creativity, adaptability, resilience, decision-making, self-organisation)

 

Athlete-Centred, Free-to-Fail Environment

England development players (U18 / U20) allowed to make decisions on a ‘feeling’ in a given moment. Not random, but based on knowledge of their strengths and how things are going in that moment (real information provided by teammates and opponents).

No wrong decisions. Good ones and poor ones.

Working out why is part of learning. Want athletes to reach a state of ‘safe uncertainty’ – free to work out own solutions without coach imposing (safe certainty), creating stress (unsafe certainty), or not having a clue (unsafe uncertainty). Athletes who can adapt are more resilient to pressure, especially in a free-flowing game like rugby where coaches are far away from the action.

 

Adaptability

Explore – Discover – Adapt (= learning)

… Australian medal winners tend to be younger, because they’ve recently come from this explore/discover/adapt process. Older and former medal winners less likely when they have abandoned the explore/discover process either because they were happy with what made them successful before or because they’ve over-analysed their perceived strengths / weaknesses without properly adapting to new realities / possibilities.

Moving away from old Information Processing model (human as computer – using memory and analytical skills to apply known solutions to recognised problems), which focused on closed and open drills. Now exploring Dynamical Systems Theory and Ecological Dynamics (interactions of athletes based on information of their playing space), which relies more on guided discovery, static and dynamic activities.

Give athletes a toolbox and a problem to solve. Typically, they are given one tool and told to do a specific job a specific way (though Bernstein’s “repetition but not repetition” research proved we never do things the same way twice). The dangers of repeating a process without exploring a variety of tools and solutions stifles creativity, ambition, possible better solutions (especially as we’re all likely to have different solutions or at least different approaches to the ‘ideal’).

At Training: Give the desired outcome, challenge athletes to self-organize and explore / discover adaptable solutions relative to pertinent information provided by the activity. Requires the coach to have a sound understanding of the game’s demands, designing realistic constraints to encourage exploration – not force one. (This is related to Gibson’s notion of affordances – invitations to action provided by everything within the space. Perception drives action.)

In Games: Recognise what opponents want to do and take it away from them (within the laws of the game, of course). Deny them comfortability and where do they go from there? On the other side of the ball, unpredictability in attack causes opponents to be unstable, never settled and completely reactionary (i.e. impossible to deny what we want when it’s impossible to predict what we’re going to do; always reacting to and chasing the game).

Adaptive Game – want to live in the ‘Interactive Zone’. At other ends of spectrum are ‘Pre- Planned’ and ‘Re-Active’ zones. Best decision makers are in the middle and can tap into / adapt to polar ends to get themselves back into the dynamic interactive zone.

 

Feedback

Peer feedback is powerful – helps provide recipient with relevant information, does the work of as many coaches (coach will have helped them understand what’s important beforehand), reinforces knowledge within recipient AND deliverer.

Bandwidth Feedback – determine (best if players provide input) what is the acceptable bandwidth zone for success and error. No need for coach to intervene in this range because athletes know why errors are occurring and can self-analyse/organise. When stray outside of acceptable range, coach intervenes, but not too much as players will associate coach’s voice with negativity (coach can balance by providing short and simple feedback within bandwidth – celebrate, reinforce, one word reminders: “Jonny. Height?” “Right, coach! Will get lower.”). Use of questioning outside of the bandwidth is better than providing solutions (not to mention screaming negative comments!) because they are allowed to own the learning process, which allows them to understand ‘why’ rather than just ‘do as I say’. (Huge factor in Canada! Do they understand the principles of play and subtle nuances, or are most just robots bashing into the wall and occasionally getting through/around it by chance?)

An image of achievement both motivates and informs. So very important that our players (especially Canadians!) know what ‘good’ looks like, either through personal experience or by watching ‘the best’ do it. There is a danger in watching too much pro rugby, though … their game isn’t our game. We can create novel solutions on our own based on who we have, their abilities, and how they’d like to play.

 

Interesting Asides and Reflections:

(his information in bold, my reflections in normal text)

A heat map of NZ teams’ actions does not show highly concentrated data – that is, their actions are relative to information provided by opponents and not as much to a specific pattern of play. This is helped not only by top teams allowing this approach, but developed over years by culture of the sport in NZ (lots of free play, mixture of ages, touch’s popularity, skills for all, multi-sport… allowing this to flourish as they get older even in 1st XV sides).

“Rugby is an evasion sport not an invasion sport.” (…whereby ‘invading’ is the direct, attritional approach.) ‘Win the collision’ has ruined the game, in my opinion, leading to predictable, one-dimensional attacks. Arguably, not as safe either!

Academies in Scotland talk and share; English ones do not. Academies and rep sides have to pull together various different approaches – for us, in a short period of time – simple approach, based on principles of play, is easiest. Key, therefore, that people coming into the system have solid foundational knowledge. Broad, quality coach education is vital to provide disparate programs with this foundational information.

‘Skills Coaches’ make their money from being drill sergeants. There is no ‘right’ way of executing a technique or performing a skill. Avoid giving terms to an action as it encourages athletes to believe there is just one ‘ideal’ way. Rugby is often jargon heavy with the fundamental meaning of the action being lost (immediately or over time… ‘linespeed’ is a great example. Fast? How fast? Everyone at same speed? Not everyone runs at the same speed? What about a clever shooter like Owen Farrell?) Added danger here is that they might see that as the only solution to that problem, blocking them from exploring ones that might better suit them and/or playing conservatively because that’s all they know / feel they’re allowed. Provide, instead, outcomes and principles that athletes can simply do and adapt solutions to (Ex. Defence should aim to stop behind gain line and deny spaces to run into, pressuring them to turnover possession… regardless of ‘linespeed’.  With passing, should be in front of hands and delivered quickest route possible … how it’s done isn’t important if those are achieved).

England forwards seeing ‘winning penalties’ as a measure of a successful scrum. Kiwi thought tries scored from scrums would be a better measure, based on their culture.

England U20’s unplanned hotel space – informal / formal spaces, players made formal less-formal and thus more comfortable and open to interactions. Where can we create this space where we don’t have fancy facilities? What do they need to facilitate openness, interaction, collaboration?

Opponent as ‘decision-maker’. The information they offer provides the decision. Good decision makers are comfortable making late decisions, reading the information provided and picking the optimal solution; late means fewer options for opponent (can’t predict and proactively act, only react…if it’s not already too late!). Rather than doing the 2v1, play even numbers and make athletes EARN the 2v1 within it.

There’s a danger in treating the weekly match like an ‘exam’ where everyone’s actions are under the microscope. Leads to unnecessarily high pressure and conservatism and it’s not fair, especially on younger athletes. Should use training to explore, discover and adapt – free from pressure so individuals can extend their boundaries but the game – but game provides the added pressure and uncertainty that is beyond what can be created in training (typically, though England claim to be going beyond to make game days easier than training … seemed to work, but is it now???).

A curriculum / concepts shared for the betterment of the game. Example: Scotland have encouraged a 2-second ruck to speed up play. Probably works for their culture and smaller athletes. What socio-cultural aspects can we tap into? Multi-sport is our untapped strength. New Zealand way is apparent. Belgium football have imposed the 4-3-3 to create more well-rounded, tactically aware players.

Advertisements

Wildcard Touch Game

I’ve been exploring more game-based approaches to coaching the last few years and have shared the ones that have worked well here: rugbyguide.ca 

Inspired by some clever coaches in a network I belong to who use dice and cards to randomise certain aspects of a game, I have come up with one of my own. For the lack of a better term at the moment, I’m calling it ‘Wildcard Touch’.

Two teams square off in a reasonably large playing space (width representative of their game day conditions and the players on-hand, ensuring they can play without defensive pressure being too great). If a ball carrier is caught in possession as per normal Touch rules (or with flags or with a wrap-up, as preferred), the player must set the ball down immediately and the entire team retreats 5m. These turnovers result in a free kick to the opposition. The main object is to find space and not be caught in possession. What we want in this game is players continually looking for and communicating opportunities and doing their best to run, pass to, support those opportunities. We don’t want them blindly taking contact and sitting back watching team mates go solo, hence the tag = turnover rule.

However, each team will have an option that will allow them to explore the conditions in which the tactic might or might not be effective. Before the start of the game, they will pick a card / roll the die and be allowed to use that condition any time they are faced with the automatic turnover scenario. These can be redrawn / rolled after each try scored or kept in place for a significant period of time.

  1. Normal conditions! Sorry, but all you can do is pass, run, support. If you get caught by a two-handed touch, you turn over possession.
  2. Limited Rucks. Ball carrier two-hand tagged by defender goes to ground and long-places the ball. Attacking team can do this three times; fourth time results in a turnover as per normal conditions. (Expansion: ‘four-handed touch’, that is two defenders tagging at the same time, equals automatic turnover… look to take defenders 1v1 and not get caught in potential jackal situations.)
  3. Standing Offload. When tagged, defender has one step / one second to make an offload. It can be a short pass, but can also be thrown or rolled backwards (as sometimes seen in 7s) to explore if / when it’s a useful option. If two defenders tag at the same time, an automatic turnover occurs because an offload is less likely for most players in a double tackle. (Expansion: One player gets nominated a ‘Sonny Bill’ who is allowed to make offloads from double-tag scenarios.)
  4. Maul. Without going too crazy on the force applied to the opposition, this one explores the rarely-used midfield maul from yesteryear. When the ball carrier is tagged, he/she can create a maul with one or two teammates and drive for five steps. They can use the ball at any time during, but MUST use it after five steps. Defenders can stop the maul sooner if they put three players into it (defenders can opt to only commit one defender but he/she MUST NOT pull it down). (Expansion: A defender may come through the middle to rip the ball or prevent it from emerging if done so legally, i.e. with a ‘choke tackle’ wrap up of player and ball.)
  5. Kick. Any kind of kick is allowed and players may continue kicking the ball along the ground to score or re-gather. If re-gathered, that player must find a team mate with a pass / kick. If the player who re-gathers is tagged, a turnover occurs. If the receiver or any other attacking player is tagged, they can restart and repeat the same as in the Ruck condition (three tags, turned over on the fourth). If a defender recovers the kick, regardless of what condition they are playing under, they get a ‘Free Tag’ to restart play. (Expansion: eliminate the defensive team ‘Free Tag’ to explore isolating defenders and the benefits of a good kick-chase.).
  6. Wildcard-Wild Card. …. your choice!

The UK-based coaches who’ve inspired this game give their conditions names of players or teams that typify the style, adding to the fun of it (but it’s not likely my Canadian kids will know them as well as English kids so I haven’t done so above).

You can add more conditions, but I think the main objective of the game still has to be ‘find space’ and, when you’re facing a tackle situation, be deliberate about the option taken to avoid the potential loss of continuity and possession. For example, I originally allowed six rucks in Condition 2, but scaled that back to three to add pressure and discourage blind crashes that amount to nothing. For the kicking condition, I added the one pass element because in a real game, a player who regathers a kick and is caught without support is more likely to turn over the ball and shouldn’t get a free phase out of it. I would also avoid negative constraints or arbitrary elements that aren’t representative (like two passes before scoring a try). Conditions and constraints must serve as a means to explore options rather than punish or discourage from doing the obvious… Why should you have to pass to a teammate when you’ve a clear run to the goal line? Using that two-pass condition as a further example of ‘rules’ that can be arbitrary, it’s often that two players standing side-by-side will do an unnecessary pass they’d never do in a real game to meet the condition, gaming the coach’s true intention.

Games like this are also a great opportunity to have the athletes come up with their own ideas and develop self-organising skills through the process and by exploring options as they see fit rather than have the coach dictate conditions to them.

Having been interested in military history since I was a boy, I suppose my view of training in ye olden times has been skewed by films portraying the leader that barks orders, treats the men harshly and simply demands they be better after breaking them down and drilling them hard. Several years ago, I worked for a naval museum and was for the first time exposed to actual training manuals from the World Wars. Generally speaking, I was shocked by the standards, methods and beliefs professed in these manuals. Contained in them are way more ‘modern’ positive and constructive approaches to instruction than I thought I’d see!

Below I will share some wonderful passages from a guide for British military instructors from just before the start of the Second World War. I am sure there was still the barking that we see in films like “The Hill”, but the expectations for military instructors as outlined in this book could easily find themselves in progressive, athlete-centred coaching manuals today. And, even better than today’s coaching books that drudge on and on, it’s a 16-page book that can be accessed for free!

From: Creedy, HJ. Notes for Instructors on the Principles of Instruction. The War Office. 30 June, 1939.

Learner-centred instruction in 1939? I didn’t learn this concept until maybe 5 or more years into my coaching journey!

“A successful instructor should know not only his job as a soldier, but something of the ways in which the minds and bodies of recruits work and of the most effective and economical way of learning and teaching.” (4)

“[The recruit] will learn a great deal of what is required indirectly without any special instruction. Consciously and unconsciously, by imitation of those around him, he will pick up many of the traditions, customs and ideals of the service which he has entered.” (4) I know someone who played for one of the most successful schools in Ontario who felt their success wasn’t so much due to coaching as it was peer learning and emulating the senior players who were also their mentors.

“Instruction is most effective when the will to learn is present, and this comes when the recruit is interested in the work at hand. It should therefore be the object of the instructor to seek out methods whereby he can stimulate and maintain the interest of the recruits. Among the many ways of doing this are such aids as variations in the work, avoidance of over-fatigue, grading of work to suit the stage reached by the recruit, and the exhibition of an enthusiastic interest in the work in hand by the instructor himself. Enthusiasm is infectious…” (5)   … taking on multiple roles, keeping things fresh, enthusiasm, excitement, having (not-silly) fun. Again, concepts only a few coaches now seem to adhere to.

 

The following immediately had me thinking about current buzz around “team culture”:

“Competition is very useful in maintaining interest. Individual competition should not be overdone lest it unduly depress the slower members of the squad. Collective competition is more valuable in obtaining the co-operation and interest of individual members, and in leading to a healthy pride in their unit.” (6)

 

There’s been a big push the last few years to use effective questioning to stimulate thought and value athletes’ opinions, getting them to understand concepts more deeply. Meaningful feedback and looking after ‘slower learners’ as much as the quicker ones is also covered. I was surprised to see the following in any military manual from any era:

“Interest may also be stimulated by appeals to the recruit’s intelligence.” (6)

“Questions will help the instructor to see whether his explanations have been appreciated. These should be economically worded, free from ambiguity, to the point, and asked at the right time.” (6)

“Above all, the instructor should endeavour to understand the recruits’ point of view and to follow the workings of their minds.” Avoid sarcasm. Use sympathy and understanding. “Sympathy in this sense does not involve ‘softness’, but rather the ability to develop in the recruits an attitude of confidence in their instructor…” (7)

“Continual failure depresses and the learner tends to lose heart. Instructors, therefore, should commend good work, not only on the part of the quicker recruits, but also when some improvement is shown by the slower learners… … the instructor should reserve serious reproach for those efforts which are accompanied by slackness or carelessness.” (7)

 

Though there is an instructor-led, step-by-step model described in the manual, I felt the choice of words here strongly suggests that the learner is also (if not largely) responsible for recognising incorrect habits:

“Sometimes movements which are not particularly helpful become incorporated into the system and, if they are not detected at an early stage and corrected by the learner, they may never be completely eliminated.” (9)

Between pages 10 and 11, it puts forth a learning model that those who subscribe to the ecological, perception-action, constraints models will disagree with. But this is true of all models: “The recruit learns much more by doing than by listening… [i]nstructors should therefore rely more on practical work and the recruits’ responses than on verbal exposition.” (11)

 

Non-linear learning??? I don’t think I even learned this in my teacher training in 2001!

“Instructors are warned that progress in learning acts of skill is not necessarily a steady and continuous business. There are often arrests and even setbacks in development.” (11)

“It must also be remembered that individual recruits will vary in their rates of progress… [i]t is the instructor’s task to get from every man the utmost efficiency of which he is individually capable.” (12)

“[The instructor] … should also have a clear idea of the method to be used in teaching these movements, and of the difficulties likely to be encountered by the learners. He must be prepared to adapt his methods to the particular squad that his teaching according to their varying natural abilities. All this will require much thoughtful preparation before the actual drill period.” (13)

 

Those of us who have jumped on the Constraints-Led Approach and Perception-Action Coupling bandwagons will appreciate the following:

“The drill activity should be carried on… with as realistic a basis as possible, in order to stimulate keenness and maintain interest… the recruit then gets the ‘feel’ of the real thing and the whole movement is practiced and consolidated in the form in which it will ultimately be used.” (13-14)

 

This was part of another instructor-led section, but as with the ‘learner responsibility’ element mentioned earlier, this bit on efficiency in delivery also suggests that the instructor needs to be specific, let the learners get on with it, and inspire them into understanding the concepts deeply themselves:

“[T]he instructor should watch the effects of his work on all the listeners, as the success of his teaching is to be measured by their reactions. His words should set them thinking, gathering new ideas, sorting them out and anticipating what is coming. He must know his subject thoroughly, be able to select the important points and present them effectively with the minimum of words.” (15)

“Successful instruction is mainly a result of mastery over one’s job, knowledge of the effective methods of teaching, understanding of the workings of recruits’ minds and of their abilities and limitations, and, perhaps what is most important of all, enthusiasm for the work.” (15-16)

“It is the individual recruit who is the ultimate teaching unit and who must be stimulated to make the required efforts on his own behalf which will lead him to become an efficient soldier.” (16)

As I dig through the podcasts I feel are worth sharing, with my reflections on moments that impacted me, the next on the list has some lessons that were recently promoted by an official sport governing body. The president of Hockey Canada has urged young kids (and their parents / coaches) to take a break from hockey this summer and do something else. It’s a powerful statement from my country’s most high profile sport and one where kids – not just teens on the cusp of the professional levels – are doing the ‘extras’ all year long in a quest to ‘make it’. I think other sports have already gone this route and rugby is just starting to, which is worrying to me.

In this interview, physical therapist Brett Fischer talks about the injuries were are now seeing in kids that were never before seen because they’re doing too much of the same thing. I also find it uplifting to hear that top draft picks are still multi-sport and that professional sports teams are not afraid to have fun and laugh. Some coaches run training like it’s a military boot camp (and in a future blog post, I’ll compile a bunch of statements I’ve found in old military manuals from half a century ago and more that suggests even back then things weren’t like a ‘military boot camp’ either!).

Below are my time-referenced notes on the podcast:

8:10 – 13:00…

If all sports played in water, would teach to swim correctly? Do we teach kids to run, jump, etc correctly now? Is this generation getting it in PE / recess because they certainly do not engage in free play as much because of how much screen time they have? In sport, tend to give them sport-specific skills younger and younger. Seeing surgeries that kids never got in the old days. (Any Given Monday book.) Not just parents wanting to push, but also fear they’re not keeping up is a significant driver.

13:10 – 18:00…

2017 NFL draft, 30 of 32 first rounders played multiple sports in high school [very similar numbers for 2018 draft]. 90% of the entire 7 round draft group played multiple sports. Ohio State selected 42 of 47 multi-sport athletes. Would be great to see more research around transferable skills, because it’s probably relevant. Even true that pros get time off and if not other sports due to contractual limitations, likely doing things like yoga, martial arts, etc to help movement. Brett sees kids who don’t even have three weeks off in their sport a year. Mental, social, movement benefits.

… in between …

Lots of great stuff about preparation for movement, physiotherapy, and educating parents …

35:30 – 36:35…

Helicopter parents and kids who don’t want to do the sport anymore or who are desperate for a break. For those who still have the goal, mixing it up and taking care of the body is best.

45:10…

“Back in my day …” … but back in the day, kids didn’t play the same sport year-round!

47:50 – 52:35…

How NFL players have fun, laugh in the game, etc compared to high schools taking it too seriously. Enjoying competition and having fun can co-exist; struggle isn’t always pleasurable and fun doesn’t mean being frivolous. Do things that kids like! Mini games can still be sport-relevant. Coach has to think about game design to get both.

 

Professional teams use systems, patterns and sequences, largely, because today’s defences tend to offer no easy attacking opportunities. Their well-drilled ‘basics’ and way the game is refereed tends to favour the attacking team, so they can get away with stringing together a couple dozen phases or more of smashing into the defensive line, patiently waiting for their opponents to make a defensive error or give away a penalty. (Frankly, I am increasingly getting bored with it.)

At the amateur level, however, defences are not so well drilled and on pretty much every phase there are opportunities to exploit. I also believe it’s up to those of us who work with kids and teens to foster their understanding of the game and to help them become skilfully adaptable. Even if they do not go any higher or do graduate into a coach-led, rigidly-structured system, the beauty of rugby – I think – is in how skilful players coordinate themselves to overcome the chaos of it. Amid this potential chaos, to provide the players with some guidance, I try and keep things simple and focus more on principles and guidelines, not rules. These help players follow a general course of action and suggests where to go in a given moment. Once that decision is made, they rely on their understanding of tactical elements (depth, width, angles, timing) and execute skilfully to create a linebreak or get beyond the gain line.

I have covered building an attacking strategy on the principles of play before, but have more recently developed some ideas on strategic guidelines as an alternative to rigid game plans, patterns, sequences and systems. The following are not rules players must follow, but options that allow them to discover workable solutions on their own, anticipating and acting upon their environment, and demonstrating or developing their adaptability through various skills. This is central to my coaching philosophy because I want the players I work with to be able to play successful and attractive rugby without me telling them what to do. I am happiest to hear when they go on to play for someone else and are just as aware, adaptable, and analytic as when I was working with them.

Strategic guidelines serve several purposes for any level of athlete:

  1. Provide focus and clarifies objectives
  2. Provide a limited number of options for a recognised scenario
  3. Provide a ‘fall back’ option under extreme pressure, when obvious options aren’t apparent

Generally speaking, I ask the players to consider the following, from a state whereby defenders are disorganised to one where they are more organised.

Strategic objectives when space is available:

  • Go Through (gaps between defenders)
  • Go Around (space out wide, or around the wall of defenders ahead of the rest)
  • Get Behind (by kicking, in between or behind those responsible for coverage)

Strategic objectives when space isn’t so apparent:

  • Shift the defence (move their concentration to one side, or establish a breakdown and beat them around the corner)
  • Drive them back (move back far enough that they have to reorganise, even better if they have to turn to get back onisde)
  • Chase and pressure (kick may go to waiting opponents, but the chase puts them under immense pressure, forcing them to return possession to us with defenders scattered or through a set piece)

Which path the players take is up to them based upon who they have and what they see in a given moment. Players that recognise opportunities must communicate this information to the decision makers quickly and clearly so they can consider / act upon it. It goes without saying that it’s vital for them to train under realistic conditions so they can recognise opportunities and test out solutions. It’s impossible to do this in drills and only randomly done in large, open games without constraints. Otherwise, you are treating game day as a training exercise.

When deciding upon which is the best, the most essential question is: Where is it easy to play? (i.e. Where are we most likely to achieve a linebreak with the least amount of effort / risk?)

Some specific questions for players to consider are:

Who are our best available strike weapons and are they in a good position at the moment? Is there a more efficient option to take right now that either buys them time or sets them up on a later phase?

Where is the space? Who is best placed to run into it? (Ball carrier to run into or is a pass to someone else better?) Where will the defence be by the time the ball gets there?

Where are there mismatches we can exploit? Quick player vs slow player? Big player vs smaller player? Have we discovered any consistently poor defenders / tacklers? Is someone well out of position and/or carrying an injury? (not to further injure that person, but someone carrying a limp and too prideful to sub off is going to be easy to run around)

A clear linebreak is an invitation for support to funnel through quickly and communicate with the ball carrier as to where continuity can be maintained.

Where clear opportunities for a linebreak do not exist, players can rely upon some universal aspects of rugby to re-establish a state of disorganisation where they are more likely to occur.

Shifting: If we move over there, they will follow us over there. If they are not there quick enough, we can beat them around the corner. If they do get there at about the same time, we might have dragged them away from and created space where we started.

Essential elements:

  • Considered width and speed / accuracy of passing to get it there (does not require a first receiver to be wide so long as the passes are accurate).
  • Quick and efficient recycle so next phase is starting while opposition are moving into place / just getting set.
  • A significant portion of your team ready to exploit the space available / created. If everyone flows to the action area and some have to withdraw and re-align themselves, this will give the opposition time to set up themselves.

Driving Back: Where defences are well-disciplined, we want to march them back and re-establish a scenario in which we can look for ‘easy’ opportunities. The more we move them back, the more disorganised they will be / the more time they will need to get organised. (Ideal: defenders turn and have to run back to get onside. Less efficient: If they only have to take a step back and shuffle. Not ideal: They are making tackles behind the gain line.)

Essential elements:

  • Running onto the pass to catch defenders on / close to the offside line and having momentum to change direction suddenly / power step / power into opposition.
  • Close support to bind on and drive through contact / receive offload / clear out ruck.
  • Quick recycle and transfer of the ball, hopefully to exploit a disorganised state, or to continue building momentum as per the previous phase.

While catching up on a bunch of recent episodes from the Perception & Action Podcast, I thought I might compile some of my thoughts on them as they relate to how we design effective training sessions.

The first of these focused on the rate of change in an athlete’s performance due to practice. Ep. 84 – Time Scales in Motor Learning

1:58 … We learn things at different rates and we do not learn at a consistent rate, experiencing periods of stagnation and even regression, with occasional lurches back to the norm or beyond. Some also progress faster than others. I think it’s important for coaches to be aware of this and help athletes not to get discouraged if things aren’t improving as quick as one would hope or if there are moments where they seem to go backwards. It’s all part of a normal learning process.

6:55 … “Warm-Up Decrement” is the time it takes someone to get back to an already-achieved level of performance when revisiting a known task. It’s probably not due to loss of ability, but in not being adequately prepared for the task at hand. So, it’s important that athletes be appropriately aroused for the task, focused on the right learning objectives and to have realistic expectations for the task’s procedure and possible outcomes. If a coach throws athletes into an activity with no mental preparation, they will waste time just figuring out what they’re supposed to do.

8:45 … When we over-do an activity, we will see a decline in performance over time. The phenomenon of “reminiscence” is when we see a return to a normal level of performance when returning to it after a period of rest. Fatigue certainly is a factor, but people can improve upon previous ‘best’ after re-starting the task later. This is common among rugby kickers who do well for the first few, dip in quality even after just a few, but then return to kicking well after doing another task in between. (Dave Alred seems to only let his kickers and golfers do just a few in a row before they have to do something else, and then return to a short set of shots, etc. etc.). So why do we improve?

Prof. Gray: “When we start with a different set of initial conditions, it encourages a performer to take a different route through perceptual motor space to find the appropriate movement solution. When we keep the conditions the same, the performer will settle at a locally optimal solution that it may be difficult to get out of.”  (11:39)

11:58 … This is why athlete-centred coaching is so effective. We consider each as a unique individual with specific needs and that relishes a new challenge. It’s breathing air into a fire to stoke the flames rather than adding yet another log onto one that’s down to just coals. It may keep going at the same rate doing so, but it’ll never grow without stirring it up and allowing it to breathe.

I think it’s important to consider this when warming up for a training session. Is doing the same old thing really sparking athletes for the challenges and learning to come? Without a doubt, it’s important for athletes to get loose and get the blood flowing, but this can be done in countless different ways. I give credit to the last team I coached on this: they were okay with spending 10 minutes at the start of every session doing some kind of fun game – even kids games! – that had them moving in many directions at a high tempo. I can’t think that anyone ever pulled a muscle and it really sold me that the traditional dynamic warm-up wasn’t completely necessary.

This podcast also highlighted how a varied approach better prepares the brain for optimal learning.

 

Ashley Merryman’s chat with Jeremy Boone on his Coach Your Best podcast back in 2014 was especially insightful to me when I first heard it because I was coaching women at the time. What she found in the research on coaching men vs women and other issues is well worth listening to. My favourite points occur at the time spots noted below…

Ashley Merryman 1 – Coach Your Best Podcast

7:35 Playing to win versus playing ‘not to lose’. Focused on doing the things needed to be successful versus doing things to avoid failure. Ambition versus conservatism.

12:00 – 18:50 Challenge State versus Threat State. Something you think you can be successful at compared to something you’re doubtful of. Both have physiological manifestations… blood vessels expand, blood pressure low oxygen travels better, stored glucose burned better in Challenge State. Blood vessels shrink, glucose in blood stream burned, lungs tighten in Threat State. Cortisol is produced under stress and peaks about 20 minutes after the event. Difficult to recover from, and need to be mindful how one might be able to calm self out of the stressful event. Might be possible to frame a potential stressor better from the onset, taking on the challenge rather than fall into a threat state.

Ashley Merryman 2 – Coach Your Best Podcast

3:35 – 5:10 Positive Thinking. An absolute positive outlook can prevent someone from dealing with problems when they arise. Must be able to think of possible roadblocks and strategies to overcome them. This is a key element in personal and team goal setting.

14:18 – 17:54 Testosterone = aggression is not true. Hormone of motivation, social status. Depends on the value(s) needed for the situation. Could be aggression if that’s what’s called for, but could also be cooperative if that’s the ideal demand. Firefighters and Paramedics both would show high testosterone for rushing into a burning building and calmly dealing with injured people.

20:25 – 24:38 Testosterone boosts prior to challenge / competition can help preparedness, realising and preparing for the Challenge State. Ties into clarity, purpose, focus. Social status seems to reduce – not wanting to defeat friends, for example.

Ashley Merryman 3 – Coach Your Best Podcast

2:25 – 4:28 Generic praise can lead to under-achieving (Carol Dweck’s research). Works until kids experience failure, basing their ability on ‘innate skill’. ‘Other people need to practice, not me.’ Realisation of truth can be really hurtful. ‘So I’m NOT that good???’

9:20 – 12:30 Kids are good at understanding false praise. Best to encourage – not the same as praise – and ask how we can help. Danger of false praise is that genuine critical feedback can be ignored as much as the well-meant lie. Also not an invitation to be hurtful and unnecessarily critical.

14:45 – 18:20 Trophies are a part of empty / false praise. Novices should not be given trophies. Every contest is a competition to the participants and they do not need a physical representative of it in the form of a trophy / medals / etc. for the win. Performance / achievement related to the challenge is more important.

22:10 – 22:37 Elite athletes care more about getting better. Specific feedback is desired, and might want criticism more because they already know what they are good at and want information that will help them get better.

24:48 – 26:16 No need to praise someone who’s in the zone. Can even throw them off with focus being diverted to the person delivering praise.

28:12 – 28:50 Give athletes the ability to decide themselves what’s important before the season begins.

Ashley Merryman 4 – Coach Your Best Podcast

4:21 Gender differences less important than individual capabilities relative to their competitors.

5:10 – 8:00 Possible that women are more likely to calculate odds of success and compete when they feel they have a good chance at winning. Men more likely to take risks without considering the odds so carefully. Women more likely to be under-confident; men over-confident.

8:30 – 14:10 Boys function in groups, comfortable with diversity. Girls in pairs and look for commonality. Might need to encourage to interact with more than just ‘best friend’.

14:10 – 17:25 Girls worry about sticking out from the group, even if it’s being better than their peers. Girls can develop a performance standard that includes everyone in the group. Coaches must be aware of this possibility and encourage them to push beyond for their own sake and the sake of the team (everyone else will do this as well).

19:12 On average, women less willing to join a team. Fear bringing the team down.

21:15 – 25:50 The more elite the athlete, less worried about sticking out. More than males, interested in feedback relationship with coach. “What do you think?” more powerful than critique because women are self-aware and probably their own worst critic. Might need to reel in things that are unnecessarily harsh! Coach must make sure women know they are valued as people.

27:15 – 31:04 Self esteem tied to social status with girls. Remember that no one wants to be lower than the group, especially in a public environment. Important to value that individual and help them through solutions that can raise ability in a 1 on 1. Also has negative effect on others; care about that individual, fear they will be next (Threat State!)