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Archive for May, 2010

Heading into some big games in the last few weeks, and more this coming week, I’ve been thinking a lot about how best to motivate the players.  When I first started out coaching, I had come from captaining my school team, and continued some of what I had done there.  Choice words, big speeches, lots of f-bombs … all to get the boys ‘psyched-up’ … though it didn’t really work for me, as I’d feel like I was going to puke, a bundle of nerves, until the actual kick off.  Some people like heavy ‘pump up’ music as well, but I (being a total music ‘snob’), usually hated the tunes and would sit with my earphones on listening to my own music.  When I started coaching young women, I quickly learned that they tended to do things completely differently.  These situations started me thinking that there really is no one truly effective pre-match motivational strategy that suits everyone.  Intrinsically motivated athletes at the higher levels will have their routines, obviously, but will also need timely guidance while those at the lower level will need more support.  So how do we coaches go about fostering an environment which gets them ready for the match – from ordinary league matches to finals?

I think it starts by getting to know your players.  Unfortunately in some cases, we’re with teams / players for such a short time that truly getting to know them is hard.  At club level it becomes a bit easier as players are liable to be part of the club for many years, not to mention the social settings where people can show their true colours.  For school and elite teams it becomes more difficult as you are not with players for as long and it’s often inappropriate to socialise with them as one would at a club or with adults.  In cases where you are their teacher, it is fairly easy to get to know the kids as you probably interact with them on a daily basis.  In my current case, I am the ‘community coach’ who only shows up to practices after school.  In such cases, my strategy has been two-fold: initially, I started with a questionnaire that every player filled out, asking such questions as “What do you like about rugby?”, “What do you hope to get out of this season?”, and “What would you contribute to the team culture?”  I am always surprised by some of the answers I get from these, and interpreting the answers allows me to get a sense of the person writing them.  I also try to talk to the players as much as possible, not ignoring one person, and even about non-rugby stuff.  How was your weekend?  What’s your after-school job?  How’s school going?  Did you see that show on tv last night?, etc. … without prying, before and after practice.  I think such honest small-talk allows players to open up and realise that you’re a good person who genuinely is interested in them as a member of our team.  … ‘our’ team.  (As an aside, I never say “MY” team … it is always “OUR” team because we all contribute to it.)

I also talk to teachers about players and even their friends about them.  I don’t accept gossip, and try to quash it quickly, and also try to sift out bias if I think I’ve hit a point where Person A really doesn’t get along with Player B.  The goal here is to get a sense of how each person deals with pre-match preparation and to provide an environment which suits them all.  I have coached boys teams where the group appreciated relative silence and introspection before a match, with a short sharp speech from the coach to get them psyched up.  This girls team I am currently coaching seems to love a totally relaxed and lively atmosphere with music, singing and even a little dancing!  I notice that others, however, will break off from this main group with their earphones and pre-match routines.  I don’t bother to ask what their routine is as it’s obviously working for them.  I think by their late teens, and at a ‘for fun’ level of play, teens have already figured this out and should be left to go about the routines they are comfortable with.  The same goes for adults.  As such, the only thing I do pre-match is have a short speech about our goals and our three-point game plan to ensure the players are focused on the tasks at hand.

I have only recently started working with ‘elite’ athletes who play in much bigger games, and while I won’t begin to profess how their requirements are different than those at more ‘amateur’ levels, I have learned that they are definitely different.  Thinking of away game bus rides, there were many players with their own music in their earphones, several doing homework or reading or doing the crossword, several sleeping, others playing cards, and some actually discussing tactics and strategy.  I think at this level, athletes will find their own pre-match routines, and team mate with whom they share strategies.  But as the matches, pressures, and need to cope is much more significant, they probably require more support.  (For coaches at lower levels, this is also important going into playoffs or league finals.)  I have found some great resources in sport psychology about how to deal with such situations, and while I don’t think there are blanket solutions to every issue, I think knowing one’s players and not being afraid to engage in conversation with them is an important first step in providing them with as much guidance and support as they want.  The real danger is trying to impose things which look good in ‘theory’ but which simply do not work for the athlete in question.  I would also hesitate to suggest anything new leading up to the high-stress event, feeling that one should be holding conversations with athletes much earlier than that to gauge how they are coping and asking if / what support is needed, and from whom.

As a coach, it’s important to not only be informed about a variety of strategies and mechanisms, but also to be a bit of an ‘actor’ at times to ensure you can meet the needs of differently motivated athletes should they demand it (or at least have someone on staff who can be ‘the bad cop’ if you can only be ‘the good cop’ – if that’s what they need).

Are you a soft-spoken Ian McGeechan type…

… or a hard-bitten Shaun Edwards type:

… or maybe a combo of both, depending on the situation?

Some great resources on the topic can be found here:

Understanding Your Players – Dave Hadfield

Pre-Match Preparation – Andy Hickling

The Principles of Motivation

How to Help With An Athlete’s Motivation

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I don’t want to plagiarise here, but I cannot remember who coined this phrase.  I think it might have come from New Zealand mental coaching guru Dave Hadfield who said it in one of his brilliant articles on the part of the game which occurs ‘upstairs’.  Then again, it might also have come from All Blacks assistant coach, Wayne Smith, who is a noted student of the game, especially in matters of the mind.  Either way, both men have discussed at length in articles via the NZRU or Dr. Lynn Kidman’s books on the need for players to be in touch with all the mental aspects of competing in sport.  The higher one gets to elite competition, I feel, the more mental toughness, focus and maturity becomes a part of the criteria for success.  At the lower levels, however, I think there are many aspects which should still be addressed in the build up to games and will discuss a few of these as the team I am currently coaching heads into regional and (hopefully!) provincial playoffs.  The first, involves providing an environment from the onset which encourages players to try new things and to support / help frame their decision making.

Having the ‘courage to fail’ really stuck out for me when I first read it as it seemed contradictory to all that we work toward as coaches.  No one truly likes to lose, and we are working toward performance and outcome successes, so what does it mean to actually embrace failure?  In short, we should be willing to support and guide our athletes in moving out of their comfort zones to try new things which will increase their abilities and awareness.  I think this takes place in three aspects that need to be championed by coaches so that players can develop confidence and set the bar higher.  They are:

1. Seizing Opportunities – Too often coaches slavishly adhere to patterns of play and sequencing which have no flexibility.  While I support that such things can provide players with focus the downside – and often a crucial one – is that when opportunities exist that are not ‘part of the plan’, players either miss them altogether or are afraid to choose them for fear of coach retribution.  One example that immediately stands out occurred in a ‘big game’ last season involving a team I was assisting.  At one particular scrum 35m from the opposition try line we had a nice 20m blind side with the defending winger sitting 15m back.  Not one to give instructions to players on the field in the middle of the game, I let them play it out without saying anything.  I was a bit disappointed to see the ball go open side from scrum to fly half, wondering why they didn’t opt for an 8-9-14 move on the blind side?  Was it lack of awareness, sticking to the head coach’s typical plan, or fear of picking the ‘wrong’ option with regard to the game plan?  In such cases, I always advise players to make informed decisions based on our strengths and limitations and consider the same of the opposition.  Logically thought out as such, there are no bad decisions so long as they are done with determination and appropriate support.  Going ‘off script’ has created some of the greatest tries in history, so why do many coaches discourage this by enforcing robotic patterns of play to their teams?

2. Taking Calculated Risks – This is similar to the previous condition, but I think these situations are not so much about opportunities that are obvious but occur in the middle of action as a result of a split second decision.  One classic example is the 50/50 pass.  If you watch enough Southern Hemisphere (mostly Kiwi and Aussie) rugby, you will see this regularly.  Winger running down the touch line, support not quite in position for a proper pass, possibly about to be bundled into touch by covering defenders, fires a behind-the-back no-look pass to space and … the opposition get it OR a team mate gets it.  Many coaches in Canada that I have encountered would frown on such practice.  I would say done in the right part of the field, it’s an incredible attempt to maintain continuity or at least calculate a return of possession.  If this desperate, but calculated pass was made inside the opposition 22 and if a team mate catches it, we’ve still got a chance to score.  If the opposition catches it, given the position, they would be likely to kick it out and give us a lineout.  Holding onto the ball simply gives them the lineout without even trying and as such the courage to ‘fail’ is the courage to take calculated risks to provide us opportunities to score.  ‘Calculated’ is the key term here, with ‘risk’ only being a reminder of the importance of carefully and logically considering that calculation.  I would hope that none of my players would try a 50/50 pass inside OUR 22 area, but as the Force showed the other day you can back yourself and do unorthodox things like score a try from your own in-goal area if you weigh all the US vs. THEM factors quickly, confidently and with the support of your team mates.

3. Making Opportunities Where They Do Not Exist – There are times in matches, especially for lesser able teams, when the defence is well organised and not providing any options and/or team mates aren’t helping either.  In such cases, players should have the confidence to take a ‘calculated risk’ and MAKE an opportunity where the easier option isn’t an obvious possibility.  In all but the highest of leagues where there is a range of intelligence on the opposition (knowledge of rosters, reports, video, etc.), you never know what sort of team you will face, so I always encourage players to acquire a wide range of skills and consider a number of possibilities for any given situation.  I don’t like laying out rules for situations because each is different given the particular circumstances at that point in the match.  Players should therefore be allowed to practice a variety of options – emphasising the need for more situation-based practices rather than drill-based! – that can be used at crucial moments.  There are other occasions where even just one player has to take the initiative to provide an opportunity for him/herself or team mates, again highlighting that coaches should be guiding the decision making process at training and supporting calculated decisions at game time.  One great example from this past weekend was Waratahs’ full back Kurtley Beale’s chip ahead that led to a crucial score in a match that decided who was going to the Super 14 finals.  As you will see in the first few seconds of this video, the Hurricanes’ defence is unrelenting and despite trying to change direction a few times, the Waratahs cannot find a way through.  Even the announcers felt Beale’s kick was a poor choice, but one never can predict the bounce of a rugby ball …

In each of these cases, the potential to lose possession is high and the potential to score is often quite low.  Coaches tend to worry too much about these factors without considering that without the courage to attempt the risky, especially against a well organised team, you might never score anyway!  For teams that are not so good these are risks they have to take to actually improve their chances of scoring, despite what the percentages might say.  For them, as well as teams that are already relatively good within their competition group, they should always be trying new things to improve upon their own abilities.  When challenged by those who react negatively to taking risks, I ask them in return: Why be satisfied with mediocrity?  Is not the fun of playing any sport being as successful as one can be?  Whether one wins or loses is irrelevant if someone feels satisfied with their performance, and even in a losing cause – as I had been in on many occasions as a school boy – one should set personal performance goals to realise true success.  Attempting a ‘risky’ chip and chase when no support seems immediately available or a no-look offload when about to be pushed into touch inside the opposition 22 are ways in which a player can create extra opportunities to score when they were ‘not on’ otherwise.  Having such courage – and coach support – to try new things and push their own boundaries allows players to move out of their comfort zone and become confident, more able and happier players.  Instilling a ‘Culture of Possibility’ (rather than conservatism / negativity) from the beginning of the season will ensure this will occur.

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