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Archive for June, 2011

“It was a game of two halves” is one of the great sporting clichés, indicating that a match was going in one direction until the interval and then was very different in the second stanza. Often, this term is used quite liberally reflecting only a relative measure of what really took place. Rarely do I – not someone who watches a lot of sport on TV, apart from a rugby game or two a week – see this statement manifested entirely as the statement suggests. A couple of weeks ago I saw it, during the Heineken Cup Final between Northampton and Leinster, and it not only shocked me, but got me thinking about what we say to our team at the half, when we’ve got just a few minutes to either right the wayward ship or ensure that we keep it on course until the final whistle.

In short, if you didn’t see it, Northampton came out flying – against everyone’s predictions – and utterly dominated the Irish province. At one point, they even won a ball against the scrum when they had one less man in the pack! At halftime, with Northampton leading 22-6 (three tries to none) I thought, “That’s it. They’ve got Leinster’s number and just have to maintain this style of play [realising it’d be near impossible to keep up the tempo] until the final whistle.” Oh how I was wrong. Leinster started the second half much the same way Northampton did and scored early. Leinster never let up, preventing Northampton any chances to add to their tally and eventually ran home 33-22.

So what happened to both teams in the changing rooms at half time? I don’t know that answer, apart from saying: “It wasn’t enough” (for Northampton) or “It was bloody good” (for Leinster). Given the fact that Northampton offered nothing in the second half, and looked like a completely different team, I think it was more than just Leinster proving the pundits right and finally playing to their potential. But what does one say to a team at the half, regardless of the score, conditions, form book, etc. etc.? In what can be a ‘too short’ period, what sort of information needs to be gathered and what needs to be relayed?

Here’s what I do:

[Throughout the first half] Keep notes on what I think our strengths and weaknesses are, as well as any of theirs I have spotted. I try and have three very specific things to say, to keep confusion down to a minimum but also to ensure there is focus for the next half.

[As everyone gathers] Have players grab a drink bottle and get their attention. Ask how everyone’s feeling, and if there are any injuries / physical concerns I need to know about. (Refer to trainer, but keep them in the huddle if at all possible if there are any.)

[Team talk] Focus on strengths, threats, and opportunities; that is: the things we have done well, the things we need to be concerned about, and the things we need to focus on for the second half. I try as best I can to keep this information short and to the point – listing it as if I were typing bullet points. I don’t want players to be confused, don’t want to send mixed messages, and also don’t want to waste time.

[Feedback from the team] With adult teams I tend to invite important, specific feedback as to what’s going on out there, regarding both our performance and theirs. The understanding beforehand, however, is that it has to be concrete, relevant information and not just empty statements such as “we can do this” or “this is our game”, etc. This can take a bit of coaching, especially as I want all comments from players (as I do!) to be both positive and constructive, focusing not on generalities but on specifics. So it’s not good enough to say, “We need to make our tackles” but such a statement should instead sound like: “We need to take a step closer to the ball carrier and tackle, first, with our shoulders and then wrap up.” In such cases, focusing on the technique is a better way of making that key information stick inside their minds – especially with the time constraints. With kids, I do most of the talking, allowing maybe the team leaders to speak up if I trust their judgement and/or if there’s a particular leader whose insight I trust.  The point is, as I strive to be to-the-point with the information I relay, I do not want players to ruin that focus with a lot of empty chatter that can cause them to forget the important points.

[Individual feedback] Getting to this point can take half the time, or most if the ref is only giving us five minutes (for sevens, it’s basically just: “Is everyone okay? Here are the strengths, threats and opportunities” and we’re back on the pitch!). But I like to give the chance to assistant coaches to chat with their respective units, again dropping only short, specific and positive bits of information, and/or units to talk amongst themselves in such a way.

[Wrap-up and re-focus] If you’ve had a full ten minutes, I like to start this with about two minutes to go. I just want to re-iterate the important STOs (strengths, threats, opportunities) again so the team can take the pitch with those in mind. For some players, that will be enough – technical / tactical focus points for them to maintain throughout the second half. Many players, however, need an emotional / adrenaline charge to fire them up. I think it’s important to note, however, that not all players like this, so I don’t make a big deal about having everyone in the huddle. When I played, I preferred not to get ‘pumped up’, instead wishing to remain calm and focused. I’d still have a hand on the huddle to show solidarity, but would be nowhere near the middle of the huddle.

[Final minute or so] This is where I let the players do what they need to do to get ready for the second half. A moment alone, a little run, some one v one scrums, a few bag hits, etc. as they make their way to the field. Hopefully everything we needed to maintain will carry on, and that which we needed to address will be seen to. Setting a tempo is very important and the final message from the captain to the players should be that the first 10 should be the most important, possibly of the entire match … and this is exactly how Leinster took hold of that HEC final and played the second half on their terms.

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