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Archive for February, 2013

I read an insightful and educational article which interviewed the England coaches on their habits and philosophy regarding game-day.  I’ve been paying attention to Stuart Lancaster ever since he named his first England side, suggesting his reign would be more positive than that of the two previous coaches. Since then, I’ve become a huge fan despite a few losses that some would criticise, feel the win over the All Blacks and England’s dominant start to the Six Nations is proving that he and his team are doing great work.  As his stock has risen, I realised I’d been influenced by him years ago and I didn’t put two-and-two together.  Lancaster had contributed articles to the RFU Technical Journal that really got me thinking about being an introspective and athlete-centred coach.

You can find the whole BBC article featuring Lancaster, Graham Rowntree, Andy Farrell, and Mike Catt here.  Below, I outline some of the ‘take away’ messages I picked up on.

1. Keep the message simple, and make sure that simple message is heard.  They talk about the ‘white noise’ of too much information, and Rowntree hits the message home with wanting to focus on just a few things.  Catt makes a very important point – one that I need to be better at – in making sure that simple message is actually received.  It’s important to make eye contact and get an acknowledgement – or an honest response that the message isn’t understood – from the player in question.  I’ve got better at not spouting out too much white noise, but need to be better at making sure the message is received.  It got me thinking that usually my situation doesn’t allow for the best analysis / critiquing as I’m a solo coach.  I might look into getting players to take turns ‘running’ the drill so I can focus purely on analysis and pulling aside players when the situation demands.

2. Coach stress transfers to players.  Lancaster and Catt make great points about not wanting his own stress to filter down to the players.  I know the stakes are higher for the England team, but I feel we probably all do this to our own players and while the stakes aren’t as high, our players mental fortitude isn’t as strong as international players.  I’m never one to even yell at a player, let alone belittle one in front of the team, but I wonder if sometimes I relay too strongly my worries about the opposition or the state of our success at performing a certain skill, etc.  Lancaster makes a great point about coaches using rants to make only themselves feel better and the uselessness of messages being passed on that are common sense.  In recent years, I’ve thought more about my early days as a coach and am a bit embarrassed by the things I used to say on the touch lines to players in games – never accusatory or offensive but many of which pointless  (and I know many of the lads would now tell me they either didn’t notice, or didn’t take offence to if it was a critique of a decision they made, but that I still know didn’t help them one bit).  I think even at youth level we need to give players credit for what they know and let them figure things out on the field, using the calmness of a post-match sit-down to go over what we (stress WE, because what happens on the field is reflective of what we’ve been teaching them!) need to work on.

3. Know your players.  Farrell makes a great point that I recently heard Lancaster talk about in an interview and that’s about knowing how to motivate players as individuals.  Farrell talks about knowing what works for individuals with regard to addressing needs, reinforcing the positives and establishing focus for the second half.  Like my pre-game talks, I prefer to keep these simple and either focused on very real, achievable goals, whether they be strategic, tactical, or technical.  Telling players they need to make their tackles doesn’t help as much as saying they need to get their feet in closer, get lower, and get a shoulder on the body first.  Farrell, as well as Lancaster in an interview, state that it’s important to know which players need ‘an arm around the shoulder’ and which need ‘a kick up the backside’.  I learned this quite early on in working with a new, but talented fly half who’d go into his shell when the pressure was on, but keep the ship steady and do some brilliant things when given calm instructions and a lot of encouragement.  I’ve had other players – usually forwards! – who say they want to be barked at a bit – which is tough for me, but if it works for them, I still focus on the positive but use my diaphragm to fire the instructions at them.

4. Pre-match chats.  In relation to the above point, Rowntree touches upon letting the moment do the ‘ramping’ up, and  Lancaster talks about leaving players alone, citing that every player has a routine and ways in which they get prepared for games.  I’ve heard the same from Graham Henry, who admits he used to do the big speech until the captain told him it was useless and that no one really paid attention to them.  Now it might be different for younger / amateur players who haven’t had mental training, but why not ask?  A simple survey might lead you to understand your players’ motivations more.  One of the teams I’ve helped in recent years has one of those rah-rah yelling things that all the boys do before the game.  They all seem to love it and it is a sight to behold, but as someone who used to keep classical music on his headphones until we left the changing room and never yelled the team cheer louder than conversation level, I wonder how many of those boys are actually pumped up by it but instead are more anxious / nervous because it’s disrupted the calm and relaxed state they prefer?  (I’m often seen pitchside with headphones on so I can block out distractions and focus on analysing my team!)  Being just that sort of person, I banned loud music from being played on team buses and in changing rooms not just because we all have different tastes and some people are negatively affected by it.  Those who need it will have their headphones with them any way.

5. Half time chats.  Farrell’s philosophy on what to say is covered in point three, and I think good ones are the same as good pre-match chats.  Simple and to the point, focused on positive things players can achieve, and without white noise of any sort.  Here’s a sample of what I do at half time:

  1. Physical status.  Everyone okay?  Anyone need treatment?
  2. Water.  Even if they don’t feel like it.
  3. How did things go?  Positives only, we’ll deal with the ‘work ons’.
  4. Chats with units, individuals on key things to focus on.
  5. Final wrap up with simple objectives for the entire team.
  6. Captain to have final say.

More detailed version in this previous post.

6. Let training determine what happens on the field.  This one’s more subtle, but having read a lot from Lancaster I know this is part of his philosophy, and that of probably all top coaches.  Even if you’re on the touchline, you’re still so far away from the action and so shouldn’t be trying to direct things like a basketball coach.  And unlike sports like football, rugby is a continuous game so it’s not like there are many breaks in the game to pass on messages.  Lancaster talks about trying to limit these to important ones despite being mic’ed to Catt who is pitch-side, and Catt even says he will choose not to send in some messages that come from the other guys up above! (I hope he still has a job after admitting that! 😉 )  The point is that we need to be giving our athletes, regardless of level, the knowledge and tools to be able to manage the game themselves.  Much of rugby’s history, believe it or not, was played WITHOUT COACHES!!!  The captains ran the show, and I still largely believe in this, feeling it’s my role to guide them rather than tell them, and to be the eyes of experience who can help all players become smarter and more analytical so they can do what they need to do on the pitch.  It’s also the reason why I’m more about teaching the game in training via small-sided games and realistic scenarios, using small box stuff significantly less.  While some might argue that lesser experienced players need guidance, I’d counter by saying that how are they ever to learn if the coach spoon feeds them all the answers?  There’s a lot of research out there regarding the power of experiential learning, yet I don’t know that we do this as much as we should in a game that demands so much more from the players than the coach.

For anyone interested in more of what Stuart Lancaster’s thoughts are, here are some great resources:

Player Development (five parts)

Changing Coaching Behaviour 1

Changing Coaching Behaviour 2

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There was a great question on The Huddle coaching forum recently asking how willing we are to allow players to swap positions.  The author suggested most responders said they allow changes, but given the questions / answers usually given on the forum, I think most – if not all of them will be coaches of pre-teen athletes.

I’m a bit on the fence on this issue, but because I coach teens and adults.  When I coached U14s, we really didn’t focus too much on positions specification, except at set-piece time.  And even then we’d have kids propping and hooking who’ll probably never do it again in their later years.  I was also trying to get everyone confident with passing, receiving, and spotting opportunities that I’d be happy for most to play the ball as a ‘scrum half’ or ‘fly half’.

With the U16s, however, we typically select players where they’re best suited by size, strength, ability, etc. but I have what I think is a reasonable policy on players swapping positions. I always tell the boys that they can tell us what position they want to play, but they have to prove their ability and / or commit to learning and developing abilities for that position. I’m about player development and fostering a love for the game first, so am all too happy to help a player get more out of the game – but feel that at teenage levels of play they can’t be just gifted such a swap. (If for no other reason, than for safety’s sake!) One great success story was helping a kid who’d been a hooker at U16 with his school become a scrum half and then fly half at U18 with my club team. He asked realising he was proving to be too small for hooker and having a love for open field attacking.  I was more than willing to help (maybe with a bit of frustrated-front-rower, wannabe-halfback mindset myself!), and we spent countless extra hours before and after training working on passing, receiving, positioning, kicking, timing, etc. In addition to doing a great job for my club team, he ended up playing fly half and full back at U21 club and university level as well!

For teens, I don’t think letting them make such drastic positional changes is even good for the fun of it unless they’re willing to be serious about being able to meet the demands of the position. We play so few games at the high school level in Canada as well that to do so would be denying game time to a kid who’s already been playing that position and deserves as much time as possible in it. I wouldn’t therefore want to drop those kids to the bench or move them where they weren’t happy to accommodate another kid who just wanted to try out his position on a whim.  As mentioned earlier, there’s also the safety factor to consider, especially if a smaller or relatively weaker player has a desire to become a forward. I feel that if they truly want to make the swap, they’ll be more than happy to put in the work to make it a reality. Coaches should be willing to support those efforts as our first priority should be to foster a life-long love of the game in our athletes.

If a teenaged (or older) player wants to swap, and is willing to put in the work, this has to be a post-season or early pre-season declaration so we can work toward getting him up to speed.

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