Archive for December, 2013

I wrote the following in response to a coach asking for help on establishing a game plan or pattern of play / moves / etc for his team. It was originally posted on the Creative Rugby forum, which is a great new resource for coach and player discussions that’s also very active on Twitter with weekly chats involving knowledgeable coaches from across the globe. Highly recommended!


My simple plan of attack is “go where it’s easy to play” … from a lecture I attended with former French star and coach Pierre Villepreux. It’s about big concepts that help us make use of our strengths and recognise what opportunities are in front of us. We play a lot of games to work on the skills necessary, build cohesion and consistency, and work out solutions to real problems under realistic pressure.

Everyone needs to have a strong sense of where our strengths lie and what our limitations are. For my current team, we have a big (but not very mobile) tight five, a small but mobile back row, strong midfield and small wings who aren’t going to run over anyone. What we agree upon is that we’re trying to seize and create space as we’re not going to run over anyone, looking to pass before contact and remain in support rather than rely too much on offloads from contact and not stray too far away from support. … among others based on maximising what we have and limiting where we risk turnovers.

Our plan of attack is not just knowing this but also reading the defence for opportunities or following a loose structure to create opportunities.
1. I train them to find ‘clear opportunities’ by playing games which condition / constrain the defence. One has two teams run into a second phase situation, scanning for gaps in defence or mismatches (which I give to them just before saying ‘go’). The attack has to scan for and call out where the op(s) are, being everyone’s responsibility, not just the traditional decision makers’. Another has defenders with certain conditions imposed upon them which see them defend in certain ways (pinching, pushing early, blitzing, lagging behind) so attackers get used to spotting opportunities as the ball is played. I remind them that at our level, defence is never as ‘perfect’ as it is on tv. There are often such examples of poor defence that we can exploit.
2. In cases where the defence is good or we haven’t quickly spotted anything then we look to play to our strengths in hopes of creating ‘poor defence / mismatch’ opportunities on the next or subsequent phase. This is a simple call usually coming from the fly half (but can also come from the scrum half or anyone else if the FH is not in position and we want to maintain tempo). We use three colours, Red, Orange, Green to say respectively: forwards use it or play it, scrum half play it to forwards, ball to backs (forwards tuck in behind). Again, we’re trying to play where it’s “easy” and keep the tempo such that the defence doesn’t have time to re-align and mark up.

We use regular video sessions to analyse how we’re doing and work on recognising patterns. I don’t bore them with the whole game – which not only can be information overloading, but also overly negative. I take a few clips that show typical things we do well / need to work on and either do a classroom session in no more than 30 mins, or throw them on our youtube account with some objectives for them to watch and comment on. Language is always positive and constructive and not specific to individuals seen in the video (esp. because the clips were selected on how they reflect team performance).

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Recently I discovered a book at my local university library that, according to the authors, tries not to be a coaching manual, but offers a lot of advice and discusses their opinions on various rugby coaching matters. (Sounds familiar…) I’ve seen quite a few coaching books from the past, and some of which are quite useful even today (such as Jim Greenwood’s Total Rugby and Think Rugby which were originally written in the 1980s, if I’m not mistaken). This book, Rugby Under Pressure by Brian Jones and Ian McJennett, should be placed in that category as quite a lot of the ideas seem well ahead of contemporary thinking, and even more progressive than what I see from many coaches today, I’d argue. I’m still not finished picking this book apart, but thought I’d share some great quotes from it for you to consider, and you’ll see that these ideas from 1972 are not only insightful, but cause a certain degree of head shaking from me as they address some areas we still haven’t seen progress in.

On the dynamic nature of the game:

“… a game for sophisticated thinkers, a complex fifteen a side chess.” (15)

On the risks of coach-centred style of coaching:

“The main danger of the blackboard and easel approach is that it becomes infectious, and leads to the growth of a kind of unquestioned dogma, a sort of Gospel according to St. Luke’s.” (17)

 “The Svengali who can sit on the side-line and have fifteen Trilbys operating in fluid off-the-cuff situations that can arise in eighty minutes of rugby just does not exist.” (21)

 “Coaches are variously accused of stifling players’ initiative, stomping out individuality, condoning illegalities in demanding victories at all costs, controlling players’ lives, and behaving like puppet masters pulling strings from the stand.” (21)

Early proponents of athlete-centred coaching?

“The essence of the coach’s role is that he is helping fifteen players to have the self-confidence to deal with any unexpected situation themselves within the context of the team and the match.” (21)

 “It is now generally accepted that the teacher’s function is one of an experienced adviser, drawing a pupil’s attention to a problem and assisting him to solve the problem for himself.” (27)

 “The coach is not only a teacher, he is a learner and he should be learning as much from the player as the player is learning from him.” (28)

On knowing each player’s strengths, weaknesses and temperament within a positive team culture:

“The knowledge of players is at the very heart of the player-coach relationship. Without it, there can be no true relationship anyway. It is a subtle relationship based on shared experiences, on the time spent with each other, on the joint efforts made for the benefit of the team.” (32)

 … focusing on performance over results:

“A coach who believes he can go into a changing room and convince a mediocre team that they are good enough to win the Triple Crown is on a hiding to nothing. A fanciful Lloyd George style hell-fire sermon will do more harm than good unless it is realistic. He will only ask of his team that which he knows they have to give. And he will know what they have to give, because he has spent so much time with them finding out.” (35)

On forwards and backs as two independent units, and on coaching them as such:

“The game is advancing rapidly towards a cohesive fifteen-man game and to emphasise the age-old division between forwards and backs in this way would be retrogressive if not positively harmful.” (37)

 That last one was especially prophetic – but only in the sense that it was predicting something that might be. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t say has fully appeared. There are a growing amount of coaches who are training forwards to be more than just ruck-hitters and people who pick and carry the ball for 2m. I think, however, that there are more who’d rather not see forwards carrying the ball anywhere beyond a 10m radius of the previous ruck. Some coaches would argue that such players are not capable or knowledgeable enough to act as ball carriers – let alone decision-makers! – in open space (and will still see this at international level with the constant one-out-and-crash play from most forwards). My counter argument would be, however: “Who’s fault is that?!”

 After reading these passages in the first few chapters of a book that was published back in the 70s, I felt as if the majority of the rugby world really hasn’t progressed that much in 40 years. There are signs of light, however, especially given how dominant the All Blacks are these days playing open rugby where everyone is capable of carrying / moving the ball and making smart decisions. Hell, even South Africa have been passing and running more this year than in the past as have England under Stuart Lancaster. Other teams, however – and, sadly, this includes the once-flashy French and Welsh – are playing a predictable style of play that aims for brawn over finesse. For us at the amateur level, there’s a real danger in this as we tend to copy what we see the ‘top’ nations doing on TV. I think Jones and McJennett’s other messages are important reminders that we need to know our teams – and not just their abilities / limitations – but what THEY want to get out of the season, not just do what we tell them to do. It should always be about them – having fun, learning, growing, trying new things and having even more fun because there’s a knowledgeable and supportive person helping them along the path, not directing them where he/she thinks they should go.

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I imagine a lot of people have read about the coach of an English Under-10s club side who sounded very much like a tyrannical Premiership coach, doing whatever was in his power to ensure wins (and alienate kids and parents enough to, thankfully, see him sacked).

Some of his ‘wonderful’ ideas:

From: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2517768/Tyrant-10s-Football-coach-fired-tells-boys-theyre-playing-fun.html

There’s been a lot of discussion about this in coaching circles, and while pretty much all I’ve read agree that he’s gone way over the line, there are those who feel that his ideas on competition and the lack of resiliency in youth today is at risk. I don’t think anyone is advocating ‘final score: all tied-up fun-to-fun’ scenario where we don’t keep score here, as athletes at every level want that very real objective to shoot for. There are so many ways I can go with this, but especially given how young the kids are the last thing you want to do is drive them away from the sport they love.

I also think it’s misguided to have anything but “fun” at the top of your list of objectives for the team. Why else would we coach or why would the athletes even bother turning up if we’re not enjoying ourselves?  I’m currently coaching a men’s side and first on my list of priorities is to make every training session fun for the lads. Despite some of the older players wanting me to ‘punish’ them for dropped balls, etc. I say no one goes out to intentionally drop a ball, so why punish mistakes when we can treat the symptoms with analysis and more practice (instead of wasting time running laps, doing press-ups or – even worse – instilling fear of reprisal that prevents them from being ambitious and creative).

With that, the culture I try and foster (with the help of buy-in from each player) is one of enjoyment, and increasing our knowledge and abilities at every opportunity. By combining all three we hope to be successful on game day, but don’t treat it as the end of the world we’re not. Importantly, I also make sure that everyone gets an equal shot at contributing to that. What good is a win when you only played for five minutes, if at all? We treat wins as the product of good work and losses (or moments in games where we concede points / miss opportunities) objectives for growth in future training sessions.

The best comments I’ve heard is that the team is more harmonious and that all, especially the lesser-experienced guys, are often learning something new. Their increased confidence has been plain to see in just two months of my being here. Is there better praise than that?  Why else would we coach / play the sport? It’s all about perspective and the last thing I want to do is drive someone away from sport because of my ego. We’re not getting paid. Trophies are held temporarily. All we’ll have is the memories of having fun and developing our abilities within the game and our characters as human beings.

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I just read this fantastic post on coach-heroes from Mike Davenport, a US-based rowing coach.  Here’s his great discussion on the acts performed by a coach-hero: Heroes, Zeroes and Coaching Sports

I’m not sure if I’d call myself a hero … but heroes rarely do, do they? Looking the definition Mike uses from Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.”   If it’s that simple, then maybe I am to some people?

It’s funny as I’ve often said to myself that I’ve “given my life” to this sport and to inspiring others to love it as much as I do, sort of as a way of saying all the other things I’ve given up on or delayed in life have been acceptable sacrifices. Sometimes I think it’s an excuse for missing out on other things, and while I never ask for praise, I occasionally get reminders of the absolute truth of that statement. Coaching is my calling. Helping others grow as athletes and people is my passion. I shouldn’t apologize or feel embarrassed about it.

I’m regularly trying to improve my abilities as a coach and pushing more and more toward ‘athlete-centred coaching’. I’m now two months with a new team and have appreciated that they’ve been patient with my (rare?) performance-not-results outlook, constantly demanding that they figure things out for themselves and answer more questions rather than receive easy solutions from me. I’m starting to hear those little statements that I don’t fish for, and truthfully am embarrassed to hear (God knows why, but I always respond with a sheepish chuckle, a thanks and avoid eye contact).  I’ve been hearing how the guys really have fun at my training sessions, how I’ve made them think about things no one’s ever challenged them on, and how they’re seeing improvement and feeling more together as a team. What else could a coach ask for?

I think a lot of coaches would feel they’ve ‘given’ to their sport, but heroes are selfless and I wonder how many truly are doing it for their athletes and just their athletes.  I’ll admit that I wasn’t always like that either, but can honestly say that for the past six years I haven’t really cared about results (despite winning a couple of titles one of the best seasons was a losing one because every single player enjoyed the process and felt we improved over the course of the season).  I want more coaches to be like this and am a bit of a preacher when someone dares let me talk about coaching philosophy. Mike’s scale, showing that there are way more ‘mortal’ coaches than heroes, is probably unfortunately quite accurate. In the sporting world, at least, I don’t think there could ever be too many ‘heroes’. Even if you’re not making headline-worthy changes in the lives of athletes, a philosophy focused on each individual’s development does make a small (if not large and maybe not realised until a decade later!) difference in their lives as someone other than their family and friends and caring teachers is trying to make them a better person. I wonder how many coaches have even a simple philosophy or goals that are athlete- rather than results-focused? Is that message clearly communicated to players? Do they hold themselves / are they held accountable? Is it something that’s refined now and then? I don’t think most coaches have to do as much research as I do on my sport and the craft, and their players don’t have to be tested to be future super-stars so long as everyone’s having fun. It’s a simple goal but an important one. Find ways to ensure the athletes have even more fun and having opportunities to learn – even passively, if not directly – to become more self-aware and self-confident through the selfless heroic efforts of their coach.

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