Archive for January, 2014

Someone on a forum asked me a series of questions about coaching. I thought I’d share the answers with the wider public.

What is the extent of time that you devote to coaching per week?
… as a club coach, 3hrs at training, 3hrs at the weekend for game prep/game/post match social (double that, or more if it’s an away fixture when travel is factored in). I’m maybe a bit more obsessed than most with planning and keeping things fresh and relevant. I probably think about each session for about a half hour (more when I was younger and didn’t have an internal database I could pull ideas from), and do a lot of reading on sport science, follow coach development people on Twitter, etc. which is immeasurable. When I was a school coach, it was about 2hrs every week day, with at least an extra half hour a day planning, setting up, etc. but school seasons are only three months long.

Do you think it detracts from other aspects of your life?
… not really. I’m not a very devoted ‘club person’ who hangs out around the rugby club / people as much as others I know. I have a larger circle of friends outside of rugby than within, so can easily get away. But a few months ago I moved out west to take an academy job and do some research / writing on coaching, so it’s a big part of my life right now. My coaching partner last year, however, has two small children, and faced a lot of pressure to scale back his commitment as it can be a drain on family time. (I feel like Mr. Chips sometimes in that regard as an un-married person, with my athletes being like my ‘family’. :) )

What do you get out of coaching?
… I find providing an enjoyable and enriching atmosphere for athletes incredibly rewarding. I was lucky to have great coaches when I was in school and feel it my duty to give back as I have a deep passion for the game and have developed great coaching ability. I used to love being the driving force behind club and school teams that won a lot, though still kept a good set of principles that wasn’t “win at all costs”. (At my ‘worst’, I specifically recruited good players for a club team and while I didn’t turn anyone away, I certainly didn’t have open invites to all the schools in our area. I did still manage to balance everyone’s playing time fairly.) Since reading a lot on athlete-centred coaching, I’ve come around to find developing ‘rugby smart’ players as the most rewarding part of what I do. I don’t care much about winning or losing so much as each individual is enjoying him/herself and that they are improving to a level they to which THEY aspire.

How long do you intend to coach for?
… I’ve been at it since I was 19 and am going to turn 35 this year. There were times in that stretch that I coached three teams a year – school, club, university – and usually two of those. I don’t think I’ll ever stop. I do, however, want to take a break from direct coaching and work more with coaches, transferring what I know to them and/or helping them find their own way. When I was younger, I was climbing the ladder toward being a university coach and aiming for the provincial level. The closer I got to it, though, I realised it wasn’t for me. I’d rather be the person who develops younger and open-minded athletes, not coral the (sometimes entrenched) high-flyers and push them in the right direction needed to win. (I’ve seen as many people heart broken by ‘necessary’ decisions at that level as those who’ve enjoyed success, so don’t want to have to make those difficult decisions.)

Do you have any other observations that you would share?
… I can’t stress enough the benefits of jumping on the athlete-centred band wagon. It sounds almost a no-brainer to say sport should be about the athletes first, but there still is a lot of coach-centred practices where they are largely in it for themselves and not the athletes. At the least, they might have a perception that it’s for the athletes, when it might just be the few (at club level any way) who influence coach to believe that everyone in the team wants to win-win-win. No one’s getting paid for this. Trophies are temporary and there’s no fame from being league champs. The majority of players, I feel, are in it to have fun, experience camaraderie, get fit, etc. with winning being very low on their list of wants.

I’m also increasingly siding with those who, in conjunction with the above, are focusing on using the game to teach the game. It’s sometimes called ‘game sense’ or ‘teaching games for understanding’ (TGfU), where the coach questions more than tells and small-sided games dominate as coaching methods. I design active sessions that favour skill activities / games over drills the challenge of each element is such that it’s not too easy but not too difficult, so athletes get genuine opportunities to learn. I tell players to embrace failure, not fear it, and I’m very positive and constructive with my feedback (often having the players give more than I do!). I don’t waste time with a lot of standing around or ‘fitness’ but keep them moving throughout training, presenting opportunities for them to use their brain and develop individual and team skills.

In Canada, I feel too many coaches rely on drills that don’t have enough game-like context or do the latest and greatest drill that international players do (like crocodile rolls, without addressing the team’s decison-making at the tackle contest). I favour what I’ve heard is a Kiwi mentality – to become familiar with and proficient at essential skills and knowledge first, and fine-tune the little technical things the higher you progress, if at all. I feel one can be a craftsman with just a few effective and easy-to-use tools; there’s no need to over-complicate a project with ones you rarely use and are too specified for general, more frequent use.

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This is really a ‘conversational’ post as it’s an edited version of an email I wrote to a coaching colleague about a revelation I had at training last night.  The simple version: games might be better for skill development because there’s a positive pressure to perform (i.e. beating the other team in the game, as opposed to just ‘being good at’ the drill).

I’ve noticed something interesting development of late…

I’ve been having the guys do passing technique practice in lines, working on pushing / spinning the ball across their bodies focusing on form while jogging down the field. Then I put them in a chaotic 8m square where the same groups work on passing, running from one side to the other, with groups on other sides of the square doing the same.  So there’s lots of traffic as they cross back and forth constantly.  The interesting observation:  fewer dropped balls in the chaotic square!  I’ve been reading some stuff on skill development and technique that suggests skill (being the application of techniques, under pressure) is better developed in ‘game-like’ situations, so for rugby not just with opposition but also with more than one variable.  It seems my guys, at least, thrive on the pressure! (I suspect that there’s not a lot of interest in the low-pressure drill – noting that I’m the sort of coach who doesn’t shout at or punish mistakes, asking players to be self-motivated to improve.)

One of the coaches I follow on Twitter asked a while back if perfect technique was necessary?  I’ve started to think that as long as the ball travels efficiently (i.e. not lofted, wasting time) and is on target (i.e. not ‘at’ the player, but in front of his outstretched hands), I’m not sure it matters for most passes. The speed of transfer is more important than whether or not a push pass is wobbly.  Hell, Justin Marshall barely threw a nice looking pass his whole career!  🙂

The other thing that really has struck me, influenced again by my Twitter connections is the use of games. I’ve always liked using games, but have probably had more drills or skill development activities with a game at the end.  Last night I ran a skill development activity – a 5 v 4 (later 5 v 5) scenario where the defence chose obvious patterns and the attack had to read them (starting with backs turned, then coming forward on a cue) and pick the best way to exploit the pattern they saw. They were pretty good at it, but often slower than is ideal.  I suspect that they were really scanning deeply (which is a new challenge to most, especially the forwards, who used to just run blindly forward) and taking time to think and communicate rather than act intuitively.  But when we went to the double-touch game they were much more intense and often exploited poor defence / supported the break more quickly than in the skill dev. activity. Some were even starting to recognise angles and coming out of their ‘swim lanes’ looking for work! I’m beginning to think that the game, with the added pressure / reward of ‘going for the win’ improves their focus and causes them to act much quicker rather than being ponderous (at best) or somewhat apathetic in a drill.

The thing I tweeted about which got quite a few retweets was that I didn’t say much the whole practice, and really left it up to them. I presented a ‘problem’, elicited a few possible solutions from them, made some clarifications to their input to keep the language / concepts simple, and let them figure it out themselves.  I think, most importantly, I told them all of this in the debrief, reminding them that I don’t care about the mistakes made, but was really happy to see so much quality and praised quite a few individuals for the leaps they’d made in their decision-making. Above all, they have fun with games. These are adult men and I still get a few saying “Aww, just one more try!” when I say practice is over!

Damn I love this coaching thing!  🙂

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I read a great article a few months ago examining how video games can teach us lessons about how Generation Y learns and why they find them so engaging. Today, this topic has come up again but this time from the cantankerous old man angle, thinking they’ll be the death of sport. I definitely side with the first article, as it’s apparent that video games do have a hold over a good many kids. Sports are still fun to play, but when you look at the reasons why video games are so engaging, I think there are some stark lessons which should cause us all to think about how we present the whole sporting experience.

If kids are quitting sports in favour of sitting in front of the TV / computer to play games, then it’s our fault as finally something has usurped coaches who make participation boring! I believe even many of those who continue to participate only go to training as it guarantees a chance to play in the actual game. So what can we learn from video games?

They’re more engaging and allow more freedom than your average sport training session, which is full of boring drills and game-play overly influenced by the coach. In video games, trial and error is fine, going completely off-script to explore for ‘Easter eggs’ is encouraged, players are free to learn on their own or collaborate with other players. How often do sports coaches allow failure to go unpunished, allow athletes freedom to discover their own abilities, or work out their own solutions rather than being fed the coach-approved ways to attack and defend? I’ve started likening typical sports training sessions to video game tutorials – you know, that thing at the start of some games where you can learn how to move and play guided by on-screen pop-ups and set scenarios. Who ever does those?!?!

But if game day or playing a game at training is like playing a level in a video game, it’s easy to see why numbers drop when more time is spent doing the ‘tutorial'”.  I recently brainstormed this and its implications for rugby training …


The original article, Coaching Edge’s “Level Best” by Crispin Andrews, can be found here:  http://www.sportscoachuk.org/sites/default/files/coaching-edge-level-best-article.pdf

Highly recommended reading!

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