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Archive for the ‘Coaching Theory and Philosophy’ Category

Recently, I’ve been wondering if we can simplify the way we approach rugby training. I’ve been an advocate of ‘game-based’ activities for many years now, but am concerned that I use too many different games. With the time needed to teach the nuances of each and for players to get used to the rules (not to mention for both of us to actually learn from them), I probably do waste a lot of time when I could simply rely on just a few really good activities. Now I can understand that those who coach in places with long seasons need to have new and engaging content to maintain attention, but here in Canada – at most – the club season runs four or five months. So, can those of us who coach in short seasons focus on just a handful of reliable and multi-faceted activities to train all that rugby demands? I’m beginning to think so, and will re-visit this when I finally nail down what those ‘few’ might be…

Currently, I have several games in mind that are my go-tos for ‘big picture’ concepts. I had to remind myself that I often encounter or support coaches who have athletes that are completely or fairly new to rugby. So what kind of activity can still be opposed, game-like, but still encompass a wide variety of ‘basic’ skills? When I looked at a lot of ‘drills’ I used to run, and considered what’s at the heart of them, I noticed that a lot of small unit activities were pretty much the same. So I’ve decided that most individual and small group attacking and defending skills can be done in something I’m calling the Tool Box Game. Simply, you have a simulated ruck area with a number of balls and ask x number of attackers to play against y number of defenders and different widths on either side so they can explore options under different conditions.

Tool Box Game

Above, we see how the left side is narrower than the right, providing different conditions when the attackers go that way. Normal rugby laws apply, especially with defenders staying onside (their side of the coned-off ‘ruck’ area) until the ball is played by the scrum half. I prefer ‘hugby’ (wrapping up safely, but without a completed tackle) over touch because it allows carriers to slip through and even hand-off poor defence (i.e. few defenders can make a tackle only with their out-stretched hands). Various constraints can be employed if attackers are truly struggling to exploit/create space, but they shouldn’t forget that ‘in-contact’ aspects can still be worked on in this game: offloads, screens, mauls. They shouldn’t be the default, however, so constraints on defenders should delay them rather than remove them (in a real game, our athletes are more likely to encounter defenders out of position than significant numbers advantages, so let’s have ours work out ways to take advantage of poor alignment rather than the obvious 4v2 overlap). Some delays I use are placing one or more defenders in ‘arriving’ positions (full back, coming from opposite side of ruck, etc.) or by making them do a down-up or turn their backs before the ball is played so the attackers can start with positions to exploit this.

If there are only four players, maybe the attackers can start play by tossing the ball up in the air a bit? Five works perfectly for a 2v2 game, and I don’t think I’d go much larger than 3v3 (with players positioned as seen above) or 4v4 (having defenders line up 3+1  scrum half or fullback or 2+ sweepers in both SH and FB positions?). This way, the participants can have more goes than if they were waiting in line for their turn. On this, I strongly encourage coaches to not be afraid to have multiple stations set up so athletes can experience maximum repetitions. You don’t have to give them feedback on every go; in fact, it’s better for them to not only keep trying, but also to figure out why things did/did not work, and if not from their own self-assessment, from peer feedback. If they’re truly not getting something or need to work on something they’re not noticing, that’s when a coach can pose a challenge for them to work on at length themselves.

With this self-management aspect in mind, it recently struck me that I could help them by creating a laminated ‘score card’ that allows them to keep track of successes and leave comments. It’s based on a concept I learned at a coaching course many years ago: the Attacking Toolbox. Simply: the full spectrum of options players can make before accepting a tackle and setting a ruck. For detailed description and examples of what those skills would be, look at this section of my website: https://rugbyguide.ca/welcome/attack/attack-individual/

Players can keep their score cards in the ruck area and make notes as they go or after several goes (or they can shout in to a coach or player waiting their turn / injured player looking to stay involved) with white board markers. The coach can collect them afterwards and keep a running tally of what they’re doing well and what areas they might want to improve upon. The content is completely flexible but I think it’s important to remind players of the full spectrum of possibilities (and as much as I’m a fan of kicking, I want ‘running only’ to be the main constraint of this small-sided game). I also think it’s important to score only things that get players over the gain line because that should be our focus in matches. Having run this activity many times, one thing I notice players who lack skill/confidence do is to start deeper and deeper, giving themselves credit for beating defenders but well behind the gain line and being caught by a cover/chasing defender before even getting back to the original gain line. I don’t like to lay down extra cones and say ‘start here’ but that might be needed to ensure players aren’t too deep (though their lack of success might indicate that).Tool Box Score Card Image

 

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I listen to a lot of podcasts and a lot of them leave me with one or two things to think about but aren’t worth blogging about as such or because I’ve already commented on the issues. This recent chat between John O’Sullivan from Changing the Game Project and author David Epstein really had me jotting down a flurry of notes (requiring three listens of the interview!). Epstein wrote the fantastic book The Sports Gene that looked at how various people were ‘built’ for their sport, and how sports are getting better at finding people who are best suited for them. His new book, Range (which I have yet to read, but am on the waitlist for at my library), focuses on people who succeeded while being a ‘generalist’ – that is, sampling a lot of activities and taking a winding ‘path’ toward success despite the pervasive narrative we hear about kids starting young and succeeding after 1000s of hours of deliberate practice (you’ve probably heard the 10k hours of practice line, which is largely a myth).

Here’s the chat: https://changingthegameproject.com/116-david-epstein/

Here’s the book:

My highlights as it relates to my experience / philosophies as a rugby coach are as follows:

11 mins … ‘Kind’ Learning Environments

Rather than the given examples of golf and chess, rugby is a sport that isn’t turn based and with closed skills. It’s largely random, often chaotic, and while it has recently been heavily structured with set piece like moves creeping into open plan and prescribed plans taking up a lot of play, it doesn’t have to be. Especially at amateur levels, where defences aren’t great, anticipation and reading of the situation is all that’s needed – if athletes are allowed the opportunity to experience this at training. Unfortunately, a lot of rugby training consists of blocked (i.e. box drills) practice and without opposition. Why do we train in ‘kind’ environments when the game isn’t kind? We don’t have to make it as high pressure as the game, but can still train with certain parameters that allow athletes to experience pressure and develop anticipation / reading skills from actual rugby contexts (and for Pete’s sake, please make them ‘rugby-like’ and stop playing rugby netball … we don’t pass forward in the game, so why do it at training at all when you can play or create something that actually challenges athletes to deal with constraints of rugby?)

14:30 … “breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer”

Rugby is a dynamic game that requires athletes to do a whole variety of things – and possibly the complete range of rugby skills – every few minutes. It’s not golf or baseball or even football, but teams often train like it is, doing things in isolation and often with very rigid plans. Rugby also tends to train very narrowly with, in my opinion, and over-reliance on ‘progressions’. How often do players see a neat 2v1 in a game? For new players, that’s a fine drill, but why not quickly move toward small game scenarios where they have to find or create the 2v1 amongst even numbers? The best players can anticipate play, react to opportunities/threats quickly and they’ve done this in environments where they’re allowed to explore and discover solutions that work for them. This can happen with even beginners and small children if the parameters of the activity are realistic to their needs. Provide them, as suggested by Epstein, with principles and the opportunity to develop adaptable skills rather than only giving them procedures to follow and heavy instruction on ‘the ideal’ way to execute techniques (which aren’t as likely to hold up under pressure and risk holding back from athletes a true understanding of the game, because they only ever have to do what they’re told).

From Epstein’s book: “…the more contexts in which something is learned, the more the learner creates abstract models, and the less they rely on any particular example. Learners become better at applying their knowledge to a situation they’ve never seen before, which is the essence of creativity.”

24:30 … The Calculus Course Study

I found this story fascinating and it highlights that ‘teaching to the test’ isn’t doing the students any favours. I’ve seen this in teams that kicked butt at school level because they had a solid plan and were up on some of the tricks that other teams didn’t know, but you wouldn’t see those players at the next level of play. There’s nothing wrong with teaching your athletes more advanced rugby knowledge – I’m all for it if they’re ready – but it’s important to ensure they know why such things work and how to remain flexible and adaptable, that is having actually learned the skill, not just applied what they were told blindly.

Supporting this is the discussion at 28 mins involving the teacher that seemed to be engaging whilst offering hints to students, with the reality being that they didn’t learn the concept, only eventually had the answer given to them. Lots of coaches now are taking on questioning strategies, which is better practice than simply telling, but a lot of time the questions already lead them to the answer or follow-up questions do, when the coach would be better off leaving athletes with an open question to answer when they’ve worked out the answer themselves (or keep the know-it-all athlete from interjecting!).

33 mins … Spacing

This is a concept I learned a few years ago and still am unsure how to best implement. Maybe there is no fixed way to space out activities to test and it depends on the group? When I did my Level 2 and learned about season planning, most of it didn’t sit well with me. I’m no expert, and admittedly it did seem like a lot more work, but I didn’t want to treat a rugby season like a box-ticking exercise of starting with basic skills and working towards more advanced. Why not mix it up: always working on fundamental skills and addressing things we need to work on as determined by the last game? It seems this is a sound way of doing things, as mentioned in the interview, because revisiting things not only allows athletes to keep working on them but when appropriately spaced out and when faced only with the challenge, not the answers, tests their recall (i.e. whether or not they’ve learned the skill).

Noteworthy coach educator Mark Upton talks about the “challenge point” and former England kicking coach Dave Alred refers to “the ugly zone” – where an activity is not so easy that nothing’s being learned and not so difficult that all the athlete experiences is frustration. And when these activities are returned to at random so that it’s not part of a blocked, robotic, rote procedure, the brain has to reframe and relearn, which apparently builds stronger neural pathways (i.e. the skill is actually learned and easier to recall / apply later). If you think about studying things over and over, even at random intervals, rather than cramming for a test or trying to recall something you learned at the beginning but haven’t visited for a long time, then it totally makes sense. One way Upton demonstrated the limits of repetitive basic practice is asking someone to do simple times tables over and over. Same with forever doing 2v1s… eventually the athletes will get that it’s a simple either/or exercise. We even see this when teams will have their complex patterns all down pat, but then blow a simple play because it’s not something they’ve worked on in ages. Using the math example, throwing in more complex math questions or random ones that aren’t related to each other, causes an individual to use mental math strategies. The same is true when you challenge athletes to solve various, realistic problems that help them with pattern recognition and applying various strategies to see which are best. Small sided games are great for this, because the conditions in any given moment (space, time, who they have vs who we have in this space, positioning of those bodies, etc) all make for a different challenge that isn’t as neat as a drill.  What we want are athletes that have strong understanding of the principles and fundamentals of play and a wide range of flexible/adaptable ‘tools’ that can be applied to any given situation quickly. As such, I think it’s best to work on these things at random so nothing ever becomes rote or is left for such a long time that they cannot be recalled quickly enough when a moment in the game invites their use.

52 mins … Immersive Environments

I’m not sure if it’s 100% true, but years ago it was suggested to me that New Zealanders are as good as they are because they play the game first and fine tune skills later. We tend to do things the opposite way: work on ‘skills’ (often just techniques) separated from the wider context of the game and then explore the game later (if the kids are lucky). Even if a Kiwi kid goes to school or club training and does the same drills as us, if I’m correct in thinking ‘game first’ is part of their success, it’s that their kids will have played a TON more rugby with friends in the park, family in the back yard, and in PE class where things won’t be nearly as structured. If our kids aren’t playing the game like that, then it’s up to us to recreate that at training with a lot more rugby-like game play. Especially in Canada, where our kids tend to start later, if we want to help them learn and have so much fun that they’ll stick with the sport longer, it only makes sense to give them a LOT of game play to develop context-influenced skills and enjoy their time at training. It might not look as neat and ordered as a traditional drill-heavy practice, but ‘immersion’ seems to be not just more fun but also more beneficial!

The story in the interview about Dynamo Zagreb stars who only joined the club late, despite claims that the legendary club ‘developed’ them, made me chuckle. That happens a lot in rugby as well, especially in countries where big money schools offer scholarships to the bring young talents who were already looking good on their own previous environment’s work / natural abilities.

So I think it’s important for our governing bodies – and for those of us ‘in the know’ where that’s not happening – to share best practices with everyone so we can create immersive environments where kids can not only explore and discover practical and creative solutions to the game’s problems, but where they’ll actually have more fun than if they’re forced to do a lot of drills and hope for a game at the end of training. It’s okay if it gets a bit messy, because that’s where learning occurs. A good coach will also adjust the parameters or constraints of activities to ensure that things aren’t too easy or too difficult, and give those who already ‘get it’ new challenges so that they’re not dominating and preventing the others from learning. (Just on that note, one I love is devaluing tries of dominant players: “Great try, Johnny! That’s your five-pointer now, and the rest are only worth one until the rest of your team has scored their five-pointers. You might want to help them by getting assists.”)

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In the summer, while touring around Germany, I read a book about the history and evolution of American football tactics and formations called Blood, Sweat and Chalk by Tim Layden.

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Years ago, I stumbled upon an article that covered this (which I haven’t been able to find since!) and it made me think about rugby’s evolution and the use of tactics. I do have a great book called Developments in the Field of Play by JJ Stewart, but it seems there was more innovation in the first 100 or so years of rugby than in the last 50, and largely because of law changes, not because coaches dared to be different. At the time of reading these, I didn’t think there was as much creativity in rugby as there could be. In the last couple of years, I think top level rugby has become even less creative and when I again hunted for the article, I stumbled upon Layden’s book. It covers about 100 years of changes from the pre-passing days to the current era. It admits that football has some of the same ‘copycat’ issues that rugby has, especially when an innovation proves successful, but it also suggests that there are still varied approaches and that the ‘old way’ occasionally gets re-used. Rugby doesn’t have such a wide range of historic approaches like football, and I’m not advocating rugby become very rigid like the American game can be, but when was the last time you saw, say, a dribbling rush in a rugby game? Do you even know what a dribbling rush is? (Forwards would kick the ball along the ground to advance it because you can’t be tackled if not carrying it!)

I’ve been thinking of some more creative approaches to playing, inspired by old rugby manuals, and this book has further emboldened me to see how they’d do in today’s game. What follows are my reflections from Layden’s book that might help you also make the game more interesting and rewarding for your players.

“Their work is equal parts science and art – the science of outmaneuvering an opponent like a military field commander and the art of understanding the subtleties of player’s abilities.” (9)

In expanding upon the above quote, Layden adds that while ‘chalk talk’ involves the study of concepts, that “the game isn’t played by concepts; it’s played by human athletes.” (10) This is a great reminder that no matter which point of the spectrum you fall, between ‘just the basics’ and ‘extreme creativity’, you still have to select approaches that suit the players you have, and that can change year to year. Professional teams – and some might say even representative teams (but I’d argue, for junior grades, that’s wrong and inhibits growth) – have the ability to select the athletes that fit the system, but the vast majority of us don’t have that luxury, nor do we have the time to mould raw athletes into a specific system when we can simply select strategy and tactics to suit them.

“Football innovation repeatedly proves itself the product of coincidence, of personalities thrown together and forced to improvise strategy for the sake of survival.” (27)

Layden tells the story about how, possibly, the ‘Wildcat’ formation, which snaps the ball to a non-traditional ‘quarter-back’, was born out of a coach having an incredibly fast receiver who’d played quarterback in junior high. He hadn’t known it was similar to the ‘Single Wing’ formation used decades before that had fallen out of fashion. The ‘unconventional’ approach worked for the boys he had, as it did for the coaches who employed it way back when, showing how working with, not against, constraints can produce something fantastic. He also talks about how good coaches see better roles for players and encourage them to play elsewhere when the stereotypical or traditional (i.e. “I’ve only ever played this position!”) might no longer suit (pp. 54-55). A high school quarterback who was too erratic to deal with defences / system at the next level found a new home and success as a wide receiver. The less-flashy backup ended up being the perfect steady QB to unleash the creative star. I’ve seen this several times in rugby where coaches put their best players at 9 or 10. Instead of putting them in roles where their space is limited, opt for competent ones who can deliver that ball in space. I suspect that’s why rugby League hookers act more like Union scrum halves, allowing all backs to operate in space. One of my teams allowed our incredibly elusive scrum half to do her thing in space with forwards making short passes to her from the breakdown, rather than force her to dig out every ball.

From innovation comes further innovation. Coaches who like the principle behind something new or a certain aspect of a creative approach can either tweak it to suit their own players or dream up something different having been inspired by it. One example given in the book looks at how the tight ‘Wishbone’ formation was altered into the wider ‘Flexbone’ formation (61), one relying on concentrated power with the other more on exploiting space. Football coaches, no matter the formation, always have many options of them. One of my critiques of top flight rugby at the moment is how the rigid systems approach claims to have options, but really the options are very few (and they are rarely ‘opted’ upon). As such defences tend to have an easier job when dealing with forwards, in particular. Pods almost always crash into the line with the first receiver, occasionally play out the back, and rarely ‘tip on’ to a second forward. Rare do we even see some of the intricate running lines and passing options seen in League, which, incidentally is where Union got the idea for dummy runners and second man plays. If every phase – including small groups of forwards – featured players in a dynamic shape, each with the potential to get the ball and do something with it in hand, defenders have a much more difficult task. The hesitation, over/under commitment, reactive rather than proactive decisions imposed upon defences by creative and dynamic attackers gives them the initiative. Doing the same thing everyone else does 75% of the time means you’re only, really, hoping for a rare mistake or to win a boring and exhausting battle of attrition.

Taking a creative approach to play is something many school and club coaches shouldn’t fear doing. What’s to lose if you’re already a team that’s perennially in the bottom half of the table or if jobs / recruitment aren’t affected by results? Hell, your players might actually understand the game better if they’re exploring how to do something different than the rest! To innovate beyond the status quo, you’ve got to know what it is. From the formations examined in the book, it seems that most innovation in football has come from college and even high school programs that took a risk or created a solution to a problem. Don Coryell’s San Diego State team, which couldn’t compete with local rivals to sign the best runners and blockers coming out of high school, revolutionized the passing game because he was able to get decent (possibly small?), underappreciated quarterbacks and receivers from junior colleges. Their success with the throwing game, when most others ran the ball, made me think about how many coaches discourage kicking in rugby. Yes, some players kick when the run option was on, and keeping possession is more likely with safe carrying and efficient ruck. But teams that are known to kick can face reduced pressure if the defence is not sure when the kick will come, some defences do not how to deal with kicks, and others will kick it straight back, allowing for a nice open counter-attack with defenders spread out all over the place.

The throwing game in football seems to be en vogue at the moment, and Kurt Warner’s statement on why he likes it also had me thinking about kicking in rugby. “The design of the offense was to continually put pressure on the back end of the defense. It was all about getting chunks of yardage.” (88) Bill Walsh’s use of short passes to expose blitz defences also seemed to have had both a reactionary and exploitative effect. In between going for the big scoring play and grinding teams down through dominance is achieving moderate gains through short plays 4-8 yards at a time. I’m someone who doesn’t put a lot of time into set piece plays and I’m also not in favour of the boring, attritional approach of one-out rugby and pick-and-goes. Like Walsh’s short throws, I challenge my athletes to break the gainline on every single phase – wherever that may be. They can follow a pattern if nothing clear and obvious presents itself, but as soon as possible, they should get back to a state where we’re breaching the gain line and forcing the defence to scramble a few metres back to re-establish their line. This perpetual state of disorder will eventually cause them to give us an easy scoring option, exposing uncovered space, a mismatch or an overlap. One of Coryell’s credos in this sense directly applies to rugby: “Never pass up an open receiver. If he’s there, stop ‘reading’ and throw it to him.” There’s no need to follow the script if something better is immediately apparent. Rugby has even more advantages in football in this regard, because we’re not limited by four downs. Going for short gains works everywhere so long as you win the ball back at the breakdown. In the recent November series, I was disappointed to see the All Blacks not do what they do best until late in the game – get behind the gainline by going wide quickly. Instead, they bashed it up the middle a metre or so at a time, which allowed the well-disciplined Irish defence to reorganize themselves and be ready for the the next one. Ireland may have only allowed a few more metres when the All Blacks went wide, but there’s a big difference in attacking defenders who’ve had to turn and run back and aren’t quite set / focused compared to running against those who’ve only had to take a couple of steps back and to the side, keeping your next wave in their field of vision the whole time. More ambitious moves that keep defenders guessing, giving up several metres at a time, and well-placed and chased kicks can offer the same sort of opportunities to turn pressure into better attacking options.

The other major takeaway I got from the book was related not to on field stuff, but off-field collegiality. There have been some immense rivalries and we’ve seen seemingly hard ass football personalities in the media, but the book suggests that much of the American football world is open to sharing ideas. Thinking back on my 18 years coaching, I can’t remember a time that a coach from another school or club shared what he or she was doing, and admitted to myself that I’ve only been doing it in the last few years. We talk a lot about rugby being this ‘gentleman’s game’ and having some kind of aura of inclusivity, but too often we’re going against that by protecting our own interests and not thinking about the bigger picture.

“Football socializes. Everything belongs to everyone else, especially diagrams on a board or the plays on a film.” (139)

Great coaches know that there’s always room to improve but how can any of us improve if we’re not challenged? I’ve seen programs dominate locally year to year, but then get shocked when they attend a tournament elsewhere? If you care about development and doing well at other levels (not to mention ensuring your players can go anywhere and be successful), then it’s up to us to be more open and share so we can raise our game. Our region challenges others to raise their game, and our province challenges others to match us, making the national team as strong as can be. I believe that’s the main reason New Zealand is so great, but I do wonder if that may wane a bit if the top schools continue to poach talent from the have-nots? I suspect they’ll be okay, though, because All Blacks and great pros continue to emerge from these schools, suggesting that their coaches still know how to develop good players even if they don’t have a wealth of talent at their disposal (especially given that rugby is a late development sport… how many of those school poaches go on to be great players would make for an interesting study!).

In football … “Coaches find each other. They hang out together and eat together and drink beer together… It is their way of finding normalcy. But it’s also a way of staying in the endless loop of innovation. Friends do not hide discovery from each other.” (149) Layden talks about coaches holding clinics for coaches and sharing resources even while they’re still using them. There’s a money-making aspect to it, sure, but there’s also the belief that letting others know what you’re doing will force you to do it better and develop ways to combat the ways your opponents would defeat your strategy and tactics. As suggested by the analogy offered at the start, the shrewd general is aware of how his enemies might defeat what’s made his army successful – the science of battle. He is also astutely aware of the subtle ways that his subordinates and troops on the ground operate, which is the art of leadership. I think the barriers to knowledge sharing and innovation in rugby are breaking down via social media and YouTube. With them, you can learn about a lot about how the top-level approaches rugby, but I think we can do a lot more to both share with the grassroots level and also not be afraid of trying to do something completely different than the pros. Whether or not your innovative approaches become the next big thing in the sport or even over-come the limitations you face, the process of examining deeper demands, needs, and possibilities will help you and your athletes understand the game so much more and allows them to benefit from a richer experience of exploration and discovery.

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I was fortunate to hear from a friend that noted RFU coach educator Richard Shuttleworth was doing two sessions in Ontario this week and I was lucky enough to be within driving distance of Ottawa to see his lecture and talk with him afterwards. The following is from the notes I took on the night:

 

Foundations

Whichever style one adopts, having philosophical and theoretical (research-based) foundations help back your approach and, importantly, provide crucial answers to the question: Why?

 

New Zealand Approach

Enjoy

Innovate

Positive approach to change

Sharing information (best can’t get better unless opponents drive them to be better)

Use of technology

 

Top 6 Rugby Skills

Responsible

Self-Aware

Self-Organising

Adaptable (creative)

Decision-Makers

Pressure (resilience)

RFU CARDS approach (creativity, adaptability, resilience, decision-making, self-organisation)

 

Athlete-Centred, Free-to-Fail Environment

England development players (U18 / U20) allowed to make decisions on a ‘feeling’ in a given moment. Not random, but based on knowledge of their strengths and how things are going in that moment (real information provided by teammates and opponents).

No wrong decisions. Good ones and poor ones.

Working out why is part of learning. Want athletes to reach a state of ‘safe uncertainty’ – free to work out own solutions without coach imposing (safe certainty), creating stress (unsafe certainty), or not having a clue (unsafe uncertainty). Athletes who can adapt are more resilient to pressure, especially in a free-flowing game like rugby where coaches are far away from the action.

 

Adaptability

Explore – Discover – Adapt (= learning)

… Australian medal winners tend to be younger, because they’ve recently come from this explore/discover/adapt process. Older and former medal winners less likely when they have abandoned the explore/discover process either because they were happy with what made them successful before or because they’ve over-analysed their perceived strengths / weaknesses without properly adapting to new realities / possibilities.

Moving away from old Information Processing model (human as computer – using memory and analytical skills to apply known solutions to recognised problems), which focused on closed and open drills. Now exploring Dynamical Systems Theory and Ecological Dynamics (interactions of athletes based on information of their playing space), which relies more on guided discovery, static and dynamic activities.

Give athletes a toolbox and a problem to solve. Typically, they are given one tool and told to do a specific job a specific way (though Bernstein’s “repetition but not repetition” research proved we never do things the same way twice). The dangers of repeating a process without exploring a variety of tools and solutions stifles creativity, ambition, possible better solutions (especially as we’re all likely to have different solutions or at least different approaches to the ‘ideal’).

At Training: Give the desired outcome, challenge athletes to self-organize and explore / discover adaptable solutions relative to pertinent information provided by the activity. Requires the coach to have a sound understanding of the game’s demands, designing realistic constraints to encourage exploration – not force one. (This is related to Gibson’s notion of affordances – invitations to action provided by everything within the space. Perception drives action.)

In Games: Recognise what opponents want to do and take it away from them (within the laws of the game, of course). Deny them comfortability and where do they go from there? On the other side of the ball, unpredictability in attack causes opponents to be unstable, never settled and completely reactionary (i.e. impossible to deny what we want when it’s impossible to predict what we’re going to do; always reacting to and chasing the game).

Adaptive Game – want to live in the ‘Interactive Zone’. At other ends of spectrum are ‘Pre- Planned’ and ‘Re-Active’ zones. Best decision makers are in the middle and can tap into / adapt to polar ends to get themselves back into the dynamic interactive zone.

 

Feedback

Peer feedback is powerful – helps provide recipient with relevant information, does the work of as many coaches (coach will have helped them understand what’s important beforehand), reinforces knowledge within recipient AND deliverer.

Bandwidth Feedback – determine (best if players provide input) what is the acceptable bandwidth zone for success and error. No need for coach to intervene in this range because athletes know why errors are occurring and can self-analyse/organise. When stray outside of acceptable range, coach intervenes, but not too much as players will associate coach’s voice with negativity (coach can balance by providing short and simple feedback within bandwidth – celebrate, reinforce, one word reminders: “Jonny. Height?” “Right, coach! Will get lower.”). Use of questioning outside of the bandwidth is better than providing solutions (not to mention screaming negative comments!) because they are allowed to own the learning process, which allows them to understand ‘why’ rather than just ‘do as I say’. (Huge factor in Canada! Do they understand the principles of play and subtle nuances, or are most just robots bashing into the wall and occasionally getting through/around it by chance?)

An image of achievement both motivates and informs. So very important that our players (especially Canadians!) know what ‘good’ looks like, either through personal experience or by watching ‘the best’ do it. There is a danger in watching too much pro rugby, though … their game isn’t our game. We can create novel solutions on our own based on who we have, their abilities, and how they’d like to play.

 

Interesting Asides and Reflections:

(his information in bold, my reflections in normal text)

A heat map of NZ teams’ actions does not show highly concentrated data – that is, their actions are relative to information provided by opponents and not as much to a specific pattern of play. This is helped not only by top teams allowing this approach, but developed over years by culture of the sport in NZ (lots of free play, mixture of ages, touch’s popularity, skills for all, multi-sport… allowing this to flourish as they get older even in 1st XV sides).

“Rugby is an evasion sport not an invasion sport.” (…whereby ‘invading’ is the direct, attritional approach.) ‘Win the collision’ has ruined the game, in my opinion, leading to predictable, one-dimensional attacks. Arguably, not as safe either!

Academies in Scotland talk and share; English ones do not. Academies and rep sides have to pull together various different approaches – for us, in a short period of time – simple approach, based on principles of play, is easiest. Key, therefore, that people coming into the system have solid foundational knowledge. Broad, quality coach education is vital to provide disparate programs with this foundational information.

‘Skills Coaches’ make their money from being drill sergeants. There is no ‘right’ way of executing a technique or performing a skill. Avoid giving terms to an action as it encourages athletes to believe there is just one ‘ideal’ way. Rugby is often jargon heavy with the fundamental meaning of the action being lost (immediately or over time… ‘linespeed’ is a great example. Fast? How fast? Everyone at same speed? Not everyone runs at the same speed? What about a clever shooter like Owen Farrell?) Added danger here is that they might see that as the only solution to that problem, blocking them from exploring ones that might better suit them and/or playing conservatively because that’s all they know / feel they’re allowed. Provide, instead, outcomes and principles that athletes can simply do and adapt solutions to (Ex. Defence should aim to stop behind gain line and deny spaces to run into, pressuring them to turnover possession… regardless of ‘linespeed’.  With passing, should be in front of hands and delivered quickest route possible … how it’s done isn’t important if those are achieved).

England forwards seeing ‘winning penalties’ as a measure of a successful scrum. Kiwi thought tries scored from scrums would be a better measure, based on their culture.

England U20’s unplanned hotel space – informal / formal spaces, players made formal less-formal and thus more comfortable and open to interactions. Where can we create this space where we don’t have fancy facilities? What do they need to facilitate openness, interaction, collaboration?

Opponent as ‘decision-maker’. The information they offer provides the decision. Good decision makers are comfortable making late decisions, reading the information provided and picking the optimal solution; late means fewer options for opponent (can’t predict and proactively act, only react…if it’s not already too late!). Rather than doing the 2v1, play even numbers and make athletes EARN the 2v1 within it.

There’s a danger in treating the weekly match like an ‘exam’ where everyone’s actions are under the microscope. Leads to unnecessarily high pressure and conservatism and it’s not fair, especially on younger athletes. Should use training to explore, discover and adapt – free from pressure so individuals can extend their boundaries but the game – but game provides the added pressure and uncertainty that is beyond what can be created in training (typically, though England claim to be going beyond to make game days easier than training … seemed to work, but is it now???).

A curriculum / concepts shared for the betterment of the game. Example: Scotland have encouraged a 2-second ruck to speed up play. Probably works for their culture and smaller athletes. What socio-cultural aspects can we tap into? Multi-sport is our untapped strength. New Zealand way is apparent. Belgium football have imposed the 4-3-3 to create more well-rounded, tactically aware players.

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Having been interested in military history since I was a boy, I suppose my view of training in ye olden times has been skewed by films portraying the leader that barks orders, treats the men harshly and simply demands they be better after breaking them down and drilling them hard. Several years ago, I worked for a naval museum and was for the first time exposed to actual training manuals from the World Wars. Generally speaking, I was shocked by the standards, methods and beliefs professed in these manuals. Contained in them are way more ‘modern’ positive and constructive approaches to instruction than I thought I’d see!

Below I will share some wonderful passages from a guide for British military instructors from just before the start of the Second World War. I am sure there was still the barking that we see in films like “The Hill”, but the expectations for military instructors as outlined in this book could easily find themselves in progressive, athlete-centred coaching manuals today. And, even better than today’s coaching books that drudge on and on, it’s a 16-page book that can be accessed for free!

From: Creedy, HJ. Notes for Instructors on the Principles of Instruction. The War Office. 30 June, 1939.

Learner-centred instruction in 1939? I didn’t learn this concept until maybe 5 or more years into my coaching journey!

“A successful instructor should know not only his job as a soldier, but something of the ways in which the minds and bodies of recruits work and of the most effective and economical way of learning and teaching.” (4)

“[The recruit] will learn a great deal of what is required indirectly without any special instruction. Consciously and unconsciously, by imitation of those around him, he will pick up many of the traditions, customs and ideals of the service which he has entered.” (4) I know someone who played for one of the most successful schools in Ontario who felt their success wasn’t so much due to coaching as it was peer learning and emulating the senior players who were also their mentors.

“Instruction is most effective when the will to learn is present, and this comes when the recruit is interested in the work at hand. It should therefore be the object of the instructor to seek out methods whereby he can stimulate and maintain the interest of the recruits. Among the many ways of doing this are such aids as variations in the work, avoidance of over-fatigue, grading of work to suit the stage reached by the recruit, and the exhibition of an enthusiastic interest in the work in hand by the instructor himself. Enthusiasm is infectious…” (5)   … taking on multiple roles, keeping things fresh, enthusiasm, excitement, having (not-silly) fun. Again, concepts only a few coaches now seem to adhere to.

 

The following immediately had me thinking about current buzz around “team culture”:

“Competition is very useful in maintaining interest. Individual competition should not be overdone lest it unduly depress the slower members of the squad. Collective competition is more valuable in obtaining the co-operation and interest of individual members, and in leading to a healthy pride in their unit.” (6)

 

There’s been a big push the last few years to use effective questioning to stimulate thought and value athletes’ opinions, getting them to understand concepts more deeply. Meaningful feedback and looking after ‘slower learners’ as much as the quicker ones is also covered. I was surprised to see the following in any military manual from any era:

“Interest may also be stimulated by appeals to the recruit’s intelligence.” (6)

“Questions will help the instructor to see whether his explanations have been appreciated. These should be economically worded, free from ambiguity, to the point, and asked at the right time.” (6)

“Above all, the instructor should endeavour to understand the recruits’ point of view and to follow the workings of their minds.” Avoid sarcasm. Use sympathy and understanding. “Sympathy in this sense does not involve ‘softness’, but rather the ability to develop in the recruits an attitude of confidence in their instructor…” (7)

“Continual failure depresses and the learner tends to lose heart. Instructors, therefore, should commend good work, not only on the part of the quicker recruits, but also when some improvement is shown by the slower learners… … the instructor should reserve serious reproach for those efforts which are accompanied by slackness or carelessness.” (7)

 

Though there is an instructor-led, step-by-step model described in the manual, I felt the choice of words here strongly suggests that the learner is also (if not largely) responsible for recognising incorrect habits:

“Sometimes movements which are not particularly helpful become incorporated into the system and, if they are not detected at an early stage and corrected by the learner, they may never be completely eliminated.” (9)

Between pages 10 and 11, it puts forth a learning model that those who subscribe to the ecological, perception-action, constraints models will disagree with. But this is true of all models: “The recruit learns much more by doing than by listening… [i]nstructors should therefore rely more on practical work and the recruits’ responses than on verbal exposition.” (11)

 

Non-linear learning??? I don’t think I even learned this in my teacher training in 2001!

“Instructors are warned that progress in learning acts of skill is not necessarily a steady and continuous business. There are often arrests and even setbacks in development.” (11)

“It must also be remembered that individual recruits will vary in their rates of progress… [i]t is the instructor’s task to get from every man the utmost efficiency of which he is individually capable.” (12)

“[The instructor] … should also have a clear idea of the method to be used in teaching these movements, and of the difficulties likely to be encountered by the learners. He must be prepared to adapt his methods to the particular squad that his teaching according to their varying natural abilities. All this will require much thoughtful preparation before the actual drill period.” (13)

 

Those of us who have jumped on the Constraints-Led Approach and Perception-Action Coupling bandwagons will appreciate the following:

“The drill activity should be carried on… with as realistic a basis as possible, in order to stimulate keenness and maintain interest… the recruit then gets the ‘feel’ of the real thing and the whole movement is practiced and consolidated in the form in which it will ultimately be used.” (13-14)

 

This was part of another instructor-led section, but as with the ‘learner responsibility’ element mentioned earlier, this bit on efficiency in delivery also suggests that the instructor needs to be specific, let the learners get on with it, and inspire them into understanding the concepts deeply themselves:

“[T]he instructor should watch the effects of his work on all the listeners, as the success of his teaching is to be measured by their reactions. His words should set them thinking, gathering new ideas, sorting them out and anticipating what is coming. He must know his subject thoroughly, be able to select the important points and present them effectively with the minimum of words.” (15)

“Successful instruction is mainly a result of mastery over one’s job, knowledge of the effective methods of teaching, understanding of the workings of recruits’ minds and of their abilities and limitations, and, perhaps what is most important of all, enthusiasm for the work.” (15-16)

“It is the individual recruit who is the ultimate teaching unit and who must be stimulated to make the required efforts on his own behalf which will lead him to become an efficient soldier.” (16)

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Professional teams use systems, patterns and sequences, largely, because today’s defences tend to offer no easy attacking opportunities. Their well-drilled ‘basics’ and way the game is refereed tends to favour the attacking team, so they can get away with stringing together a couple dozen phases or more of smashing into the defensive line, patiently waiting for their opponents to make a defensive error or give away a penalty. (Frankly, I am increasingly getting bored with it.)

At the amateur level, however, defences are not so well drilled and on pretty much every phase there are opportunities to exploit. I also believe it’s up to those of us who work with kids and teens to foster their understanding of the game and to help them become skilfully adaptable. Even if they do not go any higher or do graduate into a coach-led, rigidly-structured system, the beauty of rugby – I think – is in how skilful players coordinate themselves to overcome the chaos of it. Amid this potential chaos, to provide the players with some guidance, I try and keep things simple and focus more on principles and guidelines, not rules. These help players follow a general course of action and suggests where to go in a given moment. Once that decision is made, they rely on their understanding of tactical elements (depth, width, angles, timing) and execute skilfully to create a linebreak or get beyond the gain line.

I have covered building an attacking strategy on the principles of play before, but have more recently developed some ideas on strategic guidelines as an alternative to rigid game plans, patterns, sequences and systems. The following are not rules players must follow, but options that allow them to discover workable solutions on their own, anticipating and acting upon their environment, and demonstrating or developing their adaptability through various skills. This is central to my coaching philosophy because I want the players I work with to be able to play successful and attractive rugby without me telling them what to do. I am happiest to hear when they go on to play for someone else and are just as aware, adaptable, and analytic as when I was working with them.

Strategic guidelines serve several purposes for any level of athlete:

  1. Provide focus and clarifies objectives
  2. Provide a limited number of options for a recognised scenario
  3. Provide a ‘fall back’ option under extreme pressure, when obvious options aren’t apparent

Generally speaking, I ask the players to consider the following, from a state whereby defenders are disorganised to one where they are more organised.

Strategic objectives when space is available:

  • Go Through (gaps between defenders)
  • Go Around (space out wide, or around the wall of defenders ahead of the rest)
  • Get Behind (by kicking, in between or behind those responsible for coverage)

Strategic objectives when space isn’t so apparent:

  • Shift the defence (move their concentration to one side, or establish a breakdown and beat them around the corner)
  • Drive them back (move back far enough that they have to reorganise, even better if they have to turn to get back onisde)
  • Chase and pressure (kick may go to waiting opponents, but the chase puts them under immense pressure, forcing them to return possession to us with defenders scattered or through a set piece)

Which path the players take is up to them based upon who they have and what they see in a given moment. Players that recognise opportunities must communicate this information to the decision makers quickly and clearly so they can consider / act upon it. It goes without saying that it’s vital for them to train under realistic conditions so they can recognise opportunities and test out solutions. It’s impossible to do this in drills and only randomly done in large, open games without constraints. Otherwise, you are treating game day as a training exercise.

When deciding upon which is the best, the most essential question is: Where is it easy to play? (i.e. Where are we most likely to achieve a linebreak with the least amount of effort / risk?)

Some specific questions for players to consider are:

Who are our best available strike weapons and are they in a good position at the moment? Is there a more efficient option to take right now that either buys them time or sets them up on a later phase?

Where is the space? Who is best placed to run into it? (Ball carrier to run into or is a pass to someone else better?) Where will the defence be by the time the ball gets there?

Where are there mismatches we can exploit? Quick player vs slow player? Big player vs smaller player? Have we discovered any consistently poor defenders / tacklers? Is someone well out of position and/or carrying an injury? (not to further injure that person, but someone carrying a limp and too prideful to sub off is going to be easy to run around)

A clear linebreak is an invitation for support to funnel through quickly and communicate with the ball carrier as to where continuity can be maintained.

Where clear opportunities for a linebreak do not exist, players can rely upon some universal aspects of rugby to re-establish a state of disorganisation where they are more likely to occur.

Shifting: If we move over there, they will follow us over there. If they are not there quick enough, we can beat them around the corner. If they do get there at about the same time, we might have dragged them away from and created space where we started.

Essential elements:

  • Considered width and speed / accuracy of passing to get it there (does not require a first receiver to be wide so long as the passes are accurate).
  • Quick and efficient recycle so next phase is starting while opposition are moving into place / just getting set.
  • A significant portion of your team ready to exploit the space available / created. If everyone flows to the action area and some have to withdraw and re-align themselves, this will give the opposition time to set up themselves.

Driving Back: Where defences are well-disciplined, we want to march them back and re-establish a scenario in which we can look for ‘easy’ opportunities. The more we move them back, the more disorganised they will be / the more time they will need to get organised. (Ideal: defenders turn and have to run back to get onside. Less efficient: If they only have to take a step back and shuffle. Not ideal: They are making tackles behind the gain line.)

Essential elements:

  • Running onto the pass to catch defenders on / close to the offside line and having momentum to change direction suddenly / power step / power into opposition.
  • Close support to bind on and drive through contact / receive offload / clear out ruck.
  • Quick recycle and transfer of the ball, hopefully to exploit a disorganised state, or to continue building momentum as per the previous phase.

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While catching up on a bunch of recent episodes from the Perception & Action Podcast, I thought I might compile some of my thoughts on them as they relate to how we design effective training sessions.

The first of these focused on the rate of change in an athlete’s performance due to practice. Ep. 84 – Time Scales in Motor Learning

1:58 … We learn things at different rates and we do not learn at a consistent rate, experiencing periods of stagnation and even regression, with occasional lurches back to the norm or beyond. Some also progress faster than others. I think it’s important for coaches to be aware of this and help athletes not to get discouraged if things aren’t improving as quick as one would hope or if there are moments where they seem to go backwards. It’s all part of a normal learning process.

6:55 … “Warm-Up Decrement” is the time it takes someone to get back to an already-achieved level of performance when revisiting a known task. It’s probably not due to loss of ability, but in not being adequately prepared for the task at hand. So, it’s important that athletes be appropriately aroused for the task, focused on the right learning objectives and to have realistic expectations for the task’s procedure and possible outcomes. If a coach throws athletes into an activity with no mental preparation, they will waste time just figuring out what they’re supposed to do.

8:45 … When we over-do an activity, we will see a decline in performance over time. The phenomenon of “reminiscence” is when we see a return to a normal level of performance when returning to it after a period of rest. Fatigue certainly is a factor, but people can improve upon previous ‘best’ after re-starting the task later. This is common among rugby kickers who do well for the first few, dip in quality even after just a few, but then return to kicking well after doing another task in between. (Dave Alred seems to only let his kickers and golfers do just a few in a row before they have to do something else, and then return to a short set of shots, etc. etc.). So why do we improve?

Prof. Gray: “When we start with a different set of initial conditions, it encourages a performer to take a different route through perceptual motor space to find the appropriate movement solution. When we keep the conditions the same, the performer will settle at a locally optimal solution that it may be difficult to get out of.”  (11:39)

11:58 … This is why athlete-centred coaching is so effective. We consider each as a unique individual with specific needs and that relishes a new challenge. It’s breathing air into a fire to stoke the flames rather than adding yet another log onto one that’s down to just coals. It may keep going at the same rate doing so, but it’ll never grow without stirring it up and allowing it to breathe.

I think it’s important to consider this when warming up for a training session. Is doing the same old thing really sparking athletes for the challenges and learning to come? Without a doubt, it’s important for athletes to get loose and get the blood flowing, but this can be done in countless different ways. I give credit to the last team I coached on this: they were okay with spending 10 minutes at the start of every session doing some kind of fun game – even kids games! – that had them moving in many directions at a high tempo. I can’t think that anyone ever pulled a muscle and it really sold me that the traditional dynamic warm-up wasn’t completely necessary.

This podcast also highlighted how a varied approach better prepares the brain for optimal learning.

 

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