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Archive for the ‘Coaching Theory and Philosophy’ Category

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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As amateur coaches, we typically only get to see our athletes (if they all show up!) twice a week. In Canada, our seasons – especially for school / university coaches – are short. Even if you are blessed with a lot more time than this, we have to do our best to ensure our training sessions are well-planned so the athletes get the most out of them.

My ‘Guiding Principles’ are four things that must be part of every training session and, when I think of the big picture, encapsulate the entire training / playing / social environment of my teams. I do my best – and demand the athletes do their part as well – to ensure we are always having Fun, that the activities are appropriately Challenging, that we are engaging in an Educational pursuit toward building skills and knowledge, and that we are doing so in a Supportive environment that is both positive and constructive.

When looking closely at the specific elements that must be present to ensure the above, I choose / design activities that are:

Focused: There’s no point in keeping athletes in the dark, making them guess the point of an exercise or going into an activity with a vague understanding of what the coach expects. At times, I’ll have an over-all theme for a training session that the athletes can keep in the back of their minds the whole time, but regardless, each exercise I’ve chosen for the session has a clearly-stated set of expectations. At the outset, I’m also happy to field questions and have athletes propose solutions if I’ve presented them with a tactical problem to solve. Too often, coaches can get bogged down in their athletes doing the drill ‘right’ and forget what the aim should be (If your drill is that complicated, the athletes probably aren’t going to be learning any skills they can carry forward anyway!). These expectations challenge athletes to set their own goals and allow them to figure things out for themselves (self-discovery being the most powerful and long-lasting way to learn). This also helps the coach stay on task regarding feedback, which I like to deliver on the fly, reinforcing what contributed to a success and largely ignoring mistakes. I find athletes tend to be their own worst enemies when mistakes are made, so give them breathing room to try again. They can ‘own’ the mistake and re-frame their approach on the next go-around based on the aims of the exercise (also ignoring things that don’t matter). If mistakes have become consistent, then I’ll try and get the athlete to work through what’s going wrong via questions rather than providing answers. This allows them to get a picture of what happened and work out how to improve by visualizing and feeling the correct action before trying again.

Active: When I took a coaching course in Australia, one of the conductors hit me over the head with a hammer, so to speak, when he talked about how sessions typically play out. Up to this point, I definitely had been guilty of wanting to be the ‘sage on the stage’ rather than the ‘guide on the side’ – simply, I talked way too much, wanting to correct / assess every little thing. I, like many coaches, also felt I had to watch and assess every single ‘go’ of a drill, so would have just one set out. This typically results in just a few people doing the thing and the majority of players standing in line waiting their turn. This is not an efficient way to run a training session. If timed out, your athletes could be spending half the session standing still and just half moving! With clear expectations and a familiar set of activities (there’s no need to keep bringing in new drills, in my mind), you can lay out multiple sets of small sided activities and trust the athletes can manage by themselves. You can position yourself in between to keep an eye on two or more and give some specific attention while others carry on.

Another important reminder I’ve learned on my coaching journey is that kids have been playing games with logical and fair rules, focusing on developing their skill long before I met them. There’s no harm in giving them free reign once the exercise and objectives have been stated. High tempo, non-static activities with minimal standing around also means we’re tapping into some ‘fun fitness’. I may be biased, having been a chubby prop in my playing days, but I hated when we’d have big fitness elements during our twice-a-week training sessions. I knew I needed to improve upon my fitness for the benefit of the team, but if given a high tempo and challenging game to play, I’d actually give you more effort than if you made me do wind sprints and calisthenics.

Significant: Related to the above, the activities chosen have to be done for a significant amount of time to allow the athletes a chance to have a go at the thing and/or play a different role in the activity several times before moving on to the next. I remember watching a guest session by a former national team player once that had too many activities crammed into it, most involving one grid for a group of 25-odd players. I picked out one friend in the crowd and followed her progress. In about 10 minutes, she’d been on the attacking side (the focus of the drill) 7 times and touched the ball 4 times. She’d had just four chances to practice a skill that was not addressed at any other time in the session. This is not very efficient if the aim is learning new skills. Soccer coaches talk about the number of ‘touches of the ball’ being the most important and I’ve heard this more and more in ice hockey circles, hence their move to smaller sided mini games. Rugby needs to catch onto this as well. Give your athletes the opportunity to have a go at activity as much as possible. I’ve run entire sessions where we just did three related activities, each with a progressively larger scope, over an hour and a half. As former England coach Dave Alred said in a lecture, a typical rugby action only involves about 4-6 people. This range is perfectly-balanced for tactical aspects of the game. Combinations of them can allow you to build continuity over multiple phases – I stress that moving from phase to phase, getting aligned quickly and with purpose is where success starts – or allow you to work on strategic aspects of the game.

Relevant: Another great lesson I learned in Australia, while taking a Level 2 coaching course through the Brumbies at the Institute of Sport, was to plan sessions on current needs and proportionally so.

Addressing a team’s needs seems like a no-brainer, but I have seen teams spend a lot of time on unopposed set-piece moves that never get used in a game because their passing under pressure skills were poor. Fancy angles and clever support lines are useless if the initial passers cannot get their timing correct. Conversely, some players only get to work on angles and support between phases in games because coaches focus too much on narrowly-focused ‘basic skills’. Coaches therefore need to be aware of what their athletes really need. We’ve probably all had groups that also had different needs. Most memorably for me was a team that had national team players, provincial representatives, experienced club players of various abilities and relative newbies in the same squad. Everyone appreciated splitting an activity up into groups with differentiated objectives, one or more with higher ordered demands and another one or two that focused on more basic elements. We’d combine for continuity-building exercises and to gain a clearer sense of abilities / limitations.

I also contend that we should spend more time on the things that happen most often in a game, and for rugby that’s the various aspects of open play. I will certainly not ignore that scrums and lineouts have critical safety elements to them, but especially for teams under-20 I will not spend 45 minutes of every training session working on them when we see just a handful in a game and they are not that crucial to our success. This may be different for, say, an adult team or where your open game is fine and the set piece is leading to a lot of turnovers. You can add to the realism by starting dynamic open play activities with a set piece (or a modified one, like a left 4 vs right 4 of the scrum if you don’t have the numbers). Simply put, it’s important to consider what your team really needs to work on at this point in time to ensure their matches are both fun and reasonably successful. When I think about the big picture, running with and supporting the ball, passing under pressure against several defenders with several teammates in support, and tackling / contesting from phase to phase takes up the majority of my sessions.

Realistic: Without delving too much into the science of skill acquisition – as I understand it that is, not being a scientist but having read a LOT about it the last few years – you should strive to select activities and parameters that reflect the game as much as possible. Here in Canada, especially, we have rugby players who haven’t been playing the game for long and who’ve had shorter seasons than, say, Brits or Kiwis. When you consider, then, the amount of times they’ve touched the ball and tested their abilities against determined opposition, we are FAR behind. Coaches can accelerate the learning process afforded by the game and ensure athletes are more familiar with game conditions through the selection and design of realistic activities. When top athletes say the game seems to slow down for them, it typically means they are so familiar with what they’re seeing that they’re better able to understand what’s going on and therefore pick the best action in the moment (this is called perception-action coupling if you want to do more research on it). When we use drills that focus on just a few players in a small box or with no opposition, we are working on a very limited set of conditions. Rugby players are probably faced with more congestion in their visual field than any other invasion game, and having the ability to carry, pass, and kick ahead with 14 team mates in support creates countless variables. I am willing to bet that there are so many one-out crash balls in rugby these days because athletes have been inundated with pre-planned, programmed game plans – likely with passive opposition, if any at all – and a belief that ‘the basics’ must be mastered statically before being put into a game situation. There’s a lot of science that contradicts this (I need to do a post in future highlighting the great professors and experts who are sharing this knowledge on the web!). These athletes have not had the opportunity, or have not been challenged, to assess the typical patterns faced in rugby and work out the timing and coordination necessary to overcome them. We must build this reality into our activities, or accept that you’re basically asking athletes to test themselves on game day! Instead, we should be creating a training environment with such a realistic look, feel, tempo and pressure that game day is comfortable and familiar. This might not be appropriate if your team is merely in it to have fun, but English players under Eddie Jones have stated that game day is actually easier than training sessions!

If we take a typical attack versus defence drill, we can have a look at how realistic it is. Many of them ask players to go around cones, ball in hand, from a line and take on their opponents (usually an imbalanced number) with a large gap between them. Yet another powerful lesson I learned overseas was to consider how realistic this is… players don’t come around the corner like that in a game (and when they do, the latter players are well behind the play and/or have to work much harder to get wide, and their options are limited as a result). Good teams get into a dynamic position quickly and then call for the ball. It’s also not ideal to give the opposition so much time to read and adjust to the play. Being too flat limits ones options, so giving players that flexibility is important because they’ll have it in the game and need to know what the results will be. How flat one starts depends on individual skill and abilities, how the situation has unfolded (are we on the front foot or back foot?), and the space provided (narrow channel vs significant width). So why not build that into an activity? Attack in rugby can essentially come down to creating 2 v 1 situations, yes, but ‘creation’ is the key element there. It’s very rare that we find imbalanced numbers, and when we do it should be an easy thing to exploit given that every player has started out with the 2 v 1 and knows to draw and pass with good timing. Playing with even numbers and certain conditions imposed upon individuals (called the Constraints Based Approach to skill development) presents a more realistic scenario. It not only provides the look and feel of the game, but also allows athletes a better opportunity to learn how to: a) exploit opportunities that occur in the randomness of a game, or b) create them where they do not readily appear.

Here’s an example of one activity I like to use that has a realistic look and feel, providing various scenarios based on the theme of creating line breaks. I like to use shields in this activity to limit full contact and encourage players to fight through the gaps between rather than right at defenders (i.e. the branches of the trees, rather than the more-solid trunks). Free defenders, not holding bags, who can stop the attackers with just a tag encourages attackers to use quick passing before contact once they’ve made a linebreak.

Line Break Scenario - Large Scale

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This is a subject I meant to cover at a later date as I’m still sorting out the best way to word things in a rugby context, so consider this a ‘conversation starter’. I’ve been asked to comment here by a friend who said I should more publicly share some thoughts I posted on facebook in support of this ‘vlog’ post by Stuart Armstrong at The Talent Equation. Stuart works as Head of Coaching for Sport England and as Player Pathways Manager for the English RFU, so he certainly knows his stuff! As such, I’ll let his words do the talking on the issue before I say anything …

If you’re craving more, check out his blog, or his interview on the Perception and Action and Coach Your Best podcasts.

He’s also offered some practical advice in a blog post entitled: The War We Are Fighting with Game Designers … an idea I first encountered from an article entitled Level Best, which examines some of the reasons why kids find video games more engaging than sport. Stuart mentions it in the video as well, but for me, the simple answer is that video games are more fun than the fitness- and drill-heavy training sessions kids are forced to endure before those few minutes at the end (if they’re lucky) when they get to play an actual game.

Why not make all of training game-like?  With the Women’s Premier side I coached last year, I think we maybe dedicated 20 minutes a week to set piece (more to give this week’s lineup a chance to sort some things out before doing it all in a full-on contest for 20-30 minutes against a nearly (if not fully) complete side). Players were welcome to do ‘skill work’ (more on why this is a misnomer later) prior to training, and we didn’t do much in the way of drills at all. Everything else was either a small-sided game or a situational skill development activity (say, two evenly numbered groups arriving at a ruck and playing three phases off it).

Drills really only focus on technique with a bit of pressure and usually a predictable course of action. Those are the good ones. Poor ones have no opposition at all! Research I’ve encountered suggests that good drills are useful for new learners to acquire an effective movement pattern, or to become familiar with the pattern that’s new to the learner. But, as Stuart says, experts suggest these don’t really transfer to the game that effectively. [This post just being a ‘conversation starter’, I won’t go deeply into the research as I’m still learning about it myself, but the Perception and Action podcast is a great gateway to learning about all this stuff!]. I’m still not 100% on a definition for ‘skill’, but my Australian coach educator put it on a higher plane, as a combination of techniques in a dynamic environment.

At the other end of the continuum from drilling technique in isolation is ‘the game’ itself. The game can be a great teacher, but many people can muddle through a game they love for years and never really get better. As Stuart mentions in the video, it also doesn’t necessarily allow for some individuals to get as many touches of the ball as a drill might, so opportunities for learning could be few and far between.

Somewhere in the middle of this we have game-like activities. I think coach Dave Alred is spot on when he said recently that rugby decisions are typically made among a maximum of five people (see this wonderful lecture for that quote and more). In the amount of time an individual has the ball, there are usually not more than that many people who can effectively participate in the action chosen. Those individuals are faced with a similar number of opponents in their field of view. With this in mind, it only makes sense to work in small groups.

The key word Stuart kept saying was ‘context’, and it is everything when developing skill and learning the game. Drills offer high repetitions, but very low context compared to a game – and I think it’s safe to say that rugby players face more contextual interference / visual stimuli in their field of vision than any other athlete (barring maybe a football quarterback, who’s often relying on set patterns of play rather than dynamic decision making). When you think about it, it’s ridiculous to only work on technique in low pressure activities, leaving the high pressure contextual stuff until game day! It’s no wonder rugby teams can look very one-dimensional as soon as the whistle blows.

As indicated by the title of Professor Rob Gray’s podcast, “perception and action” coupling is key to skill acquisition – that is, one has to ‘perceive’ the environment and choose an appropriate ‘action’ that will hopefully lead to a successful outcome. Skill acquisition experts have called these ‘affordances’ (if you want to do more Googling) that invite a response, and they are not just visual, but can also be auditory and mental. Players can recognise cues or anticipate actions based on any number of affordances. By the very nature of drills being low context, in a smaller playing area, with fewer people, it’s not very likely that athletes are able to assess, coordinate, and problem solve in them.

So what do we do instead? Simply, treat elements of the game like dynamic scenarios with a few athletes at a time either rotating through the scenario or having to repeat the process over a number of phases (above, I called them by the hardly-sexy term ‘situational skill development activities’). You probably already do activities like this, but I’d urge you to get out of the habit of calling them ‘drills’. You shouldn’t be ‘drilling’ or prescribing anything into a dynamic situation that can have a few or many possible outcomes. How else will athletes make those decisions in the game (rugby being one of the most continuous, high pressure games with the coach(es) far removed from most athletes)? I like to use these as a build-up to conditioned games that allow units or an entire team to play something almost like the real game, if not exactly that. It’s like allowing squads of soldiers train together and coordinate tactics before coming together as a platoon and going to war.

Scenario-based activities allow for a lot more ‘repetition’ – i.e. many touches of the ball – if you’re willing to let go of control and set up as many of them as you need to keep everyone moving constantly or, at most, having a 1:1 work / rest (and, importantly, observe!) ratio. Here’s where coaches can limit the possibilities:

  • Having just one set up so people are still waiting in line, making the activity over complicated … or too simple! … How often do you get 7v4 or have 20m of space between attack and defence in a real game? Rugby’s more often about working in lanes with not much space in front.
  • Frequently stopping to correct. Mistakes are learning opportunities, so try using feedback on the fly or simply let athletes time to sort out their own ideas before coming to you if they’re really stuck.
  • Focusing too much on the ‘rules’ rather than the learning objectives. Instead, state those learning objectives from the onset and trust that athletes know what’s expected. If they’re struggling to reach 50% success, then a quick chat about what’s not working and what is, with a willingness to alter the playing area / rules to increase success will help. You want athletes to be able to test and understand the consequences of their decisions, so a little bit of both is necessary. Because self-discovery is a powerful way to learn and retain those lessons, it’s also important not to give out too many answers!

As Stuart so rightly points out, this makes training more fun and engaging. Regardless of how well my team did, I was most pleased when people told me how much they enjoyed these activities and how I could see transferable results in game footage, attacking with the same sort of dynamism they showed at training.

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I’ve been listening to a wonderful podcast for a few months now called The Perception & Action Podcast, hosted by Professor Rob Gray from Arizona State University. His informative episodes cover a range of topics on human movement and psychology in sport. Often, the episodes consist of him relaying information or examining new research, and I must commend him that he generally does so in language that is accessible to non-academics. Occasionally, he has interviews with other academics and sports science practitioners. His most recent interview, with ASU colleague Nancy Cooke, had me scribbling notes and going back to re-listen to important concepts more than usual. She talks about working with the US military to enhance the effectiveness of their drone teams. Their discussion especially hit home because of my coaching practice and my work life – I currently work in a military museum, and I’ve become very interested in military training and leadership. I’m going to outline some of my thoughts on how Cooke’s statements relate to my beliefs about creating an effective sporting environment, but check out the interview first: perceptionaction.com/22a/

The first concept that jumped out at me was “the rhythm of information sharing”. I’m still learning about Dynamical Systems Theory, but it makes sense to me to consider a rugby team – especially, given how many players we have and the different roles within the team – as a dynamic, complex system. Within that context, athletes have a variety of skills, knowledge, and perspectives – both fixed perspectives about how the game is played and ones which emerge within the game. To me, a “rhythm of information sharing” is absolutely vital, and the more fluid it is, the more effective your team will be. Cooke talks about members of a team having different knowledge that everyone needs to know. Typically, in a rugby team, we have a top-down communication pathway from the fly half and/or scrum half to the rest of the team. I see this even at the pro level: players in position to take advantage of an overlap are obviously not saying anything about it as one of the halfbacks directs play in the other area. Rugby players do often get caught looking inward at the ruck without considering what’s in front of them and those who do don’t communicate it or don’t do so early enough (I won’t talk too much about anticipation and recognition in this piece, but have before and will again so stay tuned!).

Cooke talks about an effective rhythm as having a push-pull nature in a timely manner. The big questions asked are:

  • Who has what information that I need?
  • What information do I have that others need?
  • When is that (information) best passed?

From a life-and-death critical military perspective, this is quite understandable. And while I’m not a coach who treats the game as a win-at-all costs battle, I do love to see a team ‘clicking’ and functioning effectively and efficiently. If ALL of our athletes use these questions as part of how they see the field and interact with their team mates, they will be a more effective functioning unit rather than a group of individuals who are maybe (at best!) working toward the common goal of scoring, but in a random, inefficient manner. While I do think that the halfbacks should have control over how play is directed, information fed to them by team mates who aren’t under as much pressure and who have scanned / assessed their field of vision can only enhance and speed up their ability to make the best decision. When Jonny Wilkinson retired, he humbly admitted that he played his best when he had centres Will Greenwood and Mike Catt feeding him information. Sometimes our amateur athletes won’t have made the best assessment, or the situation may have changed suddenly, but giving an idea of the unfolding play outside of a decision-maker’s field of vision is better than leaving them in the dark to scan/assess on their own in a split second when they get the ball.

I can’t emphasise strongly enough that this sort of thing should not be left until game day. Athletes have to train for this in realistic conditions so they can become familiar with patterns and communicate information accurately and in a timely manner. This is exactly what the military do to ensure both effective execution of their goals and to minimise risk to their lives. I’m no expert in military training, but a few books on modern operations have told me that rehearsal in a realistic and high pressure environment helps soldiers not just become confident in executing their mission, but also allows them to deal with mistakes and unexpected occurrences. I’ve often heard soldiers say “We go back to our training” when a crisis occurs. It makes sense when you consider that they’ve been doing that thing countless times, both the orthodox way and with sudden changes thrown at them, in a training environment that looks and feels the same as the operational one. How often do we do that at rugby practice? A series of boxed drills does not replicate the multiple variables that unfold as a result of the flow of the game and the actions of 30 dynamic individuals. I’m glad our sporting world isn’t as dangerous and critical as it is for the life of a soldier, but I think in the quest to see athletes having fun and playing together as an effective unit, there are some lessons that can be learned from the military’s methodology.

Cooke calls the roadblocks or unexpected changes imposed upon people “perturbations” and they insert them into the training environment so teams can work on their adaptability and resilience. They can develop plans and solutions for those perturbations in case they appear in the operational environment. The more you work on them, the more the ‘unpredictable’ becomes ‘predictable’, or at the very worst ‘adaptable’ with confidence and efficiency. Rugby players typically ‘truck it up’, running straight into contact or kick the ball away when the unexpected happens. Especially in our amateur environment, there are usually alternatives that can still allow us to reestablish the aims of going forward, with support and continuity, re-directing pressure on our opponents elsewhere. In addition to practicing and analysing problems in a realistic environment, rugby players need to make sure they are aware of who contributes what to the variety of ‘solutions’ to ‘problems’ we can experience. Cooke also notes, building on the rhythm of information sharing, that it’s important to know who does what in a team, I think there’s an implication there that trust is vital in a crisis, that the parts can either come together quickly to solve the problem with their various areas of expertise OR work somewhat independently to deal with smaller elements that need immediate seeing-to, reestablishing a flow once those fires are put out.

Here’s an example. Scrum half has got hit while carrying the ball and while we’ve maintained possession post-tackle contest, he’s trapped at the bottom of a ruck…

Typical reaction: Too often, I’ll see the fly half direct forwards to do a pick and go and even when the scrum half pops up after that first attempt, they’ll have a few more that don’t really go anywhere and then they’ll spin in wide without having really disrupted the defence. They’ve had a very simplistic pattern of play – forwards, forwards, backs – without a real purpose or consideration of what’s going on in front.

Did the defence swarm to the ruck seeing that the scrum half might have turned the ball over? Did defending forwards converge on that ruck expecting the typical pick-and-go scenario? Where were our forwards at the time? Or the backs? Where there apparent gaps in the defence somewhere else? Who else could move the ball from that breakdown, and onward to the area of opportunity? What sort of sequence of actions could get us back on the front foot based on our strengths?

Intelligent Reactions: If trained for situations like this, players might recognise that the defending forwards did clump around the ruck. A particularly skilled forward (can’t stress enough training ALL athletes to have a full range of skills) could pass the ball out the fly half, or a blindside winger could come in and do it, or the fly half could and a full back could step into the fly half role… or maybe the forwards could play a short, dynamic play to expose the weak side and drag defenders away from the open side, where other team mates would be setting up for the next determined phase rather than holding their previous positions still holding onto the same move they had in mind a few phases before, though the situation has changed.

Listening to Prof Gray’s podcast, and other readings I’ve done from sport science, has taught me that teams are dynamic systems with many interdependent parts. To train athletes outside of realistic contexts in ways that only creates robots rather than thinking, feeling, analysing, communicating organic creatures who can interact and become efficient in, first, the simulated and then actual playing environment just doesn’t make sense to me. As Prof Gray often says in his podcast, let this be a “call to action”!

 

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