Posts Tagged ‘communication’

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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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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A very good tip for attacking players is that “the hips don’t lie” – if a player’s hips are facing a certain direction he/she is vulnerable on the opposite shoulder. Some people call that the ‘soft shoulder’ because it’s going to take that person more time to turn and defend someone on that side, and any contact they make is likely to be soft. Very often, if the attacking player times it right, that person won’t even get turned at all and the attacker will slip by or behind.

Now it’s not my intention to steal this photo, but it shows a perfect example of someone whose hips are turned allowing an attacking player to get behind him.  (It comes from the magnificent analysis work rugby journalist Murray Kinsella does over at the42.ie, specifically this article: click here. Definitely check out his work, which seems to come out about once a week during the rugby season!)

Here, the Australian player (in yellow) is completely exposed on his right side and a simple pass by the Irish player should see his team mate gone!

While it’s true that the hips very rarely do “lie”, and that this should be a basic visual cue your players look for in attack, I also think the eyes can often give you the same sort of information. A good defender will keep hips square with the goal line, and his body aligned with the player he/she’s covering. Players should not get fixed on that person, and scan with the upper body, turning shoulders or just head to assess threats / opportunities and communicate with team mates. (Fighter pilots have a great acronym for this: the OODA loop, developed by military strategist John Boyd, which demands they constantly observe, orient, decide, act so they avoid getting ‘target fixation’ and miss the threat that could kill them.)

But something great attacking players do is draw attention to themselves. Genuine threats with ball in hand make more than just the defender in front take notice, and that extra attention should be seen as a golden opportunity for supporting players to strike. England’s Danny Cipriani explains a bit of that in the clip below, and I love that he goes against the old adage of “running straight”, demonstrably making a sideways run to draw yet another defender’s attention and free up space for someone else.

I contend that any player can be such a threat, so long as they get the ball with enough space to make a sudden threatening move that makes defenders pause and take notice. (Needless to say, keeping the ball in two hands means that player can pass in a split second.) Often, playing too close to the line makes the defence’s work easier because there’s no time for them to consider what else is going on. With enough time between the last phase and taking the ball to the line, defenders can get caught ball-watching. It’s this visual cue that should sound alarm bells to both the ball carrier and support runners that there is a defender (at least!) who’s overly focused on the ball and not paying attention to what’s going on in front.

In this highlight reel from Rugby League, there are two great examples of attackers taking advantage of defenders ball watching and not paying attention to what’s going on in front of them.

Starting at 0:16 and moving to 0:18 you can see how all the defenders have their hips square and their line is flat, but all eyes are on the ball carrier. The next defender out hasn’t noticed that his man is halfway outside him heading for the gap! The ball carrier’s pass is inch-perfect, putting his team mate away for a try.

The second example starts at 2:17. The first receiver has the ball with plenty of space and he starts running sideways. The defenders are pretty much in line with hips square, but yet again all eyes are on the ball carrier. This is the sort of player who is incredibly quick, so people are fixated on what he might do. Defenders should, of course, respect such players, but need to focus on the threats in front of them and trust their team mates inside to make the tackle / call for help and the sweeper (scrum half, full back for us in Union) to get this player if he breaks the line. Instead, they all get caught ball watching and – even worse than the previous example! – the defender who lets the try scorer through really should have had him in his field of vision. It goes to show how fixated on the ball he was that he didn’t see a free running receiver right in front of him!

I like using conditioned small-sided games to practice this. Attackers are given free reign to attack a realistically wide space, but defenders (either by coach’s call or on their own) either align or move in a certain way that would be considered ‘bad defence’. The challenge is for attacking players to spot and exploit bad defence, and not just by putting all the onus on the ball carrier, but by calling out opportunities as soon as they are spotted. These clips show that even at the highest level poor defence happens, and players need to know what that looks like from regular practice. Going back to the fighter pilot example, going back as far as WWII, air crews – and naval personnel for that matter – were trained to recognise the enemy by the shape of their equipment and patterns they employed. Becoming familiar with defenders’ vulnerable shapes and patterns similarly provides rugby players with an edge in attack.

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Having two layers in attack allows multiple options to use or create space. Referred to as an outlet, a 2nd man play, or a back door option – it gives the attacking team a chance to play both flat and deep runners depending on what the defence offers.

Our typical set-up sees a standard first- and second-receiver staggered as one might see a fly half and inside centre, or two forwards off a ruck. Behind them, ‘C’ can be a support player or a second-receiver if ‘B’s opportunity is shut down. In the diagram below, ‘A’ can pass to ‘B’ running an unders line or ‘C’ running an overs line.

A = passer, B = flat option, C = deep option, S = support player

A = passer, B = flat option, C = deep option, S = support player

This formation is common in Rugby League, with any highlights package showing several examples of it. In the following clip from Japan v Maori All Blacks, you can see the A-B-C formation used in a narrow channel. The runner at ‘B’ cutting in draws one defender out of alignment and the Maori winger has to come in to take care of ‘C’, who passes to his own winger. On the reverse angle you can see clearly how the defenders are turned inward, freeing up just enough space for the wing to race down the touchline.

Here’s another example where Bath use this formation in the midfield, rather than off the first receiver. George Ford could have easily popped the ball to one of the forwards standing close-by, but he played it ‘out the back’ to his full back who sets up the winger for an easy try.

Bath use this move a lot to free up their speedy outside backs, but they have plenty of big runners who hold defenders in the middle because they could just as easily bust through. Everyone must be seen as a potential receiver, and therefore a legitimate ‘threat’ to the defence. A player being ‘a threat’ doesn’t just mean being in position to receive a pass either. Defenders are more likely to be manipulated or exploited when those multiple threats are in motion.

In this try, the inside centre runs an unders line and scores from it because the fly half recognises that the defenders are too focused on the wide and deep options. With each of those players in motion, it becomes really difficult for defenders to adjust. They can’t ignore outside threats and have to trust team mates inside to cover runs against the play and inside passes.

The attacker at ‘B’ doesn’t have to run an unders line either. In this clip, he fades outward suddenly, dragging two defenders and allowing the ‘C’ attacker to run straight through the gap untouched. In the following clip, ‘C’ loops outside of ‘B’.

Finally, it’s important that players around the A-B-C unit get into good support positions to take advantage of the linebreak. They have to look for ‘triggers’ in body language that suggest when to move and where to go. In this clip, the fly half, inside centre and winger create the linebreak, but there would be no try if not for the scrum half and no. 8 funnelling through to keep the move alive.

The A-B-C formation provides a bit of structure with many different options. It’s important for potential receives to be active threats and to communicate their intent. Supporting players must also read body language to adjust their timing and choose appropriate actions. Ultimately, it’s up to decision makers to consider all this information and read the defence to see their reaction, and choose the best option. I can’t stress enough that athletes need to practice this under game-like conditions so they can appropriately attune themselves to the pressure, pace, and congestion they’ll face in a game.

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I genuinely feel its in your abilities to play open, dynamic rugby, moving the ball around and attacking from all directions. I urge you to play with your heads up, look for or create opportunities, play to your collective strengths, and establish continuity with clever support and timely communication. If you’re not already thinking on those levels, I will get you there. I will foster each player’s understanding of the game and development of her skills and hope that when individuals acquire this knowledge they, too, can support the learning of others in an efficient, constructive, and positive way.

Types of Activities

My training sessions tend to be drills light and scenario / game heavy. Research shows this to be the best way to develop your understanding of the game and they’re more fun! I think it’s especially true of rugby given the amount of players on the field facing off in two nearly-complete lines. No other invasion game has that kind of congestion. We’ll continually look at ways to find and open ‘doors’ rather than blindly bash into ‘walls’. Most activities are done at game pace, with game-like pressure, multiple variables and realistic context that will help you become attuned to the conditions of the game. This cannot be done in closed drills where you really aren’t making decisions, but are just going through the motions like robots. And we certainly don’t want to save game or game-like practice until Saturday!

I will also teach you to read the play; learning to anticipate actions, be aware of visual cues, and recognise patterns that will allow you to be more successful. By doing this in small to large groups, you will be better able to sift through what sports scientists call contextual interference (i.e. all the stuff you see when in a game) and develop solutions to these problems through perception-action coupling (i.e. choosing an appropriate action as a response to what you see in front of you). The aim, therefore, is to keep you active, give you lots of touches of the ball, and to put you in challenging situations that will be constrained in various ways to make the learning objective more obvious.

Rugby is a messy and chaotic game, so we’ll spend a lot of time in that state so you can get accustomed to it and process ways to deal with it individually and in groups. Ever hear a top athlete say the game ‘slows down’ for them? What they really mean is that they know their abilities and those of their team mates. They also are very familiar with the playing environment and patterns of play so well that they’re better able to deal with the multitude of variables in front of them and choose the best action. I want you all to take steps in that direction!

Constructive Feedback and Questioning

My environment is a ‘safe to fail’ one because I want you to learn from mistakes and be ambitious in how you play the game. Each activity starts with an objective / problem and we will quickly discuss possible solutions. With those in mind, you should be able to apply that knowledge – or knowledge from previous lessons and even other sports! – to the task at hand. Typically, during the activity you will hear me celebrating people’s successes, reinforcing the reasons why that worked so you can add it to your movement memory.

I will always be willing to offer positive and constructive advice when you’re struggling to grasp the concept(s), but will start with questions so that you might become more self-aware and analytical. If you’re not sure, I’ll then go to a more specific question that gives a hint, but not a direct answer. I want to give everyone the opportunity and sufficient time to process their own mistakes and seek advice only when they’re unsure. I hope you will allow follow my lead in not offering immediate (constructive?) criticism to your team mates. No one likes to be reminded of their mistakes and I will not have people making others feel worse when they occur with negative comments or body language. Give the situation some ‘time to breathe’ and, if relevant, make sure to be specific, positive, and constructive with feedback.

Even better, research shows that women are more likely to open up – rather than push back or go into their shells – when simply asked open questions like: “What happened there?” (Check out this interview if you want to hear more about that: Athlete By Design) This gives athletes a chance to reflect on what they just did and learn from assessing the process, compared to simply giving an answer that may go in one ear and out the other. It allows you to take charge of your own development, which is empowering and builds confidence. Growth and retention of knowledge is enhanced using the questioning method, and it’s a right every athlete deserves to have. In addition, it improves inter-personal relationships between players which is immeasurable when it comes to the atmosphere within the team and our performance on the field.

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I’m a few days away from my first session with a new team and I’ve been watching, listening, reading and writing sports and coaching for a few weeks now in preparation. My next few posts are going to condense and outline some of this – also building upon my many years of experience – as a resource for those athletes who’d like to read my thoughts. Hopefully coaches who read this blog will also take from it what they find useful.

Attacking Focus

1. Play Head’s Up Rugby (Low structure imposed upon, high assessment and coordination demanded of players.)

a) Seize and exploit the ‘easy opportunity’ (ex. over-lap, gap, strong vs weak, fast vs slow, poor alignment, etc.)

b) Create an opportunity by using a simple move (can be simple as a sudden and sharp change of direction that manipulates the defence and allows support players options, or a multi-option snap play like a loop or a blocker line)

Before the defence re-aligns, look for a new ‘exploitable’ opportunity. This is a simple cycle where some players will be better at scanning and seizing but will have options to create opportunities if nothing easier is immediately apparent (not just from their scanning, but also from team mate feedback!). While I will train everyone to enhance their ability to anticipate and recognise patterns and visual cues, players not so aware can always start from b), using the attacking tool box mentioned in my previous post.

2. Maintain a quick tempo and play to our strengths

Playing in a provincial Premier League means we’ll face very strong and well-coached teams. I expect to especially see strong defending teams as those aspects are typically easier to coach (as seen in the recent Women’s Rugby World Cup!) We are lucky to have plenty of options in terms of speed, power, finesse, and game smarts. In conjunction with playing “head’s up” – and sometimes as a default option when there are no easy opportunities / creative efforts are being shut down – we can proactively and patiently string together phases in a logical way. Dominating the contact area to win quick ball, with good coordination and communication, means we should have a lot of people in good positions to keep the tempo up and prevent the defence from getting properly re-aligned. From this situation, defences break down and get us back to the ‘easy opportunity’ situations. For example, consider how even a 3m penetration with quick ball can catch defenders off side or unsure of who they’re supposed to be covering, or how a few phases in one direction with a wide move in the other could find speedy players against unfit ones. Not only do playmakers need to be aware of these possibilities, but all players should be assessing simple things like “Do I need to go in that ruck, or can I stay here and be part of the next phase?” Little ‘rules’ can be devised which fit the players you have – in our case, we’ll have a lot of options as we have a big tight five, mobile back row, intelligent midfielders and speedy outside backs. The trick will be to play to the ‘best’ strength at a given moment – something we will continually work on in game-like practice.

Important Factors in Achieving This:

  • Awareness – at all times – scanning / communicating / listening (playmakers use info to make decisions)
  • Work-rate – whoever is aligned first has the initiative. In contact, the fewer people needed to win a tackle contest, the more people we have for the next phase.
  • Alignment considered – we need more than one ‘layer’ to ensure we can be proactive, but also reactive (i.e. a strike runner can have a go at space, but if the timing is off or the defence adjusts, we need a ‘back door’ outlet to keep the play alive and not resort to something that’ll lead to slow ball). This means more than getting into good positions. It also means that players have to consider their actions. The two most common: forwards jogging to rucks that are already won to stand beside it doing nothing; backs who run up flat when the play has been halted much further inward to then have to back pedal into a good position to receive the ball on the next phase. To maintain a good tempo with sufficient numbers, players need to be efficient in their alignment (it also saves them from wasting energy where they’re not needed). They should also begin to recognise when the defence is on the back foot (allowing us to play flatter and have a quick go at the line) or on the front foot (maybe forcing us to have a plan to cope with defenders ready to pounce).
  • Ball movement – more than just quality and accuracy, timing of the pass is vital to the success of a move. An early pass gives someone else in a better position the time and space to use it. A late pass should be putting someone into a gap. A pass too early, without threatening the defence, can simply allow defenders to push across and cut off our options. A pass too late can be forward, at the wrong target, too hard or otherwise useless. Two quick passes can get us into more space in a hurry. A dummy pass can get us through a gap in that ‘black hole’ area behind a ruck.
  • Thoughtful running lines – straight running fixes defenders in place and preserves space for team mates. Sharp and sudden changes of angle can exploit space and the ‘soft shoulder’ of the next defender in line. Running too early can get you ahead of the play; too late invites the defence to take space away. Remember that a line can be a great decoy, so make sure not to ‘demand’ the ball when you’ve drawn the attention of two or more defenders. Passers also need to consider this and select a better target.
  • Strategic considerations – What’s the score? What part of the field are we in? What are the conditions like? Can we get enough support there? Can they cover kicks? Are they better/worse than us at the scrum or lineouts? Is it wise to have a shot at goal or rely on quick taps? Do we need to get the ball into the hands of our key players more or make a better effort to stay away from a certain player / unit in their team?  … these are all strategic considerations that can enhance or ruin our chances of scoring.
  • Focused roles – more than our individual strengths, consider your best role in attack. Are you a play maker who sees opportunities and passes well off both hands? A power runner who can make holes and drag several defenders in? A speedster who can burn defenders with pace and/or step around them? A strike runner who has a well-timed crack at space in the line? Or an equally-vital support specialist who does more than ‘hit rucks’, recognising when others are about to break the line, getting into good positions to call for and receive a pass?   (Maybe a combo of more than one!)

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Here’s a game I created that’s become popular with all three teams I’ve coached since I came up with it last year. Rapid Fire Touch is 4-handed – i.e. two different people to stop a ball carrier, after the first two-handed, the ball carrier can still run but can’t score.

  • When scored upon, the defending team leaves the field of play immediately and the attacking team can attack the opposite goal line. All players from that team must cross the goal line before joining their team mates.
  • When touched by two different players, the team in possession leaves the field of play immediately and the defending team all must cross the nearest goal line before attacking in the opposite direction.

  • In both cases, the new team enters the field of play at midfield immediately, matching up and communicating their responsibilities.

This game can be played with 3, 4, or 5 (find this to be the maximum to ensure everyone’s involved) per team. Four-handed touch encourages ball carriers to attack space and create full line-break or half-break scenarios.  It’s main focus is evasive footwork, ball movement and support lines, not to mention communication in both attack and defence. The width of the playing area can vary. Wide encourages support lines and communication as ball carriers are more likely to make breaks or pull defenders well out of position (remembering that two defenders are needed to stop one from scoring). Narrower might be better for advanced players to work on timing of the pass and run and more challenging creation of space / opportunities.  This works really well in a gym for winter training.

Encourage to communicate early, pass to space, take on defenders with evasive footwork and supporting runners to be loud and pick clever pursuit lines. Faster the better as taking away space gives the opposition less time to adjust! Great for developing a fast, open style of play training communication, seeing and taking space, support and fitness as well.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More detailed version in this previous post.

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

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

Player Development (five parts)

Changing Coaching Behaviour 1

Changing Coaching Behaviour 2

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I was reading discussion topic where a winger said he was being given a shot at fly half, but was asking for advice.  What follows is my response.  Now I think there are different ways to play the position, as hinted at below, but followers of this blog will know that I favour a style of play that is more open and off-the-cuff – but with clear guidelines on what we’re trying to achieve with regards to the first strike in attack and subsequent support.  Anyway, hopefully you can take what you feel will fit your team.  Feel free to leave comments as to how else the position can be played, especially if you have significant experience as a 10!

Develop a relationship with your 9(s) such that you know their passing capabilities (off both hands!) and don’t stretch it too much. I preach a wide game, but had to keep reminding one FH that if she stood right at the SH’s limit, the pass won’t necessarily be as accurate as it’ll be if you’re one step nearer in a more comfortable range.

Communication between you two is vital and must be short and sharp to speed transfer and processing of information. For example, one simple set of calls we used this past summer “Red” – SH can run the show with the fwds and “Green” – fwds clear the channel and get behind the backs as it’s going to them.  The FH would use two other colours to indicate – passing / running move vs. kicking option.  The other backs were free to call those as well, especially the veteran inside centre, if they saw clear opportunities – which served to take some of the pressure off the young, developing fly half.

Determine how you prefer to take the ball and attack and ensure the 9(s) know it. I’ve coached some FHs who play best running onto the ball from a bit of depth to build up a head of steam and pick their best option – usually taking on the defensive line a bit and either having a go or manipulating defenders with the run and have the supporting players attack the spaces created (like Reds / Wallabies fly half Quade Cooper). Others proved to be best playing nearly standing still and flatter, focusing on getting the ball to our strike runners ASAP and only having a go when defenders peeled off (more like England’s Jonny Wilkinson if you want a reference). Most, however, mixed it up – playing a little deeper from static play to account for organised defenders being in a better position to rush them and gradually getting flatter in open play when they had quick ball and defenders on the back foot.

Play Calling?   I’m not a fan of it because I don’t like wasting a lot of practice time on set moves that rarely get used when we could be constantly fine tuning reading defences and building a dynamic attack.  That said, the team has to train for “heads up rugby” if you’re going to abandon plays. I employed this for the high school team which won a city title in 2010. We had no plays, but focused on attacking space with strike runners and supporting their attacks. Essentially, the FH caught the ball flat and standing and:

  • Hit 12 early to give her time to play as she wished
  • Hit 12 late and at an angle into a gap (could be done with a forward as well, and our forwards would always move in behind 10/12 when the ruck was won – SH would yell “clear” and “sweep” to get them out of the way, and to ‘sweep’ behind the backs)
  • Hit 13 early with a skip or a pass from 10 to 12 to 13 to allow her to use footwork and tempt a defender to rush out of alignment.  Unlike a few teams at the top level these days, I prefer the quick stepping, explosive style of 13 (as opposed to the straight-line, hard running variety).  Give these people the ball with lots of space in front and they tend to make things happen.  On the note about defensive alignment, watch games and see what a deep pass to the outside centre does to the defence – it seems really tricky to cover well even at the top level.  (I should cover this in a future post with video evidence because it’s fascinating to see international quality players put themselves at risk as often as they do!)
  • Hit or 15 / blind wing / forward late through gaps with the centres as decoys.

The FH would have a go when defenders started ignoring her, keying instead on the supposed strike runners. Those players knew enough to attack “spaces rather than faces” when they got the ball and the supporting players ran good support lines and maintained communication.  We also maintained the reminder that attacking one gap can cause defenders to over-commit, opening up space elsewhere, so a strike move was never simple a ‘crash ball’ (a phrase I banned, in fact!).  The reminder included ‘keep the ball in two hands and listen’ because if two or more defenders converged on the strike, a quick pass or two away should see us off to the try line!

Obviously, if we had huge over laps, passing to space was our first option, but when facing reasonably well organised defences, that was it!  Just a few options, with the notion that we were going to take on the defence with determination to get through or around them, and both physical and verbal support.

You have to work on ‘game scenarios’ every training and really guide players through the process of developing a keen sense of alignment, timing, and angles between the entire set of backs + reserves (key, that last bit, as one person not in the know can mess it up).  I’ve posted a few of these ‘games’ – not ‘drills’ as I want them to scan, plan, communicate and act upon and support decisions in a dynamic, not closed environment here:  http://rugbyresources.wikispaces.com/  It’s in this environment the developing fly half can determine what style works best for him / her, and when one style or another is best used, with positive and constructive feedback from coaches and team mates.

If you MUST call plays for whatever reason, I still prefer them to be kept to a simple strike move (an unders / overs line, a miss pass, a loop, an inside pass, etc.) and demand supporting players read the action / reaction of the defence and be ready to call it off or call for another pass if a better opportunity arises. To me, if you’re achieving quick ball with ample support, you shouldn’t need plays as the defence will never get organised and you just have to attack space (or ‘branches of the tree’ – ie. no crashes, always trying to get defenders off balance and get around them) and support the attack.

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I just finished reading another excellent analytical article by Scott Allen over at the Green and Gold Rugby blog.  In it he looks at attacking patterns utilized by Wales, the All Blacks and the Wallabies and addresses the strengths and limitations of their various approaches to the game.  It’s a brilliant article, with an accompanying narrated video, and I suggest everyone read / watch it to gain a sense of what people are doing at the top end of the game.

Wallaby Attack Patterns by Scott Allen

Scott also uses quotes from former Wallabies coach Eddie Jones and player David Campese to demonstrate the two extremes with regard to employing attacking patterns.  Jones argues that players need less to think about and so should have drilled into them patterns of play that give them greater focus.  Campese feels that coaches adopting such prescriptive strategies are taking away from players their ability to read and direct a game based upon what they see in front of them.

Allen places these two men at polar opposites of this debate, and I have to say that I lean more toward the Campese side of the argument where amateur rugby is concerned.  I can see the benefit of providing structures that everyone can follow which play to their strengths, establishing consistency and efficient execution in attack.  There are several factors to consider when deciding to adopt structures, but I think the most important are time and commitment.  If you are in a short school / summer season – as we have in Canada – do you have time to implement this plan of attack and have all players on the same page by the team playoffs roll around?  If the strategy is vastly different from what your players are used to, are you going to risk unnecessary confusion – which may result in vital losses and risk your playoff hopes altogether?  Do you even have full commitment to your training sessions such that everyone gets sufficient time to learn and adopt these structures?

I’d say that school and university teams here have a better opportunity to fully adopt structured play given that they tend to train most weekdays, if not every.  Students do have other commitments, however, and I’m always worried that if a few people miss out on key sessions that they could be the proverbial monkeywrench in the otherwise well-oiled machine.  This is definitely an issue with club rugby as only once in my 14 years have I ever coached a club side that could consistently have its starting XV show up to important pre-game team-focused practices (needless to say, they were the most successful club side I’ve coached!) .  In my opinion, it can be a colossal waste of effort and time to be too rigid with one’s attacking structures only to have them disrupted or not adhered to by the players who aren’t familiar with it (which I feel was a factor leading to one of my most disappointing losses, something I should have taking greater care to correct).  One can send out a ‘play book’ electronically, but most athletes tend to be kinaesthetic learners and as such need to run through new things several times physically.

So what is there to do?  I discussed a very simple strategy of Playing to the Principles of the game in a previous article.  Simply put, if you players know how to attack space, call for and pass the ball, how to support each other in the loose and retain possession, you can play effective rugby!  These are things that can be worked on by any number of players and which even high level professionals continue to work on and develop, in both basic technique and highly dynamic situations.  For me, the vast majority of a training session consists of developing tools, vision, understanding, and communication when employing those basic techniques and tactics and adhering to a simple set of principles.

Reaching a point where everyone can be comfortable playing what some call “heads up” rugby can take a while, however.  It can depend as much on the coach’s ability to transfer knowledge and facilitate understanding as it does players’ abilities to adopt and employ it.  I continually work at it, and aim to get my team to a point where our plan of attack includes little structure and a lot of freedom.  Early in the season, or especially with a newer group of players, it’s probably safer to flip that with lots of structure and not much freedom.  I’d challenge coaches though to move away from that as soon as possible, removing the scaffolding little by little and constantly challenging ALL players (not just decision makers) to read and understand the realities of the game such that they can make decisions on their own.

For example:  Using a wide-wide, pattern from a lineout should allow an attacking team to run against slower / unfit forwards when they get to the other side of the pitch and reverse the direction, if played quickly.  BUT … sometimes teams know this a limitation for them so the tight five players will immediately push themselves wide to cover the initial wide attack threat and give their backs a chance to flip around for the reverse phases.  This can leave a gaping hole or opportunity to catch defenders in poor positions in the channel where the lineout took place.  Teams at the levels I’ve coached at rarely try scan the field for such opportunities, following fairly predictable patterns of play or having random goes at the defence with no clear purpose whatsoever.  In the above situation, a fast and powerful forward or flighty wing / scrum half could really cause havoc down that narrow ‘lineout’ channel if allowed to chance it and have a go.

I think, as I often say in this blog, the key is to actually PLAY RUGBY at training.  Give your players the chance to see these things unfold in a game situation before they actually have to play a game.  If you don’t have the numbers to run relatively even numbers against one another, then create conditioned scenarios that mimic real aspects of the game or use tackle bags, etc. as stand-ins.  (When I coached a team that only had about 10 ever shot to training, we used bags as post-guard defence dummies around theoretical rucks.  These became no-go areas in training and it resulted in us playing a much wider game which played to our smaller, faster attributes.  You could flip that if you have a forward dominant team, focusing on breaching the narrow channel quickly and spinning wide only when they’ve disrupted the defensive line.)  Let your players know that you will ask them what they saw in front of then and that you’ll ask them to justify their decisions.  Importantly, this must be done in an environment where they will not be criticised but supported or sympathetically guided in their decision making and explanations for their actions.  Try not to give answers, but work through the ‘teachable moment’ with Socratic questioning.

The worst aspect of rigid patterns is watching a game and seeing players plug away at what they were told to do, missing clear and easy opportunities to gain ground or score.  I’d also hope that turning over initiative to the players makes the game more fun for them, giving them a sense that they really did create opportunities rather than have the coach on the sidelines tell them what to do.  For players who are striving for higher levels of play, this is the sort of development they need most – going beyond the basics and leaving the script aside to truly understand the game that’s being played in front of them, developing rugby smarts and tactical awareness regardless of position.

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