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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

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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I’ve started a small collection of coaching books from yesteryear and continue to find really insightful bits of wisdom within them despite the game’s evolution over the years. Some of the big-picture, ethos statements – especially – have grabbed my attention, not only because of how well-worded they are, but because some are messages that we hear infrequently these days.

The latest comes from a little book – almost a pamphlet – I picked up at a used book store. It’s entitled Coaching Rugby Footballers: Some suggestions on the organization of coaching for young players (Extracted from the Manual of Rugby Union Football, Part Two).  Published by the English Rugby Football Union first in 1952 and later 1961, it kicks off Chapter 1 with this brilliant three-part objective of the game section:

General Principles of Coaching

The Object

1. The cardinal point for a coach to remember is that the game is played for the enjoyment of the players. The better each man plays, the more he will enjoy it, certainly; and the better the team plays, the more enjoyable for all of them. It is also undeniably pleasant to be on the winning side. But the game is played for fun, and nobody should be expected to play it in a state of anxiety, in the constant expectation of being criticized for errors he had no wish to make, of being told that he is “letting the side down” and so on.

2. Any coach on occasion will have to speak sternly – if he sees foul play, for instance, or a flagrant case of funking. But nine-tenths of his time should be spent in encouragement and in “showing how”. It is useless to say “Do hold your passes”; the player only wishes he could. If the coach can point out the reason why the player is dropping his passes, he will be able to be really helpful; otherwise is it usually as well to say nothing.

3. The object, then, is to promote the enjoyment of the players by bringing them to a pitch of skill at which they can play good football together, knowing what they are trying to do and how to do it. But it is not only this possibly distant goal that should be enjoyable; the intermediate stages ought to be so too. Practices and practice games can hardly be as exciting as matches, but they should never be boring.

There’s a lot of good stuff in those three paragraphs! The words that jump out for me are: enjoyment, fun, encouragement (vs “say nothing”!), together, exciting. Touching upon negative aspects of rugby that are still created to this day, I appreciate that they stress training should be free from anxiety, that a coach usually is better off saying nothing if the his (her) words cannot be helpful, and the pointlessness of criticising errors. On that last point, I think even little kids know when they’ve made a mistake. It’s always perplexed me why a coach or team mate would shout at someone for making a mistake – the player probably already feels a certain degree of embarrassment and/or lack of confidence, and anything but encouragement is sure to make him/her feel even lower!

The part that I love the most is at the beginning of the first paragraph, outlining a chain reaction of positivity and even an early model of athlete-centred coaching! Confident in abilities = happier player. X amount of players each feeling good about themselves and each other = a successful team. I think it’s important for all of us to keep this in perspective, and remember that ‘success’ doesn’t necessarily mean winning. We can only control what we have and how we go about improving upon it. What others have and what they do is out of our control, so how we measure ‘success’ must be relative – from where WE started to where WE finished, regardless of the outcome of games. Remember that, and you’ll have a happy team that enjoys their rugby. In the end, that’s all that matters.

… and if you missed it the first time, I dropped some other bits of wisdom from an old coaching book in this earlier post: https://conversationalrugby.wordpress.com/2013/12/22/wisdom-from-the-1970s/

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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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The following are some of the values I bring to the team and/or demand of the players I coach.

Having Fun – I have always believed that training shouldn’t be something athletes must ‘endure’ just so they can get a game. Training should be fun and relevant to developing the complete player, both physically and mentally. I encourage athletes to be ambitious, to express themselves creatively and to choose the exciting option when it’s on. I take pride in seeing teams ‘play pretty’ through clever play, only taking credit for maintaining a permissive training environment that allows them to work out the best times to have a go. I get more joy from this – win or lose – than grinding out a win by playing ‘not to lose’. Keeping fun at the forefront also allows us to maintain perspective. We must remember that this is amateur sport and but one small part of our busy lives, so there’s no need to take it too seriously.

Safety – Rugby, to the uninitiated, can look more dangerous than it is because its lack of equipment and regular contact. (To which, I say, body on body contact hurts much less and happens at reduced intensity than plastic on body contact in football and hockey!) People do get hurt, but so do people who participate in other sports, or even jogging in the park. That said, I focus on preventative measures and especially teaching athletes proper technique in hopes of avoiding injuries. This includes not teaching dangerous and illegal tactics and discouraging individuals from adopting them if picked up elsewhere. I take our trainers’ advice seriously and will err on the side of caution when we are unsure about a player’s status, especially were a suspected concussion is the concern. I expect players to be as cautious and prudent, reporting symptoms of injury, seeking professional advice and taking the necessary time to get healthy.

Growth – If we didn’t make the effort to learn, re-learn, or improve upon learning each and every training session, there’d be no point in having them. I could ask you to keep fit for Saturday and leave it at that – “See you next week just before kickoff!” I expect that players come to training with an openness to learn new things and a desire to develop their skills. I also think sport allows us to grow as people as we take on challenges and learn more about ourselves. I spend a lot of time planning meaningful training sessions and analysing progress at training as well as in games. I also do a lot of research into the art of coaching and trends within the game as well. I am always happy to share this extra information with interested athletes and am always happy to hear that players I coach go on to be coaches themselves!

Class – I see the team I coach as an extension of me and my vision. I believe completely in the ethos that rugby was built upon and while I don’t preach its virtues often enough, I certainly do demonstrate respect, fair play, and humility at all times. I expect players to follow suit and demonstrate their class with each other, opponents, referees, and fans at home and when we’re away. We’re a big club and you are a highly-visible element of that club. You all are leaders and must act accordingly.

Support – I think rugby has a greater need for support – not just physical, but also mental – than other sports because of its continuous nature and regular body contact. Where other contact sports involve one-on-one battles, rugby’s contact is more of a sustained group effort. Beyond the physical, successful club teams are ones that support each other on the field and off with empathy, constructive behaviours and a positive attitude. We all have a responsibility to make each other better and it must be a unified and consistent process.

Mental Toughness – Rugby is a tough game that demands players to physically front-up to the challenge of tackling and being tackled. It also requires them to endure conditions – from poor weather, to dealing with loss – that make things even more difficult. Veterans will know this from a playing perspective but it also applies to the training environment. The Premier team has lofty goals, and toughness extends to being here as often as possible, to trying your hardest at all times, and to keeping a cool head under pressure or when things aren’t going well. Rugby can be a great outlet for life’s frustrations, but certain elements of interacting with others in a challenging sport can add to it. Calmness and patience go hand-in-hand with determination and resilience as mental qualities needed to meet the demands placed upon you.

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

I’ve noticed something interesting development of late…

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

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

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

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

Damn I love this coaching thing!  🙂

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

On the dynamic nature of the game:

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

On the risks of coach-centred style of coaching:

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

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

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

Early proponents of athlete-centred coaching?

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

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

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

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

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

 … focusing on performance over results:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of his ‘wonderful’ ideas:

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

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

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

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

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

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