Posts Tagged ‘game day’

Now that our school year / season is over, I have some time to do some reflection on the highs and where we can go next year.  Throughout the season, I’ve wanted to write something about parental involvement in the youth game and have been slowly pulling stuff together that I hope will be useful to readers of this blog.

I’ve been lucky in my first year at a new school to have a wonderful group of supportive parents who attend not only away games in our city, but some actually decided to take their spring vacation in the same location as our overseas tour!  (I imagine some of you just raised a red flag worrying about interference, spoiling the boys’ fun and chance to get away, but I didn’t see any of that – they were truly fabulous and it was great to hear vocal support for us so far away from home!)  Thinking about how positive and supportive they are kept coming up as I read news stories about parents in other sports / countries assaulting (verbally in most cases, but in one or two physically!) referees or how their verbal ‘support’ was often negative or confusing as they shouted dismay and tactical directions instead of praise.  Our parents are so great about only offering praise (and occasionally calmly asking ‘What was that call?’ to one of the coaches, genuinely wanting to learn more about the game), that we don’t mind them standing behind and with our bench.

Negative attitudes are unfortunately so prevalent that New Zealand rugby and English rugby league have found it necessary to make these two (great in the message they send) videos:

The simple message we coaches need to not only remember, but deliver to all our parents and spectators is:  Sport is for the participants; let them have fun, learn and grow in a positive and supportive environment.  I don’t think I need to go into the sort of abuse that can be heard on sidelines across many youth sports as – unfortunately – we’ve all probably heard it addressed to players from both sides, referees, officials and coaches. It’s completely unnecessary and as so passionately expressed in the videos above (esp. love the rugby league kid!) it embarrasses kids and makes them not want to play the game they love.  How sad is that?

The worst of the negative comments is directed at the players themselves, and though typically not abusive I think even those which fall into the ‘tactical direction’ category are detrimental.  I hope that standers-by are quick to shout down those who’d make a cowardly negative comment to a child or adolescent playing sport, but comments which also annoy me are ones which remind the player he/she’s made a mistake and, more subtly, continually tell them what to do in the game.

In the first instance, I think even kids at a young age and new to a sport know what constitutes successful play and what is a ‘mistake’.  I think we all learn from mistakes and it’s through picking one’s self up, moving on, and learning from mistakes that makes us better at something.  To react negatively and remind someone they’ve made a mistake only adds pressure to the voice of doubt that is an athlete’s own worst enemy – his or her own voice.  To varying levels, athletes know other people are watching them and don’t need the added pressure of having someone else fuel feelings of self-doubt.  At the very least, allowing them to move with the game and build a determination to succeed next time needs to occur.  Sometimes I even feel silence is a better reaction than ‘Nice try!’ if the athlete in question’s reaction is along the lines of a dejected “Yeah, right.”  Knowing how to help motivate a player after a mistake / loss depends on a lot of factors and can differ depending on the situation or day (esp. with teens!), but compounding the pain, shame, doubt, etc. with anything less than positive and constructive certainly doesn’t help.  I prefer to have a quiet word with athletes on the touch line in the game, after a game, or before training rather than shouting even positively worded instructions as I don’t want to embarrass them or fuel the self-doubt.  Some older players have told me they are the ‘kick up the backside’ type who want shouted instructions, but I’d still rather have them come over to me so I’m not sending the wrong message, encouraging others to shout out as well.  I don’t believe young athletes are that in-tune with how they learn / are motivated best, however, so have never taken that route with anyone teenaged or younger.

In the second instance, I’m not a fan of parents / supporters / team mates on the side lines offering tactical suggestions to athletes.  I hope that most of it becomes ‘white noise’ for the athletes and they’re able to block it out, but I suspect especially at lower levels of rugby (where pitches are smaller) and other sports where the playing surface is small, that it’s difficult to do so.  There are very few sports out there that I know of where an athlete has time to take regular instruction from an external voice (i.e. not team mates, but from outside the playing enclosure) and focus on doing his or her job.  I should search out studies on this, but I imagine there’s a difference in attention and application of feedback when it comes from team mates versus that which comes from outside of the game.  I’d suspect that our brains would see it more of a distraction than if it was a team mate directing you to get into position for a play.  The worst of it is completely unhelpful – I watched a university-level game last year where a very loud man paced the touchline yelling ‘RUCK!!!’ at virtually every ruck.  I’m certain at that level that the guys knew they had to ruck to win / secure possession.  I also try to stop our players from doing this on the field as the constant white noise of obvious / already communicated information blocks them from focusing on other developments / threats.  One example is the constant yelling of ‘ready, ready, ready / hold, hold, hold’ on defence – once is enough, the rest of the time should be spent on specific communication regarding who has who, their line speed, calling out potential threats.  How are athletes supposed to think about this stuff when people on the sidelines are constantly yelling unhelpful directions at them?  Even as a coach, the only commentary I provide is periodic and very specific to a situation – always focusing on positive / constructive – when I realise that an athlete is really missing an opportunity to learn.  I want my players to learn by playing, and me constantly giving them instructions inhibits their ability to acquire this knowledge themselves – a higher level of thinking which will see the lesson learned stick more so than if they’re told what to do.  I had to laugh but feel for the athletes of one team I witnessed recently as one of the players actually told his coach to ‘Shut up!’ as his useless instructions and rants finally got on his nerves.  I applauded him for speaking up, but unfortunately it only shut the coach up for a few minutes.  (It’s no surprise that, despite their physical ability, they weren’t really talented rugby players, masked by a lot of fancy plays that didn’t work. They’d probably never given the chance to develop their game sense without the coach telling them what to do all the time.)  These sorts of rants to athletes and officials are, frankly, embarrassing for everyone involved.  If coaches and players on the sidelines who know the inner-workings of the team’s strategies and tactics shouldn’t be sending in pointless messages, then parents really shouldn’t be!

Getting back to our great parents, I want to help them become even better supporters next year by running a little “intro to rugby” class for them as some have asked for it, as it’s a game most of this country is still pretty clueless about.  I’d also see such an event an opportunity to translate our values, mission and other sorts of important messages regarding selection, playing time, and a code of conduct we expect from all spectators.

I found this brilliant sample code of conduct via Twitter from Head Master Keith Richardson from Wynberg Boys’ High School in South Africa:

Advice To Parents - Keith Richardson

Our parents are pretty good about following all of these, but something like this would be great to send to them at the beginning of the season with an encouragement to come out and support the boys and continue to share our values of fair play and respect with everyone.  It’d also empower the majority to positively deal with any transgression as I think it’s important – as with bullying in schools among kids – to be vocal about standing up to inappropriate behaviour and standing up for others.  I’m still working it in my mind as to how we might do an ‘intro to rugby’ session for our parents next year as it’s still six to eight months away, but I thought it’d be fun – and more likely to increase attendance – if we made it a sort of fun food and trivia night.  Rather than do a boring lecture with video, I think we might try a ‘pub trivia’ sort of scenario where ‘new to the game’ parents are matched up with those who’ve played or know the game (not a guarantee given rugby’s complex laws!!!) and we have some fun learning about the game, complete with video clips to show answers.  It’d also be great bonding if the boys played alongside their parents.  Watch this space for when I finally get this plan drawn up!

To cap this long post off, however, I think it needs to be re-stated that sport at any level offers the participants the opportunity to have fun, bond with friends, develop fitness, movement ability and decision making abilities, not to mention experiencing a range of mental aspects which develops character, resilience and confidence.  To do ANYTHING which inhibits this is to ruin such a wonderful opportunity to develop better human beings.

I might have shared this on the blog before, and forgot to include it into the original draft of this post, but this video sums up what youth sport and parental support for their kids in sport should be about:

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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’m currently reading The Red Devils, by G.G. Norton, an official history of the British Airborne forces.  Having never served, I don’t know if the military equates to sports, though many things I’ve read about training suggests sometimes it does.  Either way, I read a great quote in this book which immediately made me think of how the message, given to soldiers on the eve of battle, also applies to rugby players heading into a game.

The quote is from Brigadier S.J.L. Hill, commander of the 3rd Parachute Brigade of the 6th Airborne Division (which included the 1st Can Paras for fellow history nerds) on the eve of D-Day, the early morning of which his men were to drop behind enemy lines and seize key objectives.  On a simple level, these men trained long and hard knowing full well that such operations rarely, if ever, go to plan.  Brig. Hill told his men:

“Gentlemen, in spite of your excellent training and orders, do not be daunted if chaos reigns.  It undoubtedly will.”

By reading how they prepared for their assualt and how relatively successful they were at achieving their objectives, it appears that this quote was merely the final reminder of what was a long and focused preparatory period.

Some of the applicable lessons that I’ve learned from such accounts all point toward planning for chaos.  Rugby players, like these airborne troops, need to be trained in realistic environments which include all the subtle nuances that are part of a real game.  The Airborne made mock-ups of their targets in England and practiced on them to the point that each soldier could rhyme off his job and draw a diagram of his objective.  I think these troops were also the fore runners of military doctrine whereby one guy was likely to know the job of at least one other guy, and those in leadership positions could step up and do the job of the man above him in a pinch.  Reading about their efforts made me think of the elite teams I’ve worked with.  Did they all know what their role is on the field?  Did they know the ins and outs of how attack and defence works so that they can be as successful as they can be?  Could certain players step up and do the job of others, not just in covering injuries, but who takes over for the scrum half / fly half when they’re at the bottom of the ruck?  Players tend to clue in and do so eventually, but the more quickly and efficiently this is done the better.  It’s one of the reasons why I love the Kiwi (and Rugby League) concept of having two decision makers in the midfield, their 10 and 12 being called the 1st 5/8 and the 2nd 5/8 respectively.

So how do we plan for chaos?  Like the Airborne soldier, creating a game-oriented environment is key to giving them a sense of what can and could happen without the consequences of having to learn such knowledge on the day – whether it be D-Day, or Game Day for our players.  One can’t simply ‘play rugby’ at training, though, and expect to see results.  Brig. Hill also referred to their ‘orders.’  From more modern sources I often hear soldiers talk about ‘falling back on their training.’  When the proverbial stuff hits the fan and all hell breaks loose, they are assured that they – and equally, if not more importantly for confidence building, the soldiers next to them – know their job inside and out.  When things are not going to plan, whether it be an attack strategy or a move or that the defence is better than expected, what can your players fall back on to allow them to re-focus and re-start the attack?

Training, for me, builds from the ‘tool box’ to the ‘scenario’ to the game itself – and all within one training session.  We spend a little time each practice working on something that’s basic, from how to move one’s body to avoid contact to drilling in perfect passing / tackling.  All of these building blocks allow us to not worry about the little things and divert our attention to the big issues when the game is on.  I then give them an opportunity to work with those techniques in a closed environment with few players to take away most of the variables that could cause confusion.  Sadly, this is where many coaches stop, and it’s plain to see when as the coach is the one ranting “We do this every practice!” when their team looks like rookies when faced with pressure.  I’m a firm believer that players – in that same session – need to be then thrown into a game-like scenario where more of those ‘confusing’ variables can be added (more defenders, limited space, etc.), building a microcosm of the game itself.  Finally, they should be given at least 15-20 minutes to play rugby to apply all of those lessons learned in a real game.  You can structure it to suit certain purposes, but should let them use that time to figure things out for themselves.

In fact, my model has intensity rising from the beginning to end, and error correction decreasing.  So in the technical area, there’s not too much intensity, but a lot of error correction.  In the game, there’s very little correction and game-like intensity.  In between, there should be a good balance – moving toward full intensity, but not so as to forget to do the fundamentals correctly and default to brutality; enough error correction to remind them of just one or two key concepts.  So forget that the pass wasn’t perfect in the attacking scenario – that will come – continue to remind them that depth gives them time and space to deal with such passes, or even more time to read the defence and act upon a plan.

The long and short of it is, that when faced with the chaotic situation that is a rugby game, it’s so much easier to deal with it when you’ve got a clear frame of mind about what your role is, an assortment of tools and lessons to fall back upon when the pressure is on, and, ideally, the ability to take initiative when your heralded leader is trapped at the bottom of a ruck.

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“It was a game of two halves” is one of the great sporting clichés, indicating that a match was going in one direction until the interval and then was very different in the second stanza. Often, this term is used quite liberally reflecting only a relative measure of what really took place. Rarely do I – not someone who watches a lot of sport on TV, apart from a rugby game or two a week – see this statement manifested entirely as the statement suggests. A couple of weeks ago I saw it, during the Heineken Cup Final between Northampton and Leinster, and it not only shocked me, but got me thinking about what we say to our team at the half, when we’ve got just a few minutes to either right the wayward ship or ensure that we keep it on course until the final whistle.

In short, if you didn’t see it, Northampton came out flying – against everyone’s predictions – and utterly dominated the Irish province. At one point, they even won a ball against the scrum when they had one less man in the pack! At halftime, with Northampton leading 22-6 (three tries to none) I thought, “That’s it. They’ve got Leinster’s number and just have to maintain this style of play [realising it’d be near impossible to keep up the tempo] until the final whistle.” Oh how I was wrong. Leinster started the second half much the same way Northampton did and scored early. Leinster never let up, preventing Northampton any chances to add to their tally and eventually ran home 33-22.

So what happened to both teams in the changing rooms at half time? I don’t know that answer, apart from saying: “It wasn’t enough” (for Northampton) or “It was bloody good” (for Leinster). Given the fact that Northampton offered nothing in the second half, and looked like a completely different team, I think it was more than just Leinster proving the pundits right and finally playing to their potential. But what does one say to a team at the half, regardless of the score, conditions, form book, etc. etc.? In what can be a ‘too short’ period, what sort of information needs to be gathered and what needs to be relayed?

Here’s what I do:

[Throughout the first half] Keep notes on what I think our strengths and weaknesses are, as well as any of theirs I have spotted. I try and have three very specific things to say, to keep confusion down to a minimum but also to ensure there is focus for the next half.

[As everyone gathers] Have players grab a drink bottle and get their attention. Ask how everyone’s feeling, and if there are any injuries / physical concerns I need to know about. (Refer to trainer, but keep them in the huddle if at all possible if there are any.)

[Team talk] Focus on strengths, threats, and opportunities; that is: the things we have done well, the things we need to be concerned about, and the things we need to focus on for the second half. I try as best I can to keep this information short and to the point – listing it as if I were typing bullet points. I don’t want players to be confused, don’t want to send mixed messages, and also don’t want to waste time.

[Feedback from the team] With adult teams I tend to invite important, specific feedback as to what’s going on out there, regarding both our performance and theirs. The understanding beforehand, however, is that it has to be concrete, relevant information and not just empty statements such as “we can do this” or “this is our game”, etc. This can take a bit of coaching, especially as I want all comments from players (as I do!) to be both positive and constructive, focusing not on generalities but on specifics. So it’s not good enough to say, “We need to make our tackles” but such a statement should instead sound like: “We need to take a step closer to the ball carrier and tackle, first, with our shoulders and then wrap up.” In such cases, focusing on the technique is a better way of making that key information stick inside their minds – especially with the time constraints. With kids, I do most of the talking, allowing maybe the team leaders to speak up if I trust their judgement and/or if there’s a particular leader whose insight I trust.  The point is, as I strive to be to-the-point with the information I relay, I do not want players to ruin that focus with a lot of empty chatter that can cause them to forget the important points.

[Individual feedback] Getting to this point can take half the time, or most if the ref is only giving us five minutes (for sevens, it’s basically just: “Is everyone okay? Here are the strengths, threats and opportunities” and we’re back on the pitch!). But I like to give the chance to assistant coaches to chat with their respective units, again dropping only short, specific and positive bits of information, and/or units to talk amongst themselves in such a way.

[Wrap-up and re-focus] If you’ve had a full ten minutes, I like to start this with about two minutes to go. I just want to re-iterate the important STOs (strengths, threats, opportunities) again so the team can take the pitch with those in mind. For some players, that will be enough – technical / tactical focus points for them to maintain throughout the second half. Many players, however, need an emotional / adrenaline charge to fire them up. I think it’s important to note, however, that not all players like this, so I don’t make a big deal about having everyone in the huddle. When I played, I preferred not to get ‘pumped up’, instead wishing to remain calm and focused. I’d still have a hand on the huddle to show solidarity, but would be nowhere near the middle of the huddle.

[Final minute or so] This is where I let the players do what they need to do to get ready for the second half. A moment alone, a little run, some one v one scrums, a few bag hits, etc. as they make their way to the field. Hopefully everything we needed to maintain will carry on, and that which we needed to address will be seen to. Setting a tempo is very important and the final message from the captain to the players should be that the first 10 should be the most important, possibly of the entire match … and this is exactly how Leinster took hold of that HEC final and played the second half on their terms.

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