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Posts Tagged ‘issues’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Line Break Scenario - Large Scale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Over the weekend, in a hotly contested Waratahs v Hurricanes match, a ‘Tahs player was binned for a swinging arm that made contact to a player’s head. Notoriously one-eyed announcer Phil Kearns, and many ‘Tahs fans, felt it “harsh”. You can see the clip here: [link] You can hear the captain say he was going for the ball, and I bet he was, but I also think players have to be aware of what their actions could do and be prepared to face the consequences.

Speaking technically, coming in as he did, Potgieter wasn’t as likely to dislodge the ball as he might have if he came from behind and tried to punch the ball forward rather than back into his chest. There’s not a lot of time to adjust in such circumstances, but these are the risks players take.

A lot of have said that penalising players for things like this is “harsh” and “spoils the contest” when a player is sent off. But I say let’s go harsh to get players to be more responsible in contact! If that means players will be binned, or players will pull up and miss a tackle to avoid a potential card, then so be it. Player recklessness, if not willing disregard for the laws, is what spoils a fair and even contest. Since I started rugby, referee leniency, materiality and treating the outcome rather than the act (‘didn’t knock him out, so connecting to the head is no problem’) has caused certain aspects of the game, like the ruck, to be a mess. Players always test the boundaries, and referees let it go because they don’t want to ‘spoil the contest’ and take a lashing from the fans, one or both sides, and the press. Well I contend that players are the ones spoiling the contest in that regard by willingly playing outside of the laws. I ask my players to play tough and to dominate the contact area, but through controlled aggression and within the laws, not to mention the positive spirit of the game where we NEVER go out to hurt the opposition.

I’m not calling for rugby to go the way of basketball, where a slap on the wrist gets you a foul and six means you’re out of the game, or hockey were teams are down a man for short periods all game. Rugby people get uppity stressing that our sport has not just “rules, but “laws”, and lawmakers have done well to clean up the game in the last decade with things like stomping, mountaineering, tip tackles, etc. being all but gone. Just a couple of weeks ago, a World Rugby directive stressed that contact with the head must strictly be policed. If teams don’t adjust and actually play to the laws, then they face the consequences.

To me, any sort of calls for this stuff to be allowed makes those people no better than Rugby League fans who were crying because shoulder charges and head-highs were banned a few years ago. Rugby’s an amazing game without acts that can cause serious injury. Rugby’s under a massive spotlight now, and whether you care or not about seeing it grow, concussions and sub-concussive blows are going to see many players end up like NFL and NHL vets. Whatever steps we can take to make that less likely, the better, I say.

Wanna see some alternative try-saving techniques?

Genuinely attempt to dislodge the ball…

Get under the ball…


I’ll get down now …

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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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I wrote a post on this topic before (found here), but was prompted to revisit this topic in a discussion today and thought I’d add my thoughts here as a reminder that amateur rugby should not be taken too seriously. At the level most of us are at, why not try the unorthodox regularly? It’s not as if coach / player careers hang in the balance. I’ve been reading a lot recently about fostering creativity, and yet most of what I see is pretty orthodox. I’m currently working with an academy side and am getting those familiar looks when someone tries something different, worried that I’m going to shout them down, but the reaction they typically get from me is one of encouragement or, at worst, did you consider the better options first? In such instances, I’ve been throwing more pressure on supporting players, because in high pressure situations ball carriers don’t always have the time to assess all their options (especially Canadians whose experience with the game is quite minimal compared to other countries where guys have been playing for more than a decade once they get to ‘academy’ age). I preach simple rugby, but have no problem with trying the unorthodox under the right conditions.

Early in my coaching career I was in charge of a U18 team (at just 20 years old) and we had some crazy plays that we did up just for fun. We were a high flying team that shocked bigger clubs by playing off the cuff and with a lot of fun. In playoffs, we met one of those who’d been knocked off their perch, but we learned they’d be dressing five provincial players who weren’t in the early encounter. We were down four tries at half and I reminded the guys to just go out there and have fun, play our style and not worry about the opposition. In the second half, our ambition in attack shocked them as it had in the league fixture and while we didn’t score until it was too late, we held them to no scores as we dominated possession and stayed in their territory with ball in hand. It was many years ago, but I’m certain we attempted a few things that we hadn’t before as our entire midfield were fly halves for their respective schools and loved the chip kick.

And speaking of the unorthodox, our try was scored off of one of those ‘silly’ plays. Scrum just outside of the 15m hash on the right, about 30m from goal. We stack most backs on the right side, with the left wing standing almost on the touch line and the full back directly behind the scrum. Ball goes right, fly half puts a huge cross kick toward the posts and about 20m deep. Our full back takes a huge leap and grabs it, draws both their fb and wing and fires a pass to our isolated wing for a try even the other team admitted was fantastic in the post-match get together.

It’s always reminded me that we’re out here to have fun first and while these days I don’t waste a lot of time on set piece moves at training, my players pretty much have the green light to do anything they want so long as their team mates are aware of the decision and that it makes sense given the conditions. I preach simple rugby, but when the simple stuff isn’t helping against a really tough team, then why not pull something out of the bag of tricks? Even just once or twice, and their defensive pressure might relax, not knowing when we’ll try again, and thus allowing us to go back to the simple stuff with defenders who are now second guessing.

What really angers me, though, is when teams go for the ‘orthodox’ all the time and either miss clear opportunities or do so in the face of what’s not been working. How often do you see teams slow down a penalty when the quick tap is on?  Another example: a rare shouting moment for me when our team kicked for touch on a penalty, into a stiff breeze (only gained 8m), and when our lineout success rate was 50% at best. We also had dominance with ball in hand. Previous coaches – and some from the national and provincial level! – had drilled into them to do the orthodox. Same goes for kicking from inside 22m. I was pleased to see our club’s U16s yesterday back their superior talent and run one from their own goal line for a wonderful try … yet I seemed to be the only one applauding it with gusto.

Unfortunately, a lot of coaches create an environment that doesn’t allow “50/50” play – and I get that many don’t want players to take silly risks – but they risk establishing a sense of fear in their players that prevents them from playing ambitious rugby. Instead, run scenarios that permit all kinds of possibilities (ex. Run a full team lineout in your 22 and condition the defence to give them a variety of looks) and help players with decision making based upon what they see and what their strengths and limitations are. I’m especially vocal about freedom the ‘green zone’ – which is sometimes, quite bafflingly referred to as the ‘red zone’ by even some pro teams – about 30m from the opposition try line. I pretty much allow any logical move in that area because the rewards outweigh the risks. Throw all the backs into a move, try a massive maul, have a drop at goal when the defence is tight, chip to the corner when we might have a 1 v 1 advantage, etc. etc. I also feel that at various levels of play, it’s easier to defend the orthodox and after a half dozen phases the attacking team is more likely to knock on, infringe at the break down or simply get in each other’s way.

Why not be more ambitious and have fun rather that do the ‘safe’ thing all the time? In future, no one will remember the try that came from 8 pick and goes and a centre crash, but players will still be talking about that huge cross kick or falling no-look offload to a trailing forward into their old age.

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