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I was fortunate to hear from a friend that noted RFU coach educator Richard Shuttleworth was doing two sessions in Ontario this week and I was lucky enough to be within driving distance of Ottawa to see his lecture and talk with him afterwards. The following is from the notes I took on the night:

 

Foundations

Whichever style one adopts, having philosophical and theoretical (research-based) foundations help back your approach and, importantly, provide crucial answers to the question: Why?

 

New Zealand Approach

Enjoy

Innovate

Positive approach to change

Sharing information (best can’t get better unless opponents drive them to be better)

Use of technology

 

Top 6 Rugby Skills

Responsible

Self-Aware

Self-Organising

Adaptable (creative)

Decision-Makers

Pressure (resilience)

RFU CARDS approach (creativity, adaptability, resilience, decision-making, self-organisation)

 

Athlete-Centred, Free-to-Fail Environment

England development players (U18 / U20) allowed to make decisions on a ‘feeling’ in a given moment. Not random, but based on knowledge of their strengths and how things are going in that moment (real information provided by teammates and opponents).

No wrong decisions. Good ones and poor ones.

Working out why is part of learning. Want athletes to reach a state of ‘safe uncertainty’ – free to work out own solutions without coach imposing (safe certainty), creating stress (unsafe certainty), or not having a clue (unsafe uncertainty). Athletes who can adapt are more resilient to pressure, especially in a free-flowing game like rugby where coaches are far away from the action.

 

Adaptability

Explore – Discover – Adapt (= learning)

… Australian medal winners tend to be younger, because they’ve recently come from this explore/discover/adapt process. Older and former medal winners less likely when they have abandoned the explore/discover process either because they were happy with what made them successful before or because they’ve over-analysed their perceived strengths / weaknesses without properly adapting to new realities / possibilities.

Moving away from old Information Processing model (human as computer – using memory and analytical skills to apply known solutions to recognised problems), which focused on closed and open drills. Now exploring Dynamical Systems Theory and Ecological Dynamics (interactions of athletes based on information of their playing space), which relies more on guided discovery, static and dynamic activities.

Give athletes a toolbox and a problem to solve. Typically, they are given one tool and told to do a specific job a specific way (though Bernstein’s “repetition but not repetition” research proved we never do things the same way twice). The dangers of repeating a process without exploring a variety of tools and solutions stifles creativity, ambition, possible better solutions (especially as we’re all likely to have different solutions or at least different approaches to the ‘ideal’).

At Training: Give the desired outcome, challenge athletes to self-organize and explore / discover adaptable solutions relative to pertinent information provided by the activity. Requires the coach to have a sound understanding of the game’s demands, designing realistic constraints to encourage exploration – not force one. (This is related to Gibson’s notion of affordances – invitations to action provided by everything within the space. Perception drives action.)

In Games: Recognise what opponents want to do and take it away from them (within the laws of the game, of course). Deny them comfortability and where do they go from there? On the other side of the ball, unpredictability in attack causes opponents to be unstable, never settled and completely reactionary (i.e. impossible to deny what we want when it’s impossible to predict what we’re going to do; always reacting to and chasing the game).

Adaptive Game – want to live in the ‘Interactive Zone’. At other ends of spectrum are ‘Pre- Planned’ and ‘Re-Active’ zones. Best decision makers are in the middle and can tap into / adapt to polar ends to get themselves back into the dynamic interactive zone.

 

Feedback

Peer feedback is powerful – helps provide recipient with relevant information, does the work of as many coaches (coach will have helped them understand what’s important beforehand), reinforces knowledge within recipient AND deliverer.

Bandwidth Feedback – determine (best if players provide input) what is the acceptable bandwidth zone for success and error. No need for coach to intervene in this range because athletes know why errors are occurring and can self-analyse/organise. When stray outside of acceptable range, coach intervenes, but not too much as players will associate coach’s voice with negativity (coach can balance by providing short and simple feedback within bandwidth – celebrate, reinforce, one word reminders: “Jonny. Height?” “Right, coach! Will get lower.”). Use of questioning outside of the bandwidth is better than providing solutions (not to mention screaming negative comments!) because they are allowed to own the learning process, which allows them to understand ‘why’ rather than just ‘do as I say’. (Huge factor in Canada! Do they understand the principles of play and subtle nuances, or are most just robots bashing into the wall and occasionally getting through/around it by chance?)

An image of achievement both motivates and informs. So very important that our players (especially Canadians!) know what ‘good’ looks like, either through personal experience or by watching ‘the best’ do it. There is a danger in watching too much pro rugby, though … their game isn’t our game. We can create novel solutions on our own based on who we have, their abilities, and how they’d like to play.

 

Interesting Asides and Reflections:

(his information in bold, my reflections in normal text)

A heat map of NZ teams’ actions does not show highly concentrated data – that is, their actions are relative to information provided by opponents and not as much to a specific pattern of play. This is helped not only by top teams allowing this approach, but developed over years by culture of the sport in NZ (lots of free play, mixture of ages, touch’s popularity, skills for all, multi-sport… allowing this to flourish as they get older even in 1st XV sides).

“Rugby is an evasion sport not an invasion sport.” (…whereby ‘invading’ is the direct, attritional approach.) ‘Win the collision’ has ruined the game, in my opinion, leading to predictable, one-dimensional attacks. Arguably, not as safe either!

Academies in Scotland talk and share; English ones do not. Academies and rep sides have to pull together various different approaches – for us, in a short period of time – simple approach, based on principles of play, is easiest. Key, therefore, that people coming into the system have solid foundational knowledge. Broad, quality coach education is vital to provide disparate programs with this foundational information.

‘Skills Coaches’ make their money from being drill sergeants. There is no ‘right’ way of executing a technique or performing a skill. Avoid giving terms to an action as it encourages athletes to believe there is just one ‘ideal’ way. Rugby is often jargon heavy with the fundamental meaning of the action being lost (immediately or over time… ‘linespeed’ is a great example. Fast? How fast? Everyone at same speed? Not everyone runs at the same speed? What about a clever shooter like Owen Farrell?) Added danger here is that they might see that as the only solution to that problem, blocking them from exploring ones that might better suit them and/or playing conservatively because that’s all they know / feel they’re allowed. Provide, instead, outcomes and principles that athletes can simply do and adapt solutions to (Ex. Defence should aim to stop behind gain line and deny spaces to run into, pressuring them to turnover possession… regardless of ‘linespeed’.  With passing, should be in front of hands and delivered quickest route possible … how it’s done isn’t important if those are achieved).

England forwards seeing ‘winning penalties’ as a measure of a successful scrum. Kiwi thought tries scored from scrums would be a better measure, based on their culture.

England U20’s unplanned hotel space – informal / formal spaces, players made formal less-formal and thus more comfortable and open to interactions. Where can we create this space where we don’t have fancy facilities? What do they need to facilitate openness, interaction, collaboration?

Opponent as ‘decision-maker’. The information they offer provides the decision. Good decision makers are comfortable making late decisions, reading the information provided and picking the optimal solution; late means fewer options for opponent (can’t predict and proactively act, only react…if it’s not already too late!). Rather than doing the 2v1, play even numbers and make athletes EARN the 2v1 within it.

There’s a danger in treating the weekly match like an ‘exam’ where everyone’s actions are under the microscope. Leads to unnecessarily high pressure and conservatism and it’s not fair, especially on younger athletes. Should use training to explore, discover and adapt – free from pressure so individuals can extend their boundaries but the game – but game provides the added pressure and uncertainty that is beyond what can be created in training (typically, though England claim to be going beyond to make game days easier than training … seemed to work, but is it now???).

A curriculum / concepts shared for the betterment of the game. Example: Scotland have encouraged a 2-second ruck to speed up play. Probably works for their culture and smaller athletes. What socio-cultural aspects can we tap into? Multi-sport is our untapped strength. New Zealand way is apparent. Belgium football have imposed the 4-3-3 to create more well-rounded, tactically aware players.

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Having been interested in military history since I was a boy, I suppose my view of training in ye olden times has been skewed by films portraying the leader that barks orders, treats the men harshly and simply demands they be better after breaking them down and drilling them hard. Several years ago, I worked for a naval museum and was for the first time exposed to actual training manuals from the World Wars. Generally speaking, I was shocked by the standards, methods and beliefs professed in these manuals. Contained in them are way more ‘modern’ positive and constructive approaches to instruction than I thought I’d see!

Below I will share some wonderful passages from a guide for British military instructors from just before the start of the Second World War. I am sure there was still the barking that we see in films like “The Hill”, but the expectations for military instructors as outlined in this book could easily find themselves in progressive, athlete-centred coaching manuals today. And, even better than today’s coaching books that drudge on and on, it’s a 16-page book that can be accessed for free!

From: Creedy, HJ. Notes for Instructors on the Principles of Instruction. The War Office. 30 June, 1939.

Learner-centred instruction in 1939? I didn’t learn this concept until maybe 5 or more years into my coaching journey!

“A successful instructor should know not only his job as a soldier, but something of the ways in which the minds and bodies of recruits work and of the most effective and economical way of learning and teaching.” (4)

“[The recruit] will learn a great deal of what is required indirectly without any special instruction. Consciously and unconsciously, by imitation of those around him, he will pick up many of the traditions, customs and ideals of the service which he has entered.” (4) I know someone who played for one of the most successful schools in Ontario who felt their success wasn’t so much due to coaching as it was peer learning and emulating the senior players who were also their mentors.

“Instruction is most effective when the will to learn is present, and this comes when the recruit is interested in the work at hand. It should therefore be the object of the instructor to seek out methods whereby he can stimulate and maintain the interest of the recruits. Among the many ways of doing this are such aids as variations in the work, avoidance of over-fatigue, grading of work to suit the stage reached by the recruit, and the exhibition of an enthusiastic interest in the work in hand by the instructor himself. Enthusiasm is infectious…” (5)   … taking on multiple roles, keeping things fresh, enthusiasm, excitement, having (not-silly) fun. Again, concepts only a few coaches now seem to adhere to.

 

The following immediately had me thinking about current buzz around “team culture”:

“Competition is very useful in maintaining interest. Individual competition should not be overdone lest it unduly depress the slower members of the squad. Collective competition is more valuable in obtaining the co-operation and interest of individual members, and in leading to a healthy pride in their unit.” (6)

 

There’s been a big push the last few years to use effective questioning to stimulate thought and value athletes’ opinions, getting them to understand concepts more deeply. Meaningful feedback and looking after ‘slower learners’ as much as the quicker ones is also covered. I was surprised to see the following in any military manual from any era:

“Interest may also be stimulated by appeals to the recruit’s intelligence.” (6)

“Questions will help the instructor to see whether his explanations have been appreciated. These should be economically worded, free from ambiguity, to the point, and asked at the right time.” (6)

“Above all, the instructor should endeavour to understand the recruits’ point of view and to follow the workings of their minds.” Avoid sarcasm. Use sympathy and understanding. “Sympathy in this sense does not involve ‘softness’, but rather the ability to develop in the recruits an attitude of confidence in their instructor…” (7)

“Continual failure depresses and the learner tends to lose heart. Instructors, therefore, should commend good work, not only on the part of the quicker recruits, but also when some improvement is shown by the slower learners… … the instructor should reserve serious reproach for those efforts which are accompanied by slackness or carelessness.” (7)

 

Though there is an instructor-led, step-by-step model described in the manual, I felt the choice of words here strongly suggests that the learner is also (if not largely) responsible for recognising incorrect habits:

“Sometimes movements which are not particularly helpful become incorporated into the system and, if they are not detected at an early stage and corrected by the learner, they may never be completely eliminated.” (9)

Between pages 10 and 11, it puts forth a learning model that those who subscribe to the ecological, perception-action, constraints models will disagree with. But this is true of all models: “The recruit learns much more by doing than by listening… [i]nstructors should therefore rely more on practical work and the recruits’ responses than on verbal exposition.” (11)

 

Non-linear learning??? I don’t think I even learned this in my teacher training in 2001!

“Instructors are warned that progress in learning acts of skill is not necessarily a steady and continuous business. There are often arrests and even setbacks in development.” (11)

“It must also be remembered that individual recruits will vary in their rates of progress… [i]t is the instructor’s task to get from every man the utmost efficiency of which he is individually capable.” (12)

“[The instructor] … should also have a clear idea of the method to be used in teaching these movements, and of the difficulties likely to be encountered by the learners. He must be prepared to adapt his methods to the particular squad that his teaching according to their varying natural abilities. All this will require much thoughtful preparation before the actual drill period.” (13)

 

Those of us who have jumped on the Constraints-Led Approach and Perception-Action Coupling bandwagons will appreciate the following:

“The drill activity should be carried on… with as realistic a basis as possible, in order to stimulate keenness and maintain interest… the recruit then gets the ‘feel’ of the real thing and the whole movement is practiced and consolidated in the form in which it will ultimately be used.” (13-14)

 

This was part of another instructor-led section, but as with the ‘learner responsibility’ element mentioned earlier, this bit on efficiency in delivery also suggests that the instructor needs to be specific, let the learners get on with it, and inspire them into understanding the concepts deeply themselves:

“[T]he instructor should watch the effects of his work on all the listeners, as the success of his teaching is to be measured by their reactions. His words should set them thinking, gathering new ideas, sorting them out and anticipating what is coming. He must know his subject thoroughly, be able to select the important points and present them effectively with the minimum of words.” (15)

“Successful instruction is mainly a result of mastery over one’s job, knowledge of the effective methods of teaching, understanding of the workings of recruits’ minds and of their abilities and limitations, and, perhaps what is most important of all, enthusiasm for the work.” (15-16)

“It is the individual recruit who is the ultimate teaching unit and who must be stimulated to make the required efforts on his own behalf which will lead him to become an efficient soldier.” (16)

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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 posted something like this before, but am going to be making of a poster for my team and shared this with someone who was interested. Thought a re-visit wouldn’t hurt!]

So one cold and rainy British Columbia evening when the guys really didn’t want to go outside I said we’ll try a little exercise I did at a conference. The speaker was Gary Henderson, a coach educator from the RFU, and he challenged us to think of the ruck as a ‘failure’ of the principles of the game. Yes, we can win the ruck and go again, but for that moment, we’re not necessarily going forward, support is tied in or waiting for the ball, continuity not certain, and the pressure might be off the defending team if they’ve now got a chance to re-align. So, he asked, what can you do to avoid that situation?

I’m now humbled to say we only came up with six, eight with some prompting to be more specific. So with that challenge, I asked the guys to better that. I didn’t give answers, but kept drawing out of them more specific options with questions.

I’m still fine-tuning this for my purposes, but I was really impressed with what we did … then they felt excited and went out in the sleet and mud to try some of these things.

1. Player, ball in two hands, running at space
2. Evasive footwork when contact possible / space closed
(I’m fine-tuning with swerve, side-step, cut as more specific options in different circumstances)
3. Dummy pass to throw defender off and re-open space
4. Pass when space isn’t present, especially when team mate has space (this could be a first option if I receive and there is no ‘easy’ space to exploit)
5. Fend (includes shifting the ball out of two hands for the first time) to fight defender when they close down
6. Power step to hopefully power through the would-be tackler (change of direction from the midline to throw defender off-balance and go through ‘branches’ instead of ‘trunk’ of the tree)
… contact initiated now … so this branches in two ways …
7. Offload
a. Screen pass
b. Around the body
c. While falling
d. From the ground
(or)
8. Hammer / Latch through contact (partner joins to hopefully plow through, or secure as we go into a maul or maybe a ruck)
9. Long placement on the ground (we reasoned that both a ‘jackknife’ or ‘pencil’ long placement of the ball can precede a ruck if someone’s there to play / move it quickly)
10. Ruck / Maul

So the ‘in-between’ stuff is what we work on a lot, in game-like settings. I don’t stress Gary’s word “failure” after using it for initial shock value, because rucks are part of the game and we have to win that contest. Before that, however, let’s really be conscious that we’ve got a dozen options before we have to resort to to a ruck, so we have to give ourselves the time to scan, think, communicate and coordinate those options. It’s important – vital, actually – that I put them in situations where they can practice these under match conditions so they can adapt to realistic pressure and get their timing right, together as attacking units.

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I read an insightful article ahead of this weekend’s England v Ireland encounter and wanted to comment on what I feel is a missed opportunity in the England side, but also for a lot of amateur teams still stuck in the past regarding what forwards are meant to do in attack.  From the article:

“FOR ME, THE biggest work-on at the moment – with the tight-five forwards and everyone – is ‘seeing the game.’ It’s all about the decisions people make on the field, under pressure.

“The more you focus on that, the more all the players start ‘seeing it.’”

So said England attacking skills coach Mike Catt of what he’s attempting to achieve with the group of players head coach Stuart Lancaster has identified as good enough to win the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

An intelligent second-five-eighth in his time, Catt wants England to eventually emulate what the All Blacks are doing with their simple, skills-based approach to rugby.
“You look at New Zealand; their tight five can do what their centres do and that’s why everyone else is chasing them,” Catt told Sportsmail. “They have this understanding, an ability to ‘see it’ and make the right decisions at the right time; to do the right things.

“The beauty about what we currently have here is that it’s a young enough team for us to work on developing that.”

There certainly have been signs that Catt’s focused work is bringing about improvements in England’s ability to make more intuitive decisions on the pitch but they remain, for now, a side who rely on a fairly rigid structure in attack.

I’ve been trying the same with the men’s 2nds team I’ve been coaching the last few months.  The message is clear and simple: everyone’s a carrier and everyone’s a decision-maker. Forwards are not just there to crash it up and set up / clear rucks. That sort of thinking is ancient and reduces your team’s potential in attack. Why have just seven or eight players (no. 8s always chosen as players to cross the gain line) when you can have fifteen, and seven more on the bench? Everyone needs to focus on getting through the defensive line or putting someone through the line.

England talk about this a lot, but the bit I’ve bolded is very apparent.  They’re getting forwards into what aren’t ‘pods’ – with a strike runner at the head and two or three ‘support’ players behind (who’re there mostly to ruck or maul). They, as do New Zealand and Australia (probably others) stretch out forwards in what look like mini ‘back lines’ of three our four. The difference between England and New Zealand, however, is what those forwards do with the ball and how they attack.  Currently, in the England team, the guy who gets the ball crashes it up 9.5 times out of 10 (made up stat but seems like pretty much every one, with the odd offload or pass before contact).

All that does is cut off the space that the backs previously had and everyone’s so well drilled in defence these days that they’re not really occupying more defenders to create an over-lap. (This may work at amateur level, but I challenge my players to think on a level that we’re always trying to breach the line, not stretch out phases and hope that the defence eventually collapses in one way or another. Even a few metres gained means the defence has to back up and re-position themselves, which is better than facing defenders who haven’t had to move much at all.)  There are some examples in the article showing England forwards making the extra pass, but I’d argue that the second runner is not really looking to take space, as they still crash it up blindly – and even with a support runner present. The All Blacks and some groups of forwards in the Top 14 are brilliant at moving the ball about in those little units to get beyond the gainline, at least with a half break, not just smash into it and hope to march it back or break a tackle.  I’m a big fan of Lancaster, but I’d like to see England let loose the shackles and make at least one more pass as they’ve got a lot of capable carriers.

For amateur coaches, I challenge you to train and allow your forwards to be more dynamic rugby players – especially if they’re younger and won’t grow into / settle on a position for years to come!  Put all players in realistic situations where they have to work on alignment and scan for, communicate, and exploit opportunities in high-pressure environments.  Below are a couple of scenarios I use before going to a bigger game-like scenario where backs and forwards have to work together in attack.

The first I use with backs and forwards, but can be adapted to just include forwards. The aim is to make that initial break and then support with lines of pursuit that avoids the sweeper(s) – at least a scrum half, if not one other. I like to keep the bags tight so they either have to draw and pass, power step or hammer through and then break out in another gear, fighting through the obstructions to get into good support positions.  With a lot of these activities, I demand players “run in” from the side as if they were arriving to a second or third phase, stressing that creating effective attack starts by getting yourselves into position to exploit / create opportunities – so appropriate width and depth before calling for the ball so attackers can stay straight and have legitimate options left AND right (i.e. players who swing in on an arc invariably angle out, making it easy for defenders to drift).

Shield Wall Breakout

I like this to combine what can become robotic rucking drills, instead giving players a larger contextual sense that the ruck has to be dominant and efficient to provide quick ball for the next phase. I also use this to encourage all players to move the ball from the ruck – note how the tackler rolls away quickly and acts as the half back to get the next phase started (not always realistic, but it certainly encourages tacklers to roll away quickly and get back into the play with urgency!).  That said, the All Blacks are masters at this and it adds to the dynamic of their attack, allowing speedy scrum halves the chance to play in the open field and providing more width. It’s very rare that my team attacks the channel around the ruck, as it’s so heavily defended nowadays, so also reminds everyone that we’re playing from the third defender-out.

Ruck Clean-outs for Second Phase

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A short while ago I was introduced to the concept of using points in small-sided games to increase the likelihood of players attempting something new or challenging. I first saw an example in a soccer context via the Football Association’s youth development manager Nick Levett’s Twitter account. The point of his game was not just to score a goal, but also to perform a certain skill that was a bit more advanced than the target group’s current range of abilities. Coupled with reading about the benefit of small-s ided games, I thought this would be a great fit for my team for several reasons.

First off, they love playing games and though they haven’t said as much, body language and elevated intensity leads me to believe they’d rather play a game than perform a drill. Secondly, it was rare to see the majority of players attempt, say, attacking angles at all when we transitioned from a drill to a game of touch. The trick, then, was to find a way to encourage players to try the skill practised in a narrow-focused drill to a game-like situation where there were many more variables and options to consider. I wondered if providing a points-based incentive to try the ‘advanced’ skill would help – and, boy, did it!

Instead of doing a drill that focused on angles for 10 minutes or so, we had a little refresher – especially as we’d picked up three new players since I’d introduced the concept – on what an angled attacking or support run looked like. For the sake of simplicity and differentiation, I now call an angled run by a ball carrier a Y-line as the player starts straight and picks an angle that’d look like one arm of the letter from above, aiming for the shoulder or space behind the next defender in line. (Shoulder if trying to commit, space if trying to expose one who’s committed to the next attacker in line) I call an angled support run an unders (running inside) or overs (running outside) line, reminding the strike runner that all he needs to do is yell “tight” or “wide” to the passer and run the correct angle. Again, keeping it simple.

I then told them that we were going to play a big game of touch whereby tries would be worth 5 points, and that you could get bonus points for attempting angles, even if you didn’t score the try. I nominated 1 point for a sharp Y-line (which the guys aren’t too bad at presently) and 3 points for an unders or overs line in support. If a try was scored directly from an angle, it’d be worth 10 points rather than 5. I didn’t know how it’d play out – wondering if maybe guys would over-do the angles to score cheap points – but that didn’t happen. I did, however, see a marked rise in the amount of angles attempted, but also sticking to simpler forms of attack – through the hands to expose an over-lap, an inside ball, a swerve to beat a slower player, etc as those are all comfortable tactics for them and seen as an easier way to score tries. I also made sure to reward and provide feedback in real-time and found that after tries or hand-overs were a good time to shout out the bonus points and what for. (We played touch like league – with a maximum of six phases – so it’s not as if I was counting bonus points for long stretches of play.) I kept tabs in a little note book and was even a bit shocked that after 20 minutes or so the score was a very even 43-41! In addition to the guys enjoying the game and attempting more angles within it, we had a game the following weekend and three of our five tries were scored because of good angles and supporting the linebreak created by them.

However, we’d been focusing so much on attack the past month that we looked a bit slow and rusty in defence so I’ve created a similar game that rewards the desired skills in defence. This hasn’t been tested yet, but I’m thinking 10 points for a try (we want to prevent them!), -5 for allowing a clean line break, 1 for a stop behind the gain line, and 3 for a double hit (as I want to see us working in pairs – when appropriate to contest for possession, and because most of our opponents are of the bigger, crash ball running teams). I might also give a greater incentive for our supporting players to clean up attacking rucks by awarding 2 points if they get two people over the ball in a strong position (we’ll be drilling that beforehand).

I’ve also created what’s maybe a bit more of a skill-drill than a game which will precede the one described above to encourage the players to get off the line in units and work together to stop the attacking team. We were a bit fractured at the weekend, and definitely too passive for the one team in our league that plays with intense speed all the time. Two even teams start at a point where they can run into and get set in attack and defence before the ball is played. They then play one phase of touch, wrap or tackle with the aims outlined in the points table. With that phase completed, they sprint to the next station and repeat. The field layout provides four different widths, two different passing directions, and also allows for realistic situational practice whereby both attacking and defending teams will get the opportunity to play on the ‘front foot’ and have to deal with going backwards and coming forward from the ‘back foot’. I’d have one person at each station to re-set the balls to ensure speed of turnover (like getting people to hold bags, rotating them out after a few cycles.) Depending on how many players and how much space you have, you could have two of these running simultaneously or run players through in cycles. I don’t like having a lot of people standing around, so would tweak the number of participants before having more than half doing nothing, or challenge them to provide positive feedback to the group subbing off – forcing them to pay attention and analyse.

Unit Defence Game

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