Posts Tagged ‘training’

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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Just last week, I finally figured out this rugby thing.

People who know me well will think that statement ridiculous as they tend to believe I’m the most knowledgeable rugby person they know. After 17 years coaching that’s gone into some 120-odd posts in this blog, I probably do know a fair bit. Over the past year I’ve been thinking a lot about the balance between structure and free play, having started out being overly focused on the former, while moving toward the latter in more recent years – and I think I’ve finally found a perfect mix. Structure gives players a focus and a plan of action they can rely upon. Free play allows athletes a chance to show their skill, both as individuals and combined in pairs, threes, or in larger collaborative units. Both also have their limitations. What I’ve been wrestling with is how to combine the two in an effective way for amateur players that only meet each other twice a week (if everyone shows up!).

Essentially, I want every player not involved in the ruck to get into position quickly to be an attacking threat on the next phase. Attackers establishing good depth and width between each other opens space between defenders. It not only allows you multiple options, but it causes defenders to consider – and hopefully be confused by – multiple threats. Too often we see one single line of backs with no options behind them or a pod of forwards where it’s obvious who’s getting the ball and, from their passive body language and lack of voice, who are only there to ruck after that ball carrier crashes it up. At the highest level, even, you see teams bash it up around the corner for several phases in hopes of wearing down the defence, and nothing more. Even worse, players at all levels can be seen jogging between phases, leaning on rucks, or hanging out behind them, rendering themselves useless for that phase when they could be an attacking threat. As such, defending is relatively easy.

It’s the multiple variables and sources of information that defenders have to sort out that causes hesitation and incorrect decisions. By getting into an ‘dynamic shape’, I want my players to align themselves either in the front line – a line of backs or a short line of forwards – or the support line, tucked in behind, ready to receive an offload at the line or a back door pass to go wide. Some specific tactical examples can be seen in my Two Layers in Attack post. This sort of body language will test the abilities of defenders – especially amateur ones! – to recognise threats, adjust to them, and make the right decision under greater pressure than one-out-pass-and-crash, round-the-corner rugby does.

I’ve been pushing this for my teams for the last couple of years and have especially loved seeing forwards get excited about being instrumental decision makers and distributors. The last team I coached had legitimate distributors at hooker, tight head, and number eight! But while recently watching our highlights from last season, we did look a bit random from phase to phase. Attacks were usually successful because we had such a strong team that won every game by a comfortable margin. It was a bit scary to think that we could have been even better with more structure and focus to our attack.

So what has been my amazing discovery? I used to scoff when I heard professional players from teams I’ve deemed ‘boring’ say things like: “We just need to play in the right parts of the field” and “We’re trying to get the rucks in the right place.” While I still believe those teams are too robotic and could afford to be more ambitious, I’ve taken something from those phrases. We DO want to play in the ‘right parts of the field’ – that is, where the defence isn’t heavily concentrated. And by considering the location of the ruck, and what it affords in terms of available space to the left and right of it, we can make a concerted effort to take advantage of it on the next phase. The revelation: There are only two areas from which we launch our attacks – rucks in the middle of the pitch and rucks near the touchline. I’ve given them two slightly fancier names:

The Big Open – With a ruck in between the touchline and the 15m dashes there is a lot of width to use, with 1 or 2 defenders likely going to cover the short side and three defending the ruck on the open side. Attackers can overload the open side and spread across the field, which opens gaps between defenders. Extras can tuck in behind the front line of attackers, offering an outlet for a back door pass, a target for a late pop pass or offload, or a misdirecting decoy line. You can think of this as one big dynamic unit or two – and even three – separate mini units.

The Split Midfield – With a ruck anywhere in between the two 15m dash lines, there’s a very strong chance that it has drawn a lot of defenders around it (1 or 2 in the tackle, 4-6 more defending the fringes!). Alternatively, it might allow for overlaps or mismatches depending on how defenders have aligned themselves off that ruck. On one hand, too few have ‘folded’ around to the side the attack was headed; on the other, too many have folded over, leaving the other side lightly defended. Anticipating and recognising this can allow a team to have a simple numbers advantage or pick off individuals who are slower or smaller or otherwise disadvantaged.

Before getting too deep into how we’ll create a strategic plan from this, it’s important to remember what we’re trying to do tactically. Our aim in attack is always to:

1. “Go Through Them” – find and exploit gaps or mismatches in size / speed and go straight through the defensive line. Create gaps to exploit with clever angles, timely passing and change of pace.

2. “Go Around Them” – take advantage of the overlap with quick passing and get around their defensive wall. Straight running fixes defenders, preserving space out wide. Swerve runs cause outer defenders to turn in, creating space for team mates outside.

3. “Go Over Them” – use a kick to get the ball back if the full back is missing, winger flat, etc. (and this can include a kick to touch if our lineout has dominance over theirs)

4. “Get Behind Them” – when all doors are closed and the wall is well organised – and we don’t want to kick possession away – an attacker should either get behind the defender making the tackle or shove their defensive line back. In both cases, the defence has to retreat and reorganise and we should be on the ‘front foot’ as a result, with players ready to look for better opportunities on the next phase.

Our structure – that is treating every ruck as creating either a Big Open, with lots of space, or a Split Midfield, with defenders condensed and possibly overloaded on one side – basically gives players an idea of what’s likely to be in front of them and where they should play next. The tactical aims listed above give them a focus on what to do when they get there. They will choose one based on who’s there in support and what the defence is offering. To me, this a perfect mesh of everyone following a plan that gets them into purposeful positions, and being free to use their vision and skills when getting aligned together.

This structure worked for us because of the strengths (and limitations – we weren’t going to bosh over players and didn’t have much of a kicking game) of our players and some truths about the way our opponents defended. We had speedy outside backs, good passing halfbacks and midfielders, some mobile forwards who pass and a few big forwards who pull in defenders. Teams we face had the following tendencies – which I think is true of most amateur teams:

  • Tend to stack two and three defenders tightly on both sides of the ruck, so we tend not to attack that space (unless it’s not actually well defended!)
  • Tend to look inward at the ruck more than in front of them, making outside player susceptible to late changes in alignment, swerves, overs lines, and not calling out overlaps.
  • Tend to have many players who aren’t that fit and/or fast, who consequently get out of position when having to run chase the play across the pitch.

Early on, I realised that if we happened to run a subsequent phase close to the previous one, play really slowed down. We didn’t gain any ground and too many bodies were involved in that area, so urged that we move the ball away well away from every ruck. Once this was in place and because our halfbacks could make long passes, our subsequent attacks tended to happen at least 10m away from the previous ruck. Our wide game obviously led to a lot of tries, but only a year later did I see a pattern in the build-up. Looking at our highlight reel, the trend seemed to be that the next phase from one of the two aforementioned scenarios led to the other scenario on the subsequent phase. So if we started with a Big Open, the next phase would almost always be a Split Midfield because we either tried a move with the midfielders or tried to punch through wider gaps with forwards. Going from touchline to touchline (i.e. Big Open to Big Open) tended to waste time in setting up, giving advantage to the defence, unless the defence was very narrow toward the other touchline and we could get a few long passes away quickly. (What can work better, especially if your passing isn’t great, is a cross-kick in the opposite direction after reaching one touchline… so long as your kicker is good and the opposite winger is paying attention!)

Wide Attack

If we established a Split Midfield, we’d attack wide one side and the next phase would look like a Big Open. Which side we’d chose typically became a ‘Where are we?’ vs ‘Where are they not?’ assessment. Not enough defenders folding = same direction, especially if the ball is played quick. Too many defenders folded around the ruck = rewind in the other direction.

Midfield Attack

So what are the essential elements and training requirements to achieve this?

  • Understanding of the plan. We can’t have individuals not getting into an effective position or going solo against our aims. We move away from the last ruck – unless it’s poorly defended and we can gain territory / maintain momentum and continuity – and attack wider spaces.
  • Anticipation. Players have to predict what the defending team will do. Are they a slow team that won’t fold around? Are they worried about the wide side, taking too many from the direction play started? Do they condense around rucks too much or evenly spread the field? Who’s likely to be out of position and be ripe for exploitation?
  • Recognition. Amateur teams tend to be more random in how they defend, so it’s vital that people spot opportunities and feed this information to decision makers. An immediately exploitable – CLEAR – opportunity is better than slavishly sticking to a plan for the sake of it.
  • Work Rate. In order to create dynamic attacking situations with sufficient numbers, we need complete and determined effort at the tackle contest (one or two, max?) to secure the ball. We benefitted from powerful cleanouts and incredibly quick/fit scrum halves who could get to the breakdown quickly – this should be the aim for any team. The other, often ignored, element of work rate is getting re-aligned quicker than the other team. Players shouldn’t be jogging from a previous phase while the ball is in play – they are effectively NOT attacking threats at that point. They should be sprinting into position, using the ruck completion time to catch their breath, not to metion scanning the opposition for attacking options and communicating with team mates regarding relevant info (“Poor tackler in front of me”, “On your left”, etc.). Combined with the other two elements, players can save energy by not running to every ruck when the realise their presence isn’t needed.
  • Ball Movement. As has been mentioned already, we want to get the ball into areas where it’s easier to play. An attacking player with a lot of space in front and options left and right is a very dangerous person (which is why some of the best teams have their most dynamic attacker at outside centre). With the way rucks are typically defended, there is only ‘into contact’ or ‘outside’ options given how condensed the defence is there. Wider spaces allow for effective switches and inside passes.

When you put it all together the most important element in this structured / dynamic attack is trust. Trust that everyone’s on the same page. Trust that people can spot and take advantage of opportunities. Trust that team mates will give their all to secure the ball or get into position. Trust that individuals will move the ball into the most advantageous positions. And, as not all attacks will lead to tries, to trust that we’ll be able to repeat the whole process again with positivity, determination and a unified focus.

It’s also vital that teams train for this as much as possible. When I took my Level 2 certification in Australia, one of the lasting messages of the course was to train proportionately for things as they occur in the game. As such, I tend to spend upwards of half to 80% of a training session on open play. We will work on dynamic unit play in activities that look and feel like the real game – some contact, some non-contact – asking players to get into position and recognise / communicate even before the ball is played. I also can’t stress enough the need for defenders to be present and active – recognition and timing are vital, and this cannot be done unopposed. I don’t like touch for this, given that most players are going to blow through a tackle attempt that involves just a grasp of the shirt. Instead, we use ‘wrap up’ to avoid full contact, or flag belts to get defenders closer and focusing on hips (single flag requires immediate offload or two steps and set a ruck, double flag pull equals tackle), or bags if we want to work on powering through smaller gaps, attacking the ‘branches’ of the tree rather than the ‘trunk’. A lot of work in this smaller area is then applied to the entire width of the field focusing on creating these scenarios from Split Midfields and Big Opens. Where clubs have to share minimal space, I’ve found that this work can be done in 1/3 of a pitch given that we’re aiming to score in between 2 and 4 phases.

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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
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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I read a great article a few months ago examining how video games can teach us lessons about how Generation Y learns and why they find them so engaging. Today, this topic has come up again but this time from the cantankerous old man angle, thinking they’ll be the death of sport. I definitely side with the first article, as it’s apparent that video games do have a hold over a good many kids. Sports are still fun to play, but when you look at the reasons why video games are so engaging, I think there are some stark lessons which should cause us all to think about how we present the whole sporting experience.

If kids are quitting sports in favour of sitting in front of the TV / computer to play games, then it’s our fault as finally something has usurped coaches who make participation boring! I believe even many of those who continue to participate only go to training as it guarantees a chance to play in the actual game. So what can we learn from video games?

They’re more engaging and allow more freedom than your average sport training session, which is full of boring drills and game-play overly influenced by the coach. In video games, trial and error is fine, going completely off-script to explore for ‘Easter eggs’ is encouraged, players are free to learn on their own or collaborate with other players. How often do sports coaches allow failure to go unpunished, allow athletes freedom to discover their own abilities, or work out their own solutions rather than being fed the coach-approved ways to attack and defend? I’ve started likening typical sports training sessions to video game tutorials – you know, that thing at the start of some games where you can learn how to move and play guided by on-screen pop-ups and set scenarios. Who ever does those?!?!

But if game day or playing a game at training is like playing a level in a video game, it’s easy to see why numbers drop when more time is spent doing the ‘tutorial'”.  I recently brainstormed this and its implications for rugby training …


The original article, Coaching Edge’s “Level Best” by Crispin Andrews, can be found here:  http://www.sportscoachuk.org/sites/default/files/coaching-edge-level-best-article.pdf

Highly recommended reading!

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