A Rosenshine rugby session

Use the best lesson design principles to enhance your players’ learning opportunities in a rugby session. Dan Cottrell aligns the theory with what your session might start to look like.

Rugby Union – England Training – King’s House School Sports Ground, Chiswick, Britain – May 24, 2022 England’s Nick Isiekwe and Maro Itoje during training Action Images via Reuters/Paul Childs


Before we start, we must remember that while we will hope to see signs of improvement through the session, it’s not an indicator of whether players have learned. Testing them on previously taught skills or content is the only way.


Barak Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction is a highly regarded method in the classroom. We can replicate most of these principles on the field to improve our players’ learning opportunities. It provides a template for our session design.

The principles are not a sequence of events in a session, though there will be some logical order. And instruction shouldn’t be viewed as coaches telling players what to do. In this case,  instruction is how we create learning opportunities for our players, through how we behave / interact and how we design practice.

Rosenshine suggests that this is best achieved by running these principles alongside building your environment for learning. For example, do the players feel included or listened to? Do they enjoy the session? Do they feel they have a chance to interact with their friends?


There are four major principles:

  1. Reviewing material
  2. Questioning
  3. Sequencing concepts and modelling
  4. Stages of practice


Every session you should be checking back on what was covered in the previous session. You might do this with some questions, or by rerunning part of an activity.

Reviewing material is all about fighting forgetting. You can see it as a rehearsal of movements previously explored.

You will also want to review material at the end of a training block of, say, six weeks.

Questioning starts the process, but nothing beats putting the players back through an exercise they have done before or a new activity which gives them a chance to replay some skills from a previous session. That could mean a game or a carousel of activities that allow players to show what they remember or be reminded.

In rugby terms, while you want accurate execution under pressure, you are better off checking that players have a good idea of what good might look like, even if they can’t perform it every time. That’s like the game. Players cannot have a perfect performance. Yet, if they know why they went wrong and what they would have done differently, this is much more powerful than you having to intervene.

A review will help you understand whether you do need to intervene. A good way to voice this approach might be: “tell me why. show me, execute”.


There’s no surprise that we should ask questions. However, Rosenshine suggests we need to ask more of the following types of questions:

How did you do that or how do you do that? For example, if the answer is “Apply pressure”, your next question is “How? Show me…”

We want the questions to allow us to check how we are doing. Do the players understand the instructions, tactics or techniques?

In a training sense, some of these questions are embedded into the training activities. We want the players to be challenged. For example, will they perform the right technique (or one of the right techniques) to solve a skill problem?


When we are developing players, we can use Rosenshine’s principles to build strong connections.

Break down a skill or tactic into small steps so each stage can be practised. Note the term steps, rather than isolating movements. You want flow in movement, where the whole body is working, not just one part.

For example, when making a tackle, the player must get close to make the tackle, engage with the head and shoulder, then grip tight, and finish off with the leg drive. Those are small steps. However, the tight grip must have all the other body elements connected. A tight grip without understanding our feet are connected to the ground would be unnatural. The players need to experience tight grips with different foot positions.

To help with such a complex task, we should give worked examples. This helps players see what is happening and start to piece together the elements for themselves. Video footage is good. Using demonstrations, especially with more experienced players, is even better. According to classroom research, teachers give too few examples. We need to think about how to give the players far more.

Finally, we should sequence our scaffolds. Scaffolds are forms of support which can be gradually withdrawn. For example, you might start a tackling session with a player holding a tackle pad so the tackler has a softer target to engage the shoulder.

The scaffolds are a static pad-holder who remains on their feet as a tackler takes one step in to make sure their feet are close enough. You might make the pad holder walk, then run. Then remove the pad altogether, give that player a ball. Eventually, the tackle would become part of a defensive scenario.

For a complex skill with a large safety element, scaffolding works extremely well. For other complex skills, like a 2 v 1, or other decision-making situations, you might be less prescriptive, using the scaffolds to give the players opportunities to find solutions.


In a session, reviewing previous material shouldn’t become the main driver of the session. It should be quick, easy to assess, with a small amount of feedback.

A block review (looking back, say, over a six-week training period) can be regarded more as an exam-style situation. You are looking at a wider range of material. This is most likely to be in a match situation, if not a match against an opposition. However, don’t build up a match to be a “block review”. That’s for you to decide on what needs to be challenged in the next block of training.

On the other hand,  make it a positive outcome when you pick out improvements. Ideally, you can find something for every player to happily reflect on.

Next article: Stages of practice and practical examples of what a session might look like.

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