Accelerate learning with your session structure

The whole-part-whole approach can really fast-track your players’ improvements. Set the themes and let them learn at a pace that suits them.

Any training session should be both enjoyable for the players and give them plenty of opportunities to learn. The most obvious way to do the first is to play games and with the whole-part-whole approach, the second is possible too.

Whole-part-whole means a game, concentrating on part of that game, and then back into a game. It doesn’t necessarily mean the whole game of rugby, so we could start with a conditioned game before breaking off into a drill.


The advantages of games in training:

  1. Players want to play games.
  2. It allows them to assess their own progress and identify their weaknesses.
  3. Puts skills into pressure situations.
  4. Games after a skill has been introduced allow the skill to be explored in a variety of different situations.

The disadvantages are that you may not be able to cover as many skills and that some players might not participate as much. At lower levels, games might be dominated by the most skilful or confident players.

However, if you play small-sided games, the less able or less confident players will have to step up. And, in the context of any game, even if you are concentrating on handling, other skills like footwork and defence will be part of what they learn.


Keeping quiet is a crucial skill you need to develop during the first part of the session. As a new coach, you might well find yourself wanting to correct every mistake. But this will disrupt the flow of the game and there’ll be too many messages to the players.

“Let them play” is my main message to coaches during the game. Throw in points of praise, or tactical comments but very little on the technical side. For instance, I might shout “good running line” with a name and a reason for that comment. Only after the game has been going for a while do I stop them to ask them questions.


  1. The theme – introduce the theme for this part of the session. For example, I might say that I am looking for agility before contact and attacking the space to the edges of defenders.
  2. The first game – depending on the ability and experience of the players, either I would introduce a game of touch with conditions or let them come up with the rules and the size of the pitch.
  3. The game itself would be no more than six-a-side as an ideal. The players need plenty of touches on the ball.
  4. The game would run for around 10 minutes, after which I would stop for some feedback. Here I might provoke them with questions. If we are looking at footwork before contact, I might say: “Can you tell me why you dance before the tackle” or “How do you think it best to hold the ball in close quarters?”
  5. Then we would break off into a skill isolation highlight, concentrating on one or two of the aspects we were looking at in the game.
  6. The key learning points should be led by them. Though you might have a couple you want to bring out, they might have better ideas. Don’t pressurise them to come up with the answers you want.
  7. At the end of the skill session, they should have a set of guidelines to follow and adapt for the situations. In the next part of the session, they aim to replicate some of these skills, though you can’t expect that it’ll be perfect. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest it can be a few weeks before you see significant improvements, as the players take time to bed down the ideas in their own minds.
  8. The final game is very much led by me. I’ll be changing the playing area or numbers to create new challenges to highlight the skill and empower the players in a game-related situation.

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