It starts and ends with the coach

We all know that it starts and ends with the coach.

While there are a host of support coaches attached to most teams, there is nothing like the thrill and the pressure of being the one that is in the hot seat.

Head coaches are often cut from a different cloth to support coaches and even though they all have similar traits, each and every head coaches’ approach to the game is different, which is what makes the sport of rugby and the ability to coach such an intriguing and challenging profession.

Rugby players all have the same basic skills, but the positional application of such skill makes the game intricately unique. Each position on the field brings something different to a team. A game for all shapes and sizes, the key is putting the puzzle together so that it gels.

Then there is the most important element of the skill of coaching which is the ability to get a group of very different people, with very different skills sets and very different emotional drives to come together and play for a common goal.

Each match is simply a 50 / 50, which is logical as there are two teams and only one winner. Successful coaches find ways to win more often then not and most of the time it is because they have identified a way in which they can inspire teams.

Gregor Townsend has helped Scotland climb the World Rankings by giving confidence to the players

I have tried to summarise some coaching key points when planning for a season, mainly out of the many lessons that the game has dished out to me, so far.

We never stop learning in a game that constantly changes, but even through the harshest of lessons there is simply nothing better then being involved in the best sport on the planet.

  1. Respect the discipline of the game There is significant ego attachment to the game of rugby, but never allow your ego to get in the way of preparing your team. It is not about the player, the coach or the unit coach – it is always about the Team. Coaching is selfless and a coach that knows how say what is absolutely necessary for the team at a given time, are often those that find a way to get through to their players, in the heat of battle.
  2. Take responsibility The win belongs to the Team and the loss to the Head coach – Sport can make coaches play the “blame game” a rugby Head Coach can never win a match for the team, but he can certainly lose one. Always make careful, unemotional decisions, during pressure situations for the teams benefit, then once that decision is made – own it.
  3. The outcome counts  In sport there is a winner and a loser and then there is the game. It is of course better to win. Always prepare to win and compete until the end. While it is obvious that every coach wants to win, the fact that only one team does on match day – creates a competitive edge to the sport of coaching. Rugby players are combative and competitive and feed of a coaches competitive attitude.
  4. Respect coaching and playing roles Empower both your coaching staff as well as your players. In a game of trust the hardest choice you have as a head coach is to choose your support coaches and then empower and trust them. In a rugby context, given the ego drive that is attached to the sport, micro management does not lead to a healthy team environment.
  5. Honour the process  The diverse nature of the game requires overall skill development including those environmental skills which are not of the physical type i.e: mental toughness, rugby team culture development, building better people and social responsibility. The only way to nurture each skill is to develop your own unique process, plan it carefully, empower your squad and then honour and trust the process as you work toward your seasonal goal. Careful attention needs to be placed to other factors of squad building, outside of the physical domain. The emotional integrity of the squad counts in leaps and bounds too.
  6. Stick to time  Coaches and players need to respect your plan, which means you need to respect their time. Time is a finite, precious commodity, how we give of our time is also a choice. Those coaches and players who choose to spend their time in your squad are showing a tremendous amount of respect to you, as a coach by making this commitment. This time they will never be able to get back. Resipricate by: communicating timeously, scheduling detailed practice programmes, weekly blueprints and seasonal goals, base all of your plan across a concise timeline – stick to the process and most importantly, stick to the time.
  7. The match day environment  The pressure of the match is the same for both teams and match officials have their hands full to manage 30 players going at each other. Those that generally handle the pressure best are those that end up winning more than they lose. Practicing to be calm under pressure will help you make clear decisions when the going gets tough and players will thrive in watching you combat these pressure situations with calm process.
  8. Plan to compete  Often we train to cover certain aspects of the game and technical skills but then forget to practice competition, the whole nature of the sport is competitive. This natural over ride of the game means that competition needs to be coached the same way as game play and skill needs to be coached. Stimulate competition during practice and nurture your teams skill to compete.
  9. Make your team understand the “why”   The “how” is important but the “why” is more important. The catch phrase of the sport of rugby in the modern era, is team culture. We hear about it all the time. Each team should have a unique culture, which often is passed on over time then nurtured and becomes the cornerstone of what it means to be part of a specific team. A culture only works if the team is encouraged to understand the “why.” of what playing means to your team.
  10. Acknowledge goals  As much as climbing a seasonal mountain is to reach the top, the process of getting to the top “step by step” is the most defining aspect on whether you get there or not. The goal is ultimate, but only at the end. Acknowledge the goal, then reflect every so often to see that you are on target by processing bite sized chunks of achievable mini goals. These you can process and manage, as you go along. Sometimes you need to take a deep breath and have a look at the view, this then inspires you to keep going by seeing how far you have already come.
  11. Be creative and acknowledge the person as well as the player  Stamp your own personality on the team with exciting training sessions, out the box thinking and a positive learning environment. Take the time to respect the person that plays the game. Be a coach to the player and a friend to the person, as without the person there is no player. To get the best out of your player come game day, take the time to understand what makes him tick as a human being before trying to nurture his playing ability.
  12. Punishment  The fear of losing can compromise a positive outcome. It is often an individual mistake that leads to a loss. Punishing a team for losing on the basis of an individual mistake breaks the spirit of the team as well as the confidence of the individual. One of the hardest choices that a head coach has to make is to pick a player. This is the only way in which a coach can tell a player that he loves him. When you pick a player you are displaying your belief in him. Punishing an individual mistake in the end punishes yourself as the head coach, as while you think you are punishing the player you are in reality punishing yourself for being the person that picked him in the first place.
  13. Asking for help is a sign of strength  Be confident in your position as head coach. It is impossible for you to know everything about the game asking experts for help shows strength of character, security in your own ability and placing the team first.
  14. Work on a theme  Giving the team something to play for outside of the result allows for effective cultural building, within a squad. Irrespective of the outcome of the match a team that has a theme that they are playing for provides a safety net in the event of a negative result. Leveraging overall success on the scoreline, can lead to despair if you do not win. Many championship teams drop games along the way. The key to winning a trophy is winning the games that count, which are the play off matches. Giving a team a theme for each game which has nothing to do with the score, can lead to a team bonding and evolving even in the wake of a loss. The most important challenge for the team is to tick the theme box, then they have succeeded in terms of honouring their team culture and can progress on with confidence to cause.
  15. Preparation  Preparation is a fundamental of sport. Self belief and trust is gained through inspirational coaching, but it is virtually impossible to believe if you have not prepared correctly. As the coach, professional preparation is key to creating the platform for your team and colleagues to believe in your systems. This will enable them to be inspired by you, the coach, to perform when it counts.
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