Challenges to see what players can achieve

Balance training, so players move from technique to real situations, even if the technique isn’t perfect. Use challenges to see what they can achieve, not what they can’t. 

Improving players on the pitch is an interesting balance between perfecting a technique and being functional. I believe that players need to learn good techniques, but there is a moment when the basics have been grasped, and the need to focus on “game real” situations becomes important for development.

That does not mean the action used is perfect, but the player can start to learn to perform under pressure. That’s when functional training comes in – putting the player into game simulations.

Passing is a good example of function over technique, and I have a three-stage process.

Learn or revise

In this example, players learn or revise catch and pass.

  • Hands reach for the ball, so it is received quickly.
  • The receiver needs to keep the ball off the chest, the hips square and follows the hands through to the target (technical).

Dropping the boundaries

With the basics in place, the second stage is where I think the coach can really add value. I like to call it “dropping the boundaries”. Instead of shouting, “Don’t drop the ball”, I challenge them to pass under extreme pressure, in confined spaces and as fast as they can.

They can push themselves to their limits (and beyond) and so understand what they can achieve. We make it fun by successful outcomes leading to the coaches doing press-ups! As stated above, we don’t encourage mistakes, but we also remove negative consequences.

The end result is usually a heightened level of mental stimulus and positive outcomes. The repetitive nature of these exercises leads to development in mental and physical execution.

Game simulation

Most of us end up in the third stage, which is closer to a game simulation. Now the players will face different sorts of defensive pressures, with defenders coming from different angles or at different paces.

You can create scenarios or replicate defensive systems that the team might expect to face from the next opposition.


I used to set up attacking exercises where they may be 10v10, but I would condition the defence to create opportunities.

Some examples of conditions:

  • The attackers would get into an attacking shape, and I would tell two defenders to drop out, creating a gap.
  • Make it that two bibbed defenders could only grab tackle or that the defence would have be narrow or spread.

Therefore, every time the attack formed up, there would be an obvious “hole” or mismatch to go for. In training, we would get to the point where players would identify the gap pretty much every time and execute the right play.

Then, in a match, we would fail to exploit the same situations and, more crucially, we would struggle in general because the attack does not always have the same space, since in matches, the defence is often set and organised. There are no gaps or mismatches immediately available.

Hence, in training, we must run against an organised defence more often, say seven times in every 10 runs. Now the attack must adjust and make the best it can against an organised defence and then be ready to exploit any moments of weakness ruthlessly.

If I then create a mismatch, that moment can’t be squandered. They also can’t think, “it’s about time we had a chance”. To do this, I might say, “I’m going to run 10 plays and not give them one chance or give them their only mismatch chance on the first plays”.


A good functional player will deliver the best pass for that situation. He can only do this if he can register that situation, and hence you need to ensure your training is functional. That means the skills are performed in similar situations you might find in the game. In New Zealand, they spend a lot of time on functional training. The warm-up will be a mixture of technical/functional, and the main session will focus strongly on functional.

For instance, we might run a phase set-up. Initially, the first play from the set piece will be scripted. The 10 will have three options. We might have three further options from the next ruck: a punch play, a loop or a pass to the backs.

We can run this as a functional practice. The techniques are put to the test in scenarios based on what next week’s defence might be.

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