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Game models uncovered
It is recognised that expert coaches have a clearly defined and ever-evolving game model. But what is it? Why is it important? And who is it for? Rugby Coach Weekly talks to a highly regarded coach who works at one of the best academies and has access to the best pro-level coaches. He is ready to lift the lid on a few coaching myths.
In a complex, dynamic and chaotic sport like rugby, a ‘game model’ seeks to clarify and, in some cases, illustrate how a coach (or group of coaches) want the game to be played by their team.
The intention is to create a shared understanding, across the coaching and playing group, of how the team want to play in certain moments of the game, combined with the collective decisions or actions they can take. All of which is underpinned by a shared language.
Simply put, the purpose of a game model seeks to create alignment across players and coaches so that the group have a shared understanding of what to do across the different moments of a game.
A game model we use has clearly defined principles across the different moments of the game. The moments of the game are Attack, Defence, Set-piece/Contest Possession and Transition. Why? Because, in every game of rugby, these moments will happen throughout. Our game model seeks to guide collective decision-making through an understanding of what principles we value in each moment of the game.
For example, if we value moving the ball to space as one of our principles in Attack, then this will shape the type of decisions we make during these moments of the game. Conversely, if we value momentum and playing directly through teams, this will shape the type of decisions we make too.
WARNING! An effective game model needs to be simple enough to reflect the game in its entirety yet flexible enough for players to be ‘adaptable’ and make their own decisions based on what they see and feel in the moment.
Second WARNING! Effective game models aren’t copied and pasted from one coach, or one environment, to another. A coach must understand how they want their team to play, what principles they value, how it will look and why they believe in this approach. A game model that is adopted from another environment may lack the depth and understanding it requires to truly have impact.
HOW TO START
A great starting point when designing (or even better, co-designing) a game model would be to build a shared understanding of the language you want to use. Imagine being at school and having two or three teachers in the same lesson but all of them using different language.
It’s not going to take long until people start building different mental models of what, how and why we want to make decisions or solve problems in a certain way. As more confusion sets in, the lack of clarity sets in with it.
A shared language, where we all understand what we mean by the words we use, creates an opportunity for us to all look through the same lens. I’m sure we’ve all had experiences in a session where we are coaching with others and focussing on a particular area or moment of the game, but we are all using different language – probably with lots of jargon thrown in for good measure! But we must consider the impact of the players’ experience. How is this affecting their session? Their learning? And fundamentally, their enjoyment?
(Third) WARNING! If we are not careful, we can lose sight of who the game model is for. Is it for coaches so we can exert greater control on the playing group and shape all their decisions for them? And is it feasible for coaches to control and influence every single moment of the game?
The game model is for everyone but ultimately serves the players. We want to co-create a simple game model to give the players clarity on what we value across the different moments of the game. In my experience, well-defined principles best serve this.
BRINGING ‘GAME MODELS’ TO LIFE
Fundamentally, every game model will share the same moments of the game. And within each moment, similar principles or ideas will be valued. For example, if we focus on the moment of Attack, a lot of coaches and players will recognise space, overloads, and speed of ball as components they regard important. However, in simple terms, the point of difference for a coaching team is twofold:
An in-depth and shared understanding of what our principles or ideas look like in practice.
The amount of time we attribute to particular moments of the game (for example, Set-piece) over others (say, Defence).
My experiences have taught me to keep the game model simple. I’ve spoken to other coaches in the past who tell me they have 12 principles for each moment of the game. When I ask them what they are, they can only recall three or four of them. And I’m thinking: ‘If you’re the head coach and you can’t recall your own game model principles, what chance has a player got?’.
On top of that, some coaches will be more set-piece orientated and will spend a lot more of their time in sessions, analysis, and meetings on this moment of the game. While others might value phase-play attack and so sessions will be more geared towards that.
Therefore, the challenge we face and the questions this stimulates are: Do we fully understand which moments of the game have the most significant influence on performance or outcome? Can certain moments of the game ultimately dictate other moments? And how can we coach this? What will our sessions look like? What theme or narrative will we drive in the week building up to a game?
Thinking back to the 2019 World Cup Final, it would be fascinating to know how Eddie Jones and his coaching team prepared their England side around the set-piece, with the potential influence this moment of the game was going to have against South Africa. The week before, in the semi-final against New Zealand, England’s phase play defence was outstanding and, in my opinion, one of the primary reasons they won.
FOR COACHES AND PLAYERS
As coaches, we must always be asking ourselves, does our game model suit the players’ needs? A game model will always evolve. It can’t be fixed. We must strive to build a shared mental model (how we think) of what we value, how it looks and why we collectively believe in it. It then takes a life of its own when the players develop a deep understanding of what, how and why we have it. When players start using the same language as the coaches, we know we are building cohesion.
But should you create that model with your players? Could it not be done with coaches and players simultaneously? Clearly, this is context specific. It depends on what players and coaches you are with. In my environment, an academy setting, the players don’t know what they don’t know. Part of my role is preparing them for what the jump to professional rugby might look and feel like. We must support them with a certain level of tactical information and build a deep understanding as to why it’s relevant. For me, it’s more about selling the game model to them, inspiring them around what the game could look like in the future and why we want to play this way.
(Fourth) WARNING! I’ve seen it done poorly when players are simply told what decisions to make and how to make these decisions. They have no real understanding as to why we’re trying to do something or why we value a particular principle. The game model lacks inspiration, and the players don’t grasp it to the same level as those who are taken on a journey about why we believe in our model.
Ultimately, the purpose of the game model is to support the decision-making of the group collectively as well as the individual. Everyone has clarity of what we’re trying to do in different moments of the game, and we all understand what we value as a group.
As a micro example, last season, we shaped our lineout purely to develop, challenge and support the decision-making of our lineout callers. There was no system, no coded language to learn. They had one standard set-up for every single lineout, but there was always at least one space open to them. It was designed to challenge their ability to recognise where the best (or only) space was and to take the space on offer. It created a deeper understanding of where to look for opportunities in a lineout.
It removed the downsides of implementing a system. The players could get good at executing within a particular system but might not know why they’re doing it and what space they are trying to attack. Our thinking was to create an approach based on the principle that ‘action beats reaction’. If we act and go into that space as best as we can, with everyone executing effectively (the lifters, the jumper, the thrower), then we will win the ball.
It was a powerful experience for the players. But then there’s the reality of transitioning into the professional game, where it’s likely you will have a heavily-coded system. You must understand different systems and different parts of the pitch. So how do you also prepare them for that?
Our perception is that we must support them. They might have some good ideas and be able to interpret what some of those principles would look like but, in my context, it’s coach-led. We have a responsibility to inspire and sell these ideas. To the players of the next generation, it can’t just be about telling these robots this is what you’ve got to do and how you’ve got to do it. We must inspire and sell how great the game could be.
A game model is a tool that will help us to perform. ‘Detail’ is a buzzword at the minute; with everyone saying the importance of detail, I would say absolute clarity on what this looks like, and why we’re trying to do it, is more important. A game model creates and gives you that clarity.
KEY LESSONS FROM A GAME MODEL
- A game model evolves. It starts with the game moments and you add in detail and change it with your coaches and team.
- A game model is used to provide clarity through a shared language.
- It doesn’t control the players. It allows them to make better decisions.