Lessons on how to plan

The Big Breakdown podcast is about to enter its fourth season. Co-host, Kris Stafford, reflects back on season three, where his impressive guest list gave him plenty to ponder about for his own coaching at Leeds Beckett University.

Over the last 18 months hosting The Big Breakdown: A Coaching Podcast with Harrison Marshall, my curiosity about coaching has grown, and I have had the pleasure of interviewing some fantastic guests. A lot of the learning has gone into my planning for the season ahead, and here are some of the key points I’ve taken away below.


Planning and periodisation are two of the most talked about areas in the game, but there is very little support in NGB award courses. For example, while studying for my Master’s in Sports Coaching, we were encouraged to “Start with the end in mind” (Covery, 2016) and know where we plan the journey.

This was one of the key messages we got from Tony Philp, General Manager of the Hurricanes. He discussed the importance of vision and values and how that has to be the DNA of a planning cycle. This is not something you do in isolation, as everyone in the team must live and breathe it.

One of the best ways to start this process is to begin with calibrated questions. In his book, Never Split the Difference Chris Voss (a former FBI Negotiator) suggests that these types of “what” or “how” questions allow you to introduce ideas and requests without forcing them onto people. Using questions like “What is the biggest challenge we face?”, “How can we solve this problem?” or “what does perfect look like?” is an essential method to learn about your team. You can get the information you might not have known and teach yourself something about your players. However, remember to listen to the answer. If you turn them off, it permits them to turn you off!

Planning can also be fun if you approach it in the right way. We interviewed David Sharkey, Team Architecture LTD, about theming within coaching. Theming is a great way to connect your planning, vision, and identity with your players. David suggests that “Teams are often at their best when they are playing for an idea…”. He has experience implementing this across different environments and supported Ronan O’Gara and La Rochelle with their theming. Find a story your team connects with, and let that drive the journey you’re taking.


Once you have a direction, you need to map out the activities to bring them to life. There are several different approaches you can utilise here and many examples you can use on YouTube.

Dan Cottrell spoke about implementing an activity structure within team sports and how

you need to make them relevant to the sport you’re playing. This comes through understanding the sport’s internal logic and a detailed vision of how you want the game to be played.

If you want to play edge-to-edge rugby, is that relevant to your practice design? If you want more emphasis on kicking for territory, are you allowing the players to explore different solutions? This is how players learn. Let players explore solutions to problems rather than telling them.

This doesn’t have to be complicated either. Ben Ryan, former England 7s and Fiji Olympic Gold Medal winning coach, said that Pep Guardiola only coaches through six games. These games are designed to bring his philosophy of football to life and connect to how Manchester City want to play football. The players all know the games, which means less thinking of the constraints and more focus on decision-making. All Guardiola needs to do is adjust the constraints to create more tempo or pressure. They are all also designed to be fun with maximum learner engagement.

There is also a time when block practice can support players in developing their skills. Jay Carter, a Pro Golf Coach in New Zealand, discussed the importance of creating activity structures which replicate the pressures players would experience in a game. He gave an example when he was coaching a PGA Pro. He told her, “You need to hit the green in regulation on this hole, or we are packing the clubs away and no more golf today”. The player said she instantly felt the pressure she experienced in competition, and it was a great way put her skills under pressure in a session. Think about how you could do this in your sessions with kickers or hookers!


Learner engagement is one of the most important things we need to be aware of as coaches, as I learned from Mark Bennett MBE from PDS Coaching. If you haven’t read any of Mark’s stuff yet, head to his website, or listen to our episode, as I don’t believe I can entirely do his work justice.

Learner engagement is vital to link everything together, to get that perfect picture of what we want to see on the pitch. You can plan what you think to be the best activity structure, but if players are not engaged, the session will fail.

Mark highlighted that you could break your sessions or season plan into three key phases: Learning, Competition, and Performance.

In the Learning phase, we are establishing the “why” and letting players explore decisions in a safe space. Although this allows you to revisit critical themes and imbed the learning, we should not expect players to get it from one session alone. Mark aligns this to three types of behaviour on the field: Acceptable, Unacceptable, and Exception. He then utilises the Rule of 3 before a coach intervenes. The Competition session is where players progress to perform under pressure, and Performance is where players can do it without coaching interventions.

Ben Ryan shared that one of his main coaching goals is “how can I make myself redundant here”. If players understand the process, can make more informed decisions, and give each other feedback, you can consider your job a successful one. This might seem bizarre, but the logic makes perfect sense.


To be aware of your coaching behaviours, you must become more aware of yourself and your strengths and weaknesses.

The behaviours you present are not simply connected to how you are on the field or on match day. It is also how you conduct yourself before, during, and after training. This was one of the critical things we spoke about with Neil Holmes, Sports Lecturer at Leeds Beckett University. People are a dynamical system, and we can’t just treat everyone the same.

We have to be able to adjust our behaviours based on the individual and not just apply a one-size-fits-all approach to get the best out of the players. You can’t pre-plan how you will behave or how your players will behave. It has to be reactive based on that specific moment in time. You can’t predict a person’s behaviour. It’s the one uncontrollable factor in coaching, along with lovely British weather.

Richard Smith, who used to work for High Performance Sport New Zealand, outlined that knowing your players’ interests away from the sport is vital to building a connection. Set yourself the goal of having one-minute conversations with your players pre-session about anything other than rugby. Build a rapport with them, understand them, and let that shape how you communicate with them.

We interviewed former England and British and Irish Lion Nigel Redman about communication in coaching. Of course, questioning is vital, but you must understand when, how, and what to say to shape behaviours. Nigel discussed how effective communication could help with the functionality and success of a team. Knowing your team is a critical factor in that, and this has been a discussion point in all 30 episodes of the podcast.


Season 3 of the podcast was an extraordinary individual learning moment for me, and I took so much away from every guest. This is a very brief overview of some of the “golden nuggets” from some brilliant guests. The key things I have implemented into my preseason plans have been:

  • Have a clear vision of what we want to achieve as a team.
  • Make sessions fun and engaging while replicating the principles of how we want to play.
  • Allow a learning phase for the participants to understand the why and how thoroughly and increase the pressures of a game.
  • Once this learning has been embedded, start layering on pressure.
  • The final bit of advice, get to know all your players, plan your communication strategy, and most importantly, make sure there is a learning moment for everyone in every session.

Click here to listen to the episodes.


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