RCW’s Haunted House: Episode 1

Welcome to the Rugby Coach Weekly…Haunted House, featuring:

Bruce Aitchison, housemaster at Merchiston Castle School, Level 3 coach, former coach at cup winning Boroughmuir, played and coached across the globe. Creator of Happiness is Egg Shaped.


Geraint Davies, Head of PE and Games at Leicester Grammar School, Head Coach at Nuneaton RFC, a coach with Gloucester Academy and a Senior Coach Developer and Level 3 Mentor, video analysis guru on Twitter and YouTube.


Phil Llewelyn, just back from coaching in Canada, former Player Development Officer with England Rugby and Talent Developer with Ireland Rugby and a former national league head coach with Hinckley RFC.


These three unsuspecting coaches were invited to enter the Haunted House. I led each one into a room where they faced a terrifying rugby scenario. Each one was challenged to find a coaching solution. On the spot, no preparation and no get out clauses. Sink or swim.

The other two coaches listened on, and at the end of the solution offered alternative views. We then commented on those solutions, before we went off to the next room.

Here are the scenarios and a summary of the ways that they would deal with each situation.


Difficult parent, who’s also a top coach

A parent constantly “coaches” their U12 child from the side lines. Their “advice” is rather old school and not aligned to your thinking or philosophy. Their child is confused and getting upset.

One of your colleagues turns up and tells you that this parent played a good standard of rugby and notes that the parent is also wearing his RFU coaching jacket. He tells you that he’s a key selector for the U18 divisional team and runs the coaching committee that appoints divisional coaches, something you are aspiring too.


It’s all about the relationships that have been developed beforehand. Even so, greet parents as they arrive
You want to know lots about the players, and that includes their parents, because they have such a vital role to play in their child’s’ development.

The problem is that parents forget their influence.

Start with conversations about their feelings and also talk to the child. Above all, avoid conflict and a direct approach. You are aiming to build positive relationships.

Definitely speak to the coach. Frame the conversation – speak through the values of your culture. It should be an on-going relationship so it should be easier to have the conversation.

Try to consider the child’s own feedback. But don’t place the child in the middle of the conversation.

Aim to celebrate the parent’s enthusiasm, then help them control that enthusiasm.


Building relationships with the parents helps to make these situations less frequent or be better prepared to deal with it when it does.

Kill this guy with kindness. Shake their hand, tell them how good it is to see them, you are aware of their experience and then say you hope to catch up with them after the game.

Then use Geraint’s approach. This guy needs his ego to be massaged. Get on the front foot, approach them, to show that you want and value their input.


Use the power of the players’ feedback. Create a team charter, devised by the players that talks about behaviours, and that includes the behaviours of the parents. Get the players voice their opinions on how they want their environment to be, get them to pass that back to the parents. Then use it to check and challenge parents.

Harnessing the voice of the players is absolutely crucial. Player chatter and what kids tell their parents can be very powerful, the parents don’t expect it.


A selection problem over one of your most valued players

It’s coming up to the last game of the season for the team you coach. The long standing captain is retiring and you’ve helped arrange a dinner in the their honour after the game. Of course, you are the MC, and have arranged a famous ex-Scottish international along.
This league game will decide whether the team will stay up.
Four weeks ago, the captain, who is also the 10, got concussed. He has now declared himself fit, and obviously keen to play. In a sense, the previous few weeks have been a blessing, because he was not playing well and his replacement has dragged the team into a position where they might stay up. With a league limit of four replacements, two of whom must be front row, plus your scrum half has a dodgy hamstring, what will you do.


First, I would pick myself for a chance for glory.

Of course, you must go through concussion protocols and checks. Four weeks is enough time, but the player still needs to be checked. We will have set targets for the captain over this time to aid this decision

I would have set up a leadership group of senior players. The captain needs to take responsibility for the team as part of that group that looks at selection. In other words, if we are honest, and the captain is honest, it makes these sorts of decisions less stressful.

In my experience, these groups can come up with answers that can be quite enlightening for a coach.

Look at the two players in training, to see if they are both performing. On balance, I would let the current 10 keep their place and put the captain on the bench. The captain should still have an input in the team preparation, before and during the game, one would hope. That’s why a slot on the bench would be beneficial to the team as a whole.


This is a good test of your team culture and environment.
Your captain should already be aware of his own performance, good or bad, and there has been clarity over whether he has been playing well or not. And, everyone else is aware that if the other player has brought improvements to the team, then the group know it. I would hope the decision makes itself, and not based on sentiment.


Let’s be devil’s advocate: There is no room for sentiment. Why not let him relax from not being selected and enjoy the game with his friends from the bar.

Your career isn’t defined on the last game. It’s a measure of the individual: he should be happy to accept it.


On leadership groups: no clear cut way to put this together. In the end, it has to help communication within the team. If it creates an hierarchy that blocks this, then it’s not good.

Your relationship with your captain is different to any other team member.

On sentiment, I think it does play a part, and that could be discussed between the leadership group. In the club game, that certainly has a bearing. As a club coach it is always difficult to not select players or bench them when they are training and giving up their spare time. They do buy into it when they sign up, however it is still difficult to deny them playing time.


The tough decisions around this sort of selection: think how much the playing group and their stakeholders have invested in staying up. A captain should not be making themselves available if they feel they would lead to the team to go down.

Remember that careers are non-linear. Injuries can change everything. When the captain got the head injury, he might have to reconcile himself to the fact that he might be finishing before he was ready to.


When you select your captain, you need to understand the team and the player themselves. The criteria might include their ability to set standards, manage others and build relationships with other players. They can lead by example, or support everybody, so everyone sets the example.

You need clarity about how you want the team to operate, otherwise you can choose the wrong person. It also comes down to the culture of the club and traditions. In some clubs, it can be a players’ vote. The coach has to stand up and say what the players should be looking for in a captain. It can be very difficult if you have no say in your captain and you end up not being able to work together. That’s something you need to be clear about when you take on the role.

Before you select the captain, if it is your choice, then you must be listen to as many key players as possible.


Be brave enough to wait before you select your first captain, even if there is a player has been in place for a while. If you are honest with the player, explaining that if you can’t get on, then this will be a problem for everyone involved, and is not a good foundation for an ongoing relationship.

Captains and teams are about clear lines of communication. You pick someone you can trust and someone who can role model the behaviours you want to put in place.


A last moment session with a range of abilities

You’ve been invited to take a U15 girls’ session for one of your friends. She is a bit vague about the details so you arrive early at the venue.
In the next half an hour over 40 girls arrive, and they are definitely all U15, because a lot of them look U13 and probably some U11. But there are only parents in civilian clothes and no sign of your friend.
Eventually, a breathless parent comes up to you and says that your friend has been trying to contact you to say she and her co-coach will be delayed by an hour, and do you mind looking after all the girls.
You count at least 40. And in your boot you have 7 size 5 balls, and a stack of cones.


Clearly doing some right if that they have many players.

Get games on the go. Key points here: ask them what games they enjoy most, and what games they haven’t done in a while. Or even, not been allowed to do in training.

Split into teams of 4 or 5, play a round-robin (short games, changing opponents regularly). Pick some areas they might want to concentrate on. Get them running around, get them mixing up the teams, get them enjoying playing.

I won’t be spending much time on team preparation. Instead, focus more on problem solving.

To start with, I will give them some context, and this is what I’m thinking, and open up the dialogue to see if we are moving together.

An example of a skill game would be: seven cones, six defenders, one attacker. The attacker has to try to get to the spare cone, while the defenders run to defend that cone. Add cones to make it easier for younger players.


With the different age groups, breaking down the small-sided games in their age groups is good, however there is a lot of benefit from mixing up the groups. This allows role-modelling and nurtures good habits. With more dynamic, end-to-end games, you would split the groups.

Let’s get excited about this sort of challenge. It’s what coaching is about sometimes.


You need to be enthusiastic and excited, clearly enjoying the challenge. I would deploy the parents to help. Explain the circumstances and get them involved. Tell why they are needed, and why you need their support.

Use silly games to get them going. For example, make a circle of five. One steps out and has to tag the specified player in the circle as the rest of the circle (which now links together) moves around to block them.

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