EXPERT SESSIONS AND ADVICE FROM QUALIFIED AND EXPERIENCED GRASSROOTS RUGBY COACHES

The Undercover Coach: Myths of scanning

Can we really coach scanning?

What is scanning, and is it possible to coach it? Let’s bust a few myths with our undercover coach. 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. Through his experience, research and observations, he is ready to lift the lid on a few coaching myths.

First, we must be clear on how we define scanning. The simplest definition I’ve come across, which I can connect with, would be the visual perception of information. So, essentially, how we see things. 

There’s such little research in rugby around what to scan for. Do the best players scan the most? How do they scan? When? And why do they look for specific information?

There is a significant level of research in football, primarily through the work of Geir Jordet. However, not everyone in football agrees with the concept, and it is being challenged on several fronts. 

Research in football has explored how the best players in the world scan. Given the 360 nature of the sport, it’s evident that midfielders scan the most, demands of their position. For example, Lionel Messi scans, on average, eight times every ten seconds, while the likes of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard scan six times every ten seconds (this research was done in 2006!). Initially, it was widely considered that the frequency of this scanning behaviour was a huge positive for these players and created an advantage for them when playing the game.

Yet we’re in danger of creating a generation of players with ticks in their necks. They think they’re suddenly a better player if they keep turning their heads. 

We’re entirely missing what to look for and when to look. For example, what if I look three times in 10 seconds, or you look 15 times in 10 seconds, but the visual information doesn’t change? Does that make you a better player?

The notion that ‘the more you look, the more you see’ is limiting and somewhat false. 

You need to consider: Where are we on the field? Where’s the ball? What’s the scoreline? How are the conditions affecting it? Are we all playing in a condensed space because the rain and surface jeopardise our ability to move the ball quickly?

But then, there’s the human side to scanning. It can’t all be contextual. Who are you as an individual and as a player? How might this shape what visual information you look for and why?

When I first started to explore scanning, my false assumption was that we could coach every player to look for specific visual cues, triggers or signals across different game moments. 

Yet, this would assume that we all look for the same information every moment. Consider a ‘maverick’ attacking player who looks to take risks; they will scan for significantly different information to a conservative, perhaps more defensive-minded player who may possess a more limited skill set. We’re looking through very different lenses.

Moreover, as coaches, can we explicitly coach scanning or the visual perception of information? Is it purely implicit?

Most football research suggests that playing the game is the most effective way to support how an individual scans (11-a-side). Small-sided games or Rondo-like practices don’t provide enough visually rich information for the individual to scan; thus, the transfer and retention of learning are minimal. In other words, they are doing a Rondo or five-a-side game that does not promote scanning that will relate to the full-sided game to the same extent as playing the full-sided game!

If we value and want to develop scanning in rugby, we must play the whole game more often in our sessions. The game will give them the cues to pick up on. 

WATCHING RUGBY

I guide our academy players to watch the game more, especially the professional game if that’s what they’re aspiring to get to. Because the more you watch, the more you understand the game, and you’ll learn about the game more.

The more you know, when you’re playing the game, you see more because you understand more about the game. However, the professional game looks different to what an under 18 or 16 game looks like and much different to what a community or school game looks like. 

How transferable are those cues for that individual? If you understand the game more deeply than someone who doesn’t, you’re probably going to see more in the game. 

Does that necessarily make you a better decision-maker? I don’t think the answer is to ask players what they see and then get them to reflect on that. The reality is that many players don’t know what they’re seeing at the moment. Therefore they don’t really know why they made a decision. In reality, when we ask them to recall what they saw and then did, it’s not that accurate. They might even say what they think we want to hear. 

I think we just get better at asking players what they see or might have been able to see and then try to guide them towards that. If anything, the only real positive of asking players what they see more is just creating a greater connection with that player. There is a deeper level of empathy for the experience they’re having at the moment. We’re not learning how to guide them to be better scanners.

IS SCANNING THE BEST WORD?

When doing my research, I talked to a former Special Forces Chief Instructor; in his 25 years, he had not heard of the term. Instead, their language was ‘situational awareness’. Perhaps this is a more appropriate phrase, but it stimulates more questions than answers. Are we consciously aware of the visual information we are looking for? Or is it subconscious? Or instinctive?

Think about when you make your best decisions in a game. How conscious was that thought? How deliberate was that decision, or did it just happen?

TRAINING FOR SCANNING

I believe you can recreate certain game moments to support scanning behaviour from my research. However, I’ve seen a coach standing at the back of the activity with a red cone or a green cone in the air. The players then react to the cone colour to make a decision. In my opinion, all that is teaching players to do is look for coloured cones – it doesn’t have any transfer or specificity to the game. We can recreate isolated moments where you can have conversations about what visual cues might be of significance but cones in the background… I’m not convinced.

I don’t think it’s enough to be able to say, ‘When you see this, this is the decision’. For example, if you see a player doing something that goes against what the team might be trying to do, whether you’ve got a specific structure or pattern of play you’re working towards, is their individual decision only favourable if the outcome is also positive? As a coach, will I intervene only when the outcome is negative?

What if they did see a great opportunity? A couple of months ago, I saw our number eight go and do something completely different to what we’d discussed we could do. I asked him what he saw, and he said: “well, I saw if I go around here, I create an overload.”

He caught the ball and failed to execute the 3v2 he had subsequently created. Would I have intervened as a coach if he’d caught the ball, executed and scored? I’m not sure I would. I only intervened because his outcome wasn’t successful. 

That’s another tricky area we have to navigate. Are we more curious about what players are scanning for only if the outcome’s harmful, and we turn a blind eye if it works out? 


  • It’s a myth that the more you look, the more you see, the better your decisions will be. 
  • Who you are will shape and guide what you look for. We can’t tell every player to look for the same information. We are too complex.
  • I don’t think we’re anywhere near understanding how we might even be able to begin to coach it effectively.
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