EXPERT SESSIONS AND ADVICE FROM QUALIFIED AND EXPERIENCED GRASSROOTS RUGBY COACHES

When is a training game not a game

I challenged Twitter with this: If a ‘game’ within rugby training doesn’t offer the ability to transition immediately from attack to defence and vice versa, it isn’t a game, rather a conditioned drill. 

Here are my reflections based on the responses I received and my own research. It might just make you think again about your practice design.

DON’T MAKE IT A DEBATE

First, let’s make sure we don’t fall into a prolonged debate over the value of drills and games.

As Phil Llewellyn points out, coaches will see an activity as a drill or a game, dependant on their definitions of what of both of these are. This point was expanded on by Niall Kearney, who suggests that we shouldn’t become hung up on the game/drill debate and instead focus on developing activities which derive from game-based contexts and focus on improving the skills of our players.

My initial tweet oversimplified the argument into the game/drill debate which we often fall into. Instead, as coaches, we should be focusing on whether the activities we use within a session are appropriate for helping players to develop the skills and patterns to confront chaos within ‘THE’ game.

WHAT IS A GAME

Fergus Connolly in his book “Gamechangers” describes a game as:

A confrontation between chaotic deterministic systems and fractal organisation.

Connolly defines chaotic as events which cannot be planned for as they are events which happen in outside of a repeatable sequence and which are impossible to control or predict.

A good example might be a dropped pass – we know these happen in a game, but there is no sure-fire way to predict when a pass will hit the ground. We might have an idea based on previous games and our intuition, but we cannot ever say for sure if a pass will be drop, the bounce of the ball after, or the actions after that.

Fractals, within this context, are actions which appear to happen multiple times within a game despite being unplanned. They may look very similar but will never be the same.

Think of the fly-half alignment off the back of an attacking ruck. It will look similar throughout a game, without truly ever replicating the position to the millimetre of the fly-half relative to the ruck, location on the pitch, distance to the opposition, distance from the ball, or distance to teammates. We cannot plan to the exact second when this ruck might occur, but we will undoubtedly see similar fractals throughout a game. We organise to confront the challenge of chaos.

I’ve included more detail on what this means below this article, but in essence, a game is full of elements which neither players nor coaches can fully predict. There is an infinite number of possibilities that can change a game – many of which no-one is aware of.

DOES CHAOS MEAN IT’S A GAME

It should come as no shock that we can’t fully predict how a match will turn out.

And, whether we plan for chaos or not, every session can take place in a state of unpredictability. What happens, however, when we remove unpredictable elements within a session?

Think about a regular game of touch as part of the warm-up. We are playing a standard game, where if a player is touched, they turn and pop the ball to a supporting player. The only change made is that if a ball is knocked on or passed forward, the attacking team retain the ball. The opposition side only gets the ball when the attack scores or the coach decides to turn the ball over.

We have imposed a state of order where there would usually be chaos in determining who has possession of the rugby ball.

What effect would this have on the game and the participants within it? Might we see players trying longer passes, for example, because there is an order in which team has the ball?

In contrast, usually, the unpredictability of the pass and potential for a change in possession may inhibit this decision. Does this increased order on the game aid players in focusing on the skills they are using, with the potential for more significant growth as a result?

Is this now a game, or is it a drill with the defensive team unable to alter the order of which team has the ball?

In short, by imposing order, have we taken this from being a game to a feared drill? The order is that there is no transition from attack to defence.

I’ve come up with three threads of thought on this in answer to my original tweet:

If a ‘game’ within rugby training doesn’t offer the ability to transition immediately from attack to defence and vice versa, it isn’t a game, rather a conditioned drill. 

  1. Removing transitions stops it being a game
  2. You don’t need transitions for a game
  3. You can have game-type activities

REMOVING TRANSITIONS MEANS NO GAME

A few commentators believed that by removing the transition that the game was changed. Stuart Dixon shared a story where he had a similar discussion after a review of one of his sessions. The reviewer had suggested that by removing elements of the game, it had become a drill. By removing chaotic components present within a game, we strip context away from the activity.

Supporting this suggestion, David Cheng suggested that it was difficult to justify an approach for using a game without transitions as the turnovers of possession are such a crucial part of rugby.

These responses demonstrate there is a school of thought that there are elements of the game that are critical, and if removed, then it isn’t a ‘game of rugby’ as such. In many ways, this is a viewpoint reflected in the way the rules of the game develop from U7’s onwards; there are no age groups in which there are no transitions in ‘THE’ game.

Therefore, ‘games’ in a session must allow teams to flow from attack to defence as a matter of course.

IT’S STILL A GAME

One of the more common viewpoints was the removal of the transition didn’t change the fact that an activity is still a game.

Keri Lovell says that players still have to make decisions to confront the chaotic systems which still remain within the environment. Stuart Wilkinson says that players are still exploring and interacting with these chaotic systems to find solutions.

Using Connolly’s definition of a game as chaotic systems engaged in a confrontation by fractal organisation, these examples see players trying to tame the chaos, and thus are participating in a game.

Graham Smith noted that he saw every activity within a session like a game. Smith suggests that even a 2 v 1 can be seen as a game, which we can understand as players once again having to develop solutions to chaotic situations.

Therefore, activities which allow players to problem solve are a game, regardless of size or removal of elements. 

GAME OR GAME-TYPE ACTIVITY

Ross Ensor suggested a subtle difference. Ross indicated that players are engaging not entirely within a game but within a game-type activity (GTA). The key differences between the game and GTA are that a GTA:

‘is a practice that incorporates some but not all of the elements of the game e,g moving targets, levels of pressure/opposition etc. Still replicating the context, depending on the learning outcomes.’

We start to see elements of the previous two viewpoints combine. Reducing of chaotic factors means that it is not THE game, but the context of the game remains in place and players are still engaging in organising against chaotic systems, from which the players learn to adapt to THE game.

I think this demarcates practice from the game. This demarcation allows us to understand the common phenomena of players performing well in training – but this not transferring into THE game.

All of the elements on a game day will never be present in a training session game; players who thrive in training may struggle with some hitherto unthought-of force on game day.

It also raises the question of whether merely playing games in a training session can lead to player development, or if we need to develop games which address contexts and expected situations within games.

CHANGING OUR SESSION DESIGN

When developing sessions, we need to have clear ideas about what our goals are and develop activities which we feel give us the best chance of doing this. In some cases, this might be by removing the chaotic systems, such as the potential of turnover, to allow players to focus on the skills.

We don’t need to focus on whether something is a game or drill, rather the context in which it is presented. Chaos will be present in every activity that we ever run, and players will be forced to adapt. There is a need to manage the level of chaos within an activity to ensure players can focus on the right things.

This also means that making things more chaotic might not always be the best way to develop players, as we divert their attention away from the areas we are looking to improve.

Like all things with coaching, the most important thing is to develop activities which are the best fit for your players – never feel that you need to design a session or activity a certain way to fit in with a trend or because it needs to be a “game”. As long as players are challenged to adapt, then you are doing your job as a coach.


FURTHER THINKING

There are also some other principles which Connolly proposes are active within a game. These are:

The micro principle of dynamic feedback

As soon as a game kicks off, a chaotic system begins. Everything that happens within a game changes how a game flows. A team that takes an early lead will potentially alter the way they play; a conversion kicked in the last minute of the game to take the win will be perceived as more critical than an attempt in the 56th-minute kick when a team is cruising 48-0 in the lead. A wet day will affect the passing style of ‘flair’ teams, a team playing against a ‘lesser’ opposition will make different decisions than it might against a team they consider stronger.

The micro principle of nonlinear amplification

Small events can, in the end, lead to significant consequences. There is always a consequence to any action and its reaction. A missed tackle might lead to a better angle for a clearing kick from the kicking teams try line, which in turn leads to a lineout deep with a defending teams 22m, which is then turned over and leads to a score for the kicking team. While the turnover at the lineout might seem significant – the missed tackle ahead of the clearing kick is just as important. The principle also extends beyond the game; a player might get to the ground 5 minutes late due to an extended phone call, resulting in them not carrying out a pre-match ritual, disturbing their mental readiness for the game.

The micro principle of turbulence

Chaotic systems affect each other and can create hugely unpredictable outcomes. I.e. a dropped ball might drop forward or backwards, depending on the wind at the time. A gust of wind just at the second a ball dropped could completely change the game.

The micro principle of dynamic stability

Connolly suggests that there are states of low disorder and high disorder in a game – there is instability in moments of a game, even when it seems there’s total stability. A great example is clear in this clip from a Sevens game –

As we can see from the clip, it appeared that the Samoans had broken through the line and had an easy try in the bag, there was still a moment of instability within the system that led to a Forward pass. The game is never in a state where we can predict with full confidence what will happen next – due to the inherent instability of games.

The macro principle of unpredictability – When all of these principles combine, we can see that every game is unpredictable. Never will a Rugby match replicate precisely how we envision it beforehand, nor will it run precisely like any other match that has preceded it.

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