EXPERT SESSIONS AND ADVICE FROM QUALIFIED AND EXPERIENCED GRASSROOTS RUGBY COACHES

Not coaching how I played

Having been involved in coaching for over 20 years, the biggest mistake I see coaches make is to model their players on how the coach used to play. Here is how I have changed my mindset over the years.

NEW CHALLENGES CHANGE MY APPROACH YEAR ON YEAR

My approach to coaching changes every year. Each new coaching experience throws up new challenges, which, in turn, helps me adapt the way I coach.

Someone said to me when I completed my PhD that I was able to know all the answers. In fact, I would say that I am perfectly placed to know all the questions.
If I look back through my coaching experience, I went from working with Brian Smith in Australia in the early 90s, to working at Bristol and then England in 1995. Each time, the players and environment changed.

When I was working with Rob Andrew, he was a player with over 50 caps and a vast amount of experience. I then was working with Jonny Wilkinson as a raw and young player. It was a different set of challenges.


INTRODUCING A SKILL

I tell a player he can do a skill (in this case jumping to catch the ball).

Then I tell him to go and watch some examples. For instance, watch some clips of Aussie Rules players.

Finally, he shows me what he has learned, and I help him adapt.


YOU CAN DO IT AND THE UGLY ZONE

What has really changed over time has been my fundamental approach. Instead of setting a player a challenge, I now tell them they can do it. I will say to them: “You can do this – but how?”

For example, we might be working on catching the high ball. The player will need to jump and catch at the same time. I will give the player a video of an Aussie rules player making the jump and catch. I will tell him that he should watch it and try to replicate it. Since I have told him he can do it, he tries to do it. As he does, I help him adapt until he can.

The player must understand this: It will be difficult. He will spend time in the “ugly zone” where things will be going wrong. I will not criticise a player for making mistakes, but I will be cross if they don’t try or give up. So, the player must be prepared to be frustrated. There is nothing wrong with this because it is part of the learning process. A new technique might feel awkward initially. Over time, it will become more natural.

As a coach, I must create the right culture for them to know that it might be a struggle to start with, but worth it in the end.


IT CAN GET UGLY TO START WITH

Especially with skills where there are two elements, a player might find himself looking “ugly” while he gets used to the skill. He has to be ready to work through that stage, because, with time, it will become natural.

For instance, jumping and catching do not naturally go together.

When you jump, your hands tend to go down at the end of the jump, more so when you raise your knees. When you combine the two, the player might find he struggles in the early stages.

I don’t mind mistakes. I do mind a player not making the effort.


THE GOLD MEDAL GOES TO THE PERSON WHO FAILED THE MOST

There is a moment in any skill when the player must test out the whole skill. Using an ice-skating analogy, the skater will have, at some stage, to complete a complicated jump if he or she is going to use it in a competition. There is always going to be a first time. And it may be that they fall down, and perhaps again and again, until they have been able to complete one. Eventually, they master it.

Often the difference between the gold medalist and the also-rans is that the gold medalist fell down in practice more than the others. It comes down to the relationship between the process and the outcome.

A confident player is one who knows that if the processes are right, then the outcome will surely follow. Paul McGinty, the Irish Ryder Cup golfer, said his definition of confidence was that when he swung the club in a certain way he would get a particular shot and when he swung it another way he would get another type of shot. When he was under the pump, he knew that his swing would give him the right shot, if he adhered to the processes.

The processes don’t always come naturally together. If we look at the jump and catch situation again, it is not straightforward. If you jump and put your knees up, your hands tend to stay down. If you put your hands up to catch the ball, your legs straighten. There are two processes involved that need to work at the same time, and yet they are not natural together. You encourage the player to work on one and then the other until they work together. However, the outcomes in the early stages may be poor or “ugly”.

COACH THE PLAYER HIS WAY, NOT YOUR WAY

One of the biggest mistakes I made when I started out in coaching, especially kick coaching, was to try to make the player play in the way you played. I still catch myself doing it now. In fact, it is better to take time to look at what the individual is doing and then adapt his technique.

Different players have different styles based on their body shape. I’ve coached two Johnnies, Wilkinson and Sexton. One is 5’10” and the other 6’2”. So, the squatter player has shorter levers than the taller player.

We have to remember that the ball doesn’t know who kicked it – only how the boot strikes the ball. Therefore, though the plant foot is probably in a similar place and impact foot is striking the ball pretty much in the same fashion, the other elements might be quite different. Just look at the best golfers. Each of them has a different swing and some quite starkly different too. You don’t have to be an efficient kicker to be a successful kicker. You must be efficient for what your body shape is and what works for you.


There are lots of different styles to kicking a ball. Some elements remain similar, like the plant foot, but other parts of the process depend on the body shape and levers of the player. Adapt and adjust the player but don’t try to mould him into your own template when you were a kicker.

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