SILENT SUNDAYS–A view from inside the tent

Silent Sunday photoThe furore (too strong a word? Kerfuffle might be better) over the #SilentSundays experiment run by my local governing body Yorkshire Rugby Football Union (YRFU) over the last two weekends of Age Grade rugby was something of a surprise – and yet, knowing rugby folk as I do, completely expected as well.

I’ll lay my cards on the table from the start and say I was wholly in favour of the initiative for a number of reasons. I’ve been an age grade coach for over 10 years now; this is my second time round at Under 10s and I’m noticing a lot issues that have not improved over that time – and in many cases that have got worse. The atmosphere on the touchline is a case in point. I referee regularly and often find myself in conversation with a spectator about a particular decision they don’t agree with. It’s a short conversation usually, often ended when I proffer my whistle to the other party and suggest they have a go, at which point they realise I’m right after all and back down. True to say though, that it’s getting more frequent and less good-humoured.

That said, the majority of the noise is aimed not at me but at the players, and this is the main target of Silent Sundays.

The particular problem YRFU was looking to address was coaches and spectators shouting, especially the kind of shouting that intimidates and confuses children.

The bear-pit atmosphere that we often play in – noticeably more so at some clubs than others – is getting worse and is definitely intimidating for some kids.

Parents shouting at children to “smash ‘im” is not good to hear, for example. If it’s not that, it’s a constant volley of instructions from coaches: “SPREAD OUT! PASS!!! TACKLE HIM!!!” (as if the players don’t know that’s the idea when an opponent makes a break!). Not forgetting the additional and often contradictory instructions from parents, well intentioned no doubt but in many cases totally misguided, because the player doesn’t know whose instructions to follow – though I would add here that ‘Listen to your coach’ is the only advice a player needs on this point.

I’ve seen this conflict end with a young player leaving the field in tears, unable to choose whether to listen to his mum shouting at him to run, or me telling him to look inside and pass. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a proportion of early teens who quit the game do so because of the constant noise coming from the touchline, that ruins the game as a fun experience for them.

So it was right for someone to do something to challenge this developing culture, and taking a lead from Lancashire Junior FA’s Silent Saturday initiative last year, YRFU decided to give a similar idea a whirl. The dates of 25 January and 1 February were chosen, and an announcement made early in the New Year. This is where it got interesting for me.

Immediately the sniping started. “Ridiculous idea,” “are we not allowed to support our kids now?” “the game’s going soft,” “the players won’t know what to do” and much more in a similar vein. In short, many people decided from the outset that it was a bad idea and wouldn’t work, and grumpily went along with the scheme because they’d ‘been told to’. Even the reporting in the media (as far afield as New Zealand, where similar concerns exist over touchline noise in rugby – see Jack Cottrell’s report from April 2014 http://www.radiosport.co.nz/opinion/jack-cottrell-30apr2014) took the angle that this was a crackpot idea, to the extent of erroneously reporting that spectators were banned even from applauding.

Most of the reaction seemed to be informed by a willingness to believe the worst about YRFU’s intentions, that they were somehow trying to suck the entire atmosphere out of the junior game for ‘politically correct’ reasons. Some even assumed the initiative was a permanent one rather than an experiment requiring just two days’ co-operation across a 34-week season.

So, we’ve now done the two Silent Sundays and feedback has been a mixture of positive and negative. Some of my coaching colleagues missed being able to yell instructions to their players; one coach from another club, however, reported that he caught himself about to shout something and – realising it was Silent Sunday – stopped himself.

He then thought about what he’d been about to shout and concluded that it would have been inappropriate in any case! A parent of one of my players said to me that it was a sledgehammer/nut approach and it was a shame that because of a few numpties, everyone was being targeted. My response was, ‘So next time you have one of these numpties next to you gobbing off, have a word with them. Then Yorkshire won’t need to enforce it from the top down.’

Another parent withdrew his son from the fixture on Silent Sunday 2, as he was so angry about the initiative and saw it as an attack on parents’ rights to support their children. After a reasoned discussion he changed his mind (and was rewarded by seeing his son grab his first two tries of the season!) as I managed to convince him about the positives of the experiment.

Those positives, as I observed them, were as follows:

• The atmosphere was a lot calmer without the noise from the touchline, the whole feel of the fixture was far less adversarial than is the norm.

• From a referee-coach perspective, it was good for me that the players only had me to listen to; they could hear my explanation of decisions, which helps them learn, and I was better able to help them avoid infringing, meaning less whistle and more running around.

• The game was played in a good spirit between the players, none of the macho hostility we sometimes get, and in fact the only point of issue was dissent from one player which required him to leave the field. In the absence of noise, his interaction with me was clearly audible and his dad told me after the game he would have sent him off too.

• The players also played great rugby (though they often do), in that kids from both teams were prepared to have a go and take risks in a spirit of adventure that is often absent. Did the reduced noise from the touchline make them more confident? It’s hard to say for sure but it’s not improbable.

• In the absence of the usual volley of shouted instructions from coaches, the players soon began to coach and encourage each other during the game. Decision making responsibility fell on their heads, meaning they needed to be more game-aware and to help their team-mates who were less so. This is a win for any coach with his players’ long-term development at heart.

In summary, this was a well-intentioned experiment that has achieved its major goals. It has created open debate about how touchline behaviour affects young players, and discussion of what is and isn’t appropriate. It has caused parents and especially coaches to think about what they say and how they say it during games – and I have certainly thought hard about my input during games and how it needs to be adjusted.

Finally, it has perhaps made people realise that the raucous touchline atmosphere was starting to get out of hand. While no one including me wants a silent, funereal experience on a Sunday morning, equally we want to avoid the opposite extreme. As in many things, moderation is key.

Applaud both teams and all good play (and good refereeing, please); encourage and praise effort over and above ability and skill; if you must coach, do it quietly during breaks in play. In short, just stick to what the existing Codes of Conduct say, and you’ll be pretty much in the right area.

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