Category Archives: Coaching

Macho Rugby: Is it Damaging?

Reading a recent discussion on another rugby forum, I’ve been forced to rethink my attitude to how I, as a coach of young players, want to approach the contact areas of the game. This will involve looking carefully and honestly at mistakes I’ve made in the past, as well as shifting my focus from trying to develop players who are ‘hard’ to players who are effective while continuing to enjoy playing.

First of all, I love watching hard contact rugby and when big tackles go in, or there’s a huge shove on in a scrum or some ferocious rucking, that’s great. Speed and physicality are two of the aspects of the international/elite club game that make it so rewarding to watch.

I wouldn’t want to see that part of the game watered down and provided players remember to stay within the Laws, there’s a lot of enjoyment to be had from this aspect of rugby.

Certainly the 6 Nations and other elite competitions would be the poorer if the game were less physically abrasive, and it’s surely no accident that the most physically impressive and intimidating side in world rugby has also been consistently the best side and the most exciting to watch over the last 20 years.

One of the things I don’t like much though, is how the language of the game has changed when describing the physical confrontation: a tackle is now almost always a ‘hit’ and we also hear of players being ‘smashed’, ‘creamed’, ‘dumped’ and ‘owned’ in the tackle. When you hear BBC commentators using these terms, you know they’ve been adopted as official parlance, so it surely won’t be long before the truly awful ‘man-shamed’ is being used by coaches up and down the land.

Now I know some of my readers will be saying “So what? It’s a man’s game isn’t it?” and indeed to cope with the game you have to ‘man up’ on the pitch. However, the use of these terms suggests to me a certain level of flippant contempt for the opponent that’s at odds with rugby’s core value of respect. It also serves to detach players from the consequences of their actions, so they charge ever more recklessly into contact without worrying about the damage they are doing to fellow-players.

It seems that the primary aim of most international tackles is now to hurt and intimidate the opponent rather than just to stop him running, and only the superb physical condition of top players prevents a rash of injuries in every game. Even so, the cumulative effect of repeated high-impact collisions is responsible for massive physical damage to players, and the stats for injury absence in the Aviva Premiership bear this out.

Lower down the pyramid this brings problems. Players down at Tier 4 and below are also coached to play the game this way (and I know this from listening to what coaches shout to their players from the touchline).

The problem is that as part-time players, many of the guys at this level don’t get the fitness and conditioning work required to cope with these demands.

When you start to be injured too often and have to have regular time off work to recover from rugby injuries (including those picked up in training), your employer will understandably get twitchy. Players might ultimately have to decide between rugby and a job, and inevitably given this choice they quit the game.

My real concern though is the effect on junior players, and again having coached and refereed junior rugby up to U15s I hear what coaches and players say during matches – it’s clear that players as young as 9 and 10 are being encouraged by coaches to put in big hits, not always legally.

Physicality has been promoted at the expense of technique and this can be very damaging. I’ve had to speak to the forwards in an U11 game when as they packed down for the first scrum, the visiting hooker was exhorting his colleagues to put in a ‘massive hit lads, let’s smash ‘em off the park’. I hear coaches calling out to key players to make ‘dominant’ tackles and to ‘dump him backwards’ and have had to warn players about potentially dangerous tackles even in U10 rugby. In an U12 game my older son was tackled round the neck as he attempted to score, and not only was the perpetrator not penalised (bad refereeing), but he was clapped on the back by team mates and cheered by parents and coaches for a ‘great hit’ (as opposed to being picked up for a crap tackle).

In a recent conversation with an orthopaedic consultant, I was told that the limb and joint injuries he now sees in rugby players are similar to injuries he sees in motor-cyclists hit by cars. This was when we were discussing my son’s torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament), picked up at the age of 11, through being hit ridiculously hard from the side while his studs were caught in the ground. There was nothing illegal about the tackle, and the injury was down to bad luck as much as any other factor, but the tackler had stepped over the line from committed (which is desirable in a tackle) to ‘hard’. The end result is that after a partial recovery, my son has had to give up the game at the age of 13 and will need an operation once he stops growing, after which he may or may not play again.

So the message to coaches, especially of children, is that while commitment in contact is essential, excessive aggression is not.

Kids, especially teenage boys, are naturally aggressive and don’t need to be encouraged to be more so. Junior coaches and refs have a duty of care to all players, not just their own, and need to remember that the players being smashed don’t necessarily have the strength and conditioning to withstand huge impacts.

With the very youngest players, or with anyone new to the game, we also need to consider the emotional impact of being on the end of a huge hit. Even if there is no physical injury, being unceremoniously clattered by someone bigger, heavier and nastier than you can induce feelings of fear and humiliation, neither of which is conducive to enjoyment of the game. This will only be made worse if they then hear howls of approbation from the opposition coaches and parents on the touchline.

The young players in our care are generally playing for enjoyment and to be part of a team, not with any serious ambitions to play top-flight rugby, so there’s no need to try and produce miniature internationals. Those of them good enough to be picked up through the representative system will develop a harder edge to their play through having to compete at a higher standard, and this will benefit them and their club/school sides. For the less developed players, who aren’t able to give the same level of physical commitment, we risk ruining the experience of rugby for them if we set expectations for all the team to tackle hard and be physically aggressive and dominant.

But the key thing to bear in mind is that what’s great to see at international level, is potentially dangerous – sometimes catastrophically so as in the case of Nathan Cubitt – – for youngsters. So this coming season, please remember that the safety and well-being of all players comes before the satisfaction of seeing a big hit go in. If we promote the good tackle ahead of the big hit, we’ll have a safer, happier game for all participants.

How To Get Your Rugby Team to “Click”

team talkYesterday morning at the rugby club I was talking with the father of one of our youth players about the match he had just watched and he used the phrase “that was a great performance, everything just clicked”.

This made me think. Had everything just clicked or was what he had seen the result of a considerable amount of trainingcoaching and practice?

Training, coaching and practice are often seen as the same thing. I see these as very separate things.

Training is very basic skill “programming” – it is the foundation of playing rugby and includes learning skills like the ability to catch, pass, run, kick, tackle, etc.

Coaching is the review of those skills and fault correction, tweaking and enhancing.

The final aspect is the practice – the hours out on the training ground running game related skills, conditioned games and team runs as well as honing the individual skills (take Jonny Wilkinson’s well published kicking sessions as an example).

All of these elements will at one point “click” in a game and suddenly the perception of an onlooking parent is that the team has gelled overnight. The reality, however, is that many of the important decisions within the course of the game were analysed, processed and outcomes selected by a group of individuals all focused on the same end result for the team.

If we as coaches accept the idea that a team or player has “clicked” and has “got it” then we need to give up and go home.


Our role as coaches is to tap into how our players learn and develop best in order to help them grow.

Equally, coaching is as much of a skill to be learnt and developed as Jonny’s kick. I am convinced that he still practices daily because he wants to improve – and that also applies to coaches.

We do this so players / teams can “click” and “get it”.

Over the last few weeks I have had a break from rugby training as I went to the kickboxing world championships in Cyprus with my youngest son and watched with interest the way the instructors operate in that environment.

I watched my son in the final of his category after the first round standing quietly whilst his instructor had a brief chat with him. There were no great speeches and very little in the way of technical instructions – just calm conversation about how he was and where he thought he would get results.

We spoke after the fight (my son won) and I thanked the instructor for everything he had done for my son. He responded that:

The gold medal was not for that fight, but for the thousands of hours my son had put in at training, the practice he does at home and his willingness and desire to learn and improve.

He spoke of my son’s ability to analyse, process and decide his approach in the first few seconds of a fight (which is the same as my thoughts earlier in this piece).

A rugby team will produce a great performance when players can almost automatically decide on the individual elements of the game and know their roles and responsibilities within the structure.

For anyone interested in this topic, I would strongly recommend that they read “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle, which looks at the way people learn skills. It is very informative and will make you reconsider the idea of people or teams “just clicking”. I would recommend it to anyone who is coaching at any level.

Good Coaching Starts with Good Listening

Max LueckIn recent years, a lot has changed in terms of the qualities demonstrated by and expected of successful rugby coaches.

Whilst the traditional image of a coach may have been a strong autocratic leader that only saw one way of doing things, leadership science has done a convincing job in demonstrating that this path is no longer the key to efficient learner development.

We have seen this sort of revolution outside of rugby in schools, work settings and, of course, sporting environments.

Personally, I have observed some significant changes in coaches’ communication behaviour. Instead of constantly shouting out instructions, the ability to listen carefully has become equally important to good coaching and strategy.

Every athlete is different and therefore needs to be treated differently.

This means that to find out the best way to approach players requires one essential skill: You need to get to know your players.

The difficulty, of course, is that it takes a lot of time and effort. There is no such thing as a one-way fits all approach anymore.

Of course, in any team environment, there are certain structures that apply to everyone. At the end of the day, you want your team to work as a tight unit. But no matter how well your unit collaborates, it is still a collective of many individuals. And if you have certain people who don’t agree with the rest of the team and consequently disrupt your team dynamic, you face a problem.

This same principle applies when the team and players are doing well.

A good coach must constantly question the status quo, find out what is going on and why things are going well.

This way of coaching has often been praised by World Cup winning coach Clive Woodward.

Understanding your players and team dynamic from the inside out makes it much easier to understand player psychology.

This means that coaches are better able to help players solve problems that may occur both on and off the pitch, as well as maintain a successful environment within the team where all players feel happy, wanted and heard.

Colts Rugby: Where Have All the Players Gone?

colts-300x225Having done a few years of coaching at my rugby club I have decided to take a bit of a break this year and focus on the role of Chairman, which has included watching quite a lot of rugby matches on Saturdays and Sundays.

Ok, I have a bit of a vested interest as both my sons are now playing senior rugby and one remains eligible to play in our Colts, so I’m getting to see quite a few games. I have had an especially good view of the Colts games, which I have been asked to referee each time we host one.

Colts rugby in our region seems to be in a bit of trouble. The CB insists that there are more clubs with Colts teams than ever before, but on the pitch these teams do not seem to materialise. It is interesting to see the difference between what happens on the ground and the data supplied by clubs.

Now there are very many things which can take up the attention of a 16 / 17 year old away from rugby, including college, jobs, social lives, etc., but you still have to question – where have all of the players gone?

Teams which have fielded vast numbers of players at mini level now struggle to amass 10 Colts players. Maybe these players are running out for their clubs on a Saturday (having hit 17 years of age and been suitably signed off and assessed) but the fact that in our region massive numbers of 2nd and 3rd team games have been cancelled as clubs struggle to field teams makes that unlikely.

So what is the problem? Where have all of these young players gone?

My view is that clubs are adopting the wrong approach and picking sides that focus on winning matches from age 10 upwards.

I struggle with the concept of the New Rules of Play restricting numbers of players on pitches as I think this will have a bad outcome. Coaches need to see that by playing players weekly as they develop instills the love of the game, the idea of one team working for each other and actually growing the player base for years to come.

The win everything approach at youth level (where we don’t even play in leagues) is meaningless and, in my opinion, now impacting the game massively.

Getting Colts into the senior sides has to be the ultimate goal but giving them the opportunity to play in a Colts team, to work on stuff, play at a quicker pace and working on their own leadership skills can only be a good thing for all of our clubs – and that alone assists their transition to the senior level.

At least at our club the Colts coach is the 2nd XV captain and we regularly see senior players assisting him with training or coming to support the Colts on a Sunday morning.

Mini and Youth coaches have to ask themselves what the purpose of them coaching really is. Is it to win a game at Under 13s on a cold Sunday morning or is it to develop players who will go on to play adult rugby?

I suppose with the few years I have been coaching some of my proudest moments are watching guys who I coached at 5 and 6 years old run out with our 1st XV or that of another club and play a game they absolutely love.

A Wake Up Call to Coaches: RFU Losing £8M of Funding

sport englandLast January, Sport England, the body which presides over the allocation of public money to sports development in England, announced its plans to invest £493m in grassroots sport over the next four years with the aim of keeping alive the legacy of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

In accordance with this aim, the funding allocations were redistributed in favour of those sports with a solid, workable plan or a good track record for increasing participation, while those sports which are under-performing in this respect saw their funding cut.

For both codes of rugby, as well as cricket, there was an expected reduction in funding. The failure of all these sports to provide adequate evidence of actual or projected growth in numbers participating made this inevitable.

Despite all three sports being commercially successful at the elite levels, clearly the attraction and retention of players further down the chain is more problematic and my own experience as an age grade coach in rugby bears this out. This tells me one thing – we need to get our act together and start delivering on the RFU’s objectives for player recruitment and retention, before we lose even more funding.

This isn’t going to be easy, especially when the chief competition to both codes of rugby in their core market (little boys who like chasing a ball around and being part of a team) is football, a sport whose funding was increased by 582%. That’s five hundred and eighty-two percent, in case you think it’s a typo.

legacyIt was a stat that threw me into a fury of outrage at the time. “How the hell” I thought, “can they justify that kind of increase in funding to a sport that is already swimming in cash? Why can’t grassroots football development be funded by donations from every Premier League player – God knows most of them wouldn’t miss £5000 a week.” And so on in a similar vein until the initial surge of anger had dissipated.

But that’s irrelevant to rugby. So is the fact that football is the first point of call for most parents wanting a sporting activity for their boys; ditto the fact that in the majority of primary schools, football is the only formally organised sport available to boys.

Football clearly has a massive advantage over rugby in terms of initial recruitment of players, but the fact remains that football’s performance in growing the game justifies its increase in funding, while rugby is being told to pull its socks up.

As the guardians of the game’s future, we have to strive now to justify the same kind of largesse from Sport England in turn. Here at the start of a new season, it’s a time when we should be focusing our minds on this very issue.

So just what can we do to encourage more youngsters to take up rugby first of all, and to ensure those we have stay with us?

The latter are in some ways the easier group in that we get plenty of chance to influence their decisions directly. Here a few basic suggestions for keeping players:

  • Focus on FUN and skills development rather than winning. A winning-is-everything mentality will, over time, drive more players away than it attracts. If you focus on the players learning and enjoying themselves, the results will follow.
  • Treat every player as of equal importance. Whether they are the strongest player or the least talented in your squad. Don’t treat ‘star’ players as special cases. Fairness and consistency are key ways of showing respect to your players; conversely, nothing alienates parents quicker than their child being dealt with unfairly.
  • If you’re lucky enough to have enough players for 2 or 3 teams, consider making these mixed-ability rather than A, B & C etc. Having a really strong team that wins games easily will not teach them anything; by contrast, players in a weak C team who get battered every week will soon lose the will to keep turning out – yet these players could be the stars of your Academy side if you keep them. You also avoid the dilemma about ‘dropping’ players who are out of form if all your teams are playing at the same standard.
  • Foster team spirit. This should be done both on and off the field by getting the players to do social activities together as a whole squad a few times each season: bowling, laserquest, obstacle courses or a simple barbecue are all great ways to do this. Taking them away on tour or a camping trip provides a great bonding experience from which even the youngest players will benefit hugely.
  • Get engaged. Engage with the players’ parents and enlist their support for non-rugby activities like first aid, fundraising, organising tours and festivals.
  • Make sure everything you do satisfies the core values of the game: Teamwork, Respect, Enjoyment, Discipline and Sportsmanship.

The good news is that the new rules of play now being used across England are tailor-made to assist coaches with player retention. Player involvement is promoted by having smaller teams; fewer and simpler rules mean fewer reasons for refs to blow the whistle so the game keeps flowing.

Tag rugby games at U7 and U8 are literally non-stop action with loads of tries and all players fully involved. From U9 upwards, the complex rules and technical skills are brought in by stages so that the learning curve remains manageable and gives kids real opportunities to develop at a pace that suits them.

We have everything in place to make rugby an attractive option for youngsters and their parents.

Smart, child-centred coaching will deliver the right outcomes. The only ones that should matter in age grade rugby are player recruitment, fun and enjoyment, skills progression and player recruitment. Let’s get it done.

Youngsters Need Support from Senior Rugby Players

473053_10152800903525245_870810072_o-300x199A year ago I wrote a piece about the development of young players at my club, who at that point had attained positions in the first team and went on to win the Norfolk Junior Cup final. This was a first for the club and to win away from home was a huge achievement.

A year later, last Sunday, our club hosted the Cup final ourselves having again reached the finals. The opposition was the same club as last year, a team from a league higher than us who had finished mid-table.

From our point of view, the squad has developed. Last year, we had a couple of Colts in the team. For example, the lad that ran the kicking tee was short of his 17th birthday by only a few days. This year, he has become a regular fixture in the starting 15. On Sunday, he took to the pitch as the fly-half. The other colts have equally nailed down their positions and we have welcomed some more youngsters into the first team ranks.

The squad now has an average age of 21 and during the season lost only one away game, which led them to win the league and take the club into the highest league we have ever played in.

Sunday came and at half time the match was 10-5 in favour of our guests. It finished 26-10 in our favour. A calm but focused approach and confidence in their play delivered the result. This gave us the league win and cup double – the first the club has ever achieved. To say this was a huge day for the club is probably selling it short!

So, what’s this got to do with mini and youth rugby?

Well, as the team ran out onto the pitch, they ran through a tunnel of our minis and youth players, which included brothers, sons and daughters of the players. Behind them stood their parents, friends and families.

With the exception of a few RAF lads, every one of the boys in the first team has played in our mini and youth teams. There was a crowd of several hundred in attendance for a Junior county cup match. Every single mini and youth player was there.

The approaches, game play and structures used in the senior squads are shared with the youth and mini teams. This has been put in place over the last couple of seasons as all of the coaches from the U7s upwards share ideas and work towards a common goal.

The younger teams approach games in exactly the same way the seniors do.

Match day warm ups and routines are replicated. A number of the seniors, who are young lads with no kids of their own, are turning out on a Sunday morning to coach the minis. One age group has 3 first team players as part of their coaching team.

various 030Talking to players after the match about the season, one of the 1st team said he knew there were good things going on when he watched the under 13s execute one of the moves he’d been running that week with the 1st XV. This is coming from a lad who had just won the league and cup double.

The experience underlines the need to get the youngsters to understand that the opportunities are there in the senior teams at their club, that the seniors are part of their club and help develop them as players.
They need to understand that by turning up to train they will be given the best training we can provide as a club and we will treat them seriously.

As summer starts, the pre-season fitness sessions will be open to every player, mum, dad, etc. It takes a bit of logistical management, but as evidenced on Sunday, when the club comes together like that, it is very special indeed.