Tuesday, April 10, 2012

First practice of the season: 2011 vs 2012

One of my teaching and coaching colleagues made a sharp observation after our first practice with the high school team this spring. He said, "Wow, we're way further ahead from this first practice compared to last year's first practice."

That comment really stuck with me and I've been mulling it over for the last two weeks. Why was the first practice of the season so dramatically different between two years when I planned the practice in almost the exact same way?

Given my preference for games sense coaching, both of the practices were based on games sense. We did a warm up and then started immediately into games. The first game was the aptly named Endball - this is a game that is easily modified and uses the basic premise of getting the ball from one end to the other in a regular invasion-territory type of game. Players may use any type of pass in any direction and the ball changes possession when it is intercepted (or whenever you determine a change - for instance, on a dropped ball or in a tie up/jump ball situation where hands from both teams are on the ball).

My goal for the session, set in conjunction with the players, was to have them - loosely - playing rugby by the end of our hour in the gym. I believe we accomplished this goal as players were correctly lining up in defence and moving when the ball was moved to adhere to the offside laws - something we were able to underscore through questioning with the players - and in attack we were trying to gain depth from which to attack and all players got the hang of going forward with the ball in hand.

However, it did look better than the year prior. We have a large number of new players this year and I don't think that the returning players simply remembered the practice from 12 months before and just repeated what they had learned. Instead, over time I've gotten better at setting the conditions of the game in the game sense area of coaching. What I mean by this is, I didn't just roll out the ball and tell them to play rugby with a few rules thrown in haphazardly. Through the last few years, particularly the past year, I've been able to watch many other coaches use game sense coaching to help teach the athletes a better understanding of the game through creating the conditions that allow for both success and struggle in a new concept.

With the high school kids, the concept of moving forward as they catch the ball is challenging, as is trying to carry the ball and then to attack the defence. To try to encourage harder running and attacking, these were the conditions I set as I watched the game unfold. First, the players had to be calling for the ball and they could only do so if they were moving forward first. In other words, they were realizing that they were moving forward. And, even better, they were communicating that this was happening to the person passing them the ball. This started to improve several areas of the attack.

Then, the players were moving forward but then going directly into contact. So, the aim of the ball carrier become to move the defender that was in front of them. We split into two groups briefly and reviewed how to run 2on1s with a linear support attacker (ie, the non-ball carrying player or support player runs deeper than the ball carrier and directly behind them; when the ball carrier takes a hard step to the right or left the defender comes with them, and then the support player runs at the space that the defender just left. Finally, the ball carrier makes a short pass to the support player into the space the defender has just vacated. Sounds simple, and it is a difficult concept to grasp). Once we split into the two on ones and then talked about what worked and did not work, we put the same game back into play. The condition for the attackers now was that they needed to run with a buddy - their buddy would be supporting from directly behind the ball carrier AND both players needed to be moving forward when they received the pass.

The game continued and got a lot better! Since the players were moving forward and then trying to make the defender move, the support players got the ball more often and in a bit more space.

One other aspect that we added in the next practice was to slow the defenders down since they were doing an excellent job (a little too excellent actually) of moving forward to take away the attacking players space. Every time the ball when to into contact, the defenders had to hit hands and knees on the turf and then they could stand back up to realign - this took a bit longer and gave the attackers a tiny bit more time to see what was happening and to organize running with their buddies.

So, the conditions for success were added and the players responded very well. As a coach, I learned that observing what was happening and adjusting (quickly) accordingly is the key to success. We could continually identify what the end result was that we wanted by questioning the athletes. And then we developed the changes to how we played the game based on these answers and it worked out to be a huge difference from 2011 to 2012.

We'll see how the season starts and how the players apply the lessons we've learned...

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