Tuesday, April 24, 2012

When game sense coaching doesn't make as much sense...

With the crazy change in the weather this week we've seen everything from snow, sleet, rain and some just generally miserable weather. Although I believe that coaching with a game sense approach is by far the best way to coach, I think I have found when it doesn't work as well, too.

We had to cancel a high school game yesterday since it snowed in the morning and the weather was at about 4 degrees Celsius for most of the day. The concern was that the athletes would be freezing after doing a full warm-up and then playing the game and that the field would be torn up if we played three rugby games on it in the day. Instead, we decided to do a short, one hour practice that would get the athletes out of the elements in only an hour and would be a high intensity and fast paced practice in order to stay warm.

Brilliantly, not a lot of the athletes dressed for the weather. One would assume, I think, that since the games were not postponed until after student arrived at school that morning that all the athletes would have brought their warm rugby clothing with them. However, that seemed not to be the case! We still have some work to do on that front.

In any case, I don't get a lot of opportunity to coach the guys at the school so we just held a practice for the boys teams. Many of the guys have had only moderate opportunity to actually play and therefore have fairly limited understanding of the game due to rugby being a late entry sport. We often think that telling athletes what to do is a better way for the athletes to learn the game and so far this approach was frustrating for a number of the athletes. However, we need to trust that the players will learn as they play (experiential learning) and that we as coaches must help them recall and highlight what they have learned.

Given the weather, we had to keep the practice moving at all times. I also wanted players to leave with a few key lessons from the time they spent on the field. The two strategies I used were to keep the game moving in the down times (ball out of bounds, knock on) by counting down and to keep the team questioning conversations to VERY brief time intervals (we really talked for 30-90 seconds before going back to the game). To keep the game moving, I had to be quite verbally involved in the practice so by counting down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and then saying 'go' the athletes weren't over-thinking what they needed to do, they were just doing it. They were also keeping (marginally) warmer!

When we wanted to make a point, we called the athletes together for a very brief questioning period where we highlighted a few skills throughout the practice. We looked at working together in support distance for offloads, working on when and how to kick strategically and how to maul effectively. All this in a 45 minute practice! That being said, I think that the learning would have been even more effective if we had had more time to question and demonstrate the parts of the whole that the players were missing.

In the whole-part-whole sense of games sense coaching, we were really only able to cover the 'whole' and really scratched the surface when it came to the 'part.' I would have preferred to have more time to repeat some of the learning in part before going back to the whole as the learning would have been more clear and solidified for the athletes.

All in all, practice was well done by all athletes even though they were fighting the distraction of the weather through the entire time. I hope that we'll be able to get some more time in better weather soon!

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...

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Rugby on PEI

This past weekend I had the pleasure of travelling to PEI to help facilitate a women’s only coaching course. This was made possible through a “We are Coaching” grant from the Coaching Association of Canada and provided the funding for the entire event.

We ended up with 6 course participants and had a very active and engaging session to start the day. All participants were able to coach a skill with a focus towards three goals for their session. They needed to make sure the “athletes” were having fun, to use games to coach and they needed to use a whole-part-whole approach. This group didn’t take themselves too seriously and by the end of the session, all participants had definitely had some fun. Also, all coaches ended their session with a game and spent some time in the “part” aspect of instruction.

Similar to other courses, there was some struggle with starting the coaching of a skill or practice with a game. All coaches finished their segment of practice with a game and had fun with their skills – the games are always fun! In reflecting on this, I believe there are several reasons why starting with a game was difficult for these newer coaches.

For one, most players have been coached through the system of warm-up, work on skills through drills, split to units, do semi-opposed work and then possibly finish with a scrimmage at the end. We tend to coach as we have been coached rather than by investigating more effective ways to coach skills to our athletes. It makes sense that what worked for us will work for others…and when people get more inquisitive it always helps to look elsewhere for improvements. That’s where the NCCP courses are very helpful!

Secondly, we tend to get caught up in the technical aspects of a skill. And, to further complicate this, many inexperienced coaches feel like they HAVE to focus on doing things perfectly rather than applying them to the actual game situation. What we tend to forget is that most of the time skills break down under pressure anyway…we may as well practice the skills under pressure right from the beginning. The coach can then focus solely on the key performance indicators that are MOST applicable to the situation at hand…and not feel like they have to cover every possible key point in only one practice. Also, a game allows the coach to see what key points the players intrinsically understand and therefore will not need to spend time on in practice.

Finally, those coaches who are thorough practice planners have a hard time letting things go into an “unstructured” environment. It is very difficult (without practice) to create the conditions in a game to ensure the outcome that the coach wants. For instance, you need to start with the outcome of the game that uses the skill you want to coach. Or, if you really trust yourself, you can start with any game and then simply watch for the details that need to be fixed or noted in practice. However, it takes time to make this happen and there needs to be two types of trust to do this – you as the coach need to be able to trust yourself and your knowledge and the players need to be able to trust you to help them identify the most important aspects to improvement on any given day or within a weekly preparation cycle or even within a larger macrocycle in a yearly training plan.

My thoughts here are thinking about what you want to be able to achieve by the end of practice. As a coach, we need to create these conditions in the first game activity that allow the attack or defence to be successful in their challenge – we can manipulate the attack or defence by requiring certain standards or rules to be met. Creativity always seems to reign supreme here! The more practice I have in creating these conditions, the better I’m getting in my own coaching practice. Watching others grow in the course this weekend was refreshing and enjoyable!