I have spent a lot of time recently analysing coaching, my own, the people I see around me and the stories I hear about some of the best and worst practices. I have to be clear now my coaching is nowhere near the level where I feel I can tell others how to do it. I do however feel there is something in the things I have learnt that is worthwhile sharing. I have made countless mistakes along the way and I am sure I will make many more. This is a list of the things I feel are important lessons I have learnt.
Do not underestimate your responsibility.
Whether you are an unpaid volunteer or a top flight coach, you have a responsibility to create an environment in which people can improve and gain honest feedback on the work required to improve. Your decisions and feedback really need to be clear and evidenced. This is harder at the lower levels but it is still important to find some way to give people examples of what your players can improve on. Simply dropping people without this information leads to frustrations and may even see good people depart from the sport. No matter what chaos you may feel your life holds. Players see their coaches as the person responsible for their development and for their enjoyment of the sport. As a coach you are the customer service department of the sport you love. This is a huge responsibility and it isn’t something to be taken lightly. It will lead you to question yourself when you are challenged and as sure as day turns to night you will be challenged.
Find new ways to coach old skills. This is one of the hardest things to do but if you watch warm ups, coaching sessions, other sports approach to skills, listen to players, listen to other coaches, there is always something out there that will change your approach. I had a discussion only this week that made me rethink a lot of things and to even write this blog. Someone highlighted to me the importance of taking into account the way we move when we perform a skill and how we talk about foot positions and bombard players with information but don’t actually let their bodies naturally develop the best positions and don’t do enough to reinforce the skills with positive words and developments. At its most basic think of Mr Miyagi asking Daniel to “wax on, wax off.” It wasn’t about teaching the skill it was about teaching the movement to acquire the skill and it can play a huge part in the way we develop players.
Never be afraid to change something that doesn’t work.
I coach a men’s team on a Thursday night and they have become my experimental group. Ideally I would love to do a full team run with 30 players but its amateur rugby and unlike the coach, people have lives and families and important things to do. So with whatever numbers I have I try different things. They don’t always work; some are quite frankly bonkers but I always feel it’s worth a try. I get immediate feedback. Does this work I will ask? Sometimes it doesn’t and the players will give advice or ideas and I can develop even more. Sometimes we just move on to something else. If you can have an honest rapport with your players, you can always do this. Don’t be afraid to admit something doesn’t work and move on. Ask players if they see the relevance and explain why you saw a relevance to it.
Question yourself constantly.
Is what you are doing relevant? It’s as simple as that. It is very easy when coaching to get stuck in a rut and lose your focus. So you start to go through the motions and stick to the formulas. You stop coaching and start just watching. It’s so important to keep asking yourself “am I being heard?” As a coach this is one of the most important questions to ask yourself. If the answer is no, then often it is a result of speaking to much. Your voice doesn’t have an impact if it is constantly filling players with too much information. Before you stop a session ask yourself some tough questions. Do you need to say anything? Are you stopping this because of your own desire to seem to be in control? Are you stopping this for the benefit of the players? If not, then let it flow keep reinforcing the positives for a few more minutes think again about when to intervene.
What are the outcomes?
I have come across several players who perform skills in a completely unnatural way and in a way that is in no way the template I have in my head for that skill. A ten who passes with a really exaggerated loop in his arm movements and a 9 who’s hands never finish where the target is. A defender who brings people to ground in such a strange way I can’t even describe it. Yet the outcome of their skill execution is always accurate. I can waste hours of our time trying to train them to conform to my template but the result will be a lot of anguish as the memories they have built up will always get in the way of what I am asking, their accuracy will probably drop while they relearn the skill. So have I achieved anything worthwhile? Don’t get me wrong if a skill is performed poorly and the outcome is low then you need to step in.
When things are going well.
Increase the pressure to perform better, increase the desire to push on to another level. Don’t let players feel that there is no room for improvement.
When things get tough.
Ease the pressure, go back to the things a team is good at, make people feel confident and capable. Change the focus from the game to the process within the game. From the result of 80 minutes to the result of the moment the players are operating in.
Say Less more often.
This is my major issue, I touched on it when I talked about being heard. Before games you will hear coaches run through the whole game plan five minutes before kick-off, some of it stuff that hasn’t even been worked on in the warm up or in training. imagine you are in a huddle the opposition are on the pitch getting ready. There are a few minutes to kick off you are nervous and thinking about your game. Someone starts talking about where to stand at rucks, what line to run in support of an outside break by the 13. What to do if the full back kicks, then if they don’t kick, the lift at the first lineout and where to stand at penalties. I think it’s better to try to have one on one chats with players during the warm up to get them aware of what you want. Avoiding a long protracted pre game chat that some players may not feel relevant and may even lead to confusion. I doubt many players take in much of what you are saying, you might as well talk to yourself in the corner. Far better to motivate the players. Talk about getting up and in support. I am really focused now on giving one defensive focal point and one attacking one. Generic stuff such as “line speed” and “support” reinforcing words to give people a simple direction. Anything more on game day and players shut off. This problem is multiplied if you have more than one coaching input especially if they all feel they need to say something. Sometimes saying nothing is vital.
You have to let go of a lot of control if you want to see players develop, you have to make sure the options are there for them to discover the solutions to the problems they are facing themselves. Now this doesn’t mean you don’t have an opinion on what should be done. Sometimes players want clear instructions and for their piece of mind it is really important you take that on board. Have a game plan that gives security to the insecure and allows freedom, to those confident enough, to take a chance should they see it. This is really hard in a win, lose environment. I am a competitive person, not outwardly and maybe to other looking inwards in a strange way I suppose, but I hate losing. I detest it with a passion and always want to prove people wrong. I suppose there is always a feeling people don’t take me seriously as a coach. I take it deadly seriously, I try to plan as much as possible, read, learn and review. I am always trying to find interesting ways of delivering sessions people can learn from. Yet no matter how much you want to pass on you can’t simply flick that switch in everyone around you. You have to find ways to reach out to everyone and encourage them, whatever their motivation may be for being there on a training night or a game. This is probably the most difficult thing to cope with as a coach. We must try really hard to manage the expectations, needs, fears and motivations of the individual within the structure of a team sport. Watch people prepare for a game and every one of them will follow a different routine because at the end of it all we are all alone searching for our role within that team. Above all as a player and as a coach we want to belong and feel valued by the people around us.