Are we failing to prepare our players adequately?

Over the course of my brief coaching career I have been fascinated with the individual player’s execution of the basic skills and the techniques needed to make them work under pressure. During this time I have spoken to many coaches and players at various levels of the game to find out about the correct techniques needed to execute each skill correctly. This learning process has taken me a number of years and during this time I have formed a few opinions about the way I think coaches and players have approached skills coaching in the past and the way I believe we should approach skills coaching in the future. It must be noted that I am still far from knowing many of the nuances of all the skills associated with Rugby, these are merely my observations at present.

At present I don’t believe skills’ coaching is taken very seriously in this country, where I feel the importance of it at schoolboy level is generally ignored. I think there is a certain lack of knowledge about how to coach the basic skills correctly as well as a belief that if a player is in the A team/1st XV or provincial side, then the player must surely be good enough and therefore does not need to be coached in the art of executing a certain skill with the correct techniques.

I believe there is a lack of importance placed on this aspect of the game for a number of possible reasons,

  • Coaches expect players to have perfected skills the previous year;
  • the focus is solely on team and unit skills;
  • simply because of a lack of technical know-how or;
  • even a lack of interest.

Because coaches are mostly judged by parents and schools for having coached winning sides or having improved teams results from previous years, I believe there is a disproportionate emphasis on team and unit skills to achieve results. Teams perform far quicker with an emphasis on team and unit skills than had there been an emphasis on individual skill development. When teams play better and win, there is a mistaken belief that this is a sure sign that each individual player is improving at the basics of the game and becoming a better player. However I strongly disagree with this notion as a coach can build a winning side by hiding individual player’s weaknesses. I believe coaching and perfecting each player’s basic skills should always be at the top of each coach’s priority list and not in creating winning sides with potential weaknesses.

Coaches may not be focussing on individual player development because I think there is a lack of technical knowledge in teaching the correct execution of a skill. Coaches will find it far easier to access the latest game plans, tactics, unit skills, moves and drills than it is in learning the latest skill techniques and methods that the best coaches are using. Thus the common way coaches and players address the poor execution of a skill is for them to hunt down drills in the hope that repetition will improve the weakness; however my problem with this is that players without the correct technical knowledge will be honing an incorrect technique instead of perfecting the correct one. A lot of time is thus wasted that a player could have used to become far more skilful. This results in players moving through the ranks lacking the ability to execute the basic skills under pressure that will be needed to be successful at either school 1st XV level or at provincial level.

I believe that when a player does not know how to execute a skill correctly, they will never work on the skill hard enough in their own time to perfect it, simply because they do not how. This is obviously vital for a coach who has limited time with his players each week and needs them to work on things themselves, for the side to improve. I believe and have found to be true that when you teach a player how to perform a skill correctly they will be out on the practice field working harder than ever in trying to perfect something they now have complete control over.

The other issue is that when coaches teach a skill it is normally done at a pace that only takes the quickest learners into account. This leaves the slower learners permanently playing catch up and having to practice themselves as many coaches simply do not have the time to take individual players out to get them up to speed. These players are often left far behind after a few years and very little is done about it, for they have dropped below the radar. As a result I believe a vast majority of player’s progress up to the next age group each year without having improved as they should have.

Lastly I also believe many coaches and players have a laissez faire attitude towards skills techniques, whereby completing a skill with a degree of accuracy during a drill is acceptable – even with the incorrect techniques. This I feel is the completely wrong attitude and it stems from a time when Rugby was still an amateur code. If you compare Rugby to the top individual sports such as Tennis or Golf for example, those sports have placed a premium on executing the skills needed to be successful, such as the tennis serve or the golf swing. Those skills have to be executed perfectly every time for players to become a top professional, thus for them to achieve this, coaches spend many years working on the players to achieve this perfection, using tools such as video analysis. This process is very specific and calls for perfection; however in Rugby it seems that there is an allowance for the basic skills to be executed poorly at times or to even to have the incorrect technique. Rugby is a different sport of course and calls for many different skill sets to be used in a game, however I believe for Rugby to become truly professional the coaching of players in the basics of the game at grass roots level has to become far more focussed.

To prepare our players correctly I believe all coaches should place a massive premium on skills coaching, not just skills drills, but the correct technical aspects of each skill to every player, no matter the position and once taught, the skill needs to be honed at every practice, every year, until all players have attained exceptional basic skills. Without this focus I feel we are hindering our players’ individual development and potential and in this way I think Rugby in this country is not progressing at the rate it should be.

I understand that this process is difficult, time consuming and far slower at achieving the immediate results we all look for to judge a coach, but in my humble opinion players development should be paramount not the win/loss ratio.

-Ross Williams

Ross is an enthusiastic coach keen on learning, debating and studying all about how we coach Rugby. He is currently the UCT u20 Technical and Skills coach during the Varsity Cup. He also runs his own private coaching business, Ross Rugby where the focus is firmly on skills coaching.

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