The Close Games are Usually Lost, Rather Than Won


“Games are mostly won because of the opponent making mistakes during crucial moments”[1]

I am a massive fan of John Wooden’s teaching and coaching methods. If you have not heard of him, I would suggest coaches who are keen on improving their coaching abilities to look him up and read his books. John Wooden was the legendary basketball coach in America who won ten NCAA national championships in a 12-year period—seven in a row—as head coach at UCLA, an unprecedented feat. Within this period, his teams won a record 88 consecutive games.[2] He was named national coach of the year six times. To say he knew what he was talking about is an understatement, he was a fascinating coach whose style I try to replicate in my own Rugby coaching.

The way we coach Rugby has intrigued me for a while now and I believe we are very far behind in terms of making use of our allocated time simply because, in my opinion, we are stuck in the dogma of the traditional way Rugby has always been coached. Rugby is a team sport and therefore, we as coaches believe that during practices, sessions should be organised around team skills and game plans and not around the individuals.

The way I see most Rugby practices being organised or planned (if they are even planned at all) is mostly based on game plans, unit skills and moves, in the belief this is what is needed for a side to win. Alternatively sessions are at times based on trying to correct any weaknesses reflected in the previous game where the coach acts as fire-fighter trying to put out the fires (weaknesses) of the side before the next game. This process I believe has not been thought about in much detail, whether in long term planning or for the actual benefit of the individual players.

The favourites for this type of coaching revolve around koppestamp (close full contact, smashing drill), defence drills, shadow, unit skills (lineouts, moves etc.) and skill drills. To improve these aspects of the side the coach will usually pick the one they desperately need to work on, so say tackling was bad the previous game, a tackling drill will be summoned upon to hopefully improve the side before the next game. The Coach will then the following week summon a drill for a strength desperately needed, as well as to rely heavily on the old favourite of most, “Shadow”. This type of coaching is not aiding the players development and subsequently the teams overall performance and improvement.

My belief is that for teams to improve as much as possible in a year, each player’s development should form the biggest part of official practices instead of the normal focus on unit skills and game plans. The way John Wooden believed that games were lost was because of individual errors in the basic fundamentals of basketball under pressure. This I believe can be directly transferred to Rugby. For a Rugby team to score and prevent tries/points so as to win games, individual players have to execute the basics of the game perfectly. This involves finishing off moves or opportunities that present themselves as well as being able to prevent scores against them. The basic blocks of Rugby include the tackle, pass/catch, evasion and kick with the secondary blocks including aspects like the cleanout, set piece basics, creating space, keeping the ball alive etc. The biggest question however is that if the game of Rugby is built on those basic pillars of the game, why do most coaches spend so little time working on perfecting them at every practice?

Many coaches will normally spend time working on the basics only at the start of the season with random sessions thrown in during the season simply because that is the traditional way of coaching them. I believe this to be incorrect as the basics should be worked on as comprehensively as possible during the entire year even up until the last practice of the year. I believe coaches spend far too much time trying to beat teams with clever moves and game plans instead of honing the individual’s basics that will enable their plans to be executed more efficiently and with a better conversion rate of success. Players make the mistakes that lose games, not poor moves or game plans, it comes down to which team has better prepared individuals in the basics of Rugby.

Coaches may say that either too much focus on the basics of the game can be monotonous and become boring or that there is just too much to get through each year as Rugby is a complicated game. However I strongly believe that players enjoy perfecting the basics of the game as they do not enjoy making basic mistakes on the field and would welcome the chance to become highly efficient at the basics instead of becoming good at executing game plans. Yes, winning is great, but I believe players really thrive when they can see themselves and their teammates improving – that is real gratification. Yes, Rugby can be a complicated game, but does it really need to be? I believe Rugby coaches have a knack of complicating a really simple game that requires one team to go forward by beating your man, creating space for another and scoring more points than the other side. I am fully aware of the tactics of the modern game so before anyone smacks their head thinking this guy is a great romantic, think about it, how often do your side’s moves actually work? Or how many times have your teams tactics really worked to perfection? Of course I am talking about the grassroots level of the game here, where I believe tactics and game plans are over emphasised.

I feel coaches are going wrong by thinking that the basics do not need to be honed nor perfected in team practices in the belief that they are solely the player’s responsibility. The sad reality is that when a player drops a ball, gives a poor pass or misses a tackle in a crucial game, the coaches groan, sometimes shout out in anger and after the game can even hold the player responsible by shouting or dropping the player, instead of shouldering the blame for not preparing his players well enough to cope under extreme pressure.

I believe that by honing the basics of the game, players are able to realise their true potential because they gain confidence from being able to call upon strong basics that form the stepping stones “on which individual creativity and imagination can flourish.”[3]There is nothing more impressive than seeing a skilful and highly confident player in action, so imagine an entire team like that!

Improving each player at the basic fundamentals of the game is far more important than game plans and team skills, for the basic realisation is that if each coach from u9 to u19 is solely focussing on unit skills and game plans without honing the basics, when will players ever be able to become the players they could have been?

Coaches have a massive responsibility in ensuring they prepare their players correctly for the future and not only for the time they had with them. Player’s careers should always come first, not the win/loss ratio and for that matter I would love to see Rugby take an individual first mentality at practices, for if 15 individuals have exceptional basics, then surely that team will make less errors, execute attacks efficiently, make effective tackles and handle being under pressure better than the opposition. Isn’t that what we as coaches are striving for anyway?

“Winning games, titles and championships isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but getting there, the journey, is a lot more than it’s cracked up to be.”

-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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[1]Swen Nater& Ronald Gallimore – You Haven’t Taught until they have Learned.

John Wooden’s Teaching Principles and Practices

[3]John Wooden.You haven’t taught until they have learned.

Pg 61, chapter 4

[4] John Wooden