In my previous two blogs I discussed the statistical findings from one u16 team over one year, followed by the planning required to make the most of the time available with your players to cover all aspects of the game, including player skills. In this blog I will discuss how I run my own practices and what I believe makes a practice the best that it can be. I am not saying my own sessions are correct – far from it, nor am I saying other coaches are wrong, all I am merely trying to do is create debate and hopefully get other coaches thinking differently from before.
Over the years I have experienced and observed many coaches run sessions, both as a player and as a coach. These coaches have ranged from junior school, high school, club and Provincial level and my observations were that the coaches at the lower levels structure their sessions differently from those at the higher levels of the game.
As stated in the previous blog (Are you planning to fail) I believe many coaches either do not plan their sessions well enough or fail even to plan them at all, and as a result certain aspects of the game are left out and players suffer from not being given the best possible chance to improve. Thus I will offer my observations and thoughts around running practice sessions, with ideas utilised from various successful coaches, including John Wooden, Jim Greenwood and Jake White.
Before I go into the mechanics of running the sessions I will provide my observations from having watched coaches in action, and please remember I am not being critical, I am merely giving an overview on what I have seen. I am not perfect and still have loads to learn and improve on in running my own sessions. These observations I believe have made a massive difference in planning my own sessions and ensuring players under my guidance are receiving the best possible chance to succeed in the following year. These observations I am hoping will help or even change some coaches’ way of thinking as I believe constant improvement in coaches is key towards continued player improvement.
My observations thus far have generally seen the coach arriving at the field with half the side either talking or kicking a ball around the field with some still changing. The coach will then either talk to the team for an extended period of time or instruct the boys to begin a game of unstructured touch. The touch game is normally used by the coach to check who is not at practice, then deciding on his replacement and other general admin issues. This usually lasts for between 20 – 30mins before the actual practice begins. The first drill or two will generally be what the coach decides needs to be worked on after the previous game; this could be anything from tackling to passing to rucking. These drills will generally last around 15mins each – sometimes even longer. The last thirty odd minutes remaining will either be filled with set piece and backline moves or shadow working on the game plan depending on the day of the week and at times fitness drills to finish off.
During these sessions, as well as during my own sessions I have picked up a few time wasting activities that ensure certain activities are excluded because of a lack of time. Some of the common time wasting activities include not having water bottles at the field so players run off to find a tap, long chats at the start and end of the practice, long or poor explanations of drills, trying to execute drills or moves that are too difficult for the players skill levels or abilities, not having drills set up beforehand, players and coaches arriving late, no practice plan or poor time management of plans.
Although I am not saying all coaches do this, nor am I saying the way the drills, game plan practices or unit skills are presented is wrong, but I do believethe time wasting activities are massively detrimental in ensuring coaches run out of time every session and thus exclude certain aspects of the game. This is why I believe game plans and unit skills usually take preference over individual skills simply because of a lack of time. I believe coaches can make better use of their time available by following some simple guidelines I have picked up from far better and more successful coaches than myself.
To make the most of your sessions and limited time together with your players I believe you should base your practice plans on the following:
1. Plan, plan, plan!
Planning forms the basis of every successful coaching set up, without it you are neglecting your responsibility towards improving your players. Coaches must plan their season and each week that makes up the season. Each session should be planned to cover as many aspects of the game as possible ensuring players have the opportunity to improve as much as possible.
Each and every session should be planned in detail, giving exact times for how long each drill, talk, water break etc. should begin and end. John Wooden the famous American basketball coach used to plan each session in massive detail usually taking 2 – 3 hours each morning ensuring the practice flowed and was at a high intensity. Every movement on the court was thought through so no time was wasted moving from one drill to the other, literally every word and every footstep was planned beforehand to ensure the practice was perfect and extracted every available minute towards player activity and improvement.
This process has improved my own coaching massively, however it is far easier said than done! This type of planning takes many years to perfect and requires loads of self-reflection but if you want to become a successful coach and ensure your players improve as much as possible, then this type of planning is necessary.
2. Practices must start and end on time
With the intense and detailed planning in mind, practices must start and end on time. Coaches and players must adhere to this otherwise the planning will be of no use. When the practice begins at half past, it must begin at exactly half past, not somewhere around that time. This type of discipline I found to be a great focus for schoolboy players who can quickly switch from school discipline mode to relaxed mode without being forced to carry on with it.
Each drill, talk and water break must also begin and end at the right time. No exceptions. This takes extreme discipline from coaches to keep to this, and from experience I battled at first, but with a time keeper and practice this becomes easier. The benefits of this type of planning and time keeping ensures no activity gets scrapped, I have found it to be a great tool in getting the most use out of my time with players.
One of the problems with this type of strict time keeping is that when a drill does not go as well as expected and players have not improved, coaches want to carry on with the drill until it gets better. This I have found to be a mistake, and is confirmed by every top coach I have studied and talked to, that it is your own planning or coaching ability that is at fault, not the players. With the correct progression planning, difficulty level and communication ability, players will grasp what you want to achieve. Without this you will struggle to make the most of your sessions and in keeping to the time limits. A way to improve the lack of communication when trying to explain drills is for you to possibly e-mail or print out hard copies of the drills to players so they can study it before getting to the field, for this will speed up the practice massively.
This aspect of coaching is massively difficult to get right and only constant reviewing, feedback and altering of plans will enable you to get this right.
3. Lots of activity at a high intensity covering as many aspects as possible
John Wooden started every session with loads of small sided, quick drills and kept this high intensity theme up for the majority of the practice. Jake White also advocated this type of coaching using lots of quick, small sided, high intensity drills and games. Using this type of practice planning makes a huge difference to how much you can get through and ensures that players never get bored.
Too often I have seen coaches hold one drill for all players, with many waiting in line and accompanied with long explanations. Activity is key in ensuring players can cover as much as possible, not slow stodgy drills that offer activity once every 2 minutes. Split the drills and players up and shorten the time available, in 20 minutes you can cover 4 different aspects of the game, for example tackling, rucking, passing and evasion. Do that twice a week for 4 weeks and you have covered each aspect for 40mins every month.
This I believe should include game plans, set piece work and backline moves. Shorter, higher intensity sessions where coaches and players are put under pressure to make the most of the time available. Too often these aspects are worked on for extended periods of low intensity with poor concentration that leads to poor retention. For example I observed a Junior School session where the B team backline players stood on defence for 40mins while the coach tried to perfect a backline move with the A team backline– where is the learning in that?
4. Keep it fresh, fun and challenging
Too often coaches have a set way of coaching and keep to it every week regardless if the players are learning nothing or not having fun. Sessions should always have an element of fun and enough opportunities for players to improve at every session.
The high intensity session is the quickest way in ensuring players are kept active, the first aspect in ensuring whether players actually enjoy your sessions or not. Practices must be changed often, the cycles are a great way in ensuring this, and players must be challenged and put into situations that stimulate them. I believe coaches do not think enough about stimulating players as they may believe that just being on the field is good enough. Running through endless moves, lineouts and shadow week after week does not stimulate players, putting them in situations that requires a bit of thinking and improvement does!
Game like situations is one of the best and most important ways in ensuring players enjoy and learn as much as possible at each practice. Drills that do not simulate match like situations do not aid player’s development as well as could be possible and ensures the transfer from practice field to game does not occur. Players participate in Rugby to experience the actual game and not the training field, thus put them into situations where they can transfer their training field work into the game. Anything that you coach must be transferred to the match!
One of the best match like games I have found and used extensively to great effect was in Total Rugby by Jim Greenwood, in it he advocated the 3min game where players have only 3mins to achieve a pre-determined goal against the training team (B team etc.). This ensured players had to execute their game plans/moves/general play ability in only 3mins; this forces a high intensity, game like situation that can be used in every aspect of the game.
Together with this game I have implemented the learning’s from the statistical analysis I did, thus putting the players into many counter attacking opportunities from turnover and kick receives while also working on taking advantage of quick taps. Having the players practice unstructured play more often ensures the players are used to playing the majority of the schoolboy game in an unstructured environment.
5. Finish on a high!
This to me is one of the most important aspects of coaching and I feel many coaches do not appreciate how important this can be in a sides enjoyment levels. Finishing on a high ensures that players leave the field happy, excited and eager for the next practice. There are many ways to finish off well and one of them is not by having players do boring and difficult drills or fitness sessions. Players resent the end of a session if this is the norm and can even hold back during training to save their energy for the impending fitness session.
Fun activities like games or drills and practice matches that challenge players and that do not necessarily have to be easy either, are great ways to finish. Give the players a reason for wanting to be at the next session, not a reason why they shouldn’t.
Do you agree with me on these aspects? Are there any aspects that I have missed, or do you believe you have a better system? I would love to hear your thoughts below in the comments section.
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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