It’s not only important to select activities that meet our athletes’ short- and long-term needs but we must also consider their ‘design’ so they are as efficient as possible. We ask our athletes to play a complex game, so it’s important to replicate that environment with the activities we select. To use only simple and weakly-opposed (not to mention unopposed!) drills is doing the athletes a disservice. Given the much of the game involves even numbers, don’t over-do unbalanced numbers. Instead, design the activity such that one side can explore how to create overlaps or introduce opponents at different rates as happens with cover defence or attacking support eventually catching up.
In addition to using the concept of representative design – making sure the activity looks and feels like the game, so athletes can develop their skills under realistic conditions – coaches must adapt their chosen or self-designed activities for an appropriate ‘challenge point’. This means that the athletes will have a success / failure rate that causes them to understand and develop approaches that work and ones that probably won’t. An activity shouldn’t be so easy that athletes unconsciously repeat the same approach over and over, and it shouldn’t be so difficult that they rarely get to experience what success feels like.
In addition to looking and feeling like rugby, an effective activity must be engaging and fun. If asked, your players would probably rather play something that’s difficult but that also promotes growth and is rewarding than something that is mundane and repetitive. A good base from which to select and adapt activities is to make sure you avoid Laps, Lines, and Lectures. ‘Laps’ can also mean, beyond running around the pitch, anything that wastes time and that is irrelevant to the athletes’ needs (fitness can be better served by high-tempo, multi-directional, game-related activities). Where ‘Lines’ are concerned, ask yourself how much of a training session are your athletes standing around waiting to do something or holding something for others. Multiples of an activity can be set up and even self-managed by the participants themselves if they are engaging enough and if the objectives are clearly understood. Coaches are often the biggest time wasters, despite our best intentions, going on and on about things the athletes already know or unnecessarily stopping to ‘correct’ things that the athletes could work out for themselves with more reps. Ensure that learning objectives are clear from the onset, educate and empower athletes to self- and peer-manage their learning, and make interjections meaningful with short and specific statements, like a Tweet.
To design or tweak activities to be efficient, you should consider:
Space: More width will give players a better opportunity to realise success. The lower you go, there tends to be more available space, so there’s no need to restrict it heavily. You can build either two of the same activity or have an aspect that offers different playing widths for players to test out their solutions. Space between attack and defence shouldn’t be too great, because this typically happens only at scrum and lineout time and during counter-attacks. This is where I will restrict space, because there is often very little one pass out from a ruck and players should learn to adapt here most of all.
Numbers: The typical rugby action involves between 3 and 6 players, on average. Even simple 2v2 should start with a clearing pass from the ground. Working in groups of 4 or 5 gives players a better idea of the various functional roles (distributor, decision-maker, strike runner, supporting player, etc.) within a unit. They can also better understand in a typical movement whether they’re needed at this breakdown or whether they can move out and join the next phase based on real information provided by a similar number of opponents.
Realistic Conditions: Rugby players do not join the play by running 5m backwards and then run forwards for 5-10m. There are almost always players defending the fringes of the ruck ready to pounce on a loose ball or a slow to act scrum half. Defenders tend to come forward when the ball is out. … and sometimes that’s not true. Coaches must consider what the scenario typically looks like and include this information so players can get their timing and execution right for game day. But it also doesn’t hurt to throw in realistic occurrences so they can be ready to exploit / accommodate when they do occur.
Starting Position / Action: The most common thing for attacking players to do in an opposed activity is start further back to buy themselves more time. In a game, this would invite the defence to stop them well behind the gainline. Players must also learn how their starting position and how quickly they get set determines what they can do on the next phase. Typical tweaks here are to require players to join from the side or by moving forward or backward as they would when arriving to a breakdown. Activities from or close to a ruck should always start with a scrum half pass. Those working, say, on outside backs, however probably don’t need it as they typically see passes coming from players on the run or standing upright.
Rep Completion: It could go without saying, but attacking activities should always aim for tries being scored. Even ruck training can move onto one phase and an attempt to score. Touch promotes passing before contact? Maybe one step / one second grace period to allow for an offload? Wrap-up / tackle are more realistic to the demands of the game, but can be draining on athletes. One of the ways attackers and defenders can gain / lose the advantage is in how quickly and efficiently they set up for the next phase. The best activities not only include a realistic initial alignment aspect, but also ask players to re-align for another phase or two. Keeping the phases limited, however, forces players to be purposeful with each move and understand how one influences the other.
Other things to consider is how long you’re going to spend on the activity. Each athlete should have had a significant number of opportunities to participate in the ‘learning objective’ aspect of the activity. By choosing a challenging activity and allowing athletes to self-manage, the coach(es) can spend more time on analysis than managing it. In doing so, the coach can better recognise whether the challenge needs to be decreased or increased using one of the aspects listed above, or if it’s time to move onto a new activity. The coach might also recognise that some are better suited for a certain level while others are not, having them run the same activity but with different parameters and/or objectives. There’s also no shame in conceding defeat – this time – and moving onto another activity if this one isn’t working, but be sure to re-evaluate and see if it can’t be re-used after a re-design. Athletes would rather move on to something fresh than continue flogging a dead drill! Finally, it’s important to change the activity from time to time over the course of the season, not only to keep things fresh, but also to make sure the athletes are developing their adaptability over different distances, with different conditions, etc.