We coaches have to do our best to ensure our training sessions are well-planned so the athletes get the most out of them. In general, they should always be Fun and the activities must be appropriately Challenging. It’s also important to make sure sessions are Educational, building skills and knowledge and that we are doing so in a Supportive manner that is both positive and constructive.
To be more specific, coaches must also make sure their sessions and individual activities are:
Actually planning out a practice with logical activities and suggested time allotments should go without saying. In addition, there’s no point in keeping athletes in the dark, making them guess the point of an exercise or going into an activity with a vague understanding of what the coach expects. You can have an over-all theme for a training session that the athletes can keep in the back of their minds or take time before each activity to clearly state a set of expectations. This info should be kept short and specific, and time should be made to field potential clarifying questions athletes might have. The best activities pose a technical, tactical, or strategic ‘problem’ to solve, so it only makes sense to invite comments and potential solutions before athletes get started or during a short break once they’ve got a sense of how the activity plays out. When athletes are familiar with the activity, that time can be used to address issues or set new challenges.
Too often, coaches can get bogged down in their athletes doing the drill ‘right’ and forget what the aim should be. If your activity is that complicated, the athletes probably aren’t going to be learning any skills they can carry forward anyway! The stated expectations should challenge athletes to set their own goals and allow them to figure things out for themselves (self-discovery being the most powerful and long-lasting way to learn). They also help the coach stay on task regarding feedback, addressing only the objectives and not things that aren’t relevant at this time. I find athletes tend to be their own worst enemies when mistakes are made, so give them breathing room to try again. They can ‘own’ the mistake and re-frame their approach on the next go-around based on the aims of the exercise (also ignoring things that don’t matter). If mistakes have become consistent, then try and get the athlete to work through what’s going wrong via questions rather than providing answers. This allows them to get a picture of what happened and work out how to improve by visualizing and feeling the correct action before trying again.
Knowledgeable and experienced coaches might possibly be the most guilty of wasting time at training because we can get caught up in sharing all that we know or in wanting to fix every little ‘error’ we see. With expectations set and players empowered to take responsibility for their learning, there’s also no need for the coach to stop and assess every single repetition of a drill. By keeping to a familiar set of dynamic activities, the coach doesn’t have to spend time introducing yet another new drill that always requires ‘figuring out’ time before the learning can begin.
In order to ensure athletes can have as many ‘goes’ as possible, lay out more than one of the activity so there’s little time wasted standing in line. This makes good use of assistant coaches or team leaders, but even a solo coach with relatively young players can position him- / herself in between to keep an eye on two or more ‘stations’ and occasionally give specific attention to individuals while others carry on with the task.
High tempo, non-static activities with minimal standing around also means we’re tapping into some ‘fun fitness’. I may be biased, having been a chubby prop in my playing days, but I hated when we’d have pure fitness elements like laps or sprints during training sessions. I knew I needed to improve upon my fitness for the benefit of the team, but if given a high tempo and challenging game to play, I’d actually give more effort than I would in a ‘fitness’ run. It’s also been suggested that such activities better match the fitness demands of rugby.
Related to the above, the activities chosen have to be done for a significant amount of time to allow the athletes a chance to have a go at the thing and/or play a different role in the activity many times before moving on to the next activity.
Training sessions with too many activities crammed into it, most involving one grid for a group of 25-odd players, doesn’t give them a lot of time to develop the skill intended by the drills. Having assessed this while observing a guest session, I picked out one person in the crowd and followed her progress. In about 10 minutes, she’d been on the attacking side (the focus of the drill) 7 times and touched the ball 4 times. She’d had just four chances to practice a skill that was not addressed at any other time in the session. This is not very efficient if the aim is learning new skills.
Addressing your team’s needs seems like a no-brainer, but many teams spend a lot of time on semi-opposed set-piece moves that rarely or never get used in a game (possibly because skills are deficient or they suddenly crumble under pressure). Fancy angles and clever support lines are useless if the initial passers cannot get their timing correct or pass accurately under pressure. Conversely, some players only get to work on angles and support between phases in games because coaches focus too much on narrowly-focused ‘basic skills’ in isolated drills. Coaches therefore need to be aware of what their athletes really need.
We’ve probably all coached teams that had different needs across the spectrum of players. Most memorably for me was a team that had national team players, provincial representatives, experienced club players of various abilities and complete novices in the same squad. Everyone appreciated splitting an activity up into groups with differentiated objectives, one or more with higher-ordered demands and another one or two that focused on more basic elements. We’d combine afterwards for continuity-building exercises and to gain a clearer sense of abilities / limitations.
When on a course in Australia, an instructor impressed upon me that we should spend more time on the things that happen most often in a game. Many teams can spend half of their training sessions on things that happen only a few times a game. Why not build them into activities that have an open play component? Scrums and lineouts can be the start of dynamic attack and defence activities. Defenders in an opposed attacking activity can score points for jackaling the ball when attackers get isolated. Running, support, passing, defending and rucking are things that happen most often and should be built into most activities. Even where you want to keep full contact to a minimum, ‘defending’ and ‘rucking’ can mean preventing tries for x-amount of phases and getting into position first, which makes the physical aspect of tackling and rucking much easier.
Without delving too much into the science of skill acquisition, you should select activities and parameters that reflect the game as much as possible. Coaches can accelerate the learning process and ensure athletes are more familiar with game conditions through the selection and design of realistic activities. When top athletes say the game seems to slow down for them, it typically means they are so familiar with what they’re seeing that they’re better able to understand what’s going on and therefore pick the best action in the moment (read up on perception-action coupling if you’re interested). When we use drills that focus on just a few players in a small box or with no opposition, we are working on a very limited set of conditions. Athletes actually run the risk of calibrating their skills to these unrealistic sources of information. Creating realistic, context-rich activities makes total sense when you consider that rugby players are probably faced with more congestion in their visual field than any other invasion game. A player with the ball has the potential to carry, pass, and kick ahead with 14 team mates in support, versus as many as 15 opponents stretched out in a line, creating countless variables. Realistic activities give them more opportunities to anticipate and react to typical conditions.
I am willing to bet that there are so many one-out crash balls in top-flight rugby these days because athletes have been inundated with pre-planned, programmed game plans – likely with passive opposition, if any at all – and a belief that ‘the basics’ must be mastered statically before being put into a game situation. There’s a lot of science that contradicts this (see the resources section of this site). These athletes have not had the opportunity, or have not been challenged, to assess the typical patterns faced in rugby and work out the timing and coordination necessary to overcome them. We must build this reality into our activities, or accept that you’re basically asking athletes to test themselves on game day! Instead, we should be creating a training environment with such a realistic look, feel, tempo and pressure that game day is comfortable and familiar.
If we take a typical attack versus defence drill, we can have a look at how realistic it is. Many of them ask players to go around cones, ball in hand, from a line and take on their opponents (usually an imbalanced number) with a large gap between them. Yet another powerful lesson I learned overseas was to consider how realistic this is… players don’t come around the corner like that in a game (and when they do, the latter players are well behind the play and/or have to work much harder to get wide, and their options are limited as a result). Good teams quickly adopt a shape that makes use of space and provides them options and then call for the ball. It’s also not ideal to give the opposition so much time to read and adjust to the play. Players need to experience realistic pressure, based on space and time, so they can attune the crucial timing element of their skills.
Here’s an example of one activity I like to use that has a realistic look and feel, providing various scenarios based on the theme of creating line breaks. I like to use shields in this activity to limit full contact and encourage players to fight through the gaps between rather than right at defenders (i.e. the branches of the trees, rather than the more-solid trunks). Free defenders, not holding bags, can stop the attackers with just a tag, encouraging attackers to use quick passing before contact once they’ve made a linebreak.