In this edition of the Whiteboard sessions we look at attacking rugby as a game plan.
A lot has been made of the approach or ‘vision’ of decision-making rugby, or the type of game Peter de Villiers apparently wants to use for the Boks.
We have read to absolute boredom on how every Tom, Dick and Harry has gone about structure and structure in rugby and specifically in the game-plan De Villiers is looking to employ. The fact remains that structure in rugby is a relevant concept – mostly relevant to what you are trying to achieve.
Any game (or anything in life) that is governed and controlled by laws or rules, operates within and through structure. Specific structures you choose to employ however will differ depending on your goals you want to achieve.
Peter de Villiers seemingly wants to get away from an over-structured approach, or for a better word, predictable rugby. He believes this can be achieved by changing the variables, and options he can give to his players by coaching them to adopt a structure which allows that. This structure invariably includes the ability of players to play ‘decision-based’ rugby, or the more known terms of ‘heads-up’ rugby or ‘expansive’ rugby.
Personally I hate using the term ‘expansive rugby’ as it is associated with a mindset of less structure, risky, airy-fairy rugby.
In reality it is far from it. I believe the best way to describe this style of rugby is to coach your players to apply variables to a dynamic, ever changing environment giving you more options and also allowing you to exploit predictable, structured plays.
All of this is dependent on how well your players can make, and execute any decision in real-time or actual game-play.
Currently coaches spend about 40-50% on skills, 40-50% on fitness and strength training, and 10-20% on coaching decision-making skills.
It has frustrated me for years now to see how coaches across all levels are turning rugby players into humanoids by continually running mindless cone drills programming players to perform sequences and patterns of gameplans regardless of the context and situation they are performed in when it has to be applied live or in a game environment.
For this reason I decided to take up analysing rugby and playing patterns a couple of years ago, ala Jake White – spending hours in front of a screen looking and seeing if I can pick up trends and patterns, and then studying material from the likes of Pierre Villepreux, Wayne Smit and leading sports psychologists and mind coaches.
The common belief in most coach’s minds is that one should rather spend time on coaching patterns and sequences and specific game-plays and drill this into the player’s minds – believing that the more players are familiarised with set structures they only need to improve their physical ability to a level better than the opposition so they can be more successful (than the opposition) in executing them.
Unfortunately rugby and rugby players have evolved so much over the years that there is very little to choose between top athletes physically. If you want to succeed at any level, including test rugby, you need to give your athletes the edge over their opponents, and that means allowing them to out-think their opposition.
We have all heard the terms used to describe skilled rugby players, saying something like ‘the players seems to have all the time in the world’ or ‘he makes it looks so easy’.
The only difference between these type of players and your normal ‘grafters’ is that they have simply developed better decision making skills within the structures of the game of rugby. Every player is limited by the same constraints as his opponent or even team mate. The great players are not necessarily faster, or bigger or stronger and hence more successful – they simply use the current constraints and variables that the game of rugby offers and manipulates it by better decision making to give them the edge.
Players like Dan Carter, Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Gitteau is not necessarily bigger, faster or stronger than any other flyhalf – so they must have something that sets them apart, that makes them seems light years ahead of anyone else – and that is the ability to make better decisions than their opponents, and do it quicker and more effective than other players.
These players simply have the ability to;
a) Read the play better
(Superior perceptual skills, picks up and asses information around them better, and recognizes patterns with the ability to almost predict future events)
b) Create time
(Anticipating oppositions actions in offensive and defensive situations)
c) Take better options
(Has better judgment)
d) Execute better
(Is outcome driven)
Personally I do believe that certain players have the ability to learn these skills quicker, with some even doing so without even knowing it or having had specialised coaching to achieve it (Richie McCaw comes to mind) and some players will require more intensive training and time to adapt these skills (like Schalk Burger).
Importantly it is a skill that CAN be coached.
So how do you coach this?
Well I am only going to touch on certain aspects which should be considered to keep this relatively short.
As a rugby player you are challenged by specifics or a frame – meaning you operate in a controlled environment thanks to laws mainly. Your ability to use this frame and manipulate it to your benefit is what will set you apart. And simply put, it is your ability to make better decisions than the other 15 players on the park who also operate under these same limitations.
Changing constants (for a better word) will only give you an advantage for a short while – after that the opposition will simply create an alternative to combat your strategy. Humanoids are limited, because they operate in structure which is predictable – what you need to achieve is something unpredictable and variables ‘in the moment’ which again, simply means, you need to coach players to make better decisions or play what’s in front of them.
You can create a Jonah Lomu who weighs 120kg’s and runs the 100 meters in 10 seconds. He will be effective only until the opposition creates a player that weighs 130kg’s and runs the 100 meters in 9 seconds.
So what are your players challenged with and what do they need to improve to get the edge?
Well firstly there are constraints in place for any rugby player.
You have speed and size, fitness, motivation, the surface, the weather etc. What makes rugby exceptional though is that these constraints are dynamic and can change within the game. Also, the specific dynamics of the same thing, or situation changes in a game and this influences your decision-making skills, and why I have such a problem with patterned coaching.
For instance, a coach today will coach players to enter and clean out a ruck. He will identify specific players and give them specific roles and because we have programmed humanoids, come hell or high water this player will execute what he was programmed to do, like clearing a ruck. Now in a game you will have a ruck with let’s say 5 opposition players involved, the next ruck there will only be 3, or maybe 7. By applying the same structured, programmed execution, you lose the advantage. The player needs to have the ability to make a decision of knowing to enter/clean, stand-off, or fall back into support given exactly what is presented to him.
But because players are programmed in patterns, the simply do the same thing over and over again making them predictable.
So coaches need to deliberately manipulate key areas in the game during practice to alter the dynamics of that situation, and force or rather, encourage the player to make decisions based on what he sees. This will also allow the player to consider multiple solutions to a specific challenge adding an unpredictable edge to his and his teams game which cannot be predicted by the opposition.
This brings me to my next point which is perception-action coupling. It sounds complicated but it really isn’t.
Human beings are essentially open systems. We co-exist within our environment and need information to adapt and survive. This is applicable in rugby too.
Human beings through this develop complicated perception/action systems. The idea is to develop or help your players develop a better perception/action system than the opposition. Your perceptions on your immediate environment in rugby (support players, opposition, field position) will influence your action you take, and the action (passing, kicking, running) you take basically affects the environment directly again (result) changing the environment constantly in rugby.
For you to develop superior perception/action systems you have to coach your players to gather as much information as possible, because essentially the information will influence your perception, which will influence your decision and directly influence your action. Where do we get information from? Quite simply visual (what you see), sound and somatic (touch and displacement).
Perceptual training and sensory manipulation are some of the tools which you use to develop this.
Pierre Villepreux was a master at this introducing these skills in training where he coached his players to identify pattern recognition and learning through situational awareness. Simply put, you sensitise players during play to identify solutions opening up through patterns emerging in front of them.
Of course this goes hand in hand with other factors like sounds (communication) and physical constraints where you have to attain information through multiple sources at the same time to help you with your decision making. Great example is Tiger Woods sometimes practices his putting blindfolded to increase his senses in other areas and does not only rely on visual information gathering.
He effectively couples his sensory system (sensory manipulation) to improve his perceptual skills (gathering information) to enable his to make better decisions.
The last thing coaches has to do in the training environment is change the stability and variability in the rugby frame during practice.
Decision making is directly influenced by the stability of the environment you operate in – which is where so many coaches fail.
As an example, in training your environment is stable with little variation. Pattern reaction and pattern training and decision making is then encouraged, i.e. doing the same drill over and over again because the environment does not change.
In a game situation however the environment changes constantly, and the effect or result is that the pattern training and drills become meaningless in a live environment.
The two environments creates very specific results. As an example, a stable environment is essentially a ‘closed skills’ environment where the other (dynamic environment) is an ‘open skill’ environment.
Closed skill is not context specific, whereas the dynamic environment is – i.e. closed skill environment teaches skills in isolation (not in context) like a scrummy passing to a stationary target all the time (never happens in a game) – dynamic changes variables and influences decision making (game-relevant).
In a stable environment your situational awareness limits your solutions to any specific situation. A dynamic environment presents multiple solutions to specific situations. As an example a set move might look great in practice, but has very little relevance in game play where the situation changes or is dynamic and where the move has to be executed in context to the game situation where there are constant changes in space and time.
Lastly, a stable environment does teach you skills – but skills without perception/action coupling means very little if you cannot apply them to, or use them (skills) in contexts and situational specific moments in a rugby game when they occur.
All of this seems impossible to most, but the difference in developing these skills is the difference between a Frans Steyn and a Dan Carter – a Schalk Burger and a Richie McCaw. Is it just by accident that New Zealand has these Dan Carter’s, or Stephen Brett’s, Cullen’s etc.?
Quite emphatically – NO! Most of the materials I have studied are from New Zealand and Australian sources where these types of skills are coached from a young age.
I have not invented these things or came up with these revolutionary ideas, same as Peter de Villiers has not sucked all this out of his thumb. In fact, Villepreux has penned his theory almost 20 years ago!
In South Africa we limit ourselves to pattern coaching, creating monster athletes with skills, but no brains. Not only do I believe this so-called ‘style’ of rugby will work, I have seen it work.
So why is it not working currently you may ask?
Well it is simple, we are not coaching it. How can we expect players to acquire skills if we do not coach it as my opening paragraph stated that only 10% of times is spent on this? You need a paradigm shift, a mental shift or for a better phrase, a dawning period (a lightbulb moment).
I was excited when Peter mentioned he wanted his players to acquire the skills of situational awareness, because in my mind, with the talent we have, Springbok rugby will take its place in world rugby as the best team in the world – the leaders of world rugby, and not followers like we currently are.
Whether Peter is able to coach this remains to be seen. I believe he did not surround himself with the right people or expertise to do this successfully and is perhaps a bit naive on how ‘easy’ this is to implement – which is why he will probably fail – but that does not mean the system or ‘vision’ failed or cannot work.
Even if Peter’s stint only plants the seed of this to be developed in later years, you will have one very happy Springbok and rugby supporter.Tweet