Coaching the exceptional

Written by Morné Nortier (Morné)

Posted in :Original Content on 27 Sep 2010 at 13:08
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Just what makes a player exceptional?  More importantly, can we measure levels of ‘exceptional’ in order to have more players become just that?

It has been a thing that has long bugged me about the majority of rugby coaches especially the ones in South Africa.  We often hear how some players are defined as exceptional or special, but asked for a better or clearer definition of what exactly makes them special or exceptional, most are at a loss for words.

Two current examples, Patrick Lambie and Elton Jantjies.  Both earmarked or ‘labelled’ as ‘something special’ or great talents, but when I ask most experts to provide me with clear technical factors to support or explain their statements or define what makes Lambie and Jantjies different from a Willem de Waal for example, I am mostly told to just go an look at how they play and how the evidence is in the performances…

Fair enough, but what they fail to understand is that the performance, or the end result or action is a culmination of factors that contribute to the eventual result (performances) and rather than admitting the obvious that they are something special, why not define what makes them that, and how we can look to not only improving their own skills as coaches but also identify many other players of similar ability by measuring them against something concrete?

Or even more importantly, apply techniques or ingredients that all these ‘special’ players seem to have magically as part of their make-up to other, less ‘special’ players?

Fact of the matter is, how a player’s individual skills are developed over time, make them exceptional.  Some develop this quicker than others or more naturally (without outside intervention or specific coaching techniques) because of the nature of their role within the sport or position they play.  For instance, perception skills or the processing of visual data (what players see) develops quicker for a flyhalf and fullback than it does for a prop for instance, as this is a major requirement for the position itself, the ‘vision’ people talk about.

The most important aspect of any rugby player is his ability to make decisions, how quick they make them, and how accurate they make them.

There have been hundreds of studies done in this area and the conclusion in almost all of them, is that just about all players follow the same process when making decisions on the field, some are just better at this than others.

Also, knowing the processes that is followed, you as a coach can pro-actively work with players, and identify during which part of this process they struggle and work on that.

More than this, you can apply this to position-specific areas where we already know the role of players and what is required from them changing from position to position and ensure that the skills required from one to the next, is identified and applied expertly.

Assessing players on this basis you as a coach know their strength and weaknesses inside out.  You know how flexible they are and with this, define the roles of players clearly in relation to game tactics to play to your strengths.

The very first step in this process which will make such a difference is for coaches to realise the importance of visual coaches such as Dr. Sherylle Calder.

The most important and first thing young players like Patrick Lambie and Elton Jantjies require are the skills to enhance their ability to gather information, or visual consumption of each game situation.  It is absolutely vital for youngsters like these who will lack in the experience department, to improve in this area of the game so that the processing and eventual execution of their decisions improve.

One has to remember, the ability of players to make good decisions relies quite a bit on knowledge and experience, where part of the process of decision making relies heavily on pattern recognition and the ability to predict the outcome of events which only improves once the player has seen this, or been in similar situations in the past.

For young guys, and their development as players, the ability to gather information, identify parts of this which is important and ignoring other factors which will not have an influence, is hugely important to assist them in making the right decision, more quickly, more of the time.

The fear from most people are that we might be pushing the likes of Jantjies and Lambie too fast, but to me there is no such thing, not if you as a coach arm them with the right skills in order to be successful.

As you can imagine, this is a continually changing process as the player develops and his skills improve.  Therefore the skills you apply as a coach will also adapt over time depending on the player’s progress throughout the decision making process framework, concentrating on his weaker points and enhancing his strengths.

Processes and techniques like this will not only put a stop to selecting players who are not ready, because you can measure his ability or skills, but also remove the risk of players having a dip in form for ‘unknown’ reasons and therefore get more consistency in performances, a key element in sport and rugby.

For that reason I cannot see how the selection of a Lambie or Jantjies being a risk if they are to tour with the Boks later this year would be ‘shocking’ or a risk.  What would be shocking is if they are selected without the correct coaching staff and techniques backing them up.


  • I agree witha few things you have said here, but one thing stands out for me. There is no such thing as pushing a young guy to fast IF he is good enough. Someone said, “If you are good enough you are old enough.” With that I agree.

    What is preventing players from seeking out Dr. Calder or someone similaron their own dime to improve their skills? I’d be interested to know how many players are interested in this kind of thing but once they sign with a union only take part in the program that the union prescribes. Along the lines of “I have my contract now coaching me is up to you.”

  • Comment 1, posted at 27.09.10 14:27:31 by KSA Pink Shark © Reply
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  • @KSA Pink Shark © (Comment 1) :

    I think Keohane printed a great article pretty much in line with what you say in player responsibility, and I agree completely.

  • Comment 2, posted at 27.09.10 14:38:47 by Morné Reply
  • KSA

    Along the lines of “I have my contract now coaching me is up to you.”
    but it sounds to me and if i’m wrong i’m sorry but now i’ve got the contract so now i’dont hv to give my best at all 😕 and if things do go wrong blame it on the coach. like most of us do in the games that are played
    In my books its an honour to even get conract with any rugby union, and to live the years in that union to the fullest,
    you only get one chance in life with such a contract and if a player like most best player in all teams do your best and the coaching with it you’ll hv one hell of a player that can’t be stop 😉

  • Comment 3, posted at 27.09.10 14:39:23 by chaz Reply

  • BTW if anyone is interested to know more about this type of coaching, or what I am yapping about in more detail I can whip something up to elaborate.

  • Comment 4, posted at 27.09.10 14:42:55 by Morné Reply
  • “The most important aspect of any rugby player is his ability to make decisions, how quick they make them, and how accurate they make them.”

    Ergo, Lambie is special.

    Anyway, how long is a piece of string, what is pretty?

    Don’t expect objective answers to subjective questions or vice versa.

  • Comment 5, posted at 27.09.10 14:49:03 by Baldrick Reply

  • @Morné (Comment 2) :

    Jean de Villiers would have been an exceptional flyhalf!! 😈

  • Comment 6, posted at 27.09.10 14:51:37 by wpw Reply
  • I watched the controversial Hougaard try in S14 round 13 against the Crusaders a few times frame-by-frame and what stood out for me was that whilst the ball was still bouncing between Maku’s head and the Crusader’s arm, Hougaard had his hands out and a big fat smile on his face.

    It was as if he could see the future and the future was good.

  • Comment 7, posted at 27.09.10 14:52:50 by fyndraai Reply
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  • @KSA Pink Shark © (Comment 1) :

    Some players may be physically ready and good enough but not mentally. That is where the coach should be careful.

  • Comment 8, posted at 27.09.10 14:54:38 by fyndraai Reply
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  • @Baldrick (Comment 5) :

    The fact that he does this rather well given he is new to the position is extremely exceptional.

    When one studies the framework of this process (decision making) he lacks in many vital parts but his ability to read, process and execute the way he does means he has extraordinary perceptual skills and anticipation, imagine what you can do with him if he improves in the other areas…

  • Comment 9, posted at 27.09.10 14:58:08 by Morné Reply
  • Morne. I agree with all you said but in SA it all to often happens that a players with obvious skills are being ‘over coached’ and that too much structure means that they aren’t allowed to use the skills that made them special in the first place.

    Let’s use Lambie as an example. I fear that if he is selected on the EOYT and he has to play PdV’s gameplan that it could ruin his style and if he doesn’t succeed at that gameplan he will then be labled as poor. Whats makes Lambie and Jantjies special IMO is what you said is their quick decision making and their unpredictability. If they now get into a setup with very specific structures and gameplan it could really negatively affect the players. I’m not sure that PdV can bring the best out of them. My other concern would be the NH conditions that neither player would have played in before.

  • Comment 10, posted at 27.09.10 15:29:26 by Pokkel Reply
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  • @Pokkel (Comment 10) :

    You are simply enforcing my point of the type of coaching talked about here.

    What I am referring to is not coaching a specific style or way of playing, but rather improving the player’s ability to make decisions and being able to adapt to whatever the situation (coach or in the game) requires.

    It is a skill you learn (and coach) similar to passing a ball.

    People I reckon have no idea the value people like Calder can have in the game of union.

  • Comment 11, posted at 27.09.10 15:33:22 by Morné Reply
  • @Morné (Comment 11) : I’m sure we agree but do you think this style of coaching is present in the Bok setup?

  • Comment 12, posted at 27.09.10 15:39:06 by Pokkel Reply
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  • @fyndraai (Comment 8) : Then the guy isn’t really good enough.

    If he is good enough then mental ability will be part of that “goodness” and it won’t just be his physical ability that makes him good. We very seldom (in fact I can’t think of one) see players who have the physical ability but not the mental ability included in a top team. By that I mean we don’t have big brutes with no decision making skills making top teams.

  • Comment 13, posted at 27.09.10 15:40:10 by KSA Pink Shark © Reply

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  • @Pokkel (Comment 12) :

    I know for a fact it is not.

  • Comment 14, posted at 27.09.10 15:41:14 by Morné Reply
  • @KSA Pink Shark © (Comment 13) : Ruan Pienaar 😕 ❓

  • Comment 15, posted at 27.09.10 15:42:38 by Pokkel Reply
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  • @Pokkel (Comment 10) : personally i think taking Jantjies or Lambie to the uk at the end of the year would be a disaster bar none Essentially they are both running fly halves and they go on the year end tour to the land of mud and forward play-sorry Rob-That could kill them!!!1
    Rather take Hougaard Deryck that is He actually looked good yesterday and can you imagine the commentators having to deal with 2 hougaards

  • Comment 16, posted at 27.09.10 15:45:18 by Fattmann Reply
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  • @Morné (Comment 14) : PdV wants the Boks to play ‘whats in front of them’ but not coaching them the nessesary skills to do what he wants. Do you think it would be good for Lambie’s and Jantjie’s career should they go on the EOYT?

  • Comment 17, posted at 27.09.10 15:49:10 by Pokkel Reply
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  • @Pokkel (Comment 15) : HUH? Are you seriously saying Ruan Pienaar didn’t have the skills to play Bok or S14 rugby? He had some of the best decision making skill there was.

  • Comment 18, posted at 27.09.10 15:49:37 by KSA Pink Shark © Reply

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  • @Pokkel (Comment 17) :

    At this stage, and given the coaching team, no.

  • Comment 19, posted at 27.09.10 15:50:37 by Morné Reply
  • @KSA Pink Shark © (Comment 18) : I meant he has the skills but not the temperament.

  • Comment 20, posted at 27.09.10 15:54:30 by Pokkel Reply
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  • @Morné (Comment 19) : Problem is they can’t really refuse…Can you imagine a young player like that turning down a Springbok call up?

  • Comment 21, posted at 27.09.10 15:56:04 by Pokkel Reply
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  • @KSA Pink Shark © (Comment 18) : totally agree ..we gonna miss ruan next season..would have been our first choice sh..

  • Comment 22, posted at 27.09.10 16:05:00 by bergshark Reply

  • @fyndraai (Comment 7) : 🙂

  • Comment 23, posted at 27.09.10 16:06:50 by bergshark Reply

  • This may sound strange !! I once watched a programme about being a genius. I think it may have been on National Georaphic. Without exception most of the geniuses played exceptional chess. Their ability to think ahead, anticipate, attack, defend and counter attack were based on learned skills. They had the ability to use the right strategy at the right time. Can rugby players not learn something from chess ??

  • Comment 24, posted at 27.09.10 16:16:59 by prgdad Reply

  • Agree somewhat Morne. As far as mental decision-making goes, this is not dependent on age.

    But many good players are not physically, and more insidiously, many others are not up to it emotionally. Its one thing to be great at reading and deciding, and its another to do it under pressure or adrenaline.

    Experience and maturity come with age, and decision-making doesn’t happen in the luxury of a settled context, but in the hurly-burly that is real life. This is where any young person faced with responsible is really challenged.

  • Comment 25, posted at 27.09.10 18:05:20 by Big Fish Reply
    Big Fish
  • @Big Fish (Comment 25) :

    You guys are forcing me to write another novel on the exact issues regarding the specific towards this coaching and what these guys do and what it means to players!!!

    A lot of your fears mentioned is actually sorted once we explore the methods used in this field of coaching. It is all valid concerns but now I am forced to expand on this issue! 😉

  • Comment 26, posted at 27.09.10 18:30:47 by Morné Reply
  • @Morné (Comment 26) : Oh no! Morne is going to expand on the issue 😉 :mrgreen: 😆

  • Comment 27, posted at 27.09.10 18:34:04 by war1 Reply
  • Lucky online paper doesn’t involve killing trees 😉

  • Comment 28, posted at 27.09.10 18:41:55 by robdylan Reply
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  • @war1 (Comment 27) :

    Hey one of the studies that was done on this by a guy from Tukkies was 97 pages long! I had to work through that when I started out in coaching back in the day!

    And that is just one minor area of coaching and analysis!!!

  • Comment 29, posted at 27.09.10 18:48:16 by Morné Reply
  • Fair enough Morne; mental coaching is specifically meant to tackle these issues.

    But as I’m sure you know, most coaching is meant to elicit or maximise some attribute that already exists in a person. When it comes to pressurised decision-making, that can only come with time.

    The exceptional juniors are not distinguished by being immune to this deficiency, but rather by being physically or mentally prodigious enough to compensate for it. Like everybody else, they need experience and maturity to get better at it.

    This is why some juniors shine so brightly early on, but then fade as others catch up to their physical or mental level. And that for me is a damning indictment of our coaches, who don’t recognise the need to constantly and especially improve the EQ of the “special” players.

    Want some examples? Fransie, Ruan, Habana, Lobberts, Russell etc.

  • Comment 30, posted at 27.09.10 18:59:55 by Big Fish Reply
    Big Fish
  • @Morné (Comment 26) : keep it short my friend gee it takes a lot of time to read all these novels 😉 :mrgreen:

  • Comment 31, posted at 27.09.10 19:13:38 by chaz Reply

  • @Morné (Comment 29) : Ek spot net sommer. Yeah, academic articles can really be long winded sometimes

  • Comment 32, posted at 27.09.10 19:22:28 by war1 Reply
  • @Big Fish (Comment 30) :

    Even those examples can be explained, their skill was never enhanced, just left to develop on its own…

    @chaz (Comment 31) :

    At least you still read them!

    @war1 (Comment 32) :

    Hell after thanking everyone and listing the resources used it is actually only 3 pages long!!!

  • Comment 33, posted at 27.09.10 19:46:25 by Morné Reply
  • @Morné (Comment 33) : ha ha, true that

  • Comment 34, posted at 27.09.10 19:49:31 by war1 Reply
  • @Morné (Comment 33) : It wasn’t long. It was interesting and informative. I enjoyed it. I look forward to the next installment.

  • Comment 35, posted at 27.09.10 20:30:26 by lostfish Reply
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  • Mental readiness also involves dealing with setbacks and failures. They are inevitable. Can the young player shrug it off and move on or will it ruin his career? That is where the coach must be careful.

    Extreme example: Monica Seles.
    The wound healed and physically she was ready to play big time tennis again, but mentally she could never recover.

  • Comment 36, posted at 28.09.10 00:18:08 by fyndraai Reply
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  • @Morné (Comment 19) : So the type of analysis done by you on a player is not a typical request before the bok selection commitee sits down? And in the Sharks setup or other prov sides?

  • Comment 37, posted at 28.09.10 07:14:40 by catfish Reply
  • @catfish (Comment 37) :

    It does start off there or that is the base or where I did start, but as things progressed it moved onto specialist analysis. You take a position in the team context (how the coach wants them to play and in accordance to the game plan) and assess the player from every conceivable aspect.

    From there you get a base for each player, and you work out a specialist training regime over and above normal team training.

    Remember, a skill like passing or kicking takes about 400 to 500 hours to master depending on the level of expertise from the player, but it is a fascinating field and one used extensively in pro sports (excluding rugby) all over the world and the results are remarkable.

    Or I should rather say, it was what I did for a while a couple of years back.

  • Comment 38, posted at 28.09.10 08:56:55 by Morné Reply

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