By  Keith Wilkinson

A “Game Sense” approach to coaching Rugby can be liberating for players and coaches. But it is too simple and facile to state that such an approach just entails playing games and asking questions. For example, one important issue involves the language used in coaching. Language can be used to give positive feedback and elicit how a player makes decisions. However, it is so pervasive, complex and powerful a force that it can also reinforce negative coaching, threaten players in their development, and constrain us in our thinking and coaching of the Game.

Many coaches now realize the benefits that accrue from Rugby players experiencing a “Game Sense” approach when they play and practice. This allows freedom to play the game and train, without suffering the rigid systems of practice and play that prevent decision-making. These cloying systems are often reflected in the rigid, ineffectual language that surrounds the “drills and rules” approach.

It is time to stop telling players what to do, when to do it, and in what situations to do it, or even how and why they should do it. Coaches are not the only ones to analyze and make decisions. We need to encourage players to increase their skill development and game awareness through questioning.

James Britten calls language the “exposed edge of thought,” and only by asking players to explain their options and decisions, can they develop higher levels of awareness and skill. Of course, the coach needs to be aware, experienced, confident and skilled enough to elicit thoughtful answers from players. It is not enough to ask “Why did you do that?” This is just an accusatory question that doubts the ability of players to make good decisions. Players may just reply to “why” questions by seeking to defend themselves or justify their actions. They become immediately defensive. This is especially true for players who have been playing the sport some time. They are probably not used to being consulted. They are used to being subjected to the more traditional “drill and do it” approaches.

More constructive might be questions such as, “What support did you have close by?“ Or, where was the closest defender? Or, “Would you make the same decision again in these circumstances?” Players will often give thoughtful and well-reasoned answers. Or, coaches may well suffer what Andrew Hall calls the pregnant, but productive, silence. While players struggle with answers to questions about their actions, coaches have a learning curve of their own to see how to use language and phrase questions to help produce excellent, long-lasting results.

Brian Ashton uses the “Game-Sense” approach to Rugby coaching, and he notes how dangerous the language can be. He is concerned by coaches who set out each practice to run “drills.” For him, and for me, and for anyone who has spent time in the military, the word "drill" instantly conjures up images of sergeants bellowing, "This is how you do it, and we are going to keep doing this drill until you get it right!” Meanwhile, the soldiers/players keep moving up and down the parade ground/Rugby field accompanied by torrents of screamed commands. Some coaches even pride themselves on the sheaves of Rugby drills they have at their disposal. They have dance cards that can keep a Rugby team running around for a full practice.

Surely “drills” have little place in Rugby coaching sessions and games based on problem solving? We all know that there are many players who are good at drills, but who can't actually play the Game. There are others who know how to look as though they are working hard at drills, but they have (often very cleverly) found the easy option. Check out the wing who avoids the rucking drill as the mass of bodies grinds its muddy way up the field.

The language of Rugby is like any other language. Our choice of words and of language reflects and reinforces the way we see things. “Drills,” with the word’s associations of repetition, unthinking drudgery and the coach making all the decisions, conjures up a very different place from a practice field where “Game Sense” holds sway. Games and practices become places of experimentation, flair and decision-making.

Similarly, the repeated use by some coaches of certain words and phrases affects the way players approach the game. To name a few, how about: We are going to “hit up in three phases, then release wide;” we will set target runners;” “we will work in pods of three;” “the following players will be our “strike runners,” (just a sexy term for ball-carriers);” ”the breakdown” which means we will have to continue with “loose play?” You will recognize these terms.

They have become embedded in the minds of many coaches, and I am sure more are on the way. They seem to offer proof that a coach is up to date with the modern game and aware of the latest jargon. Interestingly, all of these terms would seem to be predicated on preventing players from making decisions by themselves. What kind of game are we trying to coach? 

“Hitting up in three phases, then move the ball wide,” suggests that players are not expected to react to what is in front of them, but blindly to adhere to the whims of the coach (the Game plan?). The coach does not trust them to do anything other than simply hang on to the ball, wait for the opposition to make an error, and if they don’t, then just move the ball to the wing and start again.

Of course, the players could be seeking active ways of scoring, perhaps by passing early, or off - loading from the tackle, or taking on an opponent with some fancy footwork. True, some coaches will argue that by taking play through ruck after ruck, the opposition will eventually make a mistake. However, it is always easier to defend than attack, so the team in possession is the more likely to make an error.

The “modern” coach likes to have “targets.” I used to play in the Centre and I would have been upset if I had been told that my job was to be a target. This seems to require that I should run straight and hard into the opposition with the sole intention of giving my forwards something to hit. Where's the creativity in this? Where do footwork, timing and acceleration into the gap come in? I probably wouldn’t be playing in the Centre anyway. “Target” runners need to be big targets as well as single-minded! However, it was good to see the best mid-field players in the 2011 Rugby World Cup still using perfect timing and clever angles of running, to put other players through gaps and into space. The only “target” should be to cross the try line.

“Pods of three,” conjures up visions of seeking out two friends (whales?) with whom to hold hands in order to take the ball into contact at close quarters. Do these friends have to be the same players each time? Must we have three peas in a pod? Or, pods can to refer groups of three in the lineout. Talking about “pods” does sound so much more technical and scientific.

By the same measure, surely no self-respecting forward, let alone a back, would want to be called a “strike runner.” This appears to mean that the coach trusts you to carry the ball and run with it. You are trusted to be a ball carrier. Many of the great forwards in the Game are great ball carriers and handlers. But, imagine those players who are not “strike runners. I presume these players are full time “ruck hitters,” “clearer outers” sand lineout cleaners. How depressing.

Which brings me finally to the “breakdown” and “loose play,” which seems to suggest that the ruck and maul are indicative that something has gone wrong? And, surely, the chaos of open play is a good thing, making the game full of opportunities to be seized.

The modern Rugby coach seems to have been fooled into thinking that the coaching job entails production of a generation of "multi-phase-contact, breakdown-oriented players who run around in pods, setting targets for strike runners to exploit, while the hoi-poloi of the team look to barge into rucks and tidy up loose ball.” It is not a great concept for the art, speed and fluidity of the game. There is no evidence of game sense, imagination or creativity. However, I still hear this language at practice sessions, the length and breadth of the country.

Where do these “modern terms” and words come from with their ideas of rigid structure and single skill-tasking? Many are borrowed from the CFL and NFL. This is not an indictment of football. Their game is conducted from the touchline by a bevy of coaches, plays are written down on forearms, set plays are radioed in from sky boxes to field level. In Rugby, we believe the coach should try to persuade players and teams to take responsibility for their own actions and decision making.

Language as George Orwell reminds us “can corrupt thought.” As Rugby coaches, we need to develop players with game sense, and part of this process is being aware of the language we use.