By Keith Wilkinson - Rugby Ontario Master Learning Facilitator

With over 400 other coaches, I attended the Ontario Coaches conference in February 2012. The event is held annually and this year’s theme was “To Leave No Stone Unturned.” The conference was an excellent opportunity to hear new ideas, share best practices and there was still time for Rugby Ontario to run two Rugby Clinics. I have attempted to cover some of the sessions I attended, and some of the ideas presented.

Opening Plenary Session: “Coaches as Educators”

The opening Plenary session, “Coaches as Educators,” was given by Bruce Kidd of the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education at the University of Toronto. Bruce started by outlining all that he learned from his sports coaches: Ambition, self-discipline, self-discovery, respect for others, social history and geography and the responsibility to give something back.

But, such good learning does not happen automatically. While some coaches teach well, others may seek to bully, abuse and seek to embarrass; others narrow horizons to focus entirely on training and competition. Such negative approaches are a factor in turning off young people from sport. The stakes in coaching are high, because while the contribution of a good coach can be positively life changing, the damage from an abusive coach, or even a coach who narrows horizons can be life crippling. The outcome cannot be left to chance, especially if we wish to continue receiving government financial support.

Of all the roles, stances and expectations that are thrust upon coaches, the most important is to be a supportive educator — inspiring, enabling, supporting and empowering. And all these are well beyond the bounds of teaching sports skill and expertise. Of all the knowledge and skills coaches are expected to have, Kidd believes that the most important is an explicit pedagogy or ‘logic model’, with a curriculum of self and social discovery, and the experience of putting these into practice. It is not enough to say we believe in sport as education. The research says that we must become much more intentional – about both the provision of opportunity, and the quality of the experience provided by sports

For Coubertin and his collaborators, the Olympic Games were not simply to be an athletic event, but the focal point of a broadly based social movement which, through the experiential learning of sport and culture, would enhance human development and make the world a better place. Their aspirations were for educational reform that would engage both the body and the mind in the healthy pursuit of excellence. They wanted opportunity for all, fair competition, intercultural exchange and education, a cultural dialogue between sport and the arts and they wanted to reduce the likelihood of war.

For more than a century, Canadians have supported public investment in sport and physical activity. Sport has been seen as a means to help prepare children and youth for Canadian citizenship. Canadians have seen sport as a means to strengthen the spirit of nation-building and nationalism through inspiring performances in international competition.

Then, in 1988, Ben Johnson, who was a shining light in the Canadian sport system, was expelled for steroids. In the resulting crisis and pan-Canadian debate, both ‘normalization’ and an end to publicly supported sport were

proposed. The federal government immediately appointed a Royal Commission under Ontario Chief Justice Charles Dubin to investigate. Dubin commissioned research, hired private investigators and held televised public hearings. Finally, he recommended a greatly strengthened anti-doping system and a strengthened emphasis upon value-based sport.


            There will be those who say that the modern world of sport has

       progressed beyond the point where the original amateur ideals of fair

       play, honest striving to do one’s best, camaraderie, and wholesome

       competition have any meaning or validity. If that is indeed the view of

       Canadians (and I do not accept that it is) then there is no justification

       for government support and funding of sport.’ Mr. Justice Dubin (1990)

The most recent drafts of the 2012 Canadian Sport Policy 2.0 reiterate Dubin’s call for a broad focus on education for citizenship and nation-building, calling for programs that intentionally realize

         ◦ Excellence

         ◦ Enhanced education

         ◦ Improved health and wellness

         ◦ Increased civic pride and engagement

         ◦ Enhanced personal, community and social development

         ◦ Increased economic development and prosperity

In pursuit of the UN Millennium Development Goals, sport can reach out to the disadvantaged (especially girls, women and ‘youth-at-risk’) Sport focuses on education, health, employment, and community and this is often in post-conflict situations. Sport should make no effort to involve participants in formal competition, let alone the pursuit of excellence. But does this approach work?  Advocates, donors, programmers and participants all want to know whether sports programs have realized their intended outcomes.

Research indicates that sport programs can contribute to social inclusion in schools, community and post-conflict areas. It can help reduce youth crime through diversionary, rehabilitation and gateway programs. Sport can help in school retention, academic achievement and school safety. It can be character-building, including moral behaviour, empathy and leadership. However, there is a caveat. Such benefits do not just happen by themselves.  The extent of opportunity varies widely and is most highly associated with national income and economic class.

For sports programs to be most effective, participants must feel that the program is their own. They must have genuine access, including equipment and transportation. Participants must feel safe, valued, socially connected,

morally and economically supported, personally and politically empowered, and hopeful about the future.

The skills and enthusiasm of trained, committed administrators, coaches and volunteers are key. The benefits of participation and sport initiatives cannot be understood in isolation from other social and material conditions—the individual sport is a necessary, but not sufficient condition. To be successful, sport programs should be part of a multi-agency approach and, programs must be sustained to have a lasting impact.

The results mean that although some of the content must be sport specific,

and this will vary from sport to sport and the age and ability of participants, the planned learning outcomes must go well beyond performance, healthy nutrition and ethics. Sport must address unconfined self-awareness, self-discovery, interpersonal/intercultural awareness, respect, communication. Programs must look at the history and geography of sport and societies and look at leadership beyond sport. Increasingly, sports programs will be judged on whether they help realize genuine educational and social


Those who believe in sport as education can stand within proud Olympic and Canadian traditions. However, the research says that we must become

much more intentional – about both the provision of opportunity and the quality of the experience. Just to play and coach Rugby is not enough.

Chick Magnetism: Practice Plans for Female  Athletes Dr. Vicki Harber

With my new assignment in 2012 as the Club’s Senior Women’s Coach, this presentation by Vicki Haber of the University of Alberta, seemed a good fit.  

She began by explaining that much of the coaching of female athletes is the same as for men: Physical; Technical; Mental; Nutritional; and, tactical. 

However, there are some important differences. For example, women athletes are 8 times more likely than boys to sustain an ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament) rupture.

Dr. Harber referred coaches to such programs as the Eleven plus on the FIFA website at  If such programs are done regularly, then there is a 60 – 80 % improvement in ACL problems. Dr. Haber tentatively suggested that coaches not using such approaches are being negligent and derelict in their duty.

Next, she asked us to consider the Female Athlete Triad: The female athlete triad is defined as the combination of disordered eating, amenorrhea and osteoporosis. This disorder often goes unrecognized, but the consequences of lost bone mineral density can be devastating for the female athlete. Sport programs need to be aware of

1.   Low energy available and disordered eating. Partnering with a nutritionist works well to deal with this.

2.   Bone loss and osteoporosis – again, a nutritionist can help 

3.   Menstrual disturbances and amenorrhea. See

Dr. Harber suggested that a coach who ignores any of these, constitutes willful blindness: The truth is too painful or upsetting to confront; there is conscious avoidance of the issues by the coach.

Women and girls need a training climate that welcomes the female athlete: It needs to be one which fosters recruitment and retention. It needs to be tolerant and supportive, with an environment that values physical literacy. It is important to integrate social time – discussions and meetings - into the program. If positive female role models can be used in these, all the better. This is important too, Dr. Harber suggests, to discuss the sexploitation of women and girls‘  teams in fund-raising nude calendars for example.

Wilful blindness of coaches may be evident in other issues. Dr. Harber suggests that coaches do not apologize when cutting or dropping players. Coaches need to be able to say that a player is not good enough. How can the coach make a player better? Are athletes accountable? Do they take responsibility? It is important to challenge athletes to do better. Dr. Harber suggests setting up opportunities for failure to help players see how to deal with it. E.g. left foot kicking only.

Recommended resources:


CAAWS Actively Engaging Women and Girls

On-line Canadian Journal for Women in Coaching

The final session I was able to attend was called “Butterflies 10; Flying in Formation” presented by Sommer Christie.

Athletes under stress experience physical symptoms associated with a deterioration of performance. On the bell curve from Distress to Eustress, there is an optimal stress level that athletes need to achieve. Every athlete has a different optimal functioning area.

Bio-feeback systems can be used to focus an athlete on these optimal areas. If athletes respond to the data with the correct recovery/relaxation techniques, they can control their performance. Such techniques may include abdominal breathing (6 breaths per min with hand on chest and stomach), progressive muscle relaxation; music, stretching, imagery, visualization. Any of these can be used, not to “get rid of the butterflies, but to get them to fly in formation!”

Athletes need to learn how to do this on the field e.g. dealing with a bad call from a referee. This can be simulated in practice.

Establish “Circles of attention” to predict what may happen

1.   Critical. Me and my task

2.   Environment: Rain, Bus late, crowd, delay in KO

3.   Comparisons – opposition are so bug, fast, did so well last week

4.   Outcome – are we going to win/lose – wrong focus – performance

5.   Consequences of result – knocked out of cup, lose carding, disappoint parents, let down teammates

6.   Questions of meaning – What am I doing here. I’m too old/young not good enough...

Counter these circles with

1.   “Tree it” – forget about it

2.   Key words or metaphors to stay focused

3.   Review game plan

4.   Simulation – I am a rhino with thick skin

5.   Imagery


Ensure that athletes are debriefed after a game or event. Seeking solid, consistent performance

How did kit go? How did you feel?

What went well and why? (so that we can use it again)

What could have been better? What can we do better next time?