I am fortunate enough to take charge of the under 15s at HS Centurion in 2020. My youngest is playing for the under 16s in one of the stronger teams in the school. The team I inherited has however had a tougher time of it…
In 2019 the under 14 group went through the season with zero wins. It is important to understand the back story. The school has faced a challenge of a slowly aging demographic in the surrounding neighborhoods and only one feeder primary school.
There are a couple of other schools in the area who have their pick of players and also have the option to offer bursaries to promising young rugby players.
How do you compete?
How you start such a challenge
Knowledge is power is a cliche that has been heard a million times around the world, but it became one for a reason. If you don’t understand the details, you don’t know the whole story. You don’t know where to start.
The rugby trials will happen on 29 February and this basically gave us 5 weeks for pre-season training (we started last week). The first matches are two weeks after the trials.
According to the school’s pre-season schedule, players will be training twice a week leading up to the trials. When we started this means that we had 10 practice sessions of an hour each.
I coached two of their promising players last year as part of a under 15s 7’s group and got to know a little bit of what their 2019 season had been like.
So I started by not getting on to a field but first talking with the players who were willing to listen.
We set up a session on Friday 24 January after school to talk. There were 11 players that pitched up. More said they would come, but they were obviously skeptical…
Go with a plan, but don’t talk AT the players
I had prepared a plan on how we should approach the practice sessions, how we should play the game and how I will conduct practices. It was more important for them to first vent.
I asked them about 2019 with a couple of leading questions. At first, it was just the two I coached last year that spoke up and I started writing it down. Slowly but surely they kept sharing their frustrations, their challenges, their doubts and through all of that you could see their hope that things might be different in 2020.
After they had talked for about 30 minutes and I had loads of notes, I recapped it and told them that I would like to tell them what I would want to do for the season.
Asking them first what they went through as players and understanding THEIR point of view allowed me to adjust my approach to how I will coach them during the season. It allowed me to tie back my ideas to what they had to say.
They had been heard.
The first week of training
During the first week of training, I tried to focus on a variety of skills emphasizing that I didn’t care if they made mistakes, only that I want them to try as hard as they can to improve.
During the Tuesday session, they improved as well as during the Wednesday session
The most important thing you can do during these early sessions is to look for clues. The clues you are looking for are:
- where are the obvious gaps in skills?
- where are the opportunities with what they currently can do?
- who are the most influential players in the group?
- who show promise, but lack confidence?
- which of them looks uncertain in everything that they do?
It is important to really look at each of these individually because if you can solve most of these puzzle pieces early, you are in for a turnaround season.
Where are the obvious gaps in skills?
Often coaches stop here. If you teach them how to master a skill, you have done a good job, but it is a toss-up on whether or not the team will perform.
If you only address the skills gap, you will see that there are phases of play during games where the players really look good. When the pressure is on, you will however often see cracks appear.
Those cracks are not as a result of a lack of skills.
Where are the opportunities with what they currently can do?
This takes a little bit longer to identify. The makeup of your team will be unique. You might have a well-balanced team (fairly rare). You might have a lot of sizes, but not much speed. You might have a small team and loads of speed. You might have athletes with potential but not with a lot of experience.
The team I have has 3 or 4 forwards who stand out a bit above the rest. In the backline, there are 3 players that really stand out. This is in based on what I have seen in week 1 but week 2 will really be telling.
None of them have really been tested thus far in terms of what they offer in speed, strength and ruby IQ. This will become more apparent in week 2 as I work on different skills.
The players you have ties into my next point.
Who are the most influential players in the group?
Especially at this age players are still swayed by the “heroes” in the team. Those were the players who stood out when they played together at lower age levels and they look up to them.
These players should receive special attention, not at the expense of the other players but in terms of the responsibility they carry in another way.
They become your group of captains. A true captain leads by example both in practice and in games.
Talking to them individually and making them responsible for looking after 2 or 3 players serves two purposes:
- They learn to take responsibility for their actions and are less likely to mess around during practices
- The players receiving the extra attention take a step up as they get “preferential” treatment from one of the stars of the team
Who show promise, but lack confidence?
These players are primed to become your next wave of stars in the team. If you place close attention to them and have quick 30 second chats with them regularly you will get to the bottom of why they lack confidence.
You will find out what is important to them, what they want to achieve, what makes them happy…
These players are often the ones who weren’t given the same attention and opportunities of the other star players in previous years. They are uncertain of where they fit into the mix.
They need to know that you are paying attention to them. It is crucially important to tell them whenever you see them do something well in practice. It doesn’t matter how small.
If you do that, you will see that they suddenly have a bit of a spring in their step. They are more alert. Keen to get another compliment from their coach.
Keep at this and soon you can “upgrade” them and give them 2 players to look after…
Which of them looks uncertain in everything that they do?
I know I probably used up my quota of cliches, but here is another one “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link”. When it comes to crunch time, this group of players will be the ones that carry you over the line.
You might think I am crazy but hear me out. During a game, these players need a moment. One tackle. One run (no matter how short). One ruck where they force a turnover…
Hoping for that is leaving too much to chance. Working with these players so that hope turns into a probability, now THAT is where you want to get to.
These players have probably NEVER received any attention from their coaches. Their parents are either frustrated by this or by them and often they don’t get the support they deserve.
You are the coach and it is your duty to turn this around. These players need to be singled out, but in a good way. Here are a couple of simple things you can do:
- Call them to the side when they have done something right. Tell them and give them a compliment and a smile. Repeat it often.
- Call them to the side when they have made a mistake. Tell them that it is okay and that you know they can actually do it. Do this VERY selectively and rather try and find positives to emphasize.
- Involve them and search for that one little spark. Go overboard with your praise in front of everyone!
Keep doing this and the hope will turn into probability.
Keep doing this and they will probably “upgrade” and eventually help a next wave of players, because they have been there.