Steve Hansen famously talked about the All Blacks regularly winning at the death against the Springboks and said: “The Springboks are always stronger and more physical than the All Blacks. We get battered for 70 minutes every game, but we know the Springboks will be soft for about 5 minutes…”
Working through all of the skill drills and making sure that your team is technically sound is critically important. If your team is however not able to execute for the whole game, then you will be vulnerable in crunch games.
The emphasis on focus needs to come mainly from the coaches and the captain(s) of the team.
What the coach and captain should do
Saying it once right before the team runs onto the field wouldn’t cut it. You need to make it part of the way they do everything.
Every drill they do, every aspect of the game they practice, must have an element of focus and concentration in it.
If this is instilled on a regular basis during practice sessions the players will be able to concentrate naturally throughout a game.
As with all other aspects of the game, it is not realistic to expect players to adapt to something they are not used to.
One thing I regularly hear coaches say is “play the situation in front of you”. This is often followed by the players NOT playing the situation in front of them.
This comes down to the simple fact that they were never exposed to game-specific situations under pressure during practice sessions.
If you had dedicated a larger portion of practice sessions to make them comfortable with these types of situations, they would have been able to react better and make better decisions faster.
Practically working concentration into practice sessions
First, you need to tell players about this universal weakness of even top professional teams. This will give them context when you keep hammering on “concentration” and “focus”
You need to remind them regularly about this with every new drill and during the running of drills. Just blurting it out in general also doesn’t help.
You need to address everyone as well as individuals. We can take a lineout for example and what you can tell the team:
- Start off by telling them that you will be doing 3 lineouts in a row thrown to the front jumper and you want everyone to bind for a maul
- Then tell the hooker to focus on hitting the jumper’s hands above his head at speed and not throw too high. It is all about speed
- Tell the lifters to be focused on the movements of the jumper. If they do their job properly, they are setting up the attack for the whole team
- Talk to the jumper about how he should line up for the jump and go up without taking an extra step. All about speed off the ground
- Give the rest of the pack their orders on how they will bind once the jumper lands
Let them run the 3 lineouts. Do running commentary complimenting them on any aspects that they have done well.
After the 3 lineouts, stop and tell everyone where they could have improved.
Why take an approach like that?
Now an approach like that might sound like overkill. It is probably not an approach that you will be used to. We as coaches (and captains) should NEVER underestimate the influence we have on how our players play
If you are all about focus and concentration, it will rub off on them. If the focus and concentration go hand in hand with compliments and positive encouragement, they will crave more off it.
The end result is that you will have many more relaxed players on the field when it comes to those close games. When everything is on the line or they have a small lead, they will be able to concentrate without having to actively think about it.
That last part of the sentence is the most important: “without having to actively think about it”.
When your players get tired, they usually lose focus. As a game goes on, you usually see many points scored in the last 10-15 minutes. This is often because teams are making silly mistakes.
A team that is used to focus when they are playing rugby, will pull off more wins than losses based on this one mental aspect.