Next week I’ll be back with my views on one of the current elite matches, with the start of this season’s Heineken Cup, but for today I want to talk a little about the importance of accurate communication in the coaching role. Come to think of it, accurate communication is just as important in the commentator’s role, given the influence that ‘expert’ commentary has over fans, players and even coaches.
It’s vital, in the first instance, that both/all parties take the same meaning from terms used in any conversation. This sounds quite simple, indeed obvious, but it is frequently. The coach, for example, clearly understands the message that he’s trying to get across, but the player will sometimes take somewhat of a different meaning. Some may not even understand the terms used. When I first heard the term ‘unders’ used, I did not know the exact meaning, and, at the time I had been coaching at the top level for over twenty years. The answer is to make sure that such conversations are two way, with discussion, questions, answers, ideas, flowing in both directions.
Even if we do achieve such ideal conditions in the commentary/coaching roles, there can still be serious problems from the ‘expert’ observations. Many common ones are, in my opinion, patently wrong and can lead the further error – or, in the case of a talented player, to frustration or loss of respect for the coach. Let me list a few.
‘TRAINING’ is the word frequently used to describe the mid-week meeting of players to prepare for the game. I want to use the word ‘PRACTICE’, because I want all to understand that this is exactly what we are meeting for, to ‘practice’ our performance.
‘BREAKDOWN’ is a word in regular use in the game. It clearly describes the zone at and around the tackle. It could also be a ruck or a maul. All of this is ok; most people with any knowledge of the game will understand. My problem stems from the fact that the word ‘breakdown’ in common use, outside of rugby, describes an error or a fault, indeed a failure of one type or another.
I see a tackle as a potential positive for the attacking team, and I want my team to take the positives out of each tackle situation. It is a positive for an attacking player to ‘draw’, or ‘fix’, a defender, thereby making space for the attack to continue, so I do not want any negative inference to apply. The ‘tackle’ is the ultimate drawing of a defender. Indeed, I want my players to see the ‘tackle’ as a potential ‘loop’ play. I prefer to use the term ‘TACKLE CONTEST’; this accurately describes the situation and prepares the support players for the contest which follows.
We are often told that a player ‘GOT HIMSELF ISOLATED’ and this is often followed by a description of how that same player either lost possession or was penalised. This clearly infers that the fault lay with the ball-carrier, yet I am totally convinced that all of the blame lies with the (non) support players. The poor ball-carrier, now accused of an error, was able to carry the ball forward – a desirable feature – past and into a group of defenders, all trying to stop him. His team-mates, on the other hand, do not have the ball and have no-one at all trying to stop their progress. Yet they were unable to achieve the same field position as the ball-carrier and to support him in his difficulties. My description of this situation would be, ‘YOU LET YOUR TEAM DOWN BY LACK OF URGENT SUPPORT FOR THE BALL-CARRIER’.
‘CHOOSING OPTIONS’ is a term used to describe the problem confronting the ball-carrier, when more than one possible action is called for from him. Generally, it applies when the ball-carrier is confronted by a potential tackler and he could take alternative action/s. My problem is that the term ‘choosing options’ infers a conscious decision , indeed, frequently, it calls for the player to ‘work on his ability in this area of his game’.
I have an entirely different view of such a situation. I strongly believe that, for best results, the player must ‘TAKE AN OPTION’ instinctively! Recently, Ryan Giggs was questioned about a phenomenal goal he had scored a few years previously. He replied that he was under pressure with little space and a number of defenders and “instinct just took over”. We must give our players this freedom; we must prepare them with accurate practice of their tools of trade and allow them to explore their potential. Problems incurred along the way are merely a part of the development/learning process.
‘CUT DOWN/OUT OUR ERRORS’. This description is used frequently to explain a past performance or even to anticipate a future one. I much prefer to use the phrase, ‘IMPROVE OUR TECHNIQUE’. This describes what we must do in order to ‘cut out our errors’. I have said many times that virtually all errors in the game derive from inaccurate technique and that “perfect practice will make perfect”. My phrase, I believe, gives us something tangible to work on, with the result being fewer errors.
‘WIDTH’ is another word than I take exception to. Sometimes I hear that teams must ‘GET MORE WIDTH IN THEIR GAME’. This frequently involves longer passes, miss passes, wider spacing, etc. I see no value at all, for the attacking team, in such an approach. The longer time that the ball is in the air, the easier it is for the defending team to adjust. Conversely, when the ball is in the hands of an attacking player, there are numerous possibilities to ask difficult questions of the defence. When the player carrying the ball changes rapidly, with a succession of shorter passes, the questions can become very difficult indeed. My view is that long, or miss, passes are only an excuse for poor catch & pass skills. In addition, the touch lines are the ultimate defender anyway!
Be accurate in your communication! Ask the questions, “What do you (the [player) take out of what I have said?” “What do you think about that? Any other ideas?”
One last thing; I think that it’s appropriate here! We, as coaches, must give our players the ‘right to make mistakes”. It’s an intrinsic part of the process for attaining ‘learned instinct’.