Of all of the questions that I get over the season from fellow coaches, the most common by far is “How do I get my team to stop making mistakes?” Of all of the after-match comments from losing captains and coaches, easily the most common that I hear is “We made too many mistakes!”
Elimination of mistakes is clearly the focus of most team talks — at practice, pre-game and at half-time. Not for me, though. My focus is clearly and definitely on the positive side: what we must do, in order to execute accurately. Dare I say it yet again, this equates to quality execution of perfect technique under pressure. You may have noticed that I referred above to “practice”, rather than “training” — the term more commonly used for mid-week preparation sessions. I say “practice” because it accurately describes my sessions — I want to practise perfect technique over and over again, so that, to use Les Kiss’s terminology, it becomes a part of my players’ DNA.
So for my money, I want to hear the pre- and post-match comments focusing on quality execution — then we may be able to make some progress. A focus on the negatives of “mistakes” only serves to put those potential mistakes in the front of everyone’s mind, where they clearly serve to hinder, not assist, execution (as with the golfer who grimly tells himself “avoid the water hazard!”).
One of the prevalent drawbacks for most teams is that they rarely practise basic skills accurately — and when they do, they hardly ever apply them under the pressure of game situations.
An extension of this observation leads me to the conclusion that most — and I do mean most — coaches do not have an understanding of the key elements of accurate technique. It’s not that these are at all difficult to grasp; the coaches in question just have not taken the time to observe, think or read about the detail of this vital subject. It’s readily available to all those coaches who genuinely take their role seriously; among many other sources, my Coaching Manual, for example, is full of it from cover to cover. I believe that due focus on this subject is at the core of all quality coaching.
Such an approach will quickly lead players and coaches to the cause of their mistakes, and a subsequent understanding of the practice sessions required to develop the accurate technique that will serve to eliminate them. We will then have a positive mindset on the key factors for quality execution — and no thought at all on the outcome. That’s a much healthier mindset altogether.
A look at all of the SuperRugby games over any weekend will show hundreds of instances of inaccurate technique leading to mistakes, which were inevitably bemoaned afterwards — for the umpteenth week in a row! Unfortunately the Crusaders had the bye this week; their matches are our only respite from the frustration of watching consistent below-par performances.
Dropped passes are easily the most common mistake raised, but I know that teams do not practise accurate catch-and-pass techniques. I see sessions where the absence of the key factors is totally ignored by slack coaches, serving only to entrench poor technique. Just watch the pre-game warm-ups on field for even elite teams: ‘ball behind receiver’, no ‘reach for the ball’, no ‘sympathetic pass’, elaborate wind-up for the pass, and other mistakes are on display for all to see – so, clearly these teams are preparing for poor execution.
Another major factor in the dropped passes saga is the almost total absence of proper alignment and realignment. Regular readers will know this as one of my standard complaints. The Waratahs and the Brumbies have virtually no interest in the subject, nor do the Chiefs and the Hurricanes. All of the South African teams display no understanding at all, with the inevitable results. If the intended receiver is too flat — or even worse, in front of the ball-carrier — the pass will be either forward (result: turnover) or more than likely spilled (turnover). How can it be simpler or less tiring to get it wrong than it would be to take a step or two backwards and get it right?
Frequently this is all that’s required, but — apart from, surprise, surprise, the Crusaders — no teams get it consistently right. I get the impression that practising such simple fundamentals is beneath the dignity of elite coaches and players. It’s certainly simple, but it is just as certainly not common! What is a lot more common is walking – on the pitch, during the game! I do not see any place at all for walking while the ball is in play… come to think of it, during the entire match. I see a place for running at pace, for loping — in order to maintain accurate positioning off the ball-carrier, in both attack and defence — and for standing still, but I see no place for walking. If you are needed in another place on the field, get there with urgency, and then stop and balance, ready for the next action.
Playing the Chiefs on Friday night, the Waratahs did more walking than any other action. I was thinking of a possible entry to the Guinness Book of Records for “Most minutes walked in a professional rugby match”. Perhaps this is what the journos refer to as a “pedestrian performance.”
Towards the end of the Blues v. Cheetahs match, the commentator noted that “the Blues are in no hurry to get to this line-out”. They were one score in front and time was running out for the Cheetahs. But the Cheetahs were also walking to the line-out — on their own throw! In fact, the Blues’ lineout assembled before the Cheetahs! I am at a loss to explain this. Walking must have become an entrenched part of the practice sessions for these teams. For me, the total absence of walking is one my KPIs for quality.
‘Missed tackles’ is another part of the game that coaches rate as a top area for mistakes by their teams. Once again, attention to the simple fundamental of realigning with urgency will do wonders for reducing your rate of missed tackles. Being quickly into position to defend against the next attacking phase will allow your team to defend as a unit, with each of the parts working together. This is a fundamental for a quality defensive unit, yet most coaches see only the missed tackle without focusing (once again) on the most likely source of the problem: that the tackler was in the wrong position to cover his man.
Lost ball in contact is another of the mistakes that coaches frequently refer to me for advice. I am reminded always of my early years as a coach when I learnt of the New Zealand attitude to this problem: “If you lose the ball in the tackle twice on Saturday, or even once on each of two consecutive Saturdays,” they would explain, “don’t even bother to look for your name on the selection board on the next practice night. Just go straight to the second team; that’s where you’ll be.” Such a policy certainly focuses the mind when next under pressure in a tackle and, indeed, has its place in the modern game.
The current laws, however, place demands also on accurate support play. Such support play is fundamental to quality team attack, yet it is a most neglected area of current coaching. Some people are in awe of Sonny Bill Williams’s ability to off-load in the tackle. I, on the other hand, am in awe of the quality of the support play that puts players into perfect positions to accept the off-load. This, once again, is a simple skill and, once again, is sadly neglected. I will practice it at every single practice session, even if only as a part of our warm-up, and I will insist on accurate positional play every single time. Interestingly, the most common fault I have to correct is players running too fast and over-running the opportunity. It’s not so difficult to make them run a little more slowly!
These three most common mistakes that I am confronted with were all in evidence in abundance this weekend. And they can all be corrected easily, if the coaches do their jobs diligently and consistently. Oh, how pleased I am that the Crusaders will be back on deck again next week!
“You can’t win consistently without good players, but you can lose with them. That is where the coach comes in!” This maxim is well worth remembering.