This week I was asked by the coach of the U15 School Rugby Team to come and work with his forward pack, specifically on improving their realignment and support lines in open play from the breakdown. I planned for a small sided games approach, 8 v 8, with constraints on the playing environment that would encourage them to think and try out different ideas in attack and support. Through questioning, practice in game scenarios and through player led discussion the teams began to offer options that overloaded the defence both physically and cognitively. They had a chance to practice what they came up with unopposed then put back into the game scenario. Although a long way from the finished article I sense that there was a deeper understanding and appreciation of what they could do in attack as a unit and in future, they and not just the backs, could take responsibility to not be so predictable. I left the session feeling quite happy and satisfied and gave the session no further thought.
However that night I received this email from one of the pupils in the squad:
How’s it going? I just wanted to inform you about rugby training. I’m not entirely sure whether to carry on or not. I really enjoy rugby and I’m very enthusiastic about it. However, especially after today’s session, I fell so inexperienced compared to other guys in my year. Most of the time I had no clue what you are talking about and I’m always making mistakes. Although that’s good (and the whole reason for me coming to training is to learn) I’m not sure if it’s the right thing for me since I am a much lower ability level than the others. I feel like I’m just embarrassing myself and letting the squad down by not doing things correctly. So, I would just like to know your opinion on whether I should carry on because I love playing rubgy and would really like to participate in some of the matches. I also specifically freed Monday after school to train for the matches, and this will help me improve, but I still think I need to learn the rules and positions a bit more before I return to match div. What should I do? Thanks for your time in reading this long and tedious email.
In one session I have almost put a pupil off rugby. How could I have got this so wrong?
- Did I know my pupils? – No I didn’t. I made assumption about the level of prior knowledge and understanding the pupils had. I went straight into what, for a relatively inexperienced player, is quite a cognitively stressful practice. On reflection that might not be so bad, as the game itself is like this, but I did nothing to support or scaffold the learning of newer players as I didn’t check if there were any. I did no review of how much the pupils knew about the topic I was coaching. A simple question before I started would have resolved that issue and many that were born out of it.
- Did I observe the individual as well as the group? – I pride myself that my observational skills within a rugby context are pretty good due to my experience. However I did not spot that the young man in question was struggling with his understanding. I believe this was due to me observing what the the teams outcomes were in attack, therefore I forgot to observe them as individuals. Although all of them were on the same learning journey rugby, each pupil will be at a different stage and will have their own characteristics. An appreciation of individual differences and needs, within a team environment, should be part of my observation.
- Was my questioning strategy effective? – I usually plan my questions in advance, a mixture of both closed and open, but I did not do so on this occasion. The questions I asked were mainly to elicit dialogue within the two groups such as ‘why are you losing ground whilst in possession of the ball and what can he done to overcome this problem?’. The aim of these questions were to get them to reflect on what was going well and what could be improved. My belief in rugby is to get pupils used to talking to each other and taking on responsibility to finding solutions to the problems they are faced, as this is what I would like to happen when they are on the pitch playing. This though lead to the more experienced players dominating the discussions. Neither of which would have helped an inexperienced player gain a better understanding. This is training and I need to ensure that everyone in the group understands what we were trying to achieve.
- Did I use jargon free vocabulary? – Like all sports, rugby has its own technical language. It’s always enjoyable to engage in discussion using subject specific words and phrases that other experienced players or coaches know. It gives one the sense of being an expert. Most pupils though aren’t experts and my teaching/coaching language must not confuse them. This is a bad habit that I haven’t tried to break. It is based on a poor assumption that everyone who trains for rugby after school understands the language of rugby. This is a mistake on my behalf. Take for example the word ‘depth’ which on reflection I used a lot in that session. The more experienced player would understand. To someone new to the game, with little understanding, they might be thinking does he mean ‘the distance from the top or surface to the bottom of something’ or ‘the quality of being intense or extreme’? Neither of which would make much sense in this context and add to any confusion that a pupil may already have.
- How did I respond to mistakes? – On reflection I think this is where I did the main damage. I have a habit in rugby where I stop the game and repeat a play if I think it has learning value for all involved. I do this for positive things that I want to reinforce, but I also it do it for poor decisions. This is to allow the pupil to have the time to review what is happening on the pitch and get a chance at making a different decision. It can be quite effective at times, but I can see it’s limitations if a pupils self-efficacy is low due to being inexperienced. Highlighting this to the whole group could be seen as humiliating rather than constructive and perhaps I should avoid using this technique unless I know the pupil can cope and respond well to it. Which leads me back to my initial point of knowing my pupils. I can at times also be a bit reactive, especially when things aren’t going well. Patience and composure are two virtues I am still trying to master both as a teacher and as a coach.
The email is a stark reminder that I should not walk away from lessons thinking ‘job done’ or due to my experience I don’t get things wrong. Reflection on action enables us to reconsider what is worth doing again or starts the process of seeking alternative approaches, which will hopefully lead us to develop more sensitivity on how and what we are doing. Reliving the events of a lesson are not just for trainees or NQT’s they are for all of us, for the whole of our career. Time to go and rectify my mistakes.