Do coaches see errors by rugby players as weaknesses?

I recently asked the question 'Do coaches see errors by Rugby players as weaknesses?' the other day on Twitter (@RossRugby) after I wondered why Rugby at almost every level has become so structured with coaches taking ever more control of attack, an aspect of Rugby that was once solely controlled by the players' decisions on the field. Why has Rugby Union attack, even at schoolboy level, become so boring, predictable and largely uninspired?

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The reason I believe has got to do with the coaches. I believe coaches see errors by players in games as weaknesses & thus aim to limit their on-field decisions for fear of losing games. Is it not easier to sleep when as a coach, you know you have absolute control of what each player is required to do, with an engrained attack pattern and plans that have been practised ad-nauseum in the belief that you have done your best to control the 'controllables'? Many a coach has torn parts of their hair out in frustration when a player makes an error on attack that was in their view "Plain for all to see!"

"It is far easier to coach players on attack in a set pattern with allocated jobs, than develop decision making that allow players to express themselves when opportunities arise."

I believe coaches have lost sight of what players can do on the field because each mistake made seems to either ingrain the belief that players cannot think for themselves or that they are not good enough and thus needs to be 'told' what to do instead. Coaches have confused the role of the coach from the ideal 'Guide' that allows players to make mistakes and learn for themselves as opposed to the 'Sage' who must know everything and believes they alone know what is best for the players.

Winning and the ego attached to this outcome in some coaches, ensures player mistakes are seen as 'undesirable' and thus are discouraged for fear of losing games because of them. The best coaches know that making mistakes is the best way players learn and present endless opportunities for coaches to improve their players understanding of the game; but at the moment I believe very few coaches are allowing mistakes to occur in the top players at school, as winning has become all encumbering and that, instead of presenting knowledgeable, skilful and confident athletes at the end of their school careers, they are merely presenting players far behind in the development of their true abilities.

"When coaching young athletes, the ideal is to promote them with a better understanding of the game with a higher skill set not merely a better scorecard"

Of course structure has its place in the game, I do not dispute this, but what I do dispute is the way we are coaching our players. If player mistakes are at the forefront of your team losing games, what are you doing to address this issue? How often have your players been put into attacking opportunities each week in training as opposed to blindly running the structure and preparing for set moves and set pieces? The only way for players to improve and become better decision makers with fewer errors on attack is to allow them to practice attack over, and over again at every opportunity.

"Repetition of structure only succeeds in creating robots not Rugby players."

When I hear coaches say that they do not have the players to play an expansive game plan or that they are not smart enough or they do not have the skills, I wonder when will you ever have a side that has all those attributes? Think for a second if every coach of a particular age group thinks this way from u9 to u19, will that side ever have the opportunity to become a highly skilled one when each coach labels them as unskilful and forces them into a simple game plan each year with the express instructions to NEVER play high risk Rugby? Sure they may become a highly successful side because they are extremely proficient at their designated jobs – but the question I ask is - have those coaches done their job and improved each player to reach their true attacking potential or have they merely produced efficient robots?

To improve the attacking abilities of our top sides we must first look at the bottom of the ladder to see where we are going wrong and for me that is not hard to see when schoolboys play each week in restrictive game plans that does not allow for much thinking but rather allows the coach to ingrain his knowledge onto the players in order to win games. As Alan Zondagh said on Twitter, "Sad that rugby has become a chess game between coaches." And I cannot agree more.

It takes patience and good coaching to allow players to flourish with both skill and decision making abilities and this should be seen as the true measure of coaching success, not merely a great scorecard.

-Ross Williams

Ross, Headstrong's Rugby Skills Specialist, is an enthusiastic coach keen on learning, debating and studying all about how we coach Rugby. He is currently the UCT u20 Technical and Skills coach during the Varsity Cup. He also runs his own private coaching business, Ross Rugby where the focus is firmly on skills coaching. Contact us to find out more.