Rugby Sense and Skill Acquisition: the psychology of coaching "skill"

By Jeff Hollier

Introduction

What is "Rugby Sense" and how do you get it? This was the thrust of a prolonged discussion taking place on the RugbyCoach listserv I had been lurking in for a few weeks last month and I just could not help but add my two cents.

The sometimes heated debate centered around the question of whether or not it was possible to teach "Rugby Sense": is it inborn?, can you acquire it if you did not start playing rugby when you were six?, if you can teach it, how do you get the fastest return? Some observations were made that the U.S. national team often lacked the fluidity that the world rugby super powers have, and a natural sense of the game. Other countries' players just seem to "see" the game differently and "see" options that our players do not. The argument was made that players from other countries grow up with the game, playing it from early childhood, and that since Americans did not, we would never be able to compete on that level. One suggestion made was that the only solution was to put all of our development efforts into youth rugby and forego our hopes until the program was strong enough to feed the Eagles with 18-22 year olds who had been playing for 12 years.

One comment that really stands out for me was the mention of an Andre Joubert post-match interview in which he was asked something to the effect of: on a certain play, what had been going through his mind as he made the decision to attack in a certain way. He replied rather exasperated with, "I don't know, I don't think about it. It was there and I took it." This example was offered in support of players such as Joubert having a natural intuition, or "Rugby Sense", that just can not be taught. It could not be taught, it was argued, because Joubert could not even describe what happened. I would argue, however, that it was precisely because he had been taught, and learned it so well that he could no longer put it into words.

You will notice that I have carefully avoided telling you what "Rugby Sense" is. That is okay because everyone else seems to have avoided defining it also. It is clearly something that we all recognize in players that have it, or lack it, but it is hard to put your finger on just what "IT" is. For the moment let us just say it's that nebulous ability to see all your options and know what is going to happen two or three passes/rucks/tackles away, and exploit those options, in the moment. If it helps, think about it as ESP for rugby. In this article I hope to describe some of the very natural processes that happen on the way to expertise and what happens in the mind of an expert.

Before I start, I want you to do one thing: with your hands clasped tightly in your lap, tell someone how to tie a shoe. It is a hard thing to do. Because you can not do it well, does that mean that it is an inborn ability? No, it just means that it is stored in your memory in a way other than a list of sentences, like the answer to the question, "Who took the ball in his hands with a fine disregard for the laws of the game?" The shoe tying is stored in procedural memory as a series of actions based on visual cues, while the Ellis story is stored in declarative memory as words. To coach a player to expertise, you need to get them to store their rugby skills in procedural memory accessed by visual cues. That is what this article is about, albeit in an oversimplified manner.

Non conscious behaviour in sport

Let me start with something to hopefully grab your attention. There is no such thing as inborn intuition in its popular sense. Even Joubert, who can not introspect on his thought processes does not do this naturally. Intuition is merely learned behavior and decision making processes that have become so well learned that they have become automatic. The term for this is "non-conscious" (not unconscious). Non-conscious behavior is just that: it is not available for conscious observation. If you have ever driven home and suddenly realized that you can not remember the last 20 miles, you have experienced this. You made decisions based on what you saw and you did not consciously observe the process. This automatization takes time and practice (repeated execution). If a car swerved in front of you, it would have been outside of what you had internalized and you would have been very aware of the process of avoiding the accident. If however, a car simply changed lanes in front of you, that would probably be well within your internalized processes and you would have responded accordingly without necessarily becoming aware of what you were doing.

Coaching within this framework

It is nothing new, just maybe a different way to look at common coaching practice. The bad news is that there is no way to coach that will assure a speedy return. The good news is that you can maximize your players' ability to do this naturally with the experiences in which you place them. After all, coaching is just that, beyond simply telling them what to do, you give them controlled situations in which to practice the behaviors.

Given that we are born with actually very few innate non-automatic behaviors (we can leave things like breathing and heart beating alone) it is pretty clear that complex behaviors are learned skills.

There are very few complex behaviors we seem to be born with such as fear of height and loud noises, and rooting (which babies need to find the nipple). There is one reflex to make walking motions when you press on the bottom of a babies feet, but that goes away fairly early.

Everything else has to be learned. We do differ on innate propensities to learn. Some nervous systems seem to acquire firing patterns faster than others. And we have certain sensitive periods in which we learn faster (such as language and attachment). I do not believe we have identified a sensitive period for sports.

When I get a 17 or 18 year old player from overseas, it is easy to see that they have been playing since they were seven. Many of the techniques we work on for weeks, they do without thinking. They are usually terrible coaches, by the way, because of the exact same processes. What they do is not available, easily, to conscious introspection. That is the same reason all-star players often make terrible coaches. They say, just do it, without realizing how to move a novice toward the goal.

Learning Process

During the learning process, a lot happens. It is not a simple process of putting in facts. The way the brain handles information changes. In the early stages of mastering a problem-solving task, the activity is mostly up front in the brain, where conscious behavior is controlled and organized in the frontal lobe. With mastery, that activity moves toward the back of the brain, where vision and some automatic processes happen. This reorganization takes time. There is a much closer link between the motor parts of the brain and the vision parts of the brain in problem solving tasks that have been mastered, no frontal lobe intermediary. The allusions we all make to "vision" and "seeing" are very appropriate. It really appears that what changes is how we see things and how those visual cues reveal options and call out actions.

Experts do indeed see the world differently. Chess players are very good at recognizing patterns (meaningful patterns that is). Nonsense is still just nonsense to them, but remember, the very patterns they are so good a recognizing were once nonsense to them. Repeated exposure made them meaningful as the realization that valuable options came with these particular patterns. Rarely does the very next move win the game or take a valuable piece. It is a series of preliminary moves to get into position and then strike (does it sound like rugby yet?) With repeated exposure to the same patterns, the behavioral responses become chunked. "Chunking" is simply a process of grouping smaller bits of information into a coherent larger "chunk" of information (the same way you chunk your social security number or a phone number). This means that instead of seeing individual moves, the expert sees a whole set of moves. The expert does not necessarily see the next move, but actually sees the 5th or 6th move down the line. This is what lets an expert chess player play 12 people at a time. They do not remember the board, or the strategy of each board between moves. When they return to a board, they "see" the pattern and the set of moves, and continue the attack. This is the same thing that your best outside center does when s/he sees the seam between the defensive units before it opens and "sees" the cutback option, or your flyhalf "sees" the dead end that will happen by the time the ball gets to the wing and runs to the loose forwards.

COACHING NOTES

Given all of this, I really believe that it is wrong to try to teach decision-making up front. The process of working through all the decision points before choosing an action takes way too long. Instead, you have to help your players internalize the process and learn to "see" the options.

How do you do this? The drills that we all share actually rely on these processes whether you know it or not. You have to start somewhere with a rote behavior. When X do Y. That gives you a chance to work on mechanics, and gives them a base behavior that they can internalize fairly quickly. No decisions to make, just execute. At that point, you have a good robot. This is as far as a lot of coaches (in any sport) get. To go beyond that, you have to start varying the situation. When you do this the first time, do not spend a lot of time explaining "why" their actions should change. If you do that, you run the risk of getting a laundry list of decisions for them to make:

There is nowhere near enough time for all that analysis during dynamic play. Instead, after the first variation, discuss the goal. That goal is purely a product of your game plan and style. The goal is not "score a try". That is too far reaching a goal and does not leave any room for success other than a try. Instead, the goal should be about manipulating the defense or exploiting space in a particular way. Stand behind the defensive line and tell them, "The goal is to get the ball here", and show them how to get the ball there given the variation you just put in the drill, or better yet, let them figure it out by showing them what the defense is doing to stop them. Do not lecture, show them, and let them do it. The less you talk and the more they move the better. Start slow, and let them see the option. With experience, they learn to see faster, and they learn what it looks like.

Decision Making, what or how?

Now with two actions and a single goal, the process of learning how to see "routes to the goal" really begins. What you are really teaching them is not WHAT decisions to make given a lot of changing variables, but rather you are teaching them HOW to find a route to a single, unchanging goal. You are showing them and letting them learn what they need to pay attention to, in order to find that route in a very noisy environment, with a lot of things happening at once.

From there you add even more noise to the situation. This is the key in moving from technique to skill. Execution is technique; execution at the right time and place is skill. This is where you as a coach have to shut up and let your players have a go at it. By varying what they see, and letting them explore how their actions and decisions map onto these new patterns you let them begin to abstract and learn the important aspects of the situation that call out certain actions. You need to control the noise so that it varies only a little from situation to situation, but you need to let them fail. Too many novice coaches emphasize success in drills too early in the process. Failure is as powerful a teaching tool as success, sometimes even more powerful. If you restrict them to making only the correct decision you stunt their learning. Remember, you set up the drill, you know there is only one correct decision out of a limited set of choices, that never happens in a game. By letting them fail, they have an excellent opportunity to see why it failed, and they have a solid base of experience with which to interpret your coaching.

In my opinion, this is the fastest way to produce "Rugby Sense". Once they can do it, let them do it a thousand times, all with noisy conditions. Do not stop the drill until you see that a majority of players are making the same mistake, then let them continue but point out to the observers what you are seeing that is making it fail. Then stop the drill and show the correct way and get them going again. Otherwise, stand where they exit the drill and give them immediate one or two sentence feedback as they return to line. This will help them make these processes automatic.

Example

My tackling drills for rookies are very simple. Start with mechanics and make sure they master them safely and can protect themselves and present the ball on the ground in a tackle, and can tackle safely.

I move them to interaction with a support player immediately and show the pick up based on body configuration on the ground, etc, because without the support player, the goal of presenting the ball this way is impossible for them to see. Then on to the pop pass in a tackle, and finally on to how to fight to retain their feet in a tackle. You will notice that I start with slow play and work up to dynamic play. I do this because I want the one default action they learn by rote to be the most conservative, your style may differ and you may therefore want to reverse the order. I also think that it takes longest to teach body placement in the tackle to get to ground and this lets me keep them moving as I make small adjustment to move to the later skills. I do not like to stop for long lectures.

This is all mechanics, technique. At this point they move into decision-making drills, or what I call "vision drills". Ball carrier, tackler and one support whose distance I vary. When the ball carrier comes back from his run I have either an assistant or myself do a one sentence debrief "Why did/did not that work". The drill does not stop and they do not have to listen to me talk until either enough of them are making the same mistake, or enough of them are making the right decision. With instructions to either give the pop pass, or take the ball to ground and present it for the oncoming support, within 10 minutes in this drill, the rookies were innovating and fighting for their feet with a deep supporter, or running through a sloppy tackle. Within 15 minutes even the rookies had figured out how to tackle in order to prevent a good placement of the ball, and I had not even talked about that one yet. They had learned the goal, and were figuring out how to achieve it, or block it.

I was never able to get those kinds of results that quickly with the rote drills and "if x then y" training that was prevalent when I started playing. These processes also work for more seasoned players with more complex offensive and defensive schemes. By letting them explore in controlled noise, they learn HOW to make decisions, rather than WHAT decisions to make, based on a single goal, not on a laundry list of configurations. It is the difference between goal-directed problem solving (which naturally moves to automatic perception with experience) and analytical decision making (which takes a lot of time as the number of variables increases).

Jeff Hollier
Coach, Virginia RFC (Jeff died too young, this material part of his legacy)