Rugby Tour – Lessons learned

What a few days I have had. I'm finally on my way home after a very long week that began with a stag-do in Wales before heading straight to Switzerland to meet up with my brother and join his school's Rugby tour. It was an enjoyable if tiring week and I thought I'd use the flight home to reflect upon the experience.

Prepare (to be flexible)

I'd made several attempts in the months and weeks leading up to the tour to try to work out exactly what they wanted from me in terms of S&C.  As time progressed, it became clear that things might be subject to change. Even on arrival, as we discussed the week ahead with the helpful reps at Brown's Sport an Leisure, things were shifting. We originally had two slots in the gym, both on the same day.  We managed to secure a third, but that was the day before the double gym day, and the day after both of the sides on tour had their first game of rugby. So in addition to a lack of clarity on the exact calibre of individuals I'd be working with, there was also uncertainty around the the condition they would be in.  All that was clear was that the timetabling was far from ideal.
The ISZL Junior Varsity Rugby Team preparing for their game in Seville
The ISZL Junior Varsity Rugby Team preparing for their game in Seville

In addition to delivering the gym sessions with them, I was also in charge of getting them prepared for their games and training sessions. The first session a great time to assess what I would be working with. I think that warm ups not only serve as a great way to do this, but can provide insight into the character strengths of the group. When you set them a novel physical challenge, how do they respond? Who gives it a go no matter what, who doesn't even attempt it?  This week I used Dan John's 'get back up' warm up for part of the first warm up. It requires minimal instruction, and as well as a good laugh, when you ask 33 adolescents to do a straight arm plank with their arms behind their back, you start to see who the more determined and creative really are. Unsurprisingly, there was a real mix of physical and character-based competency in the group.

By the time we reached their third and final gym session of the week, they were all physically quite tired and mentally exhausted. It was a hot day and so I moved the session more to a theory based one. I took them through some of the considerations of a warm up, the basic movement patterns of the human body and how they might construct a workout when they next go to the gym. To test their learning, we challenged them to take their own warm up the next morning. I was pleased to say that they delivered a RAMP-based protocol that would bring a smile to the face of even the sternest UKSCA assessor.
With the information available prior to the tour, it would have been hard to plan much more than I did. In hindsight, what was useful however was condensing and integrating an ongoing assessment process into the work I was doing with the boys. Challenging them early and often. Talking to them to find out how they responding. Observing at them at breakfast and lunch and dinner to see how spritely or exhausted they might be. Most importantly being prepared to change and acting on that feedback.

Developing Strength (of character)

Like many S&C coaches, developing strength in those I work with is a high priority. Sometimes however, this might not be in a physical sense. The tour was sharing the facilities at Browns with Leicester Tigers Academy and I managed to sneak a couple of opportunities (via the medium of beer) to talk to some of the guys at Leicester. I was intrigued to know what they looked for in their academy players from a physical standpoint. While not ignoring the basic physical requirements of the game at the elite level, their coach, however referred more to the importance of strength of character as something they look for in their players. A goal of the tour was for the boys to develop as rugby players. I think many of them did. As a group of highly priveleged individuals however, several of them also had a lot to learn about independence, humility, and respect too. As a rugby team, at their level, arguably these qualities might be even more important than their physical prowess when if comes to team performance.
The ISZL Varsity rugby team completing their warm up under flood-lights
The ISZL Varsity rugby team completing their warm up under flood-lights
To me, the gym environment is as much a place to learn about these character strengths as it is one's physicality. This I think was exampled well with their first main session in the gym. I had a sit down with the boys at the beginning of the session in to find out what they did when (if) they went to the gym. As you can imagine, many of their responses were characterised by bicep curls and precious little consistency in rep schemes or attendance. When I asked them what they wanted to get out of the sessions, they said they wanted to learn how to bench. Running with it, I asked them how many pressups they thought they could do. One responded with forty, many with 15-20. Then a student came out with 'he means the ones he showed us' (i.e. proper ones). At which point many of the students revised their estimates downwards by 10-15.  I then asked them to get into a straight arm plank, cueing them as necessary to reach a good position. Once they were all in position, I stood there, just calling out small adjustments to individuals who started to deviate from good form. Within a minute more than half of them had dropped to their knees. Some of the bigger and older boys in the team were also somewhat upstaged by their significantly younger counterparts. The exercise was not meant to be humiliating for anyone involved and I don’t think it was. They were all tired, and many of them struggled. Having bonded well throughout the week, it was great to see a healthy dose of humility amongst them. I think in that moment they began to learn the principle of 'earning the right’ and what it really means to ‘leaving your ego at the door’ They certainly won’t have gained much of a physical stimulus from the session, nor would I have wanted them to considering their timetable.

Creating a culture and opportunities for growth

As I’ve alluded to, a big part of the tour was about creating and exposing the boys to an environment in which they could develop. I have to commend my brother and Mark Newman for bringing it all together. But as good a job as was done on this in clearly explaining what was expected of each and every one of them, outlining the tour ethos and providing ample feedback, some individuals were just not as ready as others. Everyone’s personal journey is not something that cannot be forced. I think its entirely natural for any coach to want the best for their charges, but the bottom line is, some either lack the self-awareness or confidence to take the first steps on that journey. It has made me reflect upon in my own sessions that I coach, am I doing my best to culture an environment for the development of those that I work with. I know I can do better, and it will be something I will be working on over the coming sessions, weeks and months.
Huelva rugby team wanted to take this photo to support Alberto Aláiz - a Spanish rugby player who suffered a serious spinal injury this month playing the game he loves
Huelva rugby team wanted to take this photo to support Alberto Aláiz - a Spanish rugby player who suffered a serious spinal injury this month playing the game he loves. To me this is what rugby and sport is all about.