Contributing writer Eamonn Hogan also writes for Rugby Coach Weekly, drawing on his 22 years of coaching experience in England - from the British military to the Leicester Tigers - to his involvement with the USA All American age grade program, where he serves as advisor. Hogan is also a technical advisor to Worksop College Rugby.
As all coaches know, there are many factors that can affect a game, some of which can determine the outcome before the game even begins.
The ultimate example:
It’s a powerful moment, both for those singing Wales’ national anthem and the visitors enduring it. If you were England’s coach, how could you prepare your team for such an experience?
To boot, England had only three players who had played in Millennium Stadium before, and none on such an occasion. Before the game whistle sounded, the Roses reverberated with the intensity of stadium singing their anthem. Aside from the hometown backing, Wales had been involved in four Le Grand Chelem matches in eight years, one of which they lost in the last minute.
I think all of us would say those opening two minutes made a difference in the outcome of that game … But why? Before the answer, let’s add some depth to the question:
In 2007, Conor O’Shea, the former Irish International now Director of Rugby for the Harlequins, was requested to address England and explain the significance of their playing at the home of Gaelic sports, Croke Park. Why?
In 2008, my local rugby club played against the USA U17s. As a mark of respect, I asked the bands from my high school to play both anthems, even though I knew exactly what singing The Star Spangled Banner means to an American at sporting events. I had a strategy for my team to overcome the psychological edge the Americans would get from singing their anthem. Why?
In fact, nearly all teams have a psychological strategy for dealing with a team’s anthem, the Haka, the Sipi Tau, etc. Why?
The “why” is something known as situational awareness. Simply, situational awareness is the ability to recognize events both directly and indirectly related to your situation and the ability to positively deal with their influences.
Take, for example, workers in emergency services. They constantly deal with life and death situations under time and environmental pressures. They are trained to recognise and deal with not only what’s happening in front of them, but also what could happen – for instance, if a floor collapses, or a bystander watching an ambulance crew at work is suddenly hit by a vehicle (As someone married to a paramedic, trust me, it happens!).
And it’s the same with rugby: You may not think games can be won or lost at a Haka or a national anthem, but it's the things you ignore that can come back to kick you in the rear.
This doesn't necessarily mean that you have to experience something first and then fail before you succeed. Just because you have no previous experience with a certain experience doesn’t mean your lessons will be learned in defeat.
As with many things, it’s not that simple. For example: How many times have you turned up for a game and as soon as you see who the referee is, you already know how the game will end? Coaches will prepare to face their opposition – but will they prepare to deal with a biased referee? That’s situational awareness.
Coaching Situational Awareness
I have had my fair share of losses due to biased referees, so a few years ago I incorporated this phrase into my coaching philosophy:
“If I let the referee influence what my team is doing, WE WILL LOSE”
I tailor my coaching sessions to help my team with situational awareness. I will act as a referee during intra-squad matches, deliberately favoring one side. I’ll penalise any 50/50 pass, any ball not coming out of a ruck as lost possession, and any kick chases as instantly offside. I’ll even penalise celebration after a try as ungentlemanly conduct.
The better players will quickly realise what’s happening and begin to strategize the game in their favor. They repeat every call the referee makes to ensure clarity, they lie a bit deeper in attack, they try to offload prior to the tackle area more, and if the ball does end up on the floor from a tackle, they know what placement I am after so it gives me no opportunity to blow the whistle.
As coaches, we can help our players with situational awareness by changing from drill-based sessions into game-related ones.
For example, let’s look at a simple 2 v 1 passing activity. Any player worth his salt can do a 2 v 1 pass in his sleep; yet, in matches, many fail under pressure. In a previous article, I surmised that we don't put players under the same conditions in training that they’ll experience in match play. They aren’t as aware of what is happening in front of them – their situational awareness is poorly developed.
Think of it like this – it is difficult to create a 2 v 1 the way you would see it in a game. They occur through multiple phase play or a missed defensive assignment, and therefore have to be recognized in the heat of the moment. Even if you have practiced until you are blue in the face, it’s likely the players will fail during a match unless you have created game-like scenarios where players can see and execute passes at the appropriate moment.
As coaches, we need to try to create situations to push players outside their comfort zone, forcing them to create coping strategies of their own. Initially, they may fail, but with some guidance, better communication from peers and a little more awareness, it’s amazing the progress you can make.
Returning to the film clip I asked you to look at earlier: How would you deal with that sort of atmosphere as the coach of the visiting team?
There is a comments section below – I would love to see what you come up with!