Tuesday, 12 October 2010
One answer appears to be the fact that traditionally we in this country tend to introduce full contact into mini-rugby at Under 9 level and the solution, it is suggested, is to adopt a different approach championed by a certain Gary Townsend, who also happens to be the RFU's player-development manager.
Townsend is running a pilot scheme in Hampshire, Warwickshire and Durham, which he believes will not only improve standards but will also address the drop-off in participation levels within the community game. The idea is that contact should be minimised in a player's early years to encourage players to seek space rather than contact. It's also recommended that Under 9s matches are played seven-a-side and on a smaller pitch.
Intrigued by this approach I decided to do a bit of research (almost like a proper writer!) and discovered a paper written by Gary Townsend for the RFU in 2007 entitled "Game Sense" in which he suggests that we are in danger of overcoaching our youngsters and wonders what would happen, for instance, if we didn’t allow children to participate in any ‘organised’ sport but instead allowed them to just play and to discover for themselves skills of evasion, team work, rules and spatial awareness.
Prescriptive, drill-based coaching, he argues, leads to players who have the skills but don't always know when or how to best use them and that the “I have been coached this way, therefore this is how I will coach,” approach simply doesn't work.
His argument is that children are brighter than we give them credit for and that they are capable of discovering what works and what doesn't with minimal obvious intervention from grown ups. Although a 'Game Sense' approach still requires careful thought and planning by coaches, the emphasis is very much on encouraging players to find solutions for themselves rather than spoon-feeding answers from a coaching manual.
Predictably enough, the introduction of the pilot scheme has prompted an outcry from parents and the reaction of many Grauniad readers to the article was quite illuminating. Most were of the opinion that 8 and 9 year olds loved the contact stuff and relished tackling and that all that was required was to teach them proper technique.
This misses the point. Yes, kids (and boys in particular) like the rough and tumble of contact rugby but to an extent they need protecting from themselves. If they can smash through a tackle, when are they ever going to learn how to sidestep, or how create space for another runner. At some point they are going to be stopped by a tackle - what then? Yes, technique still needs to be taught, but if we really want to develop players for the future who are capable of thinking under pressure and making the correct decisions on the field of play, surely they need to be encouraged to solve such problems rather than hide behind their physique.
Southern hemisphere rugby players are brought up playing touch rugby, and it shows. Even playing touch rugby myself in the summer, for instance, I've observed perfectly competent rugby players who haven't the first idea about how to attack space. Removing contact from the equation at a young age is, in my view, a step in the right direction and I wish Mr Townsend the best of luck with his pilot scheme.