Game Sense?

There was an interesting article in the Grauniad last week by Robert Kitson examining why, generally speaking, when compared to our antipodean friends down under, England tends to produce players with a tendency to seek contact rather than space.

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.


Anonymous said…
If there mini rugby had been non contact "when I were a lad" I would definitely not have carried rugby on as a sport as the only thing I have ever been good at is the contact. It was the one sport I felt good at as I did not posess the fleet of foot required for football, hockey, basketball etc. Rugby is a game for all shapes and sizes and is wonderful for the self esteem of bigger people. Take contact out and you lose that and you lose the next generation of props and second rows. It's not all about running through gaps.
Having actually coached a group of incredibly talented boys from under 7 through to their current (full contact) under 10 level, I completely disagree with the author (and Mr Townsend's) view of the root cause of the problem he has highlighted.

To remove contact from the game is not the way to get children to attack space. Contact is an essential part of the game, without with a large section of the heavier and less fleet-footed of the boys in the squad would not come into their own and drift out of the game.

The reason children do not attack space is that they are NOT COACHED TO DO SO. Most mini rugby coaches are weekend warriors who do not have a fundamental understanding or feel for the game and are really only in it to promote the interest of their own boy. As a result they do not invest in their coaching skills and end up coaching what they were coached, and how they were coached, typically route one, up-the-jumper rugby and it shows on the park.

The solution to the problem is therefore not to change the game and risk tossing out the baby with the bathwater but to encourage clubs to invest in coaching their coaches. The RFU Level 1 coaching certificate should be an absolute minimum for an age-group head coach as this course equips even the most novice of coaches with a basic appreciation of what skills young players need and how they should be imparted.

A level 1 coach will know that training 'in the game' is essential as the natural brighness of young players referred to by the author will come to the fore and that young players will draw thier own conclusions about 'faces and spaces'.

Leave the game as it is and address the root cause of the problem...
Anonymous said…
I totally agree with Dalrymple and Anon 1. I think a suitable compromise is to have both touch rugby and contact rugby competitions for kids and encourage coaches to enter their teams in both. A good number of rugby players down south grow up playing both touch rugby and rugby union/rugby league - that could be why we see All Black/OZ front row players and locks throwing 15 metre passes, sidestepping and putting attacking kicks through.
GazP said…
Hi, have been lurking on this blog for some time but never saw fit to contribute so this is my first foray.

As a former inside centre who loved the physical stuff I think there are remenants of truth in all of the comments.

When kids are young there is normally a tremendous discrepency in their physical capabilities. We had a lad at 11 who looked 14. Was bigger & quicker than everyone else and could just run through people to score for fun. By 16 everyone caught up and he was average size and dropped out of the game as he hadn't developed the skills to use if physical dominance wasn't an option. This to me is a microcosm of the overall challenge - if bosh is not enough what next?

That said what makes rugby different is the physical aspect of the game and I don't think it should be ignored even at a young age.

What I would like to see is a blend in the way rugby is coached & played at the U12 level. Have more emphasis on skills, space & continuity - say 75% and 25% on contact drills, tackling etc. I'm sure at game time the laws could be applied in a way to encourage this, there is a precedent at the senior level, its called 7's. Take the general premise of this and apply it at the jnr level. As the age groups progress the ratio can be tweaked so that by the time you hit U15/16 you are close to full rugby with the sensible limitations around scrums etc for safety sake.

I think if we do apply this sensibly by the very nature of the restrictions placed on the training & games coaches will have to develop players who have ball handling, running and space spotting/creation skills regardless of their body shape or preferred position.

One other facet that I think would help would be to train via other sports. I played Gaelic football into adult hood and I think it really helped my rugby. Basketball, rugby league, aussie rules etc as part of actual rugby training would encourage general ball skills & ability to play in broken field situations.

Right, soliloquy over. Will retreat to silent lurking for the next 6 months (much to everyone's reflief)
Nursedude said…
Flanker, I think this an interesting article. Here in the US, we just don't have a well-developed youth rugby system for youngsters-there are a few exceptions, but most American kids don't even get a chance to play until they are in high school or college. I had the experience of teaching kids at my children's school touch rugby...the interesting thing is that they WANTED to play tackle, and it took them awhile to grasp the idea of going to space.

I think there is some truth to over-coaching kids in any organized youth sport. I saw that in a big way when I coached soccer(football) A lot of American coaches I saw discouraged their kids from dribbling-they instilled in kids a pass-first mentality. This led to American kids not being able to improvise with the ball-the kids of African and Latin American immigrants had much better improvisation skills with the ball.

I would agree that an approach with kids doing small sided touch- a long with the physical contact that makes the game fun.

One side note-the kids in my children's classes LOVED the touch rugby. Everybody had a chance to carry the ball and most of the kids were engaged in the activity. Compare that to sports most done in American physical education classes; American football, basketball, softball-where there was either too much standing around and a small number of dominant athletes hogging the ball. After a session of playing touch rugby, these kids all had rosey cheeks and were grinning.
Ciaron said…
One of the major reasons for the lack of contact in younger grades here in NZ, is a considerable size difference between kids of Polynesian heritage and the European kids, and as a result a lot of their parents are pushing them into the round ball game, so look forward to the All Blacks being a lot darker in future.
Andy said…
Hmmm...The idea of avoiding contact is all very well but I'm not sure if I want to see northern hemisphere rugby turn into southern hemisphere rugby.

The ideal of a 20m push over maul beautifully excuted is great ok its not exciting for the casual viewer but most rugby fans appreciate it. Why do we have to follow the southerners way of rugby? Whats wrong with our own method? I don't beleive its that which has given the south more world cups etc
GazP said…
Andy - I'm with you on the beauty of the rich tapestry of different rugby from different nations however I don't think we can point to NH rugby and say its broadly successful.

1 RWC since 87 isn't a good return. Eng were only successful (globally) when they married a broader game with their traditional forward strengths.

I'm all for vive la difference in rugby styles but I would hate to see that be an excuse to retreat to 10 man rugby and having players who aren't rounded footballers
Anonymous said…
My 2 cents worth from one of your colonial cousins...we have non-contact up to age 10 in my area of Oz. The result is however, a lot of timid tacklers at an older level where the size and variation is greater. Injuries and a drop off in players follows. The other rugby code however, which is still far the more popular begins tackling from under 7's. There are other ways to find space rather than blaming tackling and contact.
Dave M said…
I'm on the fence here. I'm now 22 and playing relatively high level rugby for a university first team. If rugby had been non-contact until say 11, I would certainly be a better handling rugby player - my hands being my worst aspect right now. Equally, I don't think the loss of two years of tackling would make a blind bit of difference in the long run. However, would I have kept playing rugby with such a passion? I think not.
Anonymous said…
As a parent of an incredibly enthusiastic U9 player I was disappointed (although not as devastated as my son) when we found out on the first day of the season that full contact was not going to be happening.
We are now at a non-hampshire club and he is thriving!

Popular posts from this blog

Back to the drawing board for World Rugby

Is it so, Joe?

Dylan Hartley retires