BLOG 5 COACHES CORNER: What comes first? Player Development or Team Performance? A look into how coaches are valued..

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Question – What is it? Answer – A weekly blog exploring and developing the theme of COACHING.

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Written & compiled by:

Nathan Moore: BSc (Hons) Sports Science, P.G.C.E
Founder of NM Sports Performance,
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BLOG 5 COACHES CORNER: What comes first? Player Development or Team Performance? A look into how coaches are valued..

I’m going to take a break from the technical side of the game for this week and look at the question that can plague any coach… Do we develop our players in our club training? Or do we HAVE to win everything just to keep our job and therefore only fix what went wrong on the past weekend?
I decided to do this after a question from a student in my sports coaching class that I lecture in college, after a long discussion with the class and seeing the variation in the answers I was interested to look deeper into the issue. I myself worked with a Qualifying league rugby club last season and have first-hand experience of the difference of opinion of the development/performance debate. What do I mean by “Development” and “Performance” I hear you ask? Well it essentially is formulating a coach’s ethos of what he is trying to give to his team and what he is trying to get out. A coach’s ethos or philosophy can change over the years but it is a true reflection on what he/she believes the sport in question needs… A Coach who is interested in “development” would be one who is ensuring his players needs are looked after regardless of previous weekends results, whilst a coach interested in “performance” would not be as interested in his/her players needs, fix only what went wrong in the last fixture and has to get the team to win.
I can see you now, screwing up your faces and saying “Well of course, every coach wants to win so performance is what is the most vital to the club!” and you are welcome to that thought, however let me see if I can show you the reason why the coach with the “development” approach may well be a better bet.
Since rugby turned professional in 1995, the game has changed, and in most cases for the better. Players are getting more conditioned; the game at the top level is being played at a faster pace and generally in a very open rugby format. Irish rugby has changed quite a bit over the last decade and now the expectation of the population is “Grand Slams”, “Triple Crowns” when once it was avoiding the “Wooden Spoon”. We the public want to see a good game of rugby and whilst we still salivate at a well maintained rolling maul and applaud a scrum being taken apart and driven back, the main focus is we want to be entertained! So to put it mildly, we want to be entertained by a good display of rugby, but we also want our team to win and have the expectations that we will win…. Who’d be a coach with that pressure?
So this brings me back to professionalism… not in the top echelons of sport but the attempt of instilling professionalism within grass roots sport. Professionalism at grass roots rugby has hit clubs very hard around the province, since 1995, clubs which once where strong are now holding their own in lesser leagues, others have faded away or amalgamated in an attempt to keep their status. Young school players post 1995 left their schools looking for the best deals and the big clubs could offer “incentives” that other clubs could not. Could this have been the start of a slippery slope for grass roots rugby?
Now in the present day, with the filtering of the top level underage players into the Ulster Academy and those promising players receiving development or professional contracts, grass roots or semi-professional clubs know which school players they can target when summer time comes and it resembles a feeding frenzy as clubs barter and negotiate with these new entrants to adult rugby. So now a club has got their resources for the season it is down to the coach they appoint to pull together a winning side. This can bring in its own problems, senior management hold interviews and then selects a coach on a mixture of their gut instinct, prior experience and promises made of success and winning. But can a coach truly promise success in a short period of time? Or if so, will it be a quick fix or a long term path of success? And how does the coach remain in the proactive approach to coaching and not slip into the danger of reactive coaching?
I like to base my opinions on research, so I decided to send out a survey to the rugby fraternity that I had gotten to know over the 13 years of my coaching. The recipients who were to be involved were players, ex-players, coaches, managers, club personal, male rugby players and female rugby players. I sent out a survey to over 300 people, explaining that their responses were completely anonymous and got a high level of response (approx 150 in 2 ½ days, when survey closed) which I thank you if you took part. The results of the questions were very interesting indeed and if taken in the right manner could aid clubs who want to have sustained success. Five questions were asked:
1. As a player, going to training in the sport that you play, are you more interested in developing your skills? Or ensuring you will win on game day?
2. Does your current coach value your development as a player more important than winning on the weekend?
3. Do you feel that amateur club/semi-pro coaches (e.g. All Ireland League coaches) should be only concerned with winning?
4. Do you feel that coaches are put under pressure by club committee’s and their expectations?
5. As a player, would you rather a coach who would work on developing your skills and improving your game? Or would you rather a coach who only wants to win and focuses on tactics rather than technique and skills?

These questions were asked in an open ended question format and the respondents were able to give details on their answers instead of just a yes or no. So the feedback for the questions is as follows:

In Question 1, I was looking to discover the motivation and incentives for players to go to training and also to see exactly what players were expecting when they got there.

As you can see a large majority of the respondents attended training to work on their skills (76.47%) and many added that it was core skills and improving their mastery of a skill. There were not many who wanted to attend to work on tactics to increase the chance that they would win on a match day. The unsure category were people who were undecided and choose both, in that they wanted to improve their skills but also were looking for tactics but found that time constraints made this hard to achieve.
In question 2 I was looking to see what kind of coaches were out there at the minute and was again intrigued by the responses I received.

It would seem that there is a close enough split between coaches who want to develop the player and those who will conduct a session in an attempt to win, while ignoring the players own development. When I say ignoring the development, I mean focusing on skills that were weak on the weekend and not the overall holistic skills of a player (core skills). The larger undecided category were respondents who believed that their coach was actually doing both. It must be noted that as there were female rugby players in the selection, it could be argued that their coach would be looking at development of a player due to women’s rugby being a relatively new sport to many of the players.

In question 3 I decided to investigate whether the players or the wider rugby fraternity believed coaches should be under the frame of mind of “win at all cost”. I deemed semi-pro coaches as coaches who are receive financial assistance for their services and hence why an example of All Ireland Rugby was used, but this could be applied to some Qualifying 1 and 2 clubs as well.

As you can see a high percentage of people said that they felt the coach should not be results orientated and only concerned with winning. Whilst winning is obviously important to the players, coach and club it is apparent that people do not think it is that important in anything less than professional sport.
The next question asked was probably a very risqué question and one that will more than likely have my name banned in all rugby clubs in the province, but before you chase me out of your clubhouses, remember that I am only curious to see what the rugby fraternity are thinking.

The over whelming response (79.41%) of people believe that coaches are under pressure from the club committees with expectations of the season. Some remarks that were made were that committees are believed to set coaches unrealistic goals and targets which increase the pressure on the coach.
The last question was again about the players would actually want from their coach at the clubs training sessions.

A large percentage (58.82%) ideally like a coach to work on their skills and develop their individual skills however there were a large number of undecided responses which were interesting to see and a large amount of these went on to explain that it depended on the level they would be playing at.
So what does this all mean? To put it mildly all parties in a club would seem to be pulling in different directions… Players want to improve their skills and coaches are seemingly trying to do that but within the confines of what the club committees would permit. First and foremost, must come the win it would seem, and that undue pressure takes its toll on the coaches which will then be transferred onto the playing squad. As a teacher, the first thing you learn when you go through your teaching practice is that the students and young adults can easily work out your mood and the behaviours of the group can change depending on what that mood is. A stressed coach can erupt quicker on the training paddock if the results are not going their way, pressure is coming from above and at times this eruption can have an adverse effect on the playing group, especially on a slump.
So why then do clubs not request the services of a coach for at least a minimum of a couple of years so that structures can be put into place to develop the individual playing skills and tactical knowledge of the players. Most AIL or Qualifying 1 clubs only train twice a week… It is not like professional rugby or even schools rugby where the exposure of the players to the sport is pretty much daily… So any new game-plan introduced to a club by a new coach, will take longer to sink in and be adapted by the players, as the exposure of the progressions only happen twice a week and only if you are lucky to get the same individuals there week in week out. Personally I believe that a coach could really only deliver long term success for a club over a course of 2-3 years in charge as head coach. It allows the coach to look at the way the club recruits its players, the way players inter-change through-out the senior rugby teams and indeed the transition from a youth team if they have one. Along with this it gives the coach time to implement his coaching structure, game-plan, individual skill development and unit work.
At the end of the 3 years what would you believe the outcome would be? A club that is worried about losing their star players the following season and what this future may hold? Or a club who knows that the players they have are improving and the players coming in will only strengthen the squad?… In 5-6 years this club will be one of success and losses will be few and far between. There is one club in Ulster which springs to mind which has the plan rolling out and is thriving in playing numbers. So if club committees need to be convinced then a glance in their direction only needs to be done.
So the question at the start of this article was “What comes first? Player development or team performance?” and what were my own thoughts… I think you all now know the answer!

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