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Coaching insights on the practical implementation of competition strategies – Part 1 | Coaching Adults | ConnectedCoaches

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Coaching insights on the practical implementation of competition strategies – Part 1

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Chris Chapman and England women's team 2017

The World Cup represents the pinnacle of a player’s, and coach’s, career. We go inside the inner circle of the England women’s rugby league team in this detailed, step-by-step account of high performance coaching, revealing the thought-processes of head coach at the tournament Chris Chapman (front row, centre) as he reflects on the 2017 showpiece in Australia.

England players experienced the full spectrum of emotions during the course of their 2017 Women’s Rugby League World Cup adventure in Australia, which culminated in defeat by three-time champions New Zealand in the semi-finals. 

In this two-part Question & Answer blog, we track the team’s progression through the tournament through the eyes of ConnectedCoaches Community Champion Chris Chapmanin his final competition as head coach.

We examine the whole coaching process – from the planning and preparation that was done prior to the World Cup, to the pre-match and post-match coach delivery methods employed during the showpiece itself – to provide valuable insight into the world of high performance coaching. 

We discover how the coach’s thinking and decision making impacts on these processes and routines inside the camp, touching on such topics as performance mindset, periodisation, building a collective model of performance, rebuilding confidence, and psychological techniques used to channel and minimise the pressures of tournament rugby. 

How much planning and preparation takes place prior to the tournament and how much during a tournament? For instance, how much will you alter your coaching methods on a game-by-basis depending on the quality and playing style of the opposition? 

‘The challenge within a World Cup environment is it’s very different from domestic coaching. You don’t get regular contact with the players. And probably quite unique in a contact sport, you play every three days, so to a very tight schedule. So preparation time prior to a tournament is very important and you have to believe you have the right things already in place. 

‘My belief is you operate a strength-based approach to your coaching, where you work on the positive strengths of those you coach, who represent the best players that are available to your country at that time.

'We do have conversations about areas of improvement, or what you might term weaknesses but, especially because it is such a short-term turnaround between games, we tend to spend the bulk of the time between matches focusing on the players’ strengths and maximising these from an individual and team perspective. 

‘The simplest analogy to help you understand why we do it this way is to imagine you are at school and sat in a classroom and a teacher gives you a really hard time because you don’t understand something and are struggling. You are slumped in your chair, you can’t wait to get out, you’re angry with the teacher, your brain is going off, you have negative self-talk, you’re not thinking straight. Now imagine you are sat in the same classroom with a different teacher, who is telling you how good you are, how well you are working and how much effort you are putting in. All of a sudden you are up, have more energy, feel more confident, sit differently in your chair, want to learn, like the teacher and are in a different headspace entirely. And ultimately as a coach, that is our job: to get players in a positive headspace. 

‘The other big challenge we have is that we don’t play southern hemisphere sides other than at major tournaments, so you have no real idea of who you are going to be playing against. The profile of the Australian game in the last 12 months has helped us in the sense that we get to see some video now, which we previously haven’t had access to, so we have the opportunity to analyse players and their style of play. This helps us create a model of performance of how we want to play and how this will be effective against our opposition.’

England women's rugby league

You kicked off the tournament with a 36-8 win over Papua New Guinea. However, next up were holders Australia, which culminated in a 38-0 defeat. What can you do to rebuild confidence after a heavy loss in the early rounds of a tournament? What process did you follow? 

‘There are a number of factors that influence how you go about getting your players to go again. We will consider how we develop our style of play and then link those development opportunities to the various practices, games and activities that we put together in our training sessions. 

‘Ultimately, everything links back to our model of performance and the collective philosophy of why we do what we do – which the whole team including the coaching team [comprising assistant coach, strength & conditioning coach, physiotherapist, team manager, doctor] – has bought into. Everyone has provided their own insight and experience and understands why each principle has been put in place. Nothing is done if it doesn’t add value to our common purpose. 

‘So after a defeat, any development of strategies, tactics and techniques that we work on in our session planning will be aligned to our underpinning model of performance. 

‘The first piece is the review phase. Whether successful or not, we will still review the game, identifying whether the key facets of our model of performance are in place. We had quite a tough tournament; physically we struggled, which is one of the things you can’t always factor for. But we showed the players on video that there were opportunities to beat and challenge the opposition in key areas. I select the team so therefore the challenge is on me to make sure those players are ready to be able to perform at that level in the next match and are confident to execute the game-plan we have agreed.

‘Once the performance has been “put to bed”, the preview of the next opposition begins. It’s our role to identify how they play and highlight what we can bring to counteract them. This isn’t about simply telling, it’s creating the edits and asking questions to encourage the players to identify the most effective way to play. An important part of the preparation is the language that we use in field sessions to emphasise key messages and game-plan and the ‘tip sheets’ that we provide to support those key messages. The language and strategies may subtly change but everything we do is about remodelling that model of performance, but with such a tight turnaround it is a case of making tweaks rather than major changes.’ 

In terms of pre-match routine, how do you manage the players’ emotions and nerves? Do you encourage them to display or rein in their emotions? 

‘Before the tournament, we spent a lot of time looking at how you prepare pre-match in the changing rooms. We have some young players who are quite hyper in the changing room and some senior players who like to prepare slowly. So we talked to them about how you get the best out of other people, and how what works for you might disrupt other people’s preparations. We wanted them to become more emotionally aware of how to help other people become the best that they can be.

‘We also worked with a group of players for whom pre-tournament anxiety was identified as a potential barrier. So we sat down with them and broke their anxieties down into smaller aspects that they can control, prepare for, or simply think differently about them. So some little things that we do: We always go to the venue in the days before, to familiarise the players with the stadium and get them used to the changing rooms, so when they come off the bus they know where they need to walk and understand the lay-out; we remove all the things that might be a distractor or a worry to somebody when they arrive. So the changing room layout is always similar and they know what to expect. 

‘Traditionally, within the domestic game, players have a warm-up and within three minutes the game is under way. The tournament pre-match routine is different to matches at domestic level. You go out; you warm up; you are on the clock, so you’re allowed on the field for only a certain amount of time. I then have a short period of time with them before they go into the tunnel, are moved into a holding area before they are guided out and the national anthems start. If you’re playing the Cook Islands or New Zealand they may have the Haka or a cultural variation. 

‘The reality is, they come off after the warm-up and there is 16 to 18 minutes before kick-off, so you don’t want them to waste that energy or focus. So our warm-up is kept low-key, with less physical aggression if you like because we don’t want them using emotional energy too early (over arousal). Back in the changing rooms I only have three minutes with the players, where I will revisit three key messages – one focusing on attack, one defence and one about transitions 1 . The reality is that I am reminding them of things we have discussed in the build up to the game. Then I pass them onto the captain. 

‘As they walk back out they are in their own chill time. Regarding the national anthems, we talk – particularly with those new to the international stage – about how to use that time. When the opposition anthem is being played we tell them to spend time focusing on their family and what it means to them to be here, and celebrate the fact that they’ve earned their shirt. And when we hear our anthem we want them to focus on what they have to do in terms of their roles and responsibilities. Each individual has their own tip sheet, including aspects around their role, their expectations and how that fits into the bigger picture.

‘They are all individuals and some things work for one that don’t for another. I changed a little thing I did in the first game for the second game and a player told me she really needed it. It was only a simple, yet personal note from me to the player on what they bring to the team. So that particular player received one each game.

‘We encourage them to use positive self-talk and to use imagery to recall previous moments when they were at their best, as a way of managing their mindset going into kick-off.’ 

How much did the narrow 22-16 defeat to the Cook Islands in game three damage the players psychologically? What communication methods did you adopt to restore their belief?

‘In terms of the Cook Islands defeat, we were probably expected to win as the more experienced side. We started exceptionally poorly and were 16 points down. Half-time was a tough discussion, which was basically, “Do you want to play for your country or do you want to perform for your country”. We went back to some basics, about knowing your role and concentrating on doing your job well. We talked about areas of the game-plan that we had identified prior to kick-off and the fact that we weren’t executing it. The second half came and we scored 16 unanswered points. Then it was a classic case of scoring with about four minutes to go and thinking we had done enough to get a ‘draw’, we switch off, and they score with 18 seconds left on the clock.

‘From a psychological point of view, we are in a performance environment, so the players knew they had not performed. There’s no point shouting and balling after it’s done. There was some quiet time to reflect. I need the space as well to work things through about my performance. Sometimes the coach not saying anything lets players know exactly how they feel. Some players felt the need to speak to other players and remind them of what it means to play for your country.

'As a team we sat down and had what we call a “circle”, a meeting in confidence between just the coaching staff and the playing staff. Lots of teams have it, where everyone says exactly how they feel, about their performance and other individuals, about the team or about the preparation. I think it’s important as a coaching staff you start that off, so I held my hand up and talked about some things I didn’t get right on game day. This is important as, for me, we need to be honest and if things aren’t said then it’s a distractor, they “eat away” at the team when you need to be moving on. They can be the start of cliques. So that enabled us to put the defeat to bed.’

You can read Part 2 here, where we delve into the coaching methodology behind managing players’ mindsets and discover how to combat the disadvantages we face as a nation in terms of our geographical location and genetic make-up.

This blog is also available as a podcast on a number of platforms including Itunes. Listen here.

1 This echoes the views of Dave Turner in our blog on the World Para Athletics Championships and the coaching methods he used to great effect with gold medal-winning javelin thrower Hollie Arnold: keeping a clear and simple line of communication in times of high anxiety. ‘The role of the coach on the day is… simply reinforcing the work you have done previously and reiterating those tactical and technical points discussed prior to competition. It’s all the hard work that goes before that makes this approach possible. You don’t want to fry the athlete’s brain by deviating from the plan and passing on different bits of technical information. You could overload them and they might lose their discipline. You should only work on one, maximum of two things in a competition, and that’s it.’

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