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Coaching insights on the practical implementation of competition strategies – Part 2

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Chris Chapman

We track the progression of the England women’s rugby league team at the 2017 World Cup through the eyes of Chris Chapman in his final hurrah as national team head coach – examining the group coaching  philosophy and unpicking the big decisions to see how they impacted on the team during their advance to the semi-finals. 

In the first part of our Question & Answer blog with ConnectedCoaches Community Champion Chris Chapman, we learned that planning and preparation prior to a tournament is critical, and how best to modify those plans during the competition itself. 

We also learned that it is imperative any tactical and technical changes are carried out in strict adherence to the team’s underpinning model of performance. 

In this section, we delve into the coaching methodology behind managing players’ mindsets and discover how to combat the inherent disadvantages we face as a nation in terms of our geographical location and genetic make-up. 

How important is recovery in a tournament context, bearing in mind the short three-day turnaround between matches and the toll taken on bodies in a contact sport like rugby league?  

‘Planning recovery time is very important. We knew the bulk of our training had been done before leaving England, so the morning after the Cook Islands match the players went for a further recovery – having had ice baths the night before. 

‘In the video review, we analysed our decision making and discussed the need to be more game-smart and make better decisions more often as a team and individuals, flipping it as a positive in terms of missed opportunities and how we weren’t far off. It was clear on the video that we had the opportunities and if we had capitalised on these the game would have been very different.

'Then we did something that a lot of teams probably wouldn’t have in the preparation for the semi-final: we gave them half a day off. The reasoning behind this was we have a lot of mums in the team, so brought the families in and gave them some down time. We wanted to take the pressure of the players, and allow them the opportunity to relax with their families. They are not full-time players and we felt the rest and return to ‘normality’ would help.  

‘We brought them in the following day and did some light conditioning work, and further skill work with a small group of players, and the following day we just had the team run session, giving them the space they needed to unload, refocus and re-evaluate where they were at.’ 

You were the big underdogs in the semi-final against three-time winners New Zealand, so how do you influence the players’ mindset in preparation for a match the pundits predicted you would lose?  

‘The players didn’t arrive at the World Cup thinking they were underdogs. We arrived confident as a group of people (players and staff) after competing well in the 2013 World Cup, when we lost by just four points to Australia and by 12 points to New Zealand. 

‘From a psychological point of view, we choose to drip feed these elements over a longer period of time throughout the UK preparation and tournament, rather than big one-off hits. By drip-feeding I mean like small team meetings; preparing the senior players to lead on smaller sessions; subliminal little messages that can be revisited on social platforms; meetings with individual players; tasks and activities where players are asked to consider – around their own athlete development – where they fit within that structure (what does that look like to them? how do they make sense of it? their roles and responsibilities).

'All those techniques were used to help build up their mental capacity to go out there and perform in a tournament that was bigger than many had played in before.'

Chris Champan

Does a lack of exposure playing southern hemisphere sides add further psychological pressure on the players?  

‘Certainly a big challenge for our players is that the English domestic competition doesn’t always create the testing environment they need week in, week out. We’ve got some exceptional players but the only time they get to be consistently challenged in all aspects of their game is playing international football. In the southern hemisphere you’ve got Papua New Guinea [who England beat 36-8 in their opening Inter-Group match], Australia and New Zealand playing each other on a regular basis. In the four years prior to the World Cup, New Zealand and Australia played each other 19 times. We played France five times. 

‘Okay, we had to accept that Australia totally outplayed us in our second game, but against New Zealand we went in at half time only 14-4 down, having had two tries not given by the video referee and they’ve had one given. We were in an arm wrestle at that stage. We were starting to turn things around and put them under pressure. 

‘This lack of exposure to regular southern hemisphere teams does put pressure on the players, as they don’t know the players (reputations can be a challenge for some to overcome), the speed of the game, physicality and tempo of decisions.

'Competitive stress is what we all need, as players and coaches. In a performance environment, players need to be exposed to that level of pressure to help them cope with decision making under fatigue and decision making under pressure, which was the area we ultimately struggled with [the Lionesses eventually lost the semi-final 52-4].’ 

So how as a coach do you counteract the fact that our geographical location denies us the advantage afforded our main rivals and work to minimise its knock-on effects? 

‘In every sport where players are competing on the world stage, or travelling abroad on a circuit that involves playing the best opposition on a regular basis, that exposure to high quality competition makes a difference. So, how do you counteract that: by creating the best high quality environment that you possibly can within your own country? That involves bringing together the best players as often as you can. You have to try and replicate the environment for players in training so that the ‘jump’ isn’t too great. 

‘So in 2015, in the early build-up to the World Cup, we developed an extended training squad, and tried to create a positive and safe environment but with some pressure. We invited 24 players to come to training sessions, but nobody was guaranteed a place. There was a core of players who attended, as they were proven consistent performers at international and domestic level, but then we rotated players in, so there was always 24 at training. What that didn’t necessarily do was challenge the top players but what it did do was help us identify the emerging players and help us work out to some extent those who had more resilience. 

‘As the preparations for the World Cup continued we did a number of simple things. We increased the physicality of our training and training load, we increased the psychological pressure and we increased the momentum we played with – the volume intensity – and the decision making that had to be made within our training environment. So we created pressure through that experience. The sports science and conditioning staff were brilliant at tweaking intensity and we combined physical preparation within games, scenarios and constraints. This combined with purposeful practice and technical focus sessions challenged the players.’ 

While bigger does not necessarily mean better, in a contact sport I’m guessing to some extent size does matter? It is difficult to compete against genetics but, as a coach, is there anything you can do to prepare your players for facing opposition who have an advantage in terms of their innate physical characteristics? 

‘We are what we are genetically. When you are playing South Sea Islands teams and Maori teams, who are naturally much bigger pound for pound than we are, then it is a challenge. But I would say we were probably one of the best conditioned teams at the World Cup. Big people can still be fit and may be able to run for a long time but it doesn’t mean to say they are as well conditioned. Our players have probably got much better lean muscle mass.

'So we have to identify the key areas in which we can challenge these teams. One challenge was that our tackle technique had to be very good consistently or we were broken down as a defensive unit.’ 

So would you recommend England players going over to play in Australia?  

‘It’s true we’ve got more men playing in that southern hemisphere competition, the NRL, and exposure to it has seen them find a way to cope with and counteract over time some of the issues we have been discussing. 

‘There are a few female players looking at taking work sabbaticals to go over and play in the New South Wales and Queensland competitions that run from April to August-September time this year, and some in the current squad have expressed an interest in going over to take post graduate studies in Australia, so there are opportunities. But that is almost suggesting that you have to go over there. The RFL are working hard to improve the quality of the competition over here and there are a lot of young 15 and 16-year-old girls who are very good and we really need to keep them in our game. A larger player pool creates more pressure on places in the team, which enhances the domestic competition; this is all good for the international game. 

‘A couple of former Jillaroos and a couple from New South Wales, meanwhile, have expressed an interest in coming over to England but the structure Down Under means they get financial rewards where ours is best described as amateur status with a performance environment.’ 

Chris Chapman

You work full-time as UK Coaching’s Development Lead Officer (Talent & Performance Coaching), undertaking your role with the Rugby Football League (RFL) in an unpaid, voluntary capacity. Bearing in mind the amateur status of the women’s game, does this affect how often you get together as a group? Is it long enough to facilitate the formation of a team culture? I imagine time is a precious commodity when it comes to building a collective team spirit, embedding the required level of technical skills and enabling your drip-feed method of building players’ mental strength to bear fruit? 

‘Contact time is limited. Initially it was once a month and, in the short-term build-up to the World Cup twice a month. And because of the physicality of the sport and the fact they are in competition there is a limit to what you can do on the field, and that’s a challenge. Yes, you would like regular contact with your players (who wouldn’t), and the way we overcome this  is we have lots of individual player meetings away from the camps looking at wellbeing and welfare, physical development, roles and responsibilities.

'I attend their games at weekends and attend training sessions at their clubs. The coaches have been great at the clubs and they also keep me informed of what they are doing and anything they think I need to know about the players so that we can all support them. Obviously, as a volunteer coach working in performance that is something you choose to do, but it can be a heavy commitment on your players too. 

‘In my opinion there is a trade-off as well between being there and supporting your players like that and them having a little bit of space to work it through themselves. It’s not about telling them, it’s about you supporting them and helping them to make sense of it themselves. And some of that can be done more remotely and discreetly. It’s an area I have had to get better at. I wanted to find solutions and help them too quickly. I have learned to step back on a number of occasions and just ask questions or show support while they work through a situation. 

‘But, yes, having the best players exposing each other on a more regular basis from a technical and tactical decision making point of view would be ideal.’

For the record, England’s conquerors New Zealand were beaten 23-16 by the Jillaroos in the final, where sporting history was made – it being the first time ever that men’s and women’s world champions were crowned on the same day at the same venue, as Australia's men completed the double with a dramatic 6-0 victory over a brave but ultimately heartbroken England.

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

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