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Learning gets tactical, what we can learn from the Six Nations

This post was written by Geoff Bloom and first appeared on the LINE blog on 6th March 2014.

rugby ballWhile much of England gets ready to don St George’s flag face paint and shout at the TV on Sunday, LINE’s Geoff Bloom, Learning Design Manager and part-time level 2 rugby coach, looks at the similarities that we can draw between the world of organisational learning and the Six Nations.

The fundamental role of the rugby coach is to prepare players to participate effectively and improve their performance. Much of this is undertaken in training sessions and developmental games, but there are a couple of specific skills the coach can bring to bear during the intensity of a match. These are to provide feedback and to help the players to solve problems.

In this context, being a rugby coach is all about observing and tweaking how a team are performing. It’s about performing an extremely fast, dynamic diagnosis of what your team (and the opposition) are doing collectively and as individuals, leading to tactical suggestions, changes and (hopefully) improvements in performance, which will (hopefully) lead to a win. By analysing what your team are doing, you can put strategies in place to change their overall performance, which sounds a lot like what we do in organisational learning.

In learning and development terms, a successful rugby coach is performing constant performance support. Performance support, as I’m sure many of you are aware, is all about providing the support or learning when it is actually needed, rather than in a deferred setting. Coaching in the dressing room prior to a match, or on the training pitch the night before, however, is just in time (JIT) learning; equipping the team with last minute training before they actually start performing.

On game day, coaches are spending 80 minutes trying to spot weaknesses in the opposition or within the team, planning substitutions, passing messages and trying to focus on the two or three things that a player can take in during the heat of battle. An opposition player covering an unfamiliar position might be targeted, there may be a request to the referee (via the captain of course) to watch out for a regular infringement or a tactical substitution of a limping back or a tiring forward, or simply a player with a different attacking or defensive strength.

Research conducted by a team of French, Australian and UK academics, working with 6 elite French teams, including Internationals, identified the following effective performance support coaching behaviour that coaches used during matches:

• Don’t stick to a rigid, predefined in-match strategy – adapt your communications to specific situations and events that occur during a match, particularly when these present opportunities for your team.
• Reflect on your in-match communications the day after a game (or as soon as possible). This will help you understand what you did, why you did it and what impact it had on your players. Ultimately, this can help you prepare for similar situations in future matches.
The study also recommended actions that could help improve these elite level coaches’ in-match communications. These included:-
• Using gestures to communicate with players during the match, rather than shouting or calling.
• Nominating individual players to receive instructions during specific points of the match (e.g. in rugby union, the hooker may take all messages that relate to the line-out from the coach).
• Giving players feedback that reflects their performance – while the coaches in this study gave mainly positive feedback, when negative feedback was given regarding technical errors they had made, players’ performances subsequently improved.

Now obviously these make sense in the heat of a short, intense rugby match and probably represent a particularly intense form of performance support, but do any of these actually translate into useful techniques in the less frenetic world of even the most pressured workplace project?
Well, with a bit of translation, I think they do.

What can this mean in terms of tactical learning interventions designed to help the organisation win the game?
Keep interventions:
• Short
• Simple
• Adaptive
• Relevant
• Performance related

By the way, you probably realised that I didn’t try to adapt: Using gestures to communicate with players during the match, rather than shouting or calling – but even that element could be reinterpreted as “use visuals wherever possible!”

In explicit terms, a mobile app can be considered a tactical intervention,which tweaks how an individual is performing pretty quickly, while an organisation adopting an app authoring tool can be seen (in this context) to be adopting a coaching stance, helping to provide many of these tweaks over time, leading to a bigger, dynamic change (which in the world of rugby, would equate to better play and more wins).

Thinking ahead to Sunday’s game, considering how England and Wales have played both so far, we can get an idea of the loose strategies Stewart Lancaster and Warren Gatland will have in place. England will be looking to avoid Wales’ midfield strength by distributing the ball, while Wales are likely to avoid kicking the ball, maintaining possession and neutralising the England back three. As we mentioned above, this won’t be rigid, and injuries and the referee will have a big impact on how the teams play, and more importantly to us, how the coaches will react.

Sports coach UK Research Summary 6: Communicating with Players during a Match (2014) which summarises research from MOUCHET, A., HARVEY, S. and LIGHT, R. (2013) ‘A study on in-match rugby coaches’ communications with players: A holistic approach’, Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy.