August 7, 2015

Learning in Good Company - The Six Nations Coaching Conference

Written by:
Bruce Aitchison

The opportunity to attend the 6 Nations Coaching Conference in June was fantastic, the best Continual Professional Development (CPD) I have ever had and I would love to be part of it again. But if not, I’m very privileged to have been once. CPD is only meaningful if it has an impact, I hope this will impact positively on my practice, my coaching vision and the performance of the coaches and players I work with.

The 3 day conference was based around the semi-finals of the Junior World Cup near Verona, Italy. I along with 5 other coaches from Scotland and Neil Graham, the Coach Education Manager at the SRU, were put into groups of 6 with 1 coach from each of the other 5 Nations. As with any CPD, there is the planned learning and objectives but the informal discussions and sharing were also a joy to be part of and I tried to take every chance that came along to engage with the other attendees especially with my roommate, Kenny Murray from the Glasgow Warriors. I enjoyed mixing with the coaches from the other nations and then coming back into the Scottish clique to put the thoughts into context and challenging my current vision.

Seeing my name alongside Gregor's was enough to make me smile!

The first key note speaker was our very own Gregor Townsend. Gregor can now point to a trophy to show that the coaching philosophy and the environment he has developed is successful. Gregor continues to learn and seek opportunities to improve, being a student of Growth Mindset, Gregor rewards effort in his players and staff and sees failure as a chance to learn. Gregor’s preparation for competition values every member, playing and non-playing, management and support staff and the ethos of the group, the Culture, was evident in every aspect of Gregor’s presentation. In my opinion few players or coaches can point to the breadth of experience he has gained. Gregor has played in the amateur and pro eras, he has played club rugby in Australia and Scotland and then professionally in England, France, South Africa and Scotland. He played for Scotland in a 5 Nations Championship victory and was a major factor in the Lions Series win in South Africa in 1997. He has coached with the Scottish National team, been a champion of the Winning Scotland Foundation, learning from leaders in education, business and sport, and is now a Head Coach, able to put all of his learning into practice.

That must be the dream of almost every coach, it is certainly mine. Gregor is still in love with the game and has an enormous appetite to make every day working with players count. I’ve known Gregor for a long time; he was my hero and still is. The responsibility he gives the players to lead, analyse and contribute to the working of the squad seems easier with the time professionals have, but the challenge for me is now to create that opportunity in my situation when I only see the players 3 times a week. That job has started.

We were assigned tasks for the Semi Finals of the Junior World Cup, France v New Zealand and South Africa v England. The Scottish contingent were delighted that we arrived in time to see the second half of Scotland v Australia, although in the 40mins we saw Scotland ran out of steam in extremely hot conditions and lost the match. The atmosphere around the ground was fantastic and the facilities at Calvisano were perfect for the spectators to enjoy the rugby.

England vs South Africa

The groups were looking at the strategic decision making of the teams. My group were looking at the England v South Africa game in particular but every coach took a keen interest in both games. France appeared to have very little answer to the NZ team who were able to boast players with Super Rugby experience. The game plan design of organised chaos the Junior All Blacks exhibited was a joy to watch and the players looked very confident in their roles and had the skills to excel in that pressured environment. The game was entertaining with exciting attacking play and tries that showed NZ as the clear favourites for the title.

The South Africa v England game was one for the purists. It was much tighter and the game plan England put in place worked right up until a few minutes to go when the game was already won, the benches had been emptied and it broke up a bit with South Africa running in a couple of tries to make the scoreboard look a bit kinder. England commanded the set piece, backed their kick chase defence and frustrated the SA team into conceding penalties and trying to play too much rugby in their own half. It wasn’t pretty, but they executed a game plan to win that particular game and progress to the final.

As ever, there were differing views and a lot of discussion afterwards and on the bus on the way back to the hotel. 36 coaches altogether meant every detail was chewed over again and again. I was a kid in a sweetie shop, a very happy boy and soaked up every comment and viewpoint I could.

Jake White spent most of the 3 days with us (even getting a picture in a Boroughmuir hoody!) and gave the 2nd keynote speech. He was excellent company and very open. He showed his love for the game, an immense knowledge of South African rugby from schoolboy to Springboks and started his presentation with a statement I loved and one that I agree with entirely –

Jake White showing the famous Boroughmuir!

“Coach to coach, not to achieve.”

I thought that was fantastic and showed what the focus should be, process and not result. If the process is thorough, then the results will be the reward.

Jake spoke about doing what you need to do to win, as ultimately that is how you are judged. I have dealt with this both as a positive and a negative already in my relatively short coaching career. Jake caused a lot of discussion around some of his methods, especially around some of the former international players. Jake likes to mix things up with what he called ‘random behaviours’, things like making the bus late or breakdown, not having water bottles – all to see how the players react. This would mean that if and when this happened in games or pressured situations, they would have the tools to deal with it. This is an interesting point because a lot of players, and coaches, are creatures of habit. Some players like the same warm up and pre match routine every week, it makes them feel comfortable and they feel they can prepare knowing what is coming next. Others like to be challenged to think in every situation and not have routine in their preparation. My own opinion is that there is a balance to strike, but preparing players for the unseen in training and other manufactured situations is an interesting one moving forward. Although, being a club coach I also feel this is often the case about 10 times a week!

Although Gregor and Jake may appear to be from different coaching planets, they both share positive, vital traits. They both want to win and have found their way to win. I think when you first become a coach you often coach how you were coached. It takes time to mould your style, ethos and practice.  They both empower their players, which is mature skill that is only developed through experience. Jake gives his leadership group a big say in how things run and in the preparation and execution of the strategy. This can only be done by establishing strong relationships and trust between the coaches and the coaches, skills Gregor and Jake show a high skill level and awareness in. Although different personalities, both showed deep knowledge in working with people, challenging those around them and setting very, very high standards.

I made notes until my hand was sore and I felt like I was back in Higher English. I lived, breathed, ate, drank and slept rugby football. I was a very happy boy for 3 full days surrounded by coaches from various levels of the game from very different backgrounds from mine, but we shared many common beliefs and now an experience. We spoke rugby over breakfast, coffee, lunch, dinner and even a couple of quiet night time beers. The atmosphere was tremendous and the spirit of this great game was alive and well, everyone was so open and the invites to see what the other coaches’ club/team are doing were genuine. I look forward to finding opportunities to go out and see them working in their unique situations and continue learning from others.

I attend a lot of CPD and see myself as a student of the game. I drink my juice out of cup with Ross Ford on it and I have an All Blacks lunch box. My daughters know how many points for a try and that both Edinburgh and Scotland play at Murrayfield. They both know that daddy likes to learn and that he wants them to learn too. They also know that Happiness is Egg Shaped, I’ve no idea where they got that idea from.

I can’t wait for the season to start.

Other Coaches in attendance:

Ben Fisher – BT Academy Skills Coach, Kenny Murray – Glasgow Warriors, David Wilson – Kelvinside Academy of Edinburgh and Scotland Age Groups, Callum Forrester – Ayr RFC, Bryan Easson – BT Academy Skills Coach

Also in attendance was Neil Graham, SRU Coach Education Manager.

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