Transitioning from Player to Coach
After an up and down pro career that took in 8 professional clubs, 4 Six Nations tournaments, promotions, relegations, success and failure, a Rugby World Cup, a spell in France, and a Calcutta cup win, I am now turning my attention to coaching.
I’ve spent countless hours spent in meetings, training sessions and games, with and against some of the best players to have played the game and a variety of coaches with a wide variety of philosophies and ideas.
A snapshot of my career
I’ve been involved in professional rugby since the late 90’s, when I made my debut for Edinburgh against Cardiff at the Arms Park. Cardiff won the league that year, and their superiority in skill level, along with speed of thought and movement, physicality and general game understanding was evident in the 80 points they put past us. The Arms Park now has an ultra modern surface, although essentially it is still the same place I made my pro rugby debut back in 1999, right in the centre of town, in the shadow of the Millennium Stadium.
The beginning of my coaching journey
Perhaps it is fitting that the Arms Park is where I am making one of my first steps into coaching, acting as a player/coach for the Cardiff RFC semi-pro side. My other coaching job is with the Newport Gwent Dragons, where I am working as a scrum coach two days a week.
I have seen many former team mates go into coaching after both impressive and under-whelming playing careers. Most have struggled to adjust, and I am no different. The ones who have had the toughest times, have gone in at a high level, with a wide remit. The ones who have made a career out of coaching have been able to start small, and have been supported by experienced coaches.
I am lucky to have Kingsley Jones as a Head coach at the Dragons, and Lyn Jones and Simon King as Directors of Rugby at the Dragons and Cardiff RFC respectively to offer invaluable guidance, constructive criticism and advice with my roles limited to scrum at the Dragons, and set piece at Cardiff RFC.
Learning on the job
In the first few sessions with the players everything is great. As a new coach you have never dropped them or had to point out their flaws during a video session. You are helping with technique, the pre-season sun is shining, and the rugby sessions form a welcome break from the heavy weight lifting and high intensity shuttle running that is the bulk of the work at this time of the year.
You are building relationships with players, they are getting to know you and your terminology, ideas and way of working, and you are getting to know what motivates them, where they want to go in rugby, what their fears are, and how you can develop them to become the best they can be. This doesn’t last forever. As the season approaches the techniques have to be turned into skills. This can only be done by practicing the technique under extreme levels of pressure, normally fatigue, competition, or a combination of the two. Following these tough, often exposing session you need to review them, so that the whole squad can benefit from seeing where an individual could improve. Invariably you get the looks from those at fault that say – “come on Bruce I thought we were mates”. When I got my first one of these I had a moment of realisation – now you’re coaching!
Developing emotional intelligence
Better coaches don’t nescessarily have more knowledge than worse coaches, but they can better get their ideas across, and are superior man managers. Rugby knowledge and understanding is obviously important, but it is nothing with out the emotional intelligence required to help a player understand that the bad news or criticism they are receiving is actually the best way of helping them, or the ability to inspire and develop young men to achieve things they previously thought were out of their reach.
After years playing the sport professionally, my rugby knowledge and ideas are pretty well developed (although I will never stop learning) but what I spend time thinking about and practising now are presentation skills and relationship management. For example I know what drills I want to do, but how am I going to explain them? When I show a clip to the forwards what questions am I going to ask? When I have a one on one review what do I want to make the player think about and understand, rather than what would I rather he did?
I am at the start of a new career, and it has the same challenges that my playing career had when I started that. I have to work hard, develop and get comfortable outside my comfort zone. It could be a short coaching career, it could be a long one, but I will enjoy it while it lasts, and I hope that any players I am lucky enough to work with will be a little bit better as a result of my input.