March 10, 2016

X-Factor Players - How to manage them

Written by:
Dan Ritchie

We have all had those coaches when things don’t quite go to plan; get upset; actually that’s every coach.

"Don’t throw those silly flick passes, that wasn’t the option there, reduce the high risk plays!"

When I was younger I used to get rather frustrated when players in my team would have what I referred to as 'brain snaps' and do something that made things difficult for the rest of the team. Most of these brain snaps would revolve around giving avoidable penalties away, kicking the ball away or an unforced error.

As I got older and (in my opinion at least) matured; I realised that opportunist players were a diamond amongst the rough, in order to have a good chance of winning you needed players who possessed that ability to make something out of nothing – a bone jarring hit, an off load or break the line at will; some days it was their day to shine and others were just off days.

I have watched coaches berate players for throwing cut out passes, flick passes or chip and chase plays. Some of these sprays were warranted given the context of the match, however others, when thinking back, were probably not warranted. Playing for restrictive coaches can be one of the most frustrating elements of sports. By restrictive I mean coaches who coach the flair out of players by specifying their every play and movement on a field. Personally I believe this approach is not only completely misguided but also detrimental to the team, it is certainly not fun. Every team needs that player with X Factor; you have to take the good with the bad with some players.

I once heard legendary Australian Rugby Coach Alan Gaffney say

"the day I coach the flair out of a player is the day I stop coaching".

Some players are born with an ability to carry a ball in one hand, some players have grown up kicking and chasing for themselves in a backyard since they could walk, some players possess size and strength to be able to break a defensive line regularly, coaches have got to tap into these features of their players.

In a preseason game I played not that long ago, we lost our 10 quite early in the game to injury. We had a young 12 who was quite skilful who I considered to be an X Factor type player who moved into 10. We were lucky enough to have one of the quickest players in the competition on the wing. The new 10 had noticed the winger was standing on the 15m line with only his opposite number in front of him. He then proceeded to throw a long pass to hit this winger. Unfortunately the pass was not as accurate as we’d all hoped and went over the sideline. As his team mates, obviously we were frustrated the pass didn’t go to hand, but we patted him on the back, said ‘head up, back luck mate, idea was right’. This winger only needed a few cm to skin his opposite number, having 15m to toy with his opposite number, you’d back him almost every time to get round his opponent.

It amazed all of us to find next play, our 10 had been dragged off within minutes of this error. This player was obviously fairly upset with this series of events; what we found out later was that he had never played 10 before, his confidence had clearly taken a shot in the arm. A brash reaction from a coach who could have taken a few moments to analyse what his player was thinking. Coaching the creativity out of a player reduces the try scoring opportunities immensely. Yes there will be errors made, but aren’t making mistakes a part of learning and growing?

Cricket captains often talk about creating chances to take a wicket. Without creating pressure, you can’t create wicket taking chances and therefore taking wickets becomes harder. Creating chances to score tries surely builds more confidence than playing a conservative style where players are too scared to take chances for fear of being berated, replaced or dropped. Confidence and positivity is infectious in a team environment. Coaches have to foster an environment where players are confident in their skill level to try things. Playing a style that allows players to try things and back themselves I believe comes down simplicity. A team that plays a highly structured style of play might feel they are extremely organised, but are the players really learning anything or improving individually as players? My answer is no, because they are not learning to think for themselves or able to identify opportunities when they arise.

When kids play in the backyard, in a local park or on the school oval at lunchtime; do they sit there and plan a structure or pre-empt set plays? When students at a boarding school play their two hour games of touch before dinner, they certainly don’t sit there and discuss their style of play. Anyone who sits and watches these kid’s games of touch can vouch for the natural flair that exists from these players. They try 20m cut out passes, chip and chase kicks, flick passes, reverse spiral passes because they are in an environment that allows them the freedom to do so. These same kids are able to perform these skills in competition games because they spend hours and hours practicing in their marathon games of touch.

While not losing sight of the fact that a lunch time game of touch is vastly different from an organised 15-a-side competition game, I believe there are elements we can take from the ‘backyard footy’ mindset when training. Taking the time at training to allow players to practice flick passes or cut out passes or conditioned games where players are able to kick and chase for themselves could be the difference between a player winning you a game or at least having the confidence to attempt to win the game or not.

For the coaches who laugh or find this approach simply ridiculous, I’ll ask you to remember this theory the next time you concede a try from either a cut/flick pass or a chip and chase.

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