The All Blacks proved through the defense of their World Cup that they have the ability to consistently execute core and positional skills under pressure. All players aspire to these levels of performance but as a coach how do you get your players ‘game ready’ by generating pressure in training?
Coaches are tasked with delivering training which provides strong foundations in the core skills, while developing the players’ abilities to make decisions and challenging them to perform in competitive scenarios. You obviously can’t stop a real game and talk through the options so training provides an opportunity to test your players’ performance and decision making before they face their opponents.
While nothing will ever come close to the final seconds of a game with a few metres to go and a score between your team and victory, there are some options which might make training sessions more effective in preparing players for these high stress moments.
Time & space
Pressure is created when a player has less time to think and react so aim to reduce the time and space in decision-making games. Training with intensity and pace can help to develop decision making skills but remember to balance this with slower core skill development work to produce players who can make the right decisions and also have the ability to execute them.
Wales Forwards Coach Rob Howley advocates this approach and it is something his charge George North agrees works for him “I always over exaggerate time and distance so when it comes to a game I’m used to the situation and used to have less time and space to react.”
North’s Coach at Northampton, Alex King, also takes this approach with his players.
“We try and make the training harder than a game so they have to work on those skills in an environment that creates stress. So you have to make training as intense as the game, whether that’s taking time away, adding constraints, changing rules, and focusing on which skills you are trying to improve.”
One of the simplest ways to mimic match conditions is to train ‘tired’ because that is how players will be in the game. This can dictate the order in which you practice certain elements so that you test the players when their energy levels are low. Exhaustion can make vital core skills sloppy and decision making can suffer too. The Sharks Brendan Venter explains his approach to communicating this to his players.
“I like to play a game and explain to players that the more they fatigue, the more they have to concentrate and do the small things correctly i.e. lifting their hands as they catch the ball, get a little closer together defensively and little things like that.”
Dave Hewett, Coach at the Crusaders, says it is not just about when you practice an element during a session but also which session you add it into your planning. “Adding fatigue depends on what day of the week it is. You could purely developing the skills set and executing it before moving on to adding pressure and fatigue later in the week.”
There isn’t just competition with an opponent, creating a competitive environment for starting places on the team can give training an edge. It is an opportunity for a player to show a coach what they can do and as the Crusaders Dave Hewett outlines that brings with it pressure to perform similar to match day in some ways.
“I’m lucky enough to run two full lineouts, at least 8 people including both Hookers. I give one team 10 throws, they pre-call them and walk in and the opposition has to shut them down. Then the other team has their 10 throws. This creates a live pressure situation. You don’t get the atmosphere but you get the pressure of the activity.”
Any training is ultimately going to fall short of a real game as there is nothing at stake. You can try to create a championship winning moment but at the end of training you don’t walk off the pitch knowing you left a title on the field.
Rob Kearney is a player who finds himself under pressure at full back for Leinster and Ireland, and he sees creating pressure in training as something every sport struggles with. “You can’t create that exact moment. It’s the same for any sport, how does a golfer recreate a 6ft putt. It’s about putting yourself under pressure in training and trying to simulate that match situation as much as possible.”
His team mate Isa Nacewa believes that training is about creating the right habits and standards for players and introducing consequences when these are not met. As the coach you have a responsibility to set the standard for what is acceptable.
“If we can demand excellence at training then it’s going to be second nature in the game.
If you see a drop ball in training and you put accountability and pressure on dropping the ball the player will be less likely to drop the ball in a game. I was scared to drop the ball in training and that helped me not drop a ball in a match. If you don’t jump on little things like that it lets bad habits creep into your training which you can recreate in a game.”
Giving players an environment which allows them to experience the emotions and pressures of a game is one which all levels of the game are challenged by, as Conor O’Shea outlined.
“ The consequence in a game is losing. The consequence in training is doing 250s. That is not a yellow card which is 10 minutes that can cost you a game. It’s like a penalty shoot-out in soccer, you can never recreate it but the biggest challenge is to reproduce the consequences that happen in a game within training. I don’t know the answer to it. I’d love to know.”
Gavin Hickie, USA Rugby Collegiate All-Americans Forwards Coach, is a former Ireland A & 7s, Leinster and Leicester rugby player now Head Coach of Dartmouth Rugby. He writes for RugbyToday.com and other publications when not coaching and blogging on lineoutcoach.com