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Keeping amateur rugby players motivated

Friday, July 20, 2012

For most rugby coaches, it’s not the teaching of techniques, defence, tactics and set piece plays that causes us headaches. One of the greatest challenges for coaches, particularly of amateur rugby clubs, is fostering an on-going atmosphere of learning, a spirit of competition, commitment to the club and, yes, you guessed it, the F word...FUN.Nurturing the kind of atmosphere that encourages players to regularly pitch at training and matches day after day, week after week, month after month – because they want to be there, and feel committed to each other and the club. This needs to be sustained both during the long season - pre, regular and playoffs; and over several years for a club to truly be successful and reach its full potential. This is much easier said than done.A global rugby issueAfter playing, coaching and managing in South Africa, I returned to Canada in late 2011. With my involvement in the game in the United States years ago and most recently in SA, I have come to recognise the difficulties of keeping amateur players focused, committed and content is not at all unique to Canada. For the tens of thousands of amateur coaches around the world, the majority will resoundingly agree that achieving this is no walk in the park.  It certainly has not been easy for me this year. The reality is that most clubs are not afforded the luxury of paying players so we have to come up with creative ways to keep them motivated.With only a handful of countries with professional structures where top players can earn a living, clubs from the majority of rugby-playing nations undoubtedly encounter this dilemma – from Vancouver to New York to Barcelona to Windhoek to Seoul. And let’s not forget that 99% of rugby players in professional nations never receive even a Rand for their time and efforts.  On the contrary, players spend their own money – on petrol, fees and kit - to participate in this great sport.The Canadian contextRugby players in Ottawa, and indeed across Canada, play for the love of the game, nothing more. Players are busy with family, school and work – sometimes all of these. They are students trying to save for university tuition with summer jobs, often with low hourly wages, and may have to work overtime. They are also young and not-so-young professionals with deadlines and demanding bosses who are rarely sympathetic to the plight of employees with black eyes, crooked noses and cauliflower ears leaving work early to make rugby training on time.Despite their desire to do so, many of my players are simply not able to commit to Tuesday and Thursday trainings consistently, much to my considerable frustration. But at the end of the day I grudgingly understand it.For some of my players, rugby is just one of the many activities they are involved in. Once upon a time rugby seemed to be the only spring and summer sport for guys like me.  And even if there were other things to do, I wasn’t much interested anyway. Not so today – youngsters are spoilt for choice when it comes to sports and hobbies.And then there are those who simply aren’t committed to the club and the sport, and rock up occasionally for a laugh and a run around at training and a match. Some are complete and utter ‘Loskop’, flying through life by the seat of their pants.It’s frustrating for coaches who spend a lot of time, intellectual energy and care in their planning and selections, only to have half the forwards and one third of the backs not turn up at Thursday training. This hardly does wonders for preparing for Saturday’s match. Players who drift in and out of training and don’t bother to learn the lineout and scrum calls – and often will not inform me that they can’t attend - do my head in. They are quickly making the salt in my hair catch up with the pepper.  I don’t think the same First XV have been available for two consecutive matches this year, which certainly doesn’t contribute to continuity and players getting settled in combinations.Potential solutionsSo what to do? There’s no sense in moaning about it, though it feels good to write this and perhaps commiserate with other coaches out there. In my experience, there are ways of increasing the likelihood of amateur players being as committed as possible to rugby and their club. I certainly don’t have all the answers. And I haven’t got the recipe right yet either. But there are a few tricks of the trade which can be effective.Clearly defined goals and objectivesAll too often I’ve played for clubs where coaches and administrators do not clearly articulate what they want the players, teams and club to achieve. Assuming that players naturally understand they are expected to win every game and the league year after year is a miscalculation in my opinion. If players are given goals and objectives – and even better provided an opportunity to shape them - for the season and longer term, they will have a better sense of why they’re there in the first place. Most players enjoy being challenged in this way and will keep everyone on track.A family affairThe more supportive and involved the family, the more likely a player will remain committed – or be ‘permitted’ by family to remain committed  - to the club. Clubs which encourage families to come out to matches by using newsletters, emails and word of mouth; have fun activities for children such as mini-rugby and inflatable jungle gyms; and organise barbecues and social events are most likely to attract and retain happy rugby players.Argentina is an amateur rugby nation with highly a successful club system because the clubs are community and family-driven. Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and grandmothers and grandfathers often play a huge role in sustaining and growing clubs that are enjoyable for everyone to be a part of.  These Argentinian clubs aren’t successful because they have lots of money – they don’t, they are successful because of the many, many people involved in them, often behind the scenes.Off-the-field fun and bondingHamiltons Rugby Club in Cape Town has coaches and administrators that do everything possible to keep their players unified – during the good and bad times - and having fun away from the paddock. The club organises braais and team-building activities on a regular basis, and the players simply love it. Although a number of players are contracted, ‘Hammies’ has fostered an enjoyable environment, which keeps them – both paid and unpaid players – coming back with smiles on their faces year after year.Break the routineA change of scenery often resonates positively with rugby players. Over a long, gruelling season with sometimes repetitive and regimented training sessions, this can take the wind out of players’ sails. A strength and conditioning session and touch rugby on the beach, followed by a braai, can be reinvigorating for a club that is struggling. These activities can also help maintain positive momentum for a club that’s excelling. It also promotes bonding time for the coaches, players and administrators in a more relaxed atmosphere.Train smarter not harderThe traditional South African rugby ethic of ‘train harder’ is perhaps not always effective when a club is losing matches. A grumpy and venomous coach dropping the hammer on a losing side usually makes the players want to be any place but at training. I’m not suggesting that coaches should not be hard on their players when warranted as it’s our responsibility to bring the best out them. Sometimes a collective kick in the pants is exactly what is needed!But a continuous onslaught of negativity and insults from coaches seldom improves matters. Making a training session more enjoyable with a variety of games and allowing players to express themselves can do wonders for getting back on track, and remembering why they enjoy playing rugby in the first place.Openness between players and coachesThe importance of a strong, open relationship between coaches and senior players cannot be emphasised enough. Open channels of communication allow senior players to express issues which are troubling players, which may be contributing to poor attendance at training and performances on the field. If senior players buy in to what the coaches want to achieve, they can be a powerful unifying force for the club, even during the bad times. A good coach has the courage to solicit feedback from his senior players, even though he may not like what he initially hears.Rewarding hard work and performanceEffective selections management is key to keeping players feeling challenged, motivated and happy. Rewarding players from lower sides, provided they are capable, with selections to First XV spots does wonders for morale and typically brings the best out of everyone. It demonstrates that coaches are taking the time to watch them play and showing an interest in their development. There is nothing more demoralising than training hard and performing well on the field, and feeling unnoticed by coaches.Agreed upon expectationsAlthough I’ve used a Code of Conduct for junior players at Hamiltons Rugby Club, I’m not sure how effective this is for amateur senior clubs. Most of my players are adults – at least in age, perhaps not in maturity! – and do not want to commit to strict rules governing their every move. However, a set of expectations on and off the field are often better received and taken on board. If you have the time, sit down with your senior players in the pre-season and come up with a list of expectations as a group. It will be much easier to implement with their support.Guest coachesAs the season goes on, players begin to tire of the same voices. Heck, I even get tired of my own voice at training so I understand how the players must feel. Bring in guest coaches when you can, especially when you’re not in the process of preparing for big games in the immediate future. The players receive specialised coaching in their positions, combinations and units, and feel like they are learning something that will serve them well. No one expects us coaches to know everything about the game. It’s best not to pretend that we do.The truth of the matter is I love coaching and have grown fond of the relatively young group of players that makes up my club. As much as they try my patience, they are for the most part players keen to learn and improve, and seem to be buying into the important values of rugby which I hope will serve them well in the future in all that they do.I hope this opinion piece will urge coaches, administrators and players in South Africa to contribute their thoughts and experiences on this very important matter. What are your secrets for ensuring that players keep learning, remain committed to rugby and the club, and having fun? By Chris Bjornestad 

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