Thursday, 13 October 2011

Train As You Play

England’s early exit from the rugby World Cup was all too predictable, especially as most of their play has been, well, all too predictable. There are the usual calls to sack the manager, sack the board, drop this or that player, but I suspect the problems with English rugby go rather deeper, and I was reminded of a story my son told me a while ago. My son went to a very traditional prep school. Both academically and in sport, the boys were divided in the elite and the rest. This produced some outstanding results, both in terms of scholarships and in winning matches. But it didn’t necessarily bring out the best of those outside the elite. Fortunately for my son, he was strong academically and a reasonable all-round sportsman. But in rugby, he was not quite strong enough to train with the elite players on the playing field. Here, the boys were drilled endlessly, so the backs could pass the ball down the line with dazzling speed and immaculate handling. Instead, my son was with the rest in the Council park, where there was very little coaching, and the main aim was to try and get them to burn off as much energy as possible. And this is how my son learned to pass the ball to his left, but never to his right. One day, however, he was told to join up with the elite players, where he found himself playing centre in a practice match. Sure enough, he soon found himself with a problem as he received a pass from his left. He couldn’t pass left as there was nobody behind him. And he could pass right because…..he couldn’t pass right. So he did the only thing he could do, which was to run straight ahead. After a few strides, he looked up to find there was nobody anywhere near him, and ran in unopposed to score a try. All the other players had assumed he was going to pass down the line, because that’s what everyone else had always done. Afterwards, the headmaster came up to him and asked “How did you learn to sidestep like that?” Of course, he didn’t like to tell him the real reason. I saw a similar look of bemusement from the England players at the end of the first half against France. Jaws open, looking at each other trying to work out what was going wrong. I suspect that the plan was to sit back, let Johnny knock over a few penalties, and wait for France to self-destruct. This wasn’t an entirely unreasonable game plan, given France’s recent history. But it was fatally undermined when we donated them a load of points at the start. (Out of all the coaching staff, isn’t there someone who knows the laws, preferably with refereeing qualifications, who can coach them how to play without infringing all the time? If necessary, get them to practise with a “fussy” referee). And when things didn’t go exactly to plan, it all seemed to fall apart. Passes were thrown to the air, to the ground, and on more than one occasion to players who weren’t expecting it. They look like a team for whom every effort has been made to make them feel comfortable, from first class hotels to rigid game plans. As soon as a side takes them out of their comfort zone, they don’t know what to do. And I think this starts early. Writing in the Sunday Times recently, Stephen Jones talks of players as young as 12 being sucked into county and then national representative sides where all the emphasis is on preparation and endless drills rather than just playing. They don’t learn the skills of probing for an opposition’s weakness because they don’t play an opposition often enough .Their play becomes blinkered and formulaic. Of course, if they were coached from a sports vision perspective, they’d be encouraged to see what’s really happening on the field, and react to it instinctively. Do we have coaches who could do that? David Donner

Olympic Countdown - Canoe Slalom

Canoe slalom provides an excellent opportunity to study the use of imagery in sport because competitors are not allowed to practise on the actual course before a competition. Research (MacIntyre & Moran 1986; White & Hardy 1998) has shown that imagery is regularly used in both training and competition by canoe slalom participants. MacIntyre, Moran and Jennings (2002) have even suggested that elite performance in canoe slalom could be related to the ability to use imagery, even though it didn’t distinguish elite from intermediate groups. MacIntyre & Moran (2207) studied 12 canoeists, all of whom had finished in the top 10 at either the World Championships or Olympics, with more than half being medallists. What was surprising was the range of things they used imagery for. As well as being used to learn the course, imagery was employed as part of their pre-race routine, to review their performance after the race, to imagine how they might overcome particular difficulties during the race, to imagine how they might adapt another competitor’s actions to their own performance, to learn new techniques, to remember previous successful performances as a way of overcoming a slump in performance, to get them in the most appropriate frame of mind, and to help when returning to the sport after injury. Sometimes, they were able to imagine what the performance felt like in their muscles, as well as having a visual image, and many felt this was an important element of their imagery. These athletes were able to analyse their imagery to quite an advanced level. They recognised hat imagery could be negative as well as positive, for instance if they imagined themselves making a mistake. But they also devised strategies to overcome these negative images, such as “re-winding” the imagery and “replaying” it without the mistake. Some athletes found that discussing with the coach their imagery of completing the course helped them to overcome negative imagery. In some sports, coaches themselves have used imagery, for instance to imagine what an opposition coach might do in a match. It may be that canoeing coaches are able to compare their image of the performance with the athlete’s. It’s generally recommended that athletes should imagine a perfect performance, but these elite canoeists were more likely to visualise an average performance as a base from which they might try to improve, or maintain performance in more difficult conditions. I think coaches in many sports could learn from this more subtle approach to imagery and visualisation. It would help obtain a more effective review of performance, as well as prepare the athlete for a variety of situations, such as poor weather, or a better than expected performance by a competitor. David Donner