Thursday, 14 March 2013

King John

Another weekend of brutal attrition, otherwise known as the Six Nations is over. Obviously poor weather was a major factor, but it’s hard to remember any actual rugby that was played in any of the matches. Surely there will come a point when people will start thinking twice about forking out £90 or so when they receive such a paltry return in terms of entertainment? It’s fortuitous that the BBC chose this week to broadcast a documentary on Barry John. Watching those old clips of him play is to be reminded that rugby can be about more than just the use of human battering rams. Here was a player who ran with his head up, always looking for space to exploit. For the sake of the game, let’s hope that there’s still room in the game for such a player. I actually found the programme hard to watch, because I couldn’t believe that such a great player was now living such a small life. If you haven’t seen it, it’s available on BBC iPlayer until Friday 15th. David Donner

The A-Z of Sports Vision - Chunking

If you showed a game of chess to someone who had no knowledge of the game, they would look at the pieces and the board itself and try to make some sense of what they saw. If, however, they were a chess player they might look at the positions of some key pieces, like the queens, and start to see some threats and opportunities. If they were a Grandmaster, they would instantly recognise patterns, focus in on a key area, and possibly see checkmate in three moves. This ability to put a large amount of information into a more manageable form is called “chunking”. The same kind of thing can be seen on a rugby field. The elite fly half doesn't have to look from player to player working out in detail where everyone is in relation to everyone else. Instead, the pattern of play is recognised in their long-term memory. Not only does this give them more time than a lesser player, it means they can then access information about previous actions that have worked in similar situations. They can then access the relevant motor program, which is a set of pre-structured motor commands from the brain to the muscles which produces a coordinated movement. The system is not too rigid, because it allows for late changes in the visual field. For instance, if the fly half has decided to float a long pass out to the wing, he can abort at the last moment if he spots an opposition player about to intercept. Building up these representations in the brain doesn't happen overnight, but takes many hours of experience. This is what practice is for. If you want your rugby backs to recognise overlaps, you need to put them in a series of small-sided competitive drills, some with overlaps and some not, so they recognise them, learn how to exploit them, and also learn how to defend them. To me, this is little more than a statement of the bleedin’ obvious. Yet this week Mike Catt, the England attack coach, said that England are having to coach execution of overlaps because some players are not doing it at their clubs. The decision making and swift-handed execution shown by the All Blacks in recent matches is the standard to which England and the other Home Unions should be aiming. At the moment, they’re a long way behind, and will drift ever further away unless some of the coaching at clubs improves. David Donner