Thursday, 8 October 2015

Rugby World Cup 2015 - Back Row

All rugby players need to be able to tackle, but the back row probably put in more tackles per game than most other players. So it seems reasonable to talk about the visual requirements in tackling for back row players. These would also be largely the same for other players, though the backs might be more likely to find themselves isolated in a one-on-one situation.

Some of the most common mistakes made in tackling include: planting the feet; not getting close enough; not driving in with the shoulder; tackling too high; and getting the head in the wrong position.

The tackler will take responsibility for guarding a channel, so will be looking out for potential ball carriers running into that channel. Once that ball carrier has been identified, the tackler should immediately switch their focus to the ball carrier’s core area (around the stomach), because where the core goes, the player goes. The tackler might also start visualising the tackle.

“Visualise” in this sense means much more than imagining what something will look like: it’s more about imagining the feel of the shoulder making contact with the target area. An early switch of focus to the core means that the tackler will be able to react to a change in direction from the ball carrier, but the initial visualisation might for instance involve the right shoulder driving into the right thigh of the ball carrier level with the bottom of the shorts. This clear preparation should ensure that the head is safely to the side of the ball carrier, “cheek to cheek”. If the tackler drops their head, or gets it on the wrong side, serious injury could result.

We are all naturally drawn to look at other people’s faces, and this is why tackles are often attempted too high. So in training, it’s important that players make sure that they make this early switch in focus and visualisation each time, whilst ensuring that they do not drop their head.

At non-elite levels, you often see players planting their feet quite wide apart, sometimes stretching their arms out to the side, supposedly making themselves a more difficult target to avoid. But it’s very difficult to get any power into the tackle from that position, and it’s also very difficult to react to any late movement from the ball carrier. The tackler often ends up having to dive to make a tackle. This is likely to be ineffective if high, and runs the risk of their head getting in the way of a stray boot if the tackle is low. The tackler is also vulnerable to the hand off if the ball carrier runs straight at them because they are in such a weak position.

The tackler should aim to get their feet in close to the ball carrier, so it’s essential to keep their feet “active” with small steps. One tip is to imagine a hula hoop around the ball carrier, and if the tackler is aiming with their right shoulder, they should try and get their right foot within that hoop. Another tip when training is to get the tackler to keep their hands in to their chest, and to push against a ball carrier without extending their arms, which again ensures they’ve got in close.

As the ball carrier gets in range, the tackler dips the shoulder (dipping the shoulder too early can expose the head), but it’s still essential to keep the head up. So the eyes focus on the target before contact, and then past the ball carrier when contact is made. The feet must keep moving with small steps to drive through the tackle as the arms close around the ball carrier. If the tackle is made from the side, the ball carrier’s own momentum should cause them to fall over with the tackler on top.

David Donner

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Rugby World Cup 2015 - Props

It is essential for their own safety that props have the correct body alignment before the scrum engages. They can check, for instance, that their back is straight by crouching alongside a mirror, at home or in the gym. They can do this with their eyes closed, and then look in the mirror to see if the correct position has been achieved, and the forces from the players behind will be transferred forward in a straight line.

It can be really helpful to video one versus one scrums, so you can check that they have maintained the correct position on engagement. The players can view it themselves so they can confirm that there sensation of body position matches the reality.

The position of the head and neck are vital as it’s very easy to get into an unnatural position, and serious injury could result. Once the player is in the crouched position, you can get him to stand up straight, but making sure that his head and neck position are unchanged. Do they remain in a natural position? If the neck is unnaturally forward or back it is in an unsafe position.

One suggestion for finding the correct head position is to wear a pair of sunglasses. In the crouched position, you lift your head up until you can just see over the top of them. You check this as before by standing up and seeing if it still in a natural position. 

One technique that can be really useful for props to get maximum power in the scrum is centring. This is a visualisation technique that involves putting the focus on the centre of your body. This makes the player more balanced, and therefore increases power, especially as the focus is on the area where there are larger, more powerful groups of muscles.

Getting into the correct body position is also very important in lifting at the lineout. A common fault is to allow the head to fall forward, so that the arms cannot lift straight up but at an angle, with the resulting loss of power and direction. Lifters also need to make sure that they keep forwards to their fellow lifter. If they look up, they are almost certain to tip back a bit and lose the ideal strong position for maximum lift.

David Donner

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Rugby World Cup 2015 - Hookers

In honour of the rugby World Cup, I thought I’d do a short series on the visual requirements for some of the different positions starting with the hooker.

When people talk of visual requirements, they usually refer to the visual requirements of the player - things like having good visual acuity and peripheral vision. I tend to approach it another way, by looking at the visual requirements of the sport itself.

For a hooker, one of the main requirements is to be able to throw a ball into a lineout in such a way that it can be caught by the intended player on your side, and not intercepted by the opponents. Of course, it’s not always the hooker’s fault when this doesn’t happen, as it’s very much a team effort between thrower, lifters and catcher, and also depends on the ability of the opposition to defend.

One of the main difficulties for hookers is that they don’t actually have a target to aim for. They’re aiming for a space above the catchers head. But if it’s a throw towards the back of the line out, they often have to throw the ball in a parabola to evade the opposition’s catcher in the middle. If that’s someone like Devin Toner, who’s nearly seven feet tall before he’s lifted, that’s not an easy task.

You can get hookers to practise their throwing by aiming at a mark on a post, and that would certainly be better than nothing. But the best way to practise getting the correct trajectory for deeper throws would be to throw the ball through a hoop. The hoop would be set at the height of the opposition’s front jumpers.

I’ve seen this done with a tyre suspended from the cross bar. But ideally you’d want this to be hoop on an adjustable stand, and you’d want a second one set for the height of your tail catcher. The hooker then practises getting the ball through both hoops. This can be done as an individual practice, just with one set of forwards, and as fully contested lineouts.

The hooker should also spend some time throwing whilst blindfolded, giving the brain a chance to concentrate on the kinaesthetic (muscle) feedback with each throw. The position of the hands holding the ball, especially the little finger, must be identical each time (see earlier blogs).

The visual requirements of hooking the ball are minimal, certainly at elite level, because there’s hardly any hooking these days. Put-ins are still as straight as a dog’s hind leg, so it’s more important to push than to hook the ball. I read that Sean Fitzpatrick used to practice with his eyes closed, so he could still hook the ball even if he couldn’t see it because he was pushed out of position by the opposition scrum. Unless or until referees insist on the put-in being straight, I can’t see many people practising that today.

David Donner

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Facing a 90mph Fast Bowler

A recent Test Match Special podcast featured Simon Hughes talking to Jonathan Agnew about batsmen’s eyesight, and in particular how batsmen cope with facing a bowler bowling at 90mph.
Any regular readers of these blogs will not be surprised to hear that elite batsmen don’t follow the ball all the way. In fact, they don’t even attempt to. Instead they make a jump or “saccade” to the part of the pitch where they expect the ball to bounce.
Saccades are nothing exceptional. If you are reading a book, every time you get to the end of a line your eyes will make a saccade to get to the next line. During that period when your eyes are making these jumps, your vision will be blurred, but this is suppressed by your brain so you don’t notice it.
There are several people researching this area in both the UK and Australia, but in my opinion the foremost paper was by Mann, Spratford & Abernethy (2013). They found that elite batsmen make two distinct saccades: the first one to predict where the ball will bounce; and a second one to the predicted contact area between bat and ball. This enabled them to align their gaze with the contact area on 100% of good length deliveries, and 90% of short length trials. By contrast, sub-elite batsmen could align their gaze to the contact point on only 13% of good length deliveries (and 80% of short length ones).

The authors suggest that these saccades don’t just happen because the ball is going too fast to be tracked by the human eye. In fact, Croft, Button & Dicks (2009) found that even when the ball was bowled at speeds low enough to be tracked, batsmen still made saccadic movements to the predicted pitch point. It’s suggested that this enables elite batsmen to use their peripheral vision to concentrate on the path of the ball either side of the pitch point. By observing closely how the speed of the ball varies before and after pitching, as well the bounce of the ball after pitching, they are better able to predict the position and timing of the contact point between bat and ball.

One important distinction between elite and club batsmen found by Mann et al was that whereas club batsmen aligned their eyes with the ball (less saccadic movement), elite batsmen aligned their head with the ball. They use the analogy of a miner’s lamp attached to the head, which would shine on the ball throughout its path for the elite batsmen, but not for the club batsmen. So for the elite batsmen, if they didn’t make any saccades, the ball would stay in the centre of their vision, assuming they kept their eyes still as their head followed the ball.

Even when the elite batsmen do make saccades, their head still stays in alignment with the ball, despite the ball being in the periphery of their vision. The authors describe this ability to couple the head to eth movement of the ball as an “important hallmark of expertise in batting”. This may be related to the fact that there are neurons in the brain that respond to the position of an object relative to the head, regardless of where the eyes are looking. The suggestion is that these elite batsmen can use this information about where the ball is relative to their head to predict where the bat/ball contact will be, so they only need to concentrate on when it will happen.

The BBC website ( contains some suggestions from the likes of Graham Thorpe as to how to prepare to face bowling of 90mph. One suggestion is for the coach to use a side-arm thrower, which is a cricketing version of the ball thrower used for dogs in the park. What’s needed is a smaller version of this that fits onto a bowler’s hand, so the ball can be bowled with a normal action, but comes out much faster (without being a beamer).

Then, the answer to the question of how to face a bowler bowling at 90mph, would be to practise facing a bowler at 95 or even 100mph.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Mind The Gap

A new batsman comes to the wicket. He surveys the field, making a careful note of the fielders’ positions. After blocking a few deliveries, he starts to play some more expansive shots, and hits them, unerringly, straight to the fielders.

From a ruck, the ball is passed to the first receiver who runs forward a couple of steps before being driven back in the tackle by two defenders.

A succession of crosses and corners fail to beat the first defender. When the winger does finally manage to locate his centre forward, the latter isn’t able to generate enough power in his header to trouble the goalkeeper.

What’s going on? The answer is that each player is telling his subconscious brain to pay attention to the position of the opposing players (or his own player in the last example). The brain is then told what skill to execute. The task is then carried out using those visual cues as targets.

Even if you told your brain something like “Don’t hit the ball to the fielder”, the subconscious brain, which doesn’t understand spoken language very well, just hears “hit – ball – fielder”.

The answer, if you’re a coach, is not to tell your players to look for where the fielders/defenders are, but to look for where the gaps are. So a new batsman would survey the field looking for those gaps, and maybe start visualising hitting the ball into those gaps. In net practice, you can put markers on the net to indicate fielding positions. But if the batsman doesn’t seem good at avoiding them, you might want to highlight the gaps between them using coloured markers.

You might also want to remind your players that cricket, rugby and football pitches are pretty large compared to the size of even adults. If they were a bird flying over the ground they would see lots of gaps. So in cricket, if there are few gaps in a ring of close fielders, they need to think about how they could safely hit the ball over them into those gaps. Imagining they were high above the ground looking down might help them.

In sports such as football and rugby, the task for coaches is to get their players to think of themselves as “space invaders”.

David Donner

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

The Problem With Cricket Nets

A few years ago I was umpiring a junior cricket match when a young man came out to bat when his side was in trouble, having lost early wickets for not many runs. He scored a rapid 50, which at least put his side back in with a chance of winning.

You might think I’d be impressed by this innings, yet I felt it encapsulated what is wrong with a lot of traditional coaching. Because whilst there were a lot of impressive strokes to the boundary, there were also a lot of horrendous misses and streaky edges (as well as a couple of dropped dolly catches).
It seemed to me as if nearly all his shots were pre-meditated, and I just had the impression that this was someone who spent a lot of time practising in nets, especially against a bowling machine. He clearly had a good eye, but had no idea how to build an innings, and wasn’t using all the available visual cues that are required for good decision making.

The great players in the past have generally learned their cricket by playing games in the street, park or beach. This meant that they could spend many hours developing their technique by self discovery, rather than learning to play in the way that a coach thought they should. But also, by playing games these players were able to develop the mental side of the game, as well as the ability to deal with unexpected challenges.

One cricket academy that tried to introduce a more game-centred approach was the Cricket Australia Centre of Excellence in Brisbane. They reduced the field of play to a 30-metre circle, marked by a low net. This meant that they could play games in which everybody was involved, but it also meant that they could put in a variety of conditions to challenge the players and develop their skills. For instance, the batsmen would have to hit the ball into specific zones in order to score runs. They could alter the sizes of bats and the types of balls, and make any number of changes to the rules of the game.

This type of approach can be used in most if not all sports. Although the method of learning is self discovery, the coach still has a crucial role to play, not least in setting up the game conditions, but also in using techniques such as questioning and feedback to aid that process of skill development.

More on feedback in cricket next time.

David Donner

Friday, 22 May 2015

Why Passes in Rugby Go Astray

Why do so many passes in rugby go astray? Even at higher levels of the game, many promising moves break down because the receiver has had to reach up, or even reach behind him (or her), to take the ball.

Sometimes, there will be technical reasons, such as passing off the wrong foot. Often, the pass from 9 to 10 will go high because the 9 has been imbalanced at the point of ball release. This can particularly happen if the front foot has come too far across. In an effort to maintain balance, the head comes back and up, with the result that the pass has an upwards trajectory.

But the main reason that passes go astray is that they have not been aimed properly, and this generally happens because rugby players are human beings. If one person is looking to see where another person is, it is natural to look for their face, just like you would look for somebody’s face in a photograph. But if you are looking at the receiver’s face when you pass the ball, it’s likely that the ball will go in the general direction of their face. If the receiver is running forwards, the ball may well disappear somewhere behind their head.

The other problem is that receivers like to read the intentions of the players inside them. In particular, they might want to see if the ball carrier is looking in their direction, so they can anticipate when the ball might be coming in their direction. In order to get a good view of the face, they come up almost level with the ball carrier. This means that the ball carrier has only three options, all of which are poor: a forward pass; a flat pass that the receiver can’t run onto; or a pass behind the receiver.

The answer is to train players, ideally from a young age, to use their vision effectively. How many coaches drum into their players that passes should be made for the receiver and not to the receiver? How many explain where the ball should be aimed, and how this varies according to the speed of the receiver? How many tell the receivers about being able to see the number on the back of the ball carrier’s shirt so they don’t overrun the ball?

Above all, are coaches using realistic opposed drills, so the players can put all this in the context of the timing of the pass, and whether to pass or not? If you are, then asking the right questions, even with young players, can lead to the players working out the answers for themselves. For instance, what are they looking for in the defenders that tells the whether to pass or dummy? What can they do in their footwork that would make them more effective?

But if players are taught in a mechanistic way, then you might as well just pick bigger and bigger wrecking balls, and not bother about the fact that they can’t pass a ball. Some would say, we’ve reached that point already.

David Donner