The off-season is more often than not seen as an opportunity for players to recover and recuperate from a gruelling campaign and an extended break is certainly a must given the physical and mental demands of the modern game – but it is equally important that coaches recharge as well.
Pacing the training ground or sitting in the stand on matchday may not result in the kind of battering absorbed by the players but a coach embarking on a new season while still weary from the previous campaign could be just as counter-productive as fielding a player still bearing the scars of earlier battles.
At the same time the sport’s leading coaches will be wary that the all-too-brief off-season provides a rare opportunity to evaluate their own performance and seek answers to those questions that may have stumped both them and their players in their most recent quest for glory.
Meeting this challenge head on and juggling R&R with R&D are Premiership side Harlequins with director of rugby Conor O’Shea recently stressing the need for everyone – including coaches – to be ‘fit and fresh’ in time for the new season while at the same time encouraging his coaching team to broaden their knowledge.
The Rugby Paper reported that O’Shea and his assistants embarked on a fact-finding mission around the globe with Tony Diprose packed off to Australia, John Kingston and O’Shea travelling to South Africa and Mark Mapletoft and Colin Osborne venturing to the USA to study coaching methods that could transfer back to the Premiership stage.
Such a thirst for knowledge is not reserved for upwardly mobile club coaches. England head coach Stuart Lancaster is a perfect example of a coach who refuses to rest on his laurels with an insatiable thirst for knowledge and improvement driving his ongoing rugby education.
Last summer he combined a trip to check in on his players and coaches involved in the British & Irish Lions’ series against Australia with a series of visits designed to improve his own performance and that of his side.
Lancaster was a welcome guest at the Sydney Roosters, the Melbourne Storm and South Sydney Rabbitohs from the National Rugby League competition as well as the Geelong Cats from the Australian Football League.
This was no one-off for Lancaster who has long harvested successful techniques from not only other sports but also business. His admiration of the work done to support British Cycling is well known and led to the appointment of the former ‘director of marginal gains’ Matt Parker as the Rugby Football Union’s head of athletic performance.
But Lancaster is not the only one to have been so taken by the approach of others that instead of employing just their tactics he employed the individual. The sport boasts many coaches who have made union their home having made their name elsewhere including Wales assistant Shaun Edwards, England assistant Andy Farrell and defence guru Dave Ellis who all made their name in rugby league, All Blacks skills coach and ex-Aussie Rules star Mick Byrne and sprint coach Margot Wells.
Lancaster is no stranger to methods used in the NFL having previously revealed that former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh’s book The Score Takes Care of Itself was a major influence on his efforts to transform the culture around the England side and lay the foundation for consistent excellence.
As a result he may have noted with interest Quins’ trip to the States where Osborne reportedly gained what he hopes will be an invaluable insight into the Philadelphia Eagles’ operation and, most importantly, one that is yet to be used in rugby.
His working holiday centred on their use of specific ‘cognitive learning tools’ devised with the help of sports scientists at Axon Sports whose calling card is ‘Train Above The Neck’. They have since been employed by the Eagles who claimed last season’s NFC East title only to bow out in the wildcard game.
Quins, whose invite stemmed from their own cognitive work with GlaxoSmithKline’s Human Performance Lab who partnered with Axon Sports last year, took particular interest in the ‘off-feet’ training methods.
Instead of spending endless hours on the training field, players are placed in front of large touch screens that display computer-generated and position-specific scenarios. The players must then recognise what is in front of them with their performance based on how quickly they assess the situation and react accordingly.
It may seem just like an elaborate extension of the gaming that occupies many players’ downtime but if the efforts to sharpen decision making and focus proves successful then do not be surprised if others follow their lead – if they haven’t already. “They are two totally different sports but you can always take things from them,” insisted O’Shea.
Leading coaches are clearly never not thinking about how to win the next game and players cursing as they are forced to sweat off the excesses of their own off-season should be grateful for that level of sacrifice and dedication to the cause.
Have you tried to incorporate skills or tactics from other sports into your rugby? Do you think it’s worthwhile looking outside rugby for expertise? Or should we be looking within our own game for best practices before looking for silver bullets from other sports?