by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
Professional coaching has been a revered endeavour in America since just before the 20th century. In this piece, I’d like to encourage American rugby coaches to embrace and use that great history while coaching their teams.
There are American rugby coaches who have the tendency to look outside our borders for rugby coaching influences. While many foreign countries certainly have long histories with the sport of rugby, I would encourage American coaches to call upon their own domestic athletic experiences to enhance their rugby coaching skills. Reflect back on your previous experiences with high school or college coaches; there is something to be learned there, good or bad. While there is nothing wrong with being influenced by coaches beyond our shores, the profession of sport coaching was born here, and there are numerous resources available to us.
Whether coaches are looking for a new way to organize an activity or to coach a skill drill better, rugby coaches should utilize well-known American coaching paradigms. There is no greater example than that of Vince Lombardi and the success he had in building his championship teams. More recently, Florida’s Urban Meyer has demonstrated incredible innovation in his use of player personnel. And of course legendary coach John Wooden had a well-deserved reputation for being well prepared and highly organized. American coaches are also known for being like Ohio State football legend Woody Hayes, who was a fiery competitor that left no stone unturned to gain competitive edge. It is examples like these, and many others, that I would encourage American rugby coaches to look to for inspiration as they prepare to coach another season.
Rugby coaches can discover organizational tools and coaching methods by sitting in on a traditional domestic sports team. When observing a practice, examine the level of organization behind the practices and how they are structured. Note how specific drills and activities are designed to enhance the core skills of individual players, units, and team. Look to see if they begin with individual skill activities or if they engage in team-wide activities at the start of practice.
Furthermore, take note of more detailed aspects such as the terminology used by the coaching staffs and how they praise or correct players.
If you are a club or high school coach, reach out to your local college football or basketball team coaching staff and ask for a meeting during their off-season. Ask them what they do, how, and why they do it; many of their answers will reflect principles that can be applied to coaching rugby. Beneath the visible elements of coaching, strive to understand the level of planning and organization that occurs before stepping foot on a field or court.
There are many valuable strategies and techniques to be learned from American coaches exclusively. Here at Cal, we annually host several rugby coaching staffs from abroad, from Australia’s NRL Melbourne Storm to the French national team coaches. Rugby coaching staffs have been travelling to the U.S. to learn American organizational and coaching methods since the game became professionalized.
In keeping with our country’s history of coaching, rugby coaches should strive to demonstrate a high degree of technical expertise. It is a coach’s responsibility to know technical information cold and to be able to communicate it in such a way that the players can understand it. You can’t bluff your way through a training session. Coaches must own the technical aspects of the game. Anything less, and the athletes will struggle to properly execute. Whether you know a lot or a little, you can always grow and learn; technical expertise lies on a continuum with no finish line.
At the bedrock of American coaching is the notable component of leadership. The best American coaches have the unique ability to lead their teams and inspire their charges to strive toward reaching their goals, and at times, box above their weight. It is an American characteristic of coaching to possess the ability to lead and inspire. While America may not be a rugby-playing nation, tap into other American coaches and learn from them to develop your own approach to coaching.
During my first year as a full time rugby coach, while walking onto Witter Rugby Field, I turned to our athletic trainer, with decades of service under his belt, to ask if he had any suggestions for me. He said simply, “Don’t try to coach them too much on Saturdays.” I took from his sage comment that I should strike an appropriate balance of coaching, encouraging, and keeping my mouth shut while on the touchline.
American coaches have a unique player/coach relationship. Coaches have a demanding, yet benevolent, relationship with their athletes. U.S. coaches are privileged to be part mentor, confidante, and taskmaster to their players. The player/coach relationships that are formed during a season are the most lasting rewards of coaching.
Being an American in the sport of rugby isn’t a liability. Use the American athletic experience to your advantage. Be innovative, organized, and prepared. Even if you’re not a full time coach, you can still be professional. Being “professional” isn’t just about being paid, it’s about how you do business.
I have the privilege of working as a rugby coach every day. Often times, I find myself reflecting on the significant coaches in my athletic career. When facing a task, I contemplate how Coach Reade would adjust a practice, or how Coach Hofmann might correct a player. Neither of those men knew anything about rugby, but they were both exceptional coaches who have unknowingly helped me.
No coach has helped me learn about coaching more than my last coach, Jack Clark. I was fortunate enough to play for him over a seven-year period. To this day, Coach Clark remains a steady influence on my coaching. Who are your coaching influenc
Tom Billups began his rugby career in 1984 and has spent time as a player in New Zealand (Bay of Plenty), the U.S. (The Old Blues), England (London Harlequins), and Wales (Pontypridd) for domestic teams as well as representing the U.S.A. at international tournaments with the Eagles. After hanging up his boots, Billups got into coaching leading the Eagles and now with University of California – Berkeley. Read the entire bio of Tom Billups as well as Billups first column My Rugby Path and then check out what Billups is saying about the game of rugby in The Billups Column on Rugby Rugby.
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