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Coaching Skills

What Does Great Coaching Look Like: Rugby League

A case study providing practical examples of great coaching in rugby league for other developing coaches to read and use as inspiration

Rugby Football League Academy coach Mark Harrison believes the secret to great coaching is mutual trust, which you get through clear communication and a friendly relationship.

In this article, you will get a real sense of Mark's coaching philosophy as he explains his approach to coaching and shares some practical tips.

He started coaching rugby league at 13. At present his coaching covers a wide range of ages – an open age team, an under-9s team (overseeing a Level 1 coach), and sessions with the regional under-15s and under-16s squads – which he hopes to extend into the under-17s and under-18s in the near future.

I believe a player can always take criticism if you give them a reason why... it’s all about the relationship you’ve got with the players. I’m quite an open person and I’ll always communicate what I want out of a session.

Coaching a performance development squad (U15s and U16s)

At the start of the session we attend, Mark begins by conveying his satisfaction with much of the previous match, but also guides his session towards areas where he perceives the team to have been weak and explains why.

He feels the squad lost out when the ball was on the ground, so directs the session accordingly by running drills focusing on that aspect of the game. Players practice tackling and quick release of the ball.

These drills with the under-16 squad develop into game-like situations, beginning with the ball on the floor so that players can adapt their learning into a more realistic situation.

Mark runs a drill with the under-15 squad involving setting up a defence; this requires each player to know their job and not to be drawn out of position. To do that, he asks each defender to only defend a certain 'zone'. He says: “In a game there'll be another defender on your outside so I don't mind him getting past down there – your job is to make sure he doesn't get past on the inside!”

This simple approach ensures that over the course of the session every member of the squad improves their positional awareness and team organisation.

  • Continuous review: After each exercise (every 10 minutes) bring all players back together to review learning
  • Put drills into practice: Game-like situations add variety and provide context to training
  • Mutual Feedback: Give honest feedback and proactively seek it out as well; start with the positive
  • Show as well as tell: Mark takes part in sessions as a player, providing a demonstration

Goal-setting and review

Go Coaching principles are based around a process of negotiation between coach and coachee to achieve a sense of joint ownership for development. Mark's example draws from his own relationship with Steve Crooks, England Regional Performance Coach: “He might say to me, 'I want to see all your session plans two days before the session'. Now, I know that in practice the best I'm likely to manage is one day before the session, so I might say that – but once I've said that I've committed to at least doing it and taken ownership of that idea.”

Mark applies similar principles to his players' development, along with chains of questioning around the effectiveness of certain plays or techniques based around a basic “What, why, when, where, how” structure; he has also taken this approach into his managerial position.

Mark’s under-9 coaching sessions involve a large number of game-like situations as they begin to understand the sport, while the regional squads focus more on technical development and knowledge progression through drills, questioning, and matches with other squads.

One particular game against Wigan had given U16 players confidence after an impressive performance, and also gave them a benchmark of established excellence against which they now measure themselves going forward.

  • Session Emphasis: Participants just starting out in the sport want to play, whilst performance players want to improve. Change session content accordingly
  • Test Performance: Give performance players the opportunity to test themselves against the best
  • 'Go Coaching': Apply principles of negotiation to give participants ownership of their own development

How to Coach: Plan, Do, Review

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Planning and making best use of resources

Mark devotes a substantial amount of time to planning; for his 14 hours of coaching (at the height of the season) he devotes five hours to planning. This is improved by use of a coaching matrix developed in conjunction with Steve which allows planning at session and season level.

Mark draws his exercises from a range of different sources; he attends conferences, talks to other coaches, and reads avidly to “absorb as much as I can from as many people as I can”. As an example, his ‘3 v 2’ exercise was learned from observation of Castleford Tigers Rugby League side, and he learned about Go Coaching principles through his management role with a restaurant chain.

Before, during, and after the session, Steve supports Mark by looking over his session plans and offering his view on athletes’ progress without directly intervening unless invited to by Mark, as well as providing feedback on the recent match against Wigan. By asking Mark to provide session plans in advance of the session, he adds structure to Mark’s planning.

Mark has a Level One Assistant Coach with whom he shares his plan for sessions in advance and who has the opportunity to lead some parts of the session with the Under 15 squad. This enables Mark to work with smaller groups or even pull an individual out of the session to work on their passing – providing a ‘quick fix’ for individual development.

  • Planning ahead: 20 minutes planning for every 1 hour of coaching; coaching matrix provides overarching structure and individual detail
  • Look around you: Learning from within your sport, other sports, and wider life will be applicable to your session planning
  • Get a mentor:  A more experienced supporter will encourage you, help in your development, and provide constructive feedback
  • Involve other coaches in planning and goal-setting: Share plans with other coaches taking the session

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UK Coaching Team