By Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
Congratulations to Mike Tolkin, recently announced as the new national team head coach by USA Rugby. Although my former teammate and long-time friend David Hodges was also an applicant for the position, I wish Mike nothing but success. As America’s coach, Mike will have a lot to accomplish in a short amount of time.
As simple as it is to state all the things that need to happen, nothing will be accomplished without a high degree of focus and attention to detail by the team’s staff. In my experience, in order for the national team players to have their best chance at success, player management and technical coaching must be very clearly thought out and well executed. Significant planning of each day of team assembly is of great importance to overall success. Dress codes, meal plans, technical training agendas, even team transportation timelines are examples of some of the topics that require focused planning. This will allow the players to focus on their on-field roles, responsibilities, and match day performance.
Of course no player is “perfect” but the best players at each position must be identified and developed with all available resources. For the best players to be identified, the staff should look everywhere, including both inside and outside of the rugby community. Additionally, if a player is good enough, then they are old enough for consideration. Some were critical of selecting collegiate players such as Mike MacDonald, Lou Stanfill or Mike Palefau but current college players with similar athletic profiles are the right place to commit national team resources.
All applied sport sciences should be accessed. Now a full member of the United States Olympic Committee, USA Rugby has a portal to cutting-edge sport science information and services. Even though it is sevens, not test rugby, which will be in the 2016 Games, best practice from the USOC should be woven into everything the senior team does.
Technology should be used to shrink down the geographical distance between national team players. Technology is now available to keep players and coaches much more highly connected when the team is not assembled. Performance areas like analysis feedback, online player logs, and other sport science deliverables have become vastly more accessible through technological advances.
At the core of the coaching staff’s work will be the technical approach to how the team plays. This approach should be based on which players are available and what their skill strengths are. Assembling a group of athletes and identifying their collective strengths in conjunction with what the team needs to do to be successful is mission critical. This approach to the technical aspect of the team assists in creating its identity. It is not clear that this has happened over the past few years.
Here’s to hoping the team culture is one that promotes competition. When competing, everything matters, and that requires the players to redouble their focus. When attention to detail wanes, on field or off, the team’s competiveness lessens. Said another way, when a player misses a flight and is late into a team assembly, the entire team is just a bit less competitive. Every time a player misses an assignment in a match, the whole team is temporarily less competitive and must scramble to recover.
If players are competitive at every turn, the whole of the team will improve. A competitive team environment encourages players to continually raise their performance levels, revealing those that aren’t as committed to the team’s improvement. My former United States national team head coach once said after almost turning over World Cup champion Australia, “The honor not in selection, but in the fulfilment of your responsibilities.” These are words I encourage all national team players and staff to embrace.
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