by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
I recently fielded a handful of questions from a former player who is in his first year coaching club rugby in the South. During our communications, he expressed a strong desire to improve as a coach and asked for suggestions of how to improve. I am flattered to be asked to offer a few suggestions.
The first thing I suggested was to reflect back on previous coaches he had played for and begin to make a listing of things you appreciated in his previous coaches and those things he did not care for as an athlete. I offered a few examples from my own experiences during our conversation including formative coaches who helped shape my coaching.
My middle school wrestling coach is typical of all that is great about youth sport coaches in our country. He demanded we be accountable to our teammates that we work hard, and were responsible to try as hard as possible each time out. We always felt we were “his kids”. The second coach I spoke of was my high school football coach. This coach was a taskmaster and was a very disciplined man who never ever lost his temper even though I know there were times he was incredibly frustrated. My college football coach is in the College Football Hall of Fame. There are several obvious statistical reasons for his inclusion. Five consecutive NCAA Division III national championship appearances, winning four consecutive championship titles. An incredible career record of 146-23-1 and being voted Conference Coach of the Year 9 times during a 15-year college coaching career. What this highly decorated coach taught me was how important is for a head coach to understand every aspect of your technical systems, in this case, offense, defense and special teams. This coach knew every player’s positional responsibilities and where they might struggle during a contest before we players did.
I also shared how I am very fortunate to be a large university campus that fields 27 men and women’s varsity sports. Of these teams, many head coaches are experts in their sport, including several who have coached at the national and Olympic level. I always recommend new coaches seek out the best high school or college coach in their area, regardless of the sport, and schedule an appointment to pick the coach’s brain on any number of topics.
At the end of my conversation with the first year coach, I attempted to summarize my list of the most important areas to focus on, the first being knowledge of our sport. There is no way that we can begin to become the coaches we want to become without continuously seeking out technical and tactical information. Establishing a network of coaches where technical information can be sought, discussed, and shared will be a big step towards becoming a better coach.
Next up on my list is to gain experience by observing other coaches. Becoming the coach you want to be will not happen by reading technical materials alone. Additionally, I believe you can learn a tremendous amount by observing other sport coaches such as football coaches, or by observing any team environment where sound coaching is being conducted. I cautioned my fellow coach to not just be passively observing but to be actively engaged in noting how the coach delivers information to the team, when he speaks and when he doesn’t, and capture in detail the specific vocabulary and use of terminology. I encouraged him to be curious as to how training plans are designed and specific techniques of how the installation of techniques and tactics work during training. We both acknowledged how hard it is to improve when only coaching two nights a week.
My last piece of advice was to be prepared. I don’t think that as a coach you can ever be too prepared. Being prepared demonstrates to your athletes that you have put a significant amount of time and efforts into helping them reach their potential. Work really hard to be prepared, including what you say and how you say it.
We consider coaching to be a craft, a craft that you continually work at. Being a coach means having a good understanding all of the applicable sport sciences and understanding that there is art in blending numerous pieces all together when forming a team. Obviously this is just skimming the surface of a few of the areas that coaches spend their entire careers honing. In this profession, there is no finish line.
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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