Coaching the School of Hard Knocks

Below is an article that I wrote for The International Rugby Coaching Journal about last year’s SoHK…..


Turning a group of young men from tough backgrounds from novice players into a winning rugby team poses challenges and learning experiences. We can learn a lot ourselves about our own coaching. By RFU Trainer and TV rugby coach, Chris Chudleigh.
“The School of Hard Knocks” is a documentary series which has, in the past, been shown as part of SkySports’ “The Rugby Club.” The most recent series is due to be shown on Sky Sports as a series in its own right, commencing on 2 March on SkySports 1.
The series takes a disparate group of individuals and moulds them into a rugby team, delivering life skills lessons along the way, largely through the medium of rugby union, but always against a backdrop of professionalism and high quality performance.
Taking a group of young men, the only common denominator being that they are unemployed, from a tough inner city area, and creating a rugby team brings with it some unique challenges. How those challenges have been overcome, I believe can be of benefit to all rugby coaches, largely because the nature of the programme requires the coach to be sharply focussed about achieving the end result.
The challenge
It starts with 30 young men sitting in a room facing you. Nobody speaks. There is a perceptibly hostile atmosphere as the lads size each other up. One player will not admit that he comes from a certain estate as he fears it will lead to him becoming a target for “special” treatment.
Very few have played rugby before, even less to adult club standard. All have arrived at the venue because they want to find work. They have not come, exclusively, to play rugby although they are all aware that it forms a large part of the course.
In just eight short weeks these young men will take the field against former professional players and up and coming stars from the Welsh Premiership. What is more they will be expected to realise their full potential when they do so, failure is not acceptable.
Breaking habits, creating habits
The immediate problem is to get the players to come back tomorrow. They must be enthused and challenged, without being put off. For many just getting out of bed is a chore, breaking habits is tough, ask any smoker, and inactivity is a habit.
Where do you start to coach absolute beginners? Many come with pre conceived ideas about rugby and all are nervous, not only of the game but also of the other players. These guys have no idea about the game so the ethos of rugby is conveyed through small sided games. The game itself is the best teaching tool, it breaks down into bite sized chunks. Getting used to physical contact and the bumps and bruises is all part of developing the ethos of the rugby player; wrestling activities and controlled contact invasion games in confined space make collisions inevitable. This develops an understanding of transferring power into a situation to win the collision/struggle. Most of all young lads love a scrap, especially if it is done in a protected environment where they know their opponent will not suddenly produce a knife. Evasion games develop the other aspects, individual running skill, balance, team work, etc. The underlying tenet is that we play games we don’t run drills.
We use lots of small boxes with different competitive games. The basic tool in the coaches armoury is the 10 metre square or the three metre by 10 metre wide channel. So much can be done by extracting a game situation and reducing it to that space and pitting man against man.

Success is essential
Success is an absolute must. Nobody likes failure, especially not those who have become accustomed to it in everyday life, they must not be exposed to a situation where they will be totally overpowered, a belief that they can succeed, maybe with some more work, is vital, but the goal of success must be within reach. If the task brings success easily it is not challenging enough and is as counter productive as making it too difficult. Patronise them and they don’t return, scare them and they don’t return, embarrass them and…… you get the picture.
We did actually throw the London side into the lion’s den, when we pitted them against National Two league leaders Barking. This was specifically to develop some structure into their defence. By throwing them into a situation that they would have to work hard together to stop an immensely powerful opponent, the lads were in a situation of rising to meet the challenge. Success here was measured in how long the gaps were between Barking scoring. It was a calculated risk, and also an unqualified success. Every player new that there was no quarter being offered from the opponent and in actually tackling him successfully the rewards in terms of (individual and team) confidence were huge.
Activity is king and the game is the coach. Design the game with parameters that mean the actual coach does not have to keep bringing out coaching points.(GIVE EXAMPLE: One example of this is a game which has a number of cones placed in a large circle, a defender with a shield mans a cone but there are a small number left unmanned. A team of attackers can run and pass the ball in any direction and must hold the ball whilst they have a foot on a cone to score. If an attacker is touched by a shield when he is in contact with the ball it is not a try. (How hard he is touched is down to the defender!). The blank cones represent the goals, the defenders can move anywhere around the circle and are aiming to block the attack from scoring.) This game develops almost every aspect of the game from support running, to drawing a man, to defensive cohesion etc and above all is physically demanding and great fun. The players do not at this stage even need to know that the ball must be passed backwards, or that the defensive line must be straight, or that tackled players must release the ball.
The games can be progressed to introduce the laws of the game by building in rules and developments. Everybody likes to test themselves against an opponent. Though drills are sterile, they can be used sparingly to polish skills once learned.
Coach educators go to great lengths talking about the “Whole – Part – Whole” method. This is where a game(either a manufactured situation from standard 15 a side rugby, or a small sided game) is used to coach. Having identified an aspect of the game which needs developing, the coach then introduces a specific drill to develop that aspect, once the players have grasped the techniques, perhaps even developed the skill a little in a controlled exercise, they are thrown back into the game situation to further improve the skill under the pressure of competition.
Most (not all) of the players have had difficulties at some stage with either authority, learning, or both. It is an overused term but, “Ownership” is incredibly important. The team belongs to the boys. On day one they don’t care, but come day 16 it is their whole world.
Discipline is based simply on mutual respect and the coach driving the group towards achievement of a final task. As long as the coach is focussed on that final task and not prepared to compromise in its achievement then the players will be brought along.
Punishments lead to non attendance, or so you would think. All mistakes have an instant punishment of one press up, an annoyance more than anything else. Nobody is exempt. Coaches errors attract press ups in multiples of 10 so punishment becomes light hearted, but really nobody wants to have to get down on the ground all the time.
Patience is key with the discipline and consistency. Only talk when 100% attention is focussed on you, do not accept rudeness. Steadily the players fall into the accepted norms for behaviour without even knowing, they even police themselves.
Teams are built through shared experiences, the more powerful the better, both enjoyable ones and not so enjoyable ones. If you put people through the mincer they like to talk about it once they’ve come through the other side and those that undertook the journey with them are considered a brother. The coach is not that brother, often he is the guy who is responsible for the mincing. Every Hard Knocks course gets at least one beasting.
If you live on a tough estate in a major English city, how you carry yourself, how you are perceived is central to how you get by in life. Loss of face can be a serious blow to how you get by each day. The players must be eased into the confrontational situations.
With such a disparate group if you throw them into collisions that could so easily be the spark to light the fire. Many will not even attempt to make a tackle as the price of failure is a dent to their tough guy persona which protects them day to day. By exposing these young men to a frightening situation in which there is no real risk of being stabbed or shot you can develop them, they even begin to become receptive to direction.
Short distances reduce momentum. In our situation, we can use the coaches for tackling which means that the collisions can be controlled and confidence built up. It is important that the players are exposed to bumps and knocks without consequently lashing out. When they realise the boundaries and are praised for knocking a coach flat they begin to understand how rugby players are expected to react to contact and even getting hurt.
Should a player come up short in any exercise, he will have been responsible for weakening how the others perceive him. It is then the coach’s task to build him back up and put him on a par with the remainder.

Anger management
Understanding that the game has inbuilt releases for tension and pressure through physical confrontation is critical for the players. Lose your temper and you are removed from the game. Keep it and you get the opportunity to take on the guy that has just run over you, but this time you’ll be ready for him.
The ultimate task
We have to take on an experienced team in just 16 days time. Just the fact that this hurdle is so huge focuses the mind. There is nothing like working to time pressure, and the price of failure is huge, embarrassed on national TV.
How is success measured: is it about winning, is it about just doing well? It has to be about winning, which is contrary to all popular coaching ideology. For these boys we are trying to develop a winning mentality in life and striving for success. Mediocrity is not acceptable.
It also gives them an insight into just how difficult it is to succeed. In striving for absolute excellence they will have achieved so much along the way. Life is competitive, the job market is, so developing an approach where winning is the ultimate goal is important.
Learning how to win means doing things differently from simply trying to score the most points. It is about building pressure on the opponent and taking the right option when the pressure is on you. The other team plays differently when the game is tight, or if they face a huge points deficit. It is easier to beat them convincingly if we have built a lead.
It is a different approach to developing rugby players as often it means kicking the goal, as opposed to running with the ball, keeping it tight as opposed to playing expansive attractive and enjoyable rugby; the kind we all coo over when we see it! Winning becomes part of the enjoyment. Learning how to win is not about being the best team, it is about the correct and appropriate application of the skills and resources you have at your disposal on the day.
Does this mean that if they lose the scheme has failed?
Heroic failure is still failure and nobody should seek to achieve that. Looking at a glorious last stand on the battlefield is simply a way of rationalising a defeat, a coping mechanism.
The team might have failed on the pitch but the players have learnt so much on their journey. All the players recognise the journey they have completed; if they lose the final match, because rugby is simply the personal development tool they have not actually failed. Success with this scheme is about developing as a man. To enter into a series of collisions, scrimmages, physical challenges/confrontations with your opponent, to win some of them, to lose some of them and most importantly to cope with the consequences of each challenge/confrontation is the measure of success.
Rugby is simply the vehicle for developing life skills in these people. They have begun to seek the win by playing the game in a certain way, if they have come up short then so be it. It happens, no team is invincible forever, we all lose some time, it doesn’t mean that we’re all failures. Winning is an art and a habit and learning how to is just as important as developing the skills of unit play or drop goals or tackling. We coach the rugby in a certain way to show that winning and being a success is as much about learning how to apply your skills as actually possessing them in the first place.
16 days is not a long time to take people from absolute beginner to playing a match against seasoned veterans. It has now been done on five separate occasions. (To date no team has been humiliated on the rugby pitch. Of the televisesd schemes, many will have seen Will Greenwood and some of the other coaches playing in the final match to provide some direction. This has now ceased as a practice, handing complete responsibility over to the participants. The teams have won some of their warm up games, they even won silverware at The Manchester Sevens! Many players have gone on to play for local clubs, and most importantly many went into full time employment as a consequence of making changes to their outlook on life). The School of Hard Knocks must be viewed as an accelerated coaching scheme, a rugby greenhouse, from which coaches can observe and cherry pick elements that are relevant to their own situation.

Summary of coaching points
• Appropriate small sided games minimise the need for the coach to speak, selective intervention to develop the quality of play and progress the game with the introduction of new rules.
• Discipline is an absolute pre requisite. Shared experience develops the togetherness of the team, ownership and therefore responsibility for success belongs to the players.
• Preserve the self image of every player; that may be challenged if they have let themselves down. Only once they have shown a weakness the coach must reissue the challenge to the individual tempering it so that success is more likely.
• Learn how to win, not just compete.

2 comments on “Coaching the School of Hard Knocks

  1. Bobby Brown on said:

    “When you cease to strive to understand, then you will know without
    - Chinese Proverb.

    SOHK: Fantastic insight to to the ‘Process’ Chris!
    Seeing broken lives being ‘restored’ is truly uplifting. The individuals involved ‘realising’ their true potential and worth as men. Not ‘accepting’ preconceived falsehoods based on lies. Believing in themselves. Understanding ‘true’ fellowship. Being helped to help themselves.
    Every credit to those involved with SOHK. What you’re all doing is immeasurable.

  2. Bobby Brown on said:

    *into* (error in previous post)
    ‘SOHK: Fantastic insight into the ‘Process’ Chris!’

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