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Phil Clarke wonders where the next generation of British playmakers are coming from

Phil Clarke Posted 25th July 2013 view comments

In the current day and age of professional sport, with highly structured player pathways and professional coaches, it seems almost impossible that somebody could progress to elite performance without receiving hours upon hours of coaching.

There are even a great deal of experts who say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become the world's best.

Recently there had been much debate about the changes to the academy structure and player development within the sport of rugby league - I have written posts on the topics - but this week I want to take a different perspective on the player pathways within our game.

Would Sutcliffe benefit from less organised plays?

Would Sutcliffe benefit from less organised plays?

Mention the name Brian McTigue, and immediately for those who remember him, the words 'tough', 'skill', and 'playmaker' spring to mind. Brian is a legend of the game, playing 21 times for Great Britain, and as a Wigan Hall of Fame member he is considered by many to be one of the greatest forwards to play our game. But why is Brian's story so special?

Is the modern academy system restricting the development of creative playmakers? Or is over coaching, within these systems, killing the natural instincts of the young players who have natural flair, skill, and decision making capabilities?

Phil Clarke
Quotes of the week

In comparison to today's rugby league greats, Brian never had any formal coaching, was never part of an academy, and was largely self-taught. The backyard and play ground formed his education with games of fun, skill and adversity; in fact he spent the first three years of his playing career playing for Wigan's 'A' team.

He gained recognition for being a playmaker with remarkable sleight of hand and distribution skills, progressing from the centre position to a prop forward with incredible ball handling ability.

Brian's story is an incredible feat but not unique. Today we still see elite performers on the world stage who have received very little coaching; consider the footballers from Brazil, the middle distance runners from Kenya, and remarkably, golfer Bubba Watson, who famously won the 2012 Masters without ever having had a golf lesson.

There are also examples of rugby league greats of yesteryear who received very little coaching during their career, but were world class playmakers.

Over coaching?

So this week, with an apparent lack of playmakers within the British game, I want to ask the following questions.

Is the modern academy system restricting the development of creative playmakers? Or is over coaching, within these systems, killing the natural instincts of the young players who have natural flair, skill, and decision making capabilities?

I watched a recent Academy match and observed what happens when a team concedes a try. Their coach instructs his assistant to run on with a message for the team as they stand under the goalposts waiting for the conversion. Are they really learning much from this? Should the team's leaders not attempt to solve the problems themselves?

Most teams in Super League adopt a very similar style in attack, which requires certain players to be in set positions, during a set of six. This structured attacking play is undoubtedly practiced over and over during training sessions, but is this approach constraining the decision making potential of young half backs?

Could the likes of Joe Mellor, Jonny Lomax, George Williams, and Liam Sutcliffe be even better if they were encouraged to play without the constraints of organising plays and paid more attention to what the defensive line is doing?

Impact

When I was doing my research for this article I came across a video on the internet of Sean Johnson playing touch rugby.

He spent much of his youth playing the touch version of the sport, without much coaching and without the shackles of playing to a structure. He now consistently performs well in the NRL and has made an impact on the international scene, tipped by many, including Andrew Johns to be a legend.

I remember playing with Andy Gregory and Shaun Edwards who were totally tuned into each other and the opposition, and would regularly do things in attack that the defence didn't expect with devastating effect. Would they have been as effective if they had spent some of their formative years within the current academy system?
I don't know if today's player pathways are having a negative impact on the development of playmakers, but with a World Cup only a few months away, and with the likes of James Roby, Gareth Widdop and Kevin Sinfield out injured, I cannot see where the next generation of British playmakers are coming from.

I would love to hear you're your views on this subject.

Comments (2)

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Chris Talbot says...

Great article Phil. I think you hit the nail on the head. It is about coaching the players what is right or wrong it is about the player learning through trial and error that makes them the best they can be. I think coaches should guide players rather than tell them to do this and that. Having set plays does harm a players development but it is a team game so is a player more important that the team or is the team's result more important than the players in?

Posted 22:31 25th July 2013

Lee Richardson says...

Another terrific thought-provoking article Phil! You're focussing on the Academy structure but could we also also look beyond that? As a former coach now reflecting, I believe that many coaches (myself included) make the mistake of prescribing instead of coaching & see their own job as the 'centre of the universe' and are blissfully ignorant of the bigger picture, i.e. longer-term player/team development. All of these coaches get upset when we fail to beat the Aussies yet somehow don't realise that our continued failure is partly attributable (albeit in a small way) to their own input over an earlier period of time. I think the situation could be helped if we could somehow get all of the coach/coaches within every junior/development club asking themselves on a regular basis "what do we REALLY want to be remembered for?" In other words, try and get them to believe that it's not just about what they can achieve with their players this week/month/season or however long the under the coach's tutelage. We need to help our coaches AND PARENTS to understand AND BELIEVE that some of the work they do with their players may not always produce positive results during their time with their players. It's likely that players/teams may even have to regress at times to go forwards 'further down the track'. When agreeing goals/targets etc. If parents/coaches could somehow be influenced to see that what they are doing DOES make a difference when the athlete has long gone from their club, perhaps they'd be more inclined to foster this approach. I guess it's up to the individuals within an organisation/club to create /encourage this belief system but if we could somehow get the people who run the education programmes (coach education) to cascade this strategy down to grass roots/academy I believe that we'd eventually have a bigger pool of thinking/creative type players. Cheers

Posted 14:40 25th July 2013

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