Coaching youth sports provides you with a front seat to the headaches and triumphs that come with the territory. No one understands those complications until they themselves have coached youth sports. Nothing presents more headaches than selecting a competitive team. Nothing is more crucial, more indicative of a coach’s success, than selecting the right players to confront an opponent on any given day. Sometimes you have a myriad of options to choose from. Other times, you just have to be creative. Either way, you have to understand the strengths, weaknesses, tendencies and overall abilities of your athletes. In short – this is the headache of all headaches!
I’ve coached a number of different youth sports in my lifetime and each one of those sports has its unique challenges. But since I started coaching a youth club rugby team I’ve found that there are very few sports that have present more personnel challenges than rugby.
For starters (unlike many youth sports) you can only select a specific number of players for your roster. In the traditional game, only 15 players can be on the field at any given time and there is a potential that those same 15 players will start and finish the entire game. The other ten become spectators. Substitutions are only allowed for injury or when a coach deems that a substitution is necessary for a tactical advantage and subs can only enter the game when the flow is stopped and the referee allows the substitution as there are no time-outs in rugby. To further complicate the substitution process, once a player has been replaced in a game, that player cannot re-enter the game at any time (the only exception is when a player is replaced temporarily for blood or an open wound.)
In essence, selecting a starting side becomes incredibly crucial to give your team an optimal opportunity for victory. In a game like basketball or football, you can go into a game with multiple substitution options and you can play with that rotation throughout the course of the contest until you feel the combination is right. In rugby, your substitution process is every bit as crucial as your starting line-up as it may adversely affect the continuity and flow of the overall dynamics of your team. Trust me, I have learned this lesson the hard way.
That aside, I’ve often been asked how I select my side for a match because I have always been blessed to have a large number of players who turn up to play for the love of the game. But more players means that the selection process becomes that much harder.
So I’ve given it a bit of thought to this dilemma in the few years that I’ve been an assistant and a head coach for freshmen and sophomores in our club team and came up with a formula that seems to work for me. I emphasize the words ‘for’ and ‘me’ as this may not work in your particular situation. But at the very least it may give you a starting point for how you evaluate and select your own side.
NOTE: These are listed in order of importance.
- Experience – rugby is a physically and mentally challenging game. I’ve found that players who enjoy the greatest success are players who understand the game. When you know the laws of the game, have received some formal training in a controlled environment and have actually played in a competitive atmosphere you are more adequately prepared for the rigors of rugby and therefore become less of a liability. Because of the physical and technical aspects of rugby, safety is important and the first rule in safety is understanding the game. Without experience you become a safety issue to yourself and to others.
- Attendance – There is no better place to learn rugby, to build a camaraderie and a familiarity with your teammates than in training. If you are missing out on practice you are essentially communicating a negative message to your team. There are two types of chemistry: The ones that co-exist nicely together and the ones that blow up in your face. Missing practices or games without a valid excuse says that you do not value the team, you do not need additional training and you just don’t care. In my mind, if you don’t put in the effort, you are a danger to the team in more ways than one and you have not earned the right to play.
- Desire – It’s one of the primary ingredients for making a great rugby player and an even better leader. A hunger for learning and success creates a culture of competition in the ranks that helps to elevate the skill and passion for the game. Lazy players lack ethics and are vulnerable to resignation, negativity and foul play.
- Leadership –Players gravitate towards dynamic, confident people. Players who are tentative and unwilling to reveal themselves in tough situations may still be good players, but the best players want to win and will bring out the best in their teammates in the process. Leaders are intuitive, intelligent, clever and thoughtful but the most important quality is by far the ability to empower others to lead with them.
- Mentoring – Nothing is more aggravating to a coach than to watch players practice exclusivity, favoritism or entitlement. I disapprove of these tactics and detest coaches and players who horde knowledge or access to knowledge rather than sharing it with new players. It is detrimental to a team and it goes against the grain of the rugby culture of inclusivity. Part of being a good rugby player and leader is making sure that you are creating a safe culture of learning rather than denying others a chance to excel.
- Supportive – Players who encourage rather than demean and uplift rather than humiliate allow me the flexibility to give players an opportunity to practice what they preach in the form of supporting and encouraging their teammates to succeed. When players are more supportive of one another and are allowed the ability to help each other you will find that they expect more of each other and encourage better results. Our peers demand more of us.
- Empathy – Players who practice empathy find it harder to throw punches during a match, berate officials, taunt or humiliate their opponents or abuse fans. Rugby is a high-emotion game that often brings out the worst in people. You can be a passionate player but it does not give you the right to abuse others, deserving or otherwise. Empathy tempers all of that and helps to calm the nerves of your teammates who are more vulnerable to emotion.
- Malleable – The ability to learn in any scenario means a player has not yet developed a rigidity to form. Some of the best players in the world and their coaches will contend that they keep getting better because they keep finding teachable moments, even in the mundane. When an athlete becomes resistant to suggestions and change they become predictable, complacent and eventually outdated.
- Humble – This aspect of a player is complimentary to all of the attributes I’ve already listed. Humility shows the true character of a player and magnifies all of the items already listed. A player will show his arrogance by missing practices, placing his needs above those of other players, approaches everything with a ‘me first’ attitude. When this happens, every other aspect of his game is affected.
- Athleticism – This is listed last for a reason: I believe that you can work hard at being a better athlete but in order to be an exceptional human being, you have to work even harder. The sporting colloquialism says that, “you can’t teach speed.” Though that may be well and true, I would rather have a bunch of slower athletes who are great people who have a desire to increase their foot speed, than a whole roster full of speedy athletes who are disgraceful human beings.
I ask a lot of my players but of all the things that I teach them each week, this thing is most important – We play, win or lose, with class and dignity. Because when you walk off the pitch and hang up your rugby boots, you still want to be the same man or a better man after the game that walked onto the field before the game.