Entering a team as a new coach is a tricky balancing act. On the one hand, the coach has to demonstrate his or her value to their new team or group of athletes. He or she wants to take ownership of the programme. The employer wants to see a return on the investment. And often, the club is looking to implement change (hence the new coach is hired in the first place).
On the other hand though, players, coaches and organisations are creatures of habit. However good or bad, people become used to working in a certain manner. They have their routines and preferences. Disruption to these routines can negatively impact performance, relationships, and actually result in resistance which impedes the very change it is designed to bring about.
Many coaches have made the mistake of opting for revolution rather than evolution when starting out with a new team. Whether out of insecurity to prove their own worth, enthusiasm, or an overestimation of people’s appetite for change, they try to do too much too soon. I know I have been guilty of this more than once.
I have learned the hard way (so you don’t have to), that whilst a more gradual approach is frustrating to the coach, it will actually bring about more productive change in a shorter space of time than the slash and burn approach, with far less impact on interpersonal relationships, which are the foundation of coaching success. Here are my top three tips for making small changes that have big impact when entering a new club:
1. Change nothing, just do it better
The easiest way to not rock the boat is to change none of the actual content of the existing programme, merely to increase its productivity and efficiency by other means. This includes more intelligent load selection, stricter adherence to rest periods, better sequencing of work elements throughout the training day and week, better support for the programme in the form of nutrition and supplementation etc.
Though the concept of marginal gains in teams sports is not the panacea many have made it out to be, the cumulative effect of small improvements like these to the programme can certainly amount to significant changes as a whole. This is particularly striking relative to the level of pushback they receive from athletes, who should have no problem being asked to rest a little bit longer, “drink this” or take a break before coming back to the gym in the afternoon.
2. Change nothing, adjust the volumes
As regular readers of this blog will know, I think we have a real problem in rugby with the more is better mentality. As a sport full of tough guys, we equate suffering with effectiveness, and this just feeds into training with excessive volume. At best this leaves guys feeling unnecessarily fatigued and underperforming on the field. At worst it will manifest itself in injury and illness.
I’ve put this item second on the list though, as taking away work can elicit a far more stressful response from athletes and coaches the changes previously listed. If you’ve identified that work is being done for work’s sake somewhere in the programme, start SMALL. Even if it is just one set or a few minutes of junk work taken from the programme per week, these changes add up in the long term.
If and when the athlete asks why the workload is being reduced, I recommend making a clear logical case about the physiological reason behind your decision. Use some data to show how much better they perform when they are fresher. Highlight that the purpose of practice is to get better, and they already did X good reps (objective achieved). If the reduced workload really gets them spooked, try to minimise the negative impact of the work being performed. Can excessive 100% contact work be replaced with reduced contact skills or drills? Can running conditioning be taken off feet? Can extra strength work be limited to single joint, isolation movements?
3. Implement change slowly and intelligently throughout the squad
Technology companies looking to bring new products to the mass market don’t start out by selling themselves to the average buyer. Rather, they go after the “early adopters”. These are the small group of people who are super receptive to new technologies, who readily buy them and implement them into their lives. Facebook went after college students, Snapchat went after smart phone wielding teens, and Pinterest went after aspirational women. Likewise, if you trying to implement new exercises or a new way of working within a team, don’t start out trying to win over the most resistant players in the squad. Let them keep working as they are, with the changes outlined above. Instead target the early adopters.
There is no earlier adopter than the long term injured athlete. They are, for want of a better word, desperate. They will try almost anything to get back on the pitch quicker. They don’t have the short term anxieties other players may have about the effects of new changes on on-field performance. As the coach, you’re also able to spend more time explaining your rationale to a long term injured player, hold their hand and smooth the transition to the new methods.
Once the rehab group has been won over, move your attention to the most receptive or senior players within the squad. These two types of player should be targeted because they are an “easy sell” and highly influential respectively. By capitalising on the desire of receptive players to get an edge over their competition and experiment with their training, new ideas can gradually be introduced to the squad. Senior players can take a little more convincing, but as leaders within the team, they can also act as your salesmen and help convince the late adopters.
Lastly, go after the laggards. Eventually most of the squad will come around over a period of several seasons (yes, that long). Some may never come around but there are still some people out there without Facebook or Snapchat, so take it on the chin.