North v South: Mastering the skills of the unstructured game


Two quality coaches and rugby environments with two very different stories coming from world rugby in early March. Mick Byrne (ex All Black and current Wallabies Skills coach) has reiterated a warning that Wallabies head coach Michael Cheika gave recently: any players who weren’t prepared to make that journey and master the skills of the unstructured game would pay the price. He is quoted saying:

Every single player out there wants to be better and we’re not doing enough work to make them better.

The game has got to the point where only 60 per cent is structured, while the other 40 per cent is unstructured.

All around the country, I watch teams doing their lineouts, doing their lineout drives. But they’re not doing any plays in an unstructured environment.

We need to upskill our players, get them into that 40 per cent part of the game. We’re scoring on the structured part of the game.

Jump to the other side of the globe and a coach formally said to not have the technical experience or expertise to cut it at international level, Stuart Lancaster (current senior coach at Leinster Rugby) has been praised by current Irish international Sean O'Brien regarding input into Leinster's attacking game. On returning from international rugby to Leinster's win in Champions Cup, in which all of Leinster's tries came from open play, O'Brien said:

I suppose you’ve more of a license playing with Leinster than at international level. It's nice to go into that environment and know the way you are going to play and know that you are going to have a crack and see where it takes you.

Different coaches have different game-plans. You stick to what they want to do.

He (Lancaster) has brought a new dimension to our attack definitely in terms of just playing, the unstructured stuff as well, the stuff that you face in games

With Stuart coming in now it’s just taken a bit of pressure off them (other senior coaches) and us, I think, as players, to give us that free reign of all-out attack

While both coaches display recognized importance for player involvement for development and improvements towards unstructured side of game, both appear to be generating potentially different player mindsets and motivational atmospheres to doing so. Comparing against work of self motivation written by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, Byrne has reiterated a very controlling and pressurized statement of how players need to change to meet Wallaby coaches' expectations. Research has shown controlling statements undermine player's intrinsic motivations and antagonize autonomy, which in turns drains enthusiasm and interest in controlled activities; in this case, improvements to skills and the unstructured side of the game.

Pressuring players to behave and act certain ways diminishes feelings of self determination, notably perceived autonomy and competence. Players are naturally embedded with tendency and energy to grow and develop; Wallaby coaches for this example could explore and promote internalization and integration of non structured side of the game. However, this perceived controlling context shall possibly impair development by promoting imposed coach introjection, a process which shall need to be repeated once done.

When players are pressurized and controlled to achieve particular outcomes such as  master the skills of the unstructured game, their self esteem is dependent on how those targeted goals turn out.  This area labeled as ego involvement relates to when player's feelings are dependent upon specified outcome; this additional pressure results in increased tension, anxiety to perform, impairs learning and diminishes performance. Mick's comments may have created the perfect storm in pressure to perform....

External pressure from Wallabies coaches may lead to an urge to defy as the targeted goals are without player personal endorsement and not a true expression of self. By creating highly controlling contexts and environments through behaviors or language, we undermine the natural desire to feel competent and at best, controlling behaviors from the coaches may gain sense of compliance from the players yet this shall not produce lasting change.  Meaningful  and lasting change occurs when players are self motivated by accepting themselves, take interest and responsibility in what they do and decide they can be creative and are prepared to do it differently, all displayed in comments made by O'Brien.

Lancaster and other Leinster coaches appear to have adopted and offered autonomy supportive style by offering choice, encouraging self initiation and display understanding for reasons for actions, creating mastery orientated players with high self esteem. These actions could result in the involved players being intrinsically motivated to improve within these areas of the game. This should result in better understanding, greater creativity, improved problem solving skills and willingness to learn and grow, all key skills required for unstructured side of the game.

Intrinsically motivated player performance within an autonomy supportive environment such as the one created in the Irish province shall offer players with an optimal challenge. Players shall feel more responsible for development and performance while shall seek to collaboratively learn and evolve as a group with a greater sense of harmony and emotional integration to unstructured side of the game.

So how could the Wallaby coaches promote autonomy to mastering the skills of the unstructured game? Cheika and co could (and should) involve players in goal setting process, allowing roles in decision making and offering choice of areas and ways to develop. When the players feel they are acting with a sense of choice, freedom and flexibility, working for the conman good and display true willingness to behave in accord with collective interests and values, they shall also be more capable to hanging behaviors needed to master the skills of the unstructured game.

Remembering the extent to which player's behavior is autonomous, creative and intrinsically motivated is determined by the interaction of their own personalities and the degree to which the context is autonomy supportive.  To allow the players to truly express themselves in unstructured side of the game, the Wallaby coaches must be committed to creating an socially supportive environment first to do so, similar to one of Chekia's old stomping grounds, Leinster.