Coaches are doing a lot right but small adjustments and even changes in language can hugely benefit players

Experienced coach Kevin Mulcahy shares his practical tips on how best to prepare teams for competitive environments
Coaches are doing a lot right but small adjustments and even changes in language can hugely benefit players

Dan McCormack of Tipperary is swarmed by Limerick players Darragh O'Donovan, David Reidy, David Dempsey, Tom Morrisey and Conor Boylan during the Allianz Division 1 Hurling League opener. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

WHERE to start with coaching competitive teams.

A few years into helping other coaches and clubs with developing their coaching has made me realise a few things, here are a few of them.

1) Most coaches want to get better, but often don't know how. Coach education often fails to close that gap and can be excessively technical (methods) and fails to develop the why (principles). 

2) Coaches are doing a hell of a lot right, but small adjustments and even changes in language can have massive effects. 

3) They are overloaded by information and can't see the wood from the trees, and it leads to a return to 'the way we always did it'.

4) A significant minority are hoping talent makes them look good. 

5) Supporting with a framework and development of principles set many on their way. They know the game, they can use the games and they can build a positive environment, but it's like they just need someone to give them a template and show them they are on the right track.

But coaches often ask, where do we start, or indeed, where do I re-start?

Cart before the horse 

Very often the main issue for teams, let's say from a competitive age of U16 upwards, is where coaches put the small things before the important things. Like having a leadership group with U16s, but never having discussed what are the principles of playing corner-back.

Playing complex games before having basic technical proficiency. Having complicated 'tactics' without a base strategy. Going 20:80 rather than 80:20 (strategy:tactics). 

It goes on.

Many still believe there 'is no need for tactics' or 'you don't have the time for tactics at club level'. Hopefully, this article will give coaches an idea of how a layered approach can help build a strategy.

But you don't need a degree, you just need a vision, a plan, a knowledge of the game, a deep understanding of your players and a willingness to learn as you go. Remain malleable.

Principals are few, methods many. Social media can give you all the methods you need, endless. You will never run out of them even if you coached for 40 years. Methods for conditioning, for games, drills and so on.

But first we need to start with having principals.

Principals of the club 

This ideally is where you start, a kind of manifesto that guides coaches about what is important to the club and the real why we are here and exists. The type of imagery and simple understanding it should deliver is along the lines of inclusion, game time for all, development of the individual and a social outlet for all members.

Ciarán O'Sullivan operates as a star player and assistant coach with Tradehouse Central Ballincollig. Picture: Larry Cummins
Ciarán O'Sullivan operates as a star player and assistant coach with Tradehouse Central Ballincollig. Picture: Larry Cummins

Underneath that though coaches need to be allowed to breathe and have some individualism within a cohesive club structure.

Principles for the individual coach then will revolve more around the team they are coaching and the sport they are playing more specifically. 

These don't have to be written in stone and they don't have to be created before a ball is kicked. They can emerge and evolve over time.

That said a framework is a good starting point. 

Principles of the group 

Who are we and what are we trying to achieve?

Everyone says 'to win the competition'. But that's such a limiting target. 

Firstly, everyone has that aim and only one winner at the end. Maybe a principle along the lines of 'we are going pursue improvement from session to session and match to match'. That kind of broad and simple identity pillars, generally no more than three, and ideally a one-liner that's forceful and easy to remember.

Principles of the sport 

Essentially these are the rules of the sport. What we can and cannot do. 

What are the constraints of the sport? Even to the point of psycho-cultural elements, if we try playing a certain way, is it going to be acceptable to the players? Might it be seen as too old school or too new and trendy? 

These are things worth considering.

If we think about the inter-county game right now, there has been a shift towards a more Limerick-style by a few hurling teams based on last weekend. But does it suit? 

Maybe they will evolve, but is it culturally acceptable for Tipperary to have virtually no goal threat? 

Do teams have players like Aaron Gillane to play that lone role or indeed a phenomenal sidekick or even replacement in Seamus Flanagan? Galway maybe but nobody else, and they are the one side comfortable in themselves and probably the biggest threat to Limerick for that reason.

So why do it? Do they know how Limerick built their team? The games and structures behind it. 

Séamus Flanagan of Limerick in action against Ronan Maher of Tipperary. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Séamus Flanagan of Limerick in action against Ronan Maher of Tipperary. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

This makes me wary of following the champions. Your principles are your principles, and if we reverse back to the previous points, we build those based on the people we have and with the people we have. Not someone else.

But while on hurling, here are the basis of my present thinking on the game in the most basic way possible. It's like boxing, your shot, my shot. Or your puck-out, my puck-out.

If you go as far as having a few team principles for your puck-out and for how you will defend a puckout then you will be ahead of 75% of hurling teams 'strategically'. And if you nail that down, then you can add sub principles or more layers on maybe short, medium and long puck-outs - defending and attacking. 

The issue would be if you tried to do this all at once. That is when tactics gets too much for an amateur side. And players love this, they love developing the game more. We all love learning, but we know learning is stunted by overload.

Principles of play 

There are big frameworks out there like tactical periodisation and similar. They are very useful if you feel comfortable reading up on it and building out a framework. You can have defensive shape, attacking shape, defensive transition, attacking transition and more.

However, I think we should be thinking really simple, the easiest starting points possible.

How are we going to attack? How are we going to defend?

Standing back and thinking abstractly and broadly first: We have a lot of pace but lack some height.

Well, not much point in being a long ball team then is there! But we can be a 'direct' team. Also, we have shown in past we can counter-attack. Being a counter-attacking team could be the main attacking principle to start with.

Cork All-Ireland winner in 1999, Kevin Murray, is now a respected coach. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Cork All-Ireland winner in 1999, Kevin Murray, is now a respected coach. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Have we the bones of a certain approach but are somewhat deficient in particular skills that will finish the puzzle, then deliberately practice them.

These answers should be got with player input. And then the coaching part is to design sessions that will bring us that way. We want to train the way we play.

We can go deeper then and add sub principles of play or maybe divide it up further into something like having principles around transitions, attacking/defending shape and let’s say re-starts like kick-outs in Gaelic Football - an obvious area of importance.

How do we prepare for this? How do we coach it?

The answer to that is with deliberate intent. One way, but not the only by a long shot, is to go with themed sessions. 'Tonight’s session will lean heavily on our attacking play'.

So then everything could be geared to that, the warm-up, the walk-throughs, the small-sided games could have an emphasis on finishing, the discussions are around attacking, the bigger games can be constrained to have a more attacking advantage. Everything.

You could then follow that with a defensive session, and maybe then a more conditioning-based session, and so on. That weaving approach also gives space for thought, for ideas and a lot of the learning research supports this type of approach.

Again, and I can't emphasise this enough, if you let players sleep on it and chat amongst themselves about any principles or concepts, you can be assured it will come back better to you.

We could look at it from the point of view of the players learn in the game. Their perception of what’s happening is different from a coach who may know a lot about the game. Now if we can get both groups to think about the opposite then we are on a winner.

Principles of position 

One of the more notable changes in recent years of player knowledge, particularly at younger ages, but I have encountered it right up to elite sport, is the lack of appreciation for basic principles of a position. 

More than once I have been met with blank faces when asking players, give me any principles of playing corner-back in hurling. Not even 'keep your man outside you'. 

Now maybe we are moving away from those more position-specific ideals anyway, and that's fine, but the basics of attack, defend, movement and so are neglected. This is coaching’s fault, we have to take this one on the chin.

These are parts of the game that rarely change drastically, though may evolve, and will help players make better decisions by reducing the amount of cognitive choices they have to make. That's the reason for principles, to make smoother and faster decisions.

One successful practice I have taken from sports psychology coaches could consider is match scripts. 

Match scripts can have very short and simple points on them to help a player: 1) to understand the basics of a position, 2) their role on a team 3) add a strategic and tactical understanding for the team in a broad connected way between all players (it actually can become a form of strategic communication for the coach) and 4) as a way of them visualising their role. 

You don’t always have to use it for the entire team or all the time, but the effort is worth it.

I tend to practice in training or friendlies. Not all players need or want it, some indeed understand their roles and the game very intuitively. And it’s not a set of rules, just guidelines.

Players love clearly defined roles, you don't have to take it from me, we hear it all the time now from the elite sportspeople.

Cultures of knowledge and practice 

Some sports do a better job than others with this.

Basketball produces individuals with a real deep understanding of the game and roles for instance and I think the field sports have a lot to learn from basketball and its coaches and players.

It's particularly interesting because within the same sport, sometimes within miles of each other have these massively different cultures.

In GAA for instance over the years players I met or coached from Kerry, Monaghan in football and Killkenny in hurling had real, deep understanding of multiple layers of the game. These are a cultural phenomenon. 

In Cork, my experience is Nemo Rangers had it as a club in football. 

Former Nemo Rangers and Cork senior footballer Steven O'Brien. Picture: David Keane
Former Nemo Rangers and Cork senior footballer Steven O'Brien. Picture: David Keane

I find these phenomena really interesting from a socio-cultural aspect. But on the flip side, why do the rest of us ignore that? Not steal from that?

It’s something to consider.

Take your time. In the rush to do everything sometimes we can do little.

Don’t start at 100 mph. The players may have ideas of where they want to go and won’t always necessarily have been happy with the way things were going previously. So take the time to allow that space for ideas to emerge. There is an opportunity to get co-creative and involve the players.

Start small, with one thing. Just one thing, whatever you think is most important, and add that. Build a session around it and move on. It will need iterating and adjusting. Involve the players. Then move onto another thing.

Finally, principles drive behaviours. If we are trying to improve at a sport we are attempting to change behaviours. SO if we start there we can shape potential behavioural change. One key part though, if we exclude the players at the start, we make the adjustments much harder as we go. 

Whereas with player involvement we all accept there are elements of trial and error in everything we do.

 Ballincollig's Francis O'Sullivan is one of basketball's most experienced coaches. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Ballincollig's Francis O'Sullivan is one of basketball's most experienced coaches. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Special thanks to Ciarán O'Sullivan and Francis O'Sullivan (Ballincollig basketball) and Kevin Murray (St Finbarr's and Rebel Óg) for the conversations this month that unblocked my writer's block and crystallized a few things!

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