Rugby games are highly complex and unpredictable environments.
Effective team performance depends on the coordination of players in their responses to such rapidly changing settings.
One of the principal roles of a coach is to align individuals’ understanding of how ‘we’ respond in any given situation, bridging the gap between individualised mental models (MMs) and a shared mental model (SMM).
This piece will offer a high-level overview of how I have tried to build a defensive SMM and the essential role that video has played in the process. The model features three stages:
Developing a shared defensive identity
Ensuring a consistent and collective understanding of the principles that underpin that identity
Clarifying how principles play out in specific moments of the game
Identity With Purpose
My process begins by establishing a defensive identity that aims to anchor players’ responses to game situations. Take for example two contrasting approaches to defending, one where the defence serves to stop the opposition from scoring and another where the defence seeks to generate scoring opportunities.
A player’s perceptual recognition of game situations and the opportunities/threats they present will be affected by this defensive philosophy. Clear articulation of that identity provides high-level direction to the solutions players use to solve tactical problems.
The next step involves communicating the principles that support the team’s defensive identity. Video plays a critical resource in this process as it can provide clear pictures of the actions the desired principles demand and the situational cues that should stimulate the appropriate response.
Let’s again examine this idea in relation to the two defensive approaches mentioned above and the concept of ‘line speed’ (the speed at which the defensive line moves forward towards the opposing, attacking team) – a consistent feature of any defensive system in Rugby Union.
Given that team one’s defensive purpose is to stop the opposition from scoring, they would likely emphasise the ‘line’ aspect of the phrase and the importance of the connection between defenders.
This would contrast with team two, whose intent to generate scoring opportunities would emphasise the ‘speed’ element and pressurising the attack.
How ‘we’ as a group understand our principles and the words that convey them requires a tool that supports communication, such as video. Through video analysis, combined with effective communication, the group can begin to generate constancy in its understanding of the actions that underpin our defensive principles.
Having established a common understanding of the team’s defensive identity and principles, we again use video to build the group’s grasp of how these principles play out in specific game situations, and, given that the game provides ever-changing scenarios we must be able to recognise and adapt our responses collectively to achieve positive outcomes.
This involves an iterative, cyclical process of analyse and learn. Following game/training experiences I invite players to reflect on specific episodes using video as a review tool, clarifying the understanding of why things went well or poorly according to our SMM.
Gaps in knowledge are then addressed and tested in training before being analysed and reflected upon again. The procedure is illustrated below.
The method serves to progressively build collective understanding and coordinate individuals’ perceptions and intended responses to specific game situations.
To conclude, this piece intends to offer a high-level overview of how I have tried to build a defensive SMM. In each of the three steps, video analysis forms a key component. Underlying its contribution is its ability to provide an unequivocal frame of reference to players and coaches.
Given the problematic gap between memory content and the actual content of events, such a reference point is essential to generating consistent and collective responses to dynamic rugby environments – a vital condition for effective team performance.