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How to prepare for an event, game or tournament

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Sam Messam giving a team talk

Sam Messam giving a team talk

  • Two top coaches in very different environments give us their views on preparing for an event, game or tournament.

  • UKCC Level 4 Basketball coach Sam Messam stresses the group working together to solve problems is key, and not just the starting line-up but every player.

  • Namibia rugby union head coach Phil Davies gives an insight into his team’s preparations for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

It’s one of the greatest challenges and conundrums in sport – how to be ‘ready’, how to prepare for an event, game or tournament.

As the old adage goes, if you fail to prepare, then prepare to fail. As a coach, your technique may be to use the latest sports science or get your athlete to punch raw meat like Rocky Balboa, the point is that there are many ways to get your charges just right.

For two top coaches in very different environments, there are some marked similarities, the greatest of these being clarity and understanding or knowing your athlete, and that athlete knowing exactly what their role is.

Basketball coach and ConnectedCoaches member Sam Messam says the most important thing for him is to get to know his players, and make sure they know exactly what he expects of them and what their roles are.

Beat the clock

The 45-year-old father of three has coached across the Regional and National Junior Team programmes, and stresses that, for him, it’s vital that he establishes roles right at the beginning, saying that, for the 2014 European championship, it was a year-long process.

‘You work with the players, and you look for the roles they establish. It might be one clearly emerges as the team leader, another the team clown, the motivator, the driver, and the team looks for these people to establish their dynamic, and for them to deliver on court.’

Sports lecturer Sam is one of only three UKCC Level 4 basketball coaches in the UK and is currently in the second year of a PhD, his research being focused on the development of talent and the role of coaching behaviours in pursuit of performance improvement. He knows that a squad’s time together is limited, especially when it comes to representative level. As he says, ‘You always identify time as an issue, you never have the luxury of time.

‘A way around this is to use social media and technology – be that emails or places such as YouTube, ie you want them to communicate away from me as coach.

‘You may set them a question or a problem; for example, give a scenario of: with 30 seconds left, what would you do on court? And when you do have time together on court, you’ll set similar situations.’

Sticking together

But again, for Sam, it’s the group working together to solve problems that is key, in other words, the cohesion of the unit, and not just the starting line-up but every player.

‘We have 12 players in the squad, and numbers 11 and 12 might not get on, but they play a very important role and must be allowed to realise that.

‘As a coach, you challenge all the squad to play to their ultimate. In a game itself, you really look at eight playing a full part, with the others having a very limited time on court. But they are an important part of something. And especially in a tournament with a few games, things change, and all must be ready.

‘Of course, the older or more mature players are, the more they can accept what is happening and why, but for younger age groups, that’s more difficult as they see participation as the most important thing. They want on-court time.

‘There are outside influences at work obviously, such as clubs and parents. I’ve had parents ring me up at 2am, demanding their child has time on court, and parental expectations need managing.’

Sam says he regularly talks to parents and asks them to ‘buy in to’ the bigger picture and long-term goal.

‘Each player always believes that if they work hard enough, they will get on court.’

As a big event or tournament draws nearer, the training camp phase comes close, and by that time, the team roles and cohesion need to be in place.

‘They must be supportive of each other, whether they are in the “first five” or numbers 11 or 12. If you don’t have that, then it breaks down.

‘The starting five may start on a daily basis in camp, but someone may emerge, physically better than the others. So there may always be movement in those first eight or nine players, but their “roles” don’t change.

‘The starting positions may change, but roles stay the same. We need to be a safe environment, and that allows us to challenge one another.’

What’s absent in Sam’s preparation is mention of physical fitness because, as he points out, this basic building block should be pretty much in place. Yes, the tournament in Turkey in summer 2014 was hot and physically demanding, and work was done to prepare for that, but at representative level, a majority of players’ and coaches’ time together is spent in preparation, building relationships etc, while the on-court part is perhaps just 40%.

‘You are relying on the clubs and regions to prepare the players with the skills. We then need to move players to a new level, using playbacks, video, solving problems.

‘For players, there’s a lot more time spent on this than they anticipated. Being fit and playing is something they can do easily, getting the other stuff right is the challenge.’

Goals galore

Another coach with experience at the very top as a player and coach is Welsh rugby union star Phil Davies, the man who led Tier 2 side Namibia into the last World Cup against the biggest of big guns in the group stages, the All Blacks.

For him, the whole event was a fantastic learning experience for his side, which was made up of a mixture of professionals and amateurs. What Phil was very keen to ensure was the tournament would not be a rude awakening.

‘For us, it was a case of finding and identifying an outcome or goal. What is reality, what do we want, and how can we work to get there?

‘By the time we had got to England, we had played test matches and grown the intensity. A lot of our players were simply not used to that level of intensity so we worked on this as individuals and as units. We set plans in place for them all.’

Once again, it was a case of identifying roles as they worked to a united goal.

‘We had three weeks with the players, and you can’t change habits in 21 days so you try to make it simple. We set weekly goals and daily goals within that.

‘We created an environment of hard work and team spirit. We created the culture we wanted, including punctuality and politeness. We wanted to win, but obviously, the reality was we were trying to build and also blend players of various experiences and levels – a Tier 2 international side at a Tier 1 competition.’

‘We looked at our fitness levels, how long you need to keep going against Tier 1 teams. Some players could give us that intensity for 30 minutes, some 50 and some the full 80. We had full-time professionals as well as part-time players, but we knew it was a squad effort.

‘Every single player understood their roles, and the strategy worked for us, and going into the final games, we still had 29 of the squad to pick from.

‘I always spoke to the eight left out and told them that their chance would come. Their roles were to:

  1. train
  2. support
  3. analyse the opposition for the forthcoming game when they would be playing.

‘It created a harmony, we gave each player at least two matches and kept focus on their roles and responsibilities.’

Namibia head coach Phil Davies before his side take on New Zealand in his side’s IRB Rugby World Cup 2015 Pool C match

Namibia head coach Phil Davies before his side take on New Zealand in his side’s IRB Rugby World Cup 2015 Pool C match

The team for the win

Phil knew that experience was something he simply couldn’t give his players, apart from his own as a forward who won 46 caps for Wales and coach at Leeds, where his side won the Powergen Cup.

‘At Leeds, we’d reached a couple of semi-finals, had experience in the Heineken Cup and in knockout competitions and had a team in their third season in the top flight. We knew we had the tools to win.

‘But with Namibia, we knew the level of competition. As well as the All Blacks, there was a Tier 1 team in Argentina, plus fellow Tier 2 sides Georgia and Tonga, and they were our real focus in the run-up to the tournament.’

Namibia have taken some real hidings in the Rugby World Cup over the years, and Phil’s goal was to get that elusive first win. As it turns out, they came within a point, losing 17-16 to Georgia and 35-21 to Tonga, but the big thing to emerge was respect and team spirit.

‘The players knew their roles, and when you have clear purpose, people are more comfortable and confident.

‘I just believe the team is the most important thing, full stop.’

Phil admits that, sometimes, you simply can’t bridge the gulf. ‘When you have a Shane Williams at the end of the back line for example, well, he has that X factor, and that’s when you become world class. With Namibia, our “star” at the World Cup was Jacques Burger (the Saracens flanker). He is an inspiring character to our group with his big hits and his style of play. At Leeds, it was guys like Tom Palmer and Braam van Straaten – world class players, but none of them can perform unless they are part of a team.’

The challenge for Namibia now is to push on and for Phil to continue learning, just as he has from a host of top coaches over decades at the top. This is the man who played under Gareth Jenkins at Llanelli, and preceded Stuart Lancaster at Leeds, and has taken something positive from each.

‘From Gareth Jenkins, it was risk taking – you always had to look at ways to win. Eddie Jones has great attention to detain. Steve Hansen, it’s about analysis. Plus, I’ve taken things from football; for example, Sam Allardyce’s holistic approach – treat players of different ages differently so they train in the way best for them.

‘You often learn more from difficult experiences than from when you are winning.’

Sam Messam’s top tips

  1. Establish role clarity and acceptance across your team.
  2. Establish multiple levels of realistic goals (individual, team and performance-related goals). This should be a joint exercise and can be very rewarding and a great deal of fun.
  3. Identify and examine every possible detail prior to the competition.
  4. Be transparent in your planning and preparation, and make as much of it available to the squad as possible. (If possible, seek the advice and commentary of your squad.)
  5. Don’t assume your squad/team will automatically come together. Programme activities to promote and influence team cohesion.

What did you think of this article? Do you have any tips to share with your fellow coaches on tournament preparation? Leave a comment below.

This blog is also available as a podcast on a number of platforms including iTunes. Listen here.

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