Lee Smith's Coaching Corner: The Development of Attacking Play Underline 26 April, 2011 Part 1 - What is the problem?

In viewing the standard of attacking play in the contemporary game at the professional level there is no doubting the physical preparation and performance of the players. This is a reflection of their strength and conditioning programmes and is a reflection of the degree to which this aspect of player preparation is dominating.

This has two ramifications.

The first is that the closer we get to the optimum level of physical preparation the less the return for increased effort. We run into diminishing returns.

If strength and conditioning was the only component in the preparation of players this would not be so important but, broadly speaking, player preparation also involves the following components:

• Technical
The ability to perform a technique and progress it to a skill that can be performed successfully in competition.

• Tactical
The ability to choose from the menu of skills that players have at their disposal so the most successful skill is chosen. This is the skill that best complements the skills being performed by the remainder of the players to be successful as a team.

• Mental
The ability to perform the most successful skill under pressure by preparing mentally prior to the contest and performing during the contest.

Of course all these components are inter-related.

Poor physical preparation erodes skill performance.

Proficiency in a limited range of skills results in a lack of success even though the players may be fit. All the fitness in the world will not compensate for a player who loses focus on the game plan and plays individually.

What is emerging from the dominance of strength and conditioning is a gladiatorial contest that seeks contact and physicality as the war of attrition takes place to wear the opposition down. This is the aim of the team’s performance but to do it solely in the physical dimension excludes the roles that the other three components have in achieving this end more efficiently and easily.

Further to this is the application of the principle of diminishing returns to each component. As stated above the closer any given component gets to the optimum the less the return for any additional effort.

For example if a component is close to maximum returns we may double the time spent and only get a 5% improvement. On the other hand the return from components that are neglected can be greater than the effort that is put in. For example from 25% more time spent we may get a 50% improvement in the performance of the skill.

The overall aim is to achieve a balance so that the mix results in each variable complementing the other. Here the term synergy or leverage comes into play which states that the total improvement by training collectively across all the components is greater than the sum of each of the components practiced individually. This is because being well prepared in any one component enhances the performance of the others.

What has brought this situation to our attention is the observed deficiencies in attack such as:

1. Passing:
• too early or too late.
• too high, too low, too hard.
• Receivers too flat on the pass so that it has to be made at or behind them. If it is made forward of them it results in a turnover.
• Long passes that spend so much time in the air the defence has time to adjust.
• Passers drifting in the direction they are to pass allowing the defence to move onto the receiver.
• Miss or cut out passes that eliminate the extra attackers when there is an overlap. 

2. Decision-making:
• The inability of players to read the game situation to ensure a win.
• The inability to read the play of an opponent to get an individual advantage and the various groupings of players between the individual and the team.
• The ability to assess the situation as to where opponents are positioned and to play to where they are not.
• Winning the contest of the gain line with an opponent so that the least option that is achieved is to maintain the momentum of play.
• The significance of the gain line in achieving momentum. 

3. Kicking:
• The ability to perform a kick accurately, knowing where the space is and having the ability to manipulate play to create space should it not exist.
• The ability to make a contestable kick.

Finally we must recognise that attack is reactive. A successful attack reacts to the behaviour of the defence and doesn’t blindly go through with “the move”. If it does defence becomes easier. It is a relatively simple skill compared to attack and the attack doesn’t want to give the defence a standard blueprint to work to.

Match analysis gives a successful attacking move limited shelf life but an attacking move that creates options depending on the behaviour of the defence is difficult to analyse. This is because, when the defence acts to counter one option, the attack chooses an alternative. So a move creates options and the successful option is the one that exploits the behaviour of the defence. 

To be continued... 

Lee Smith is a senior rugby development officer with the International Rugby Board and travels widely around the Pacific region coaching, developing and promoting the game.
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