This article deals with a sensitive topic in the high-school sports community. Despite its long history around the world, the sport of rugby is seen as somewhat of an upstart in the United States. At the high-school level, there are only so many athletes to go around. So establishing or coaching a high-school rugby club means attracting players who participate in other sports, often at the Varsity level. For rugby clubs to exist in harmony with these established programs, high-school rugby coaches should try to consider what other coaches are worried about when a player says “I want to play rugby.” Luckily for us, we have a current high-school Football AND Rugby coach David Weitz to explain how to recruit high-school rugby players to your team.
One of the biggest issues facing most high-school rugby coaches is getting athletes to try rugby. Due to the physical nature of both sports, the best-suited athletes for Rugby at any high-school are usually the football players. Because of this, it’s critical that the rugby coach has an excellent working relationship with the football coach. While the majority of this article focuses on creating a great working relationship with football coaches, it is can easily be applied to coaches from all sports including basketball and track.
It can be difficult to convince football coaches to try something new. Many coaches, especially Head Coaches, have coached for decades and have developed a system for the offseason that they claim as being successful. Having a system in place and sticking to it is the safe option for most coaches who legitimately have their job security to consider. The risks associated with making a change that doesn't work prevents coaches from taking that risk. But in my experience, the majority of football coaches are open to making changes if they are presented with a logical argument, and they minimize risk for the football program.
In the Rugby community, many football coaches get a bad rap as people who are not open to change because they won’t allow football players to play rugby in the offseason. Just like any story there are two sides, and by understanding both of the viewpoints you can help cool the football coach’s fears while highlighting the benefits that both teams can receive by working together. If the question is of "how to recruit football players to rugby"we need also to consider why we should recruit football player, and from both perspectives.
How to approach coaches from other sports
It’s critical to start on the right foot with all of the coaches in your building. There is one almost universal truth in education; people are overworked and underpaid. This is true of most coaches but is particularly the case with football coaches. Due to the nature of the sport, the number of people in the program, and the money that is required to run it, Head Coaches are often as busy in the offseason as they are in the high school rugby season. In the offseason, there are 5-10 projects that must go smoothly for the next season to be successful. Between college recruiting, fundraising, grade checks, staff changes, staff development and off-season workouts most Head Coaches have no time to spare on projects that don't have a direct and tangible benefit to the football program.
Take these time constraints into account when you are initially contacting football coaches. Just like any meeting, it’s best to email or call and set up a 15 to 30-minute meeting with the coach. PLEASE NOTE: It’s critical that you schedule some time with them and you don’t just show up and expect them to drop everything to talk to you.
When choosing the right time to meet with the coach consider a few things. First, the NCAA only allows colleges to talk to athletes during certain windows. Refer to the NCAA recruiting calendar for further information about roles and responsibilities during these periods. The rest of the time is either a 'Dead' or 'Quiet' period. These active recruiting periods are very busy for coaches. To get the most time with the Head Coach, you should figure out the dates of the dead time and schedule a time to meet with the coach during this period. You can find a quick summary of football’s recruiting schedule for 2017. The NCAA recruiting periods are very busy times for any coach. You’re more likely to get a chance to sit down and present your case if you can schedule a meeting with the coach in the dead period. It also demonstrates to the coach that you understand their schedule and responsibilities which is a great first impression to make.
What coaches worry about
It’s important to know the things that coaches will be worried about when their players are signing up to play on your team. By anticipating these concerns and then addressing them with facts and a sound plan you are much more likely to get coaches on your side.
One of the top things that any coach worries about when athletes play contact sports in the offseason is the potential for injury. While there are very few major injuries in rugby, the risk of injury is ever-present.
Beyond concussions, the major concern is the potential for shoulder injuries that occur in any tackling sport. Most injuries heal with a few weeks of rest and proper rehab, but shoulder injuries have the potential to carry on for a career and sometimes require surgery. The other major injury concern is the potential for concussions. This potential exists in any contact sport. But in a sport like rugby, which involves violent collisions, the risk will always be higher than average.
There is a three-pronged approach that works best when mitigating fears of injuries with coaches. These approaches are also great for alleviating fears of parents and other school administration. These all fit within the scope of best coaching practice so they are things that you should be doing.
- The first and most important practice is always to have a certified athletic trainer available. This simple pre-cautionary measure is an absolute must for practices or games. There are countless situations where a medically trained professional can decrease the severity of an injury. Beyond being best for the player’s well-being, it also protects the coaches and club. If a trainer is at practice, they will give any medical treatment they are qualified to give and take that responsibility from the coach. Any money spent on trainers is a smart investment into the player's welfare and the club’s future. It may also be a positive recruiting tool.
The second practice is aimed at injury prevention. Through the use of pre-hab, many of the minor injuries that happen over the course of a season can be prevented. These are simple activities that can be quickly worked into the pre-practice routine and will pay off throughout the high school rugby season. I will go over several different pre-hab activities in different articles, but a quick google search will give you a base to start from. Our piece last year about doing Jefferson curls before rugby practice is a good starting point if you're concerned about the potential for hamstring injuries (the most common injuries at rugby practice).
Again this is a practice that is best for the players but also helps the team and club’s performance. Rugby is a very physical game, and throughout the season it becomes a war of attrition. Many times the team that wins the championship isn’t the best team 1-15 but is the team who has the depth to withstand the injuries that happen over the course of a season. If your team can limit injuries and speed up recovery by working prehab exercises into your warm-up, it will set your high-school rugby team up to be playing their best rugby late in the season.
- The final part of easing any concerns from coaches, administrators or parents is to keep data. By creating a simple sheet logging the type of injury and how long the player was out (this can be done with a simple Excel or Google Sheets file) you can present concrete information to anyone who may be concerned. Again this is best practice as it allows you to compare injuries from year to year. It is very difficult to remember previous years and the injuries that occurred. Many times when you remember past years you only remember the extremes which make it impossible to be accurate. By tracking the types and numbers of injuries, you can easily see changes from year to year and evaluate why these changes occurred.
Another major concern that many coaches have is that their players will not make strength gains if they are playing rugby instead of lifting weights with the team. Regardless of the sport, stronger athletes are more effective, less likely to get injured and more likely to be successful in the competition. All athletic programs should have the goal of increasing the overall strength of their student-athletes, this is good for both the student-athlete and any team they are on. It’s important that you make it very clear to the rest of the coaches in your school that you want your athletes to get stronger and that rugby can help them do this.
Great rugby teams have strong players, and as a rugby coach, you should be looking to develop this strength through your offseason and in-season workouts. Without a basic level of strength, no athlete will be able to withstand a full season of top level rugby. I have always been a fan of structuring practices around after school workouts. This kind of programming allows players to continue to get stronger as the season goes on.
In many large schools, there is a class period where the student-athletes can get their assigned workouts in. In these schools, the after-school workout typically serves to work on complementary lifts. In these situations, I am still a fan of having the team lift for the preseason and first half of the season. By doing this, your team gets extra strength work and also lets them be part of the team.
Another very common concern that coaches and parents have is that the player's grades will drop during the Rugby season if they are more focused on rugby than their school work. As students go directly to practice after school they don’t have time to do their homework, and when they get home they rarely want to spend that time doing homework.
The best way to stop grades from dropping is to have a 30-45 minute Study Table session after school. This dedicated study time was instituted at the school where I currently teach and coach. Two days a week we have a 30-minute study table session. This is a time where students work on their homework and have teachers who can help them with any questions they have.
We structure our Study Tables by splitting the team into two groups. The first group is for students who are struggling in their classes. These students have an entirely quiet setting and are not allowed headphones but also have teachers present to help with any problems they may have. The second group is for the kids who are doing well in their classes. These kids are allowed to talk quietly and are allowed to listen to their headphones. This is also an excellent time to get the students a meal to help them add strength through the season.
While it may seem like the team is losing 30-45 minutes of practice time, a commitment to academics will pay off in the long run. This 30-45 minute period has a profound impact on most student athletes. First, it makes it very clear to your student-athletes that academics take priority over athletics. This is something that’s very easy to say, but when you devote actual time to academics, your actions are backing up your words. Also, it’s important to teach your student athletes how to study and do homework. This may seem like a silly skill to teach kids, but many students that struggle in classes don’t know how to sit down and do their homework.
What Players Gain by Playing Rugby
Many coaches only view rugby as a sport that will take offseason workouts from members of their team. For high-school rugby coaches seeking to recruit players from other sports, it's absolutely critical that we highlight the strengths of our sport and the skills that rugby can develop in student-athletes. There are endless lessons that kids learn by playing rugby, but there are several skills that have cross-sports applications.
One of the biggest selling points for rugby is the conditioning opportunity that rugby offers. The sport of rugby forces players to be both mentally and physically conditioned so they can put forward effort over a sustained period of time.
This plays well towards all sports but especially the modern version of football. Football has moved to an up tempo approach designed to wear players down both physically and mentally. Due to the nature of the sport, rugby players have already experienced this and are in a better position to handle the physical and mental grind of an up-tempo game.
The conditioning that rugby training provides is especially good for bigger football players. Most athletes work harder on things they are good at. This means that many bigger players who need to trim down and work on their fitness levels would rather work on lifting weights instead of their conditioning.
Rugby is a great way to trick these players into getting into shape. With rugby, these players will be running multiple miles every game. In an average game, a high-school forward travels over three miles. By adding a competitive element and the chance to run the ball many bigger players get in the best shape of their lives during rugby season.
A huge part of developing great rugby players is getting them to be aware of and use the space that is on the field. In this aspect, the game of rugby is very similar to many other sports. Whether it’s football, soccer, basketball or any team sport, understanding space and how to create it is a fundamental component for success.
Spatial relationships are very hard skills to teach. This is largely due to their dynamic nature and the many different factors that go into make decisions in space. The best way to teach these skills is through games and play.
In rugby, all players need to learn spatial relationships and how to work together with teammates to accomplish their goal in space. The two on one drill in rugby is a skill that can be applied to just about any team sport. It is two players on offense trying to get by one defender. This is no different than a fast break in basketball, the option in football or passing in soccer. In all of these scenarios, players have to use their teammates and space to get by the defender.
CATCHING & BALL SKILLS
A common factor in almost any ball sport is that the ability to handle the ball is a huge determiner of success for a team. Rugby can help players in developing their ball skills. Many ball skills that are required for rugby are mechanically more complex movements than are seen in other sports.
In rugby, players are required to catch the ball under pressure from the defense. After they have caught the ball they must make a split-second decision to either secure the ball in contact or move the ball on by passing to a player on their team. The biomechanics of these movements are more complex versions of different sports. In football, players need to catch a ball under pressure and secure it in contact while in basketball players must catch a ball and make a split-second decision on what to do with the ball. Rugby affords players a great chance to work these skills and become more dynamic athletes.
Rugby is a sport that can help develop kids into better people, this is the reason we coach high-school rugby programs. But rugby isn’t alone in being a sport that can help develop better men and women. Every sport has its merits, and it’s important we realize this. It’s key to the future of the sport that we can get new athletes into the game and let them experience the sport. To do this, we must make connections with coaches outside of the rugby community.
We are in a time where specialization of student-athletes has become commonplace. To combat this, we must work with coaches from other sports. This doesn’t mean demanding players be allowed to play our sport. Instead, we need to open a dialogue and develop a relationship with coaches. The future of rugby in America is dependent on rugby coaches being able to recruit athletes to the game. We can no longer sit on an island and exclude ourselves from the high-school sports ecosystem. We must make bridges to other sports and create working relationships that allow student-athletes to participate in and gain from all the sports they play, including rugby.
Photo credit: leinsterrugby.ie