“It’s not just about rugby… it’s about developing the whole person…”
This is a warming analysis from Bournemouth Rugby Club’s Head of Academy, Jo Burns. He is a former player and coach who now carefully oversees the club’s next crop of young players looking to make the difficult leap from academy development to the senior rugby level. Burns and his staff coach several youth teams at Bournemouth, ranging from various ages as they aim to help these youngsters develop both on and off the field.
Tailoring the Training
Improving a player’s technical skill on the pitch is an important element. However, Burns believes that modern coaches have been able to make a positive adaptation to aid the sports next generation.
“There’s a lot more coaching education now. It’s quite heavily focused on putting the player at the centre of the training and understanding what the pathways are being able to influence that. They are able to own their own development this way.
“When I was a young player, training was a lot more instructional in terms of ‘do this, do that, you’re doing that wrong’. Whereas now, its a lot more emphasised on allowing players to make their own decisions.
“They’re also given the chance to see what their options are off the field. And how that can impact not just themselves, but the rest of the team and the rest of their development.
“The game has also adapted to provide young players with knowledge for them to make their own decisions and the right choices. It’s more empowering for the players to be involved in their own development.”
Allowing young players to have a large amount of control in their development choices can lead to uncertain results. However, Burns and his team at Bournemouth believe their training approach can help get the best out of their youngsters.
“Most of our training is game-based,” he explained. “As the players turn 18 and they start to transition to the men’s game, especially at grassroots, it becomes more focused on match performance. Whereas at younger ages, we try to use a match as a test for the skills that they’ve learned, rather than an opportunity to just win a match.
“If you’re 14 and you win a game against your local rivals, there might be a bit of a buzz about winning but it doesn’t determine anything about your life. When you’re 24, you won’t be focused on trophies from the Under-13s, saying, ‘Look how good we were’. So I think the training and the opportunities to try new things in games is probably more important than the actual match result.”
The Social Aspect to Rugby
Another key factor in Burns’ approach to improving the club’s young players is his positive views on player socialising and team acceptance.
The former player added, “In terms of the level that they’re playing at, some players will train just for fitness. Others will come to socialise with their friends. For Bournemouth and myself especially, we are not elitist. So if you’ve never played rugby before and you want to come train with us then that’s okay. If you want to come because you want to see your friends, that’s okay as well.
“We just have an expectation that they apply themselves and commit to it. We have some people who really push themselves and want to be as good as they can be. That’s great because we can try to help them push for even better opportunities, such as playing for the county.
“For some people, it’s not about that and it’s difficult to tailor training that suits everyone. But that’s our job as coaches, and it’s our responsibility to ensure that. At the end of the day, we’re a community club and we’re there to provide a service to our community.”
Player Development and Maturity
Alongside improving the players’ work ethic and attitude to teamwork, Burns has also seen a positive change in their maturity as individuals.
“The difference between a 14-year-old and an 18-year-old player is massive. In terms of growing in maturity it really depends on the person”, he added.
“In the senior section and the Under-18s Colts, time is a lot more precious to the players. That may be due to work or other life commitments. So their focus at training can be more focused for rugby. It’s what they’re there for and spending their time to do.
“When younger players start integrating with those senior Colts players, or move into the senior section, you see they almost have a realisation that they’re here to do something they enjoy.”
Retention Rather Than Recruitment
Although developing youth teams is vital for rugby’s growth as a sport, there is another necessary aspect of the game that Burns has analysed.
“Coach education is very key for young players’ development. The most important thing for rugby is retention rather than recruitment.
“As coaches, we need to make sure that training is fun, exciting, and ticking everyone’s boxes.
“You get some lads who are 16 years-old going on 17 or 18, and there are other things that start catching their attention in life. Be that going out with friends, starting to drive, having relationships. As well as school pressure beginning to mount up.
“Rugby has to be something that they really want to commit to. And we need to make it into something they find enjoyable and fun, so they don’t want to miss out on it.
“That’s probably the biggest thing when we’re looking at those age groups. The players will want to use their time to continue to develop and get better at playing.
“I would wager that there is a significant drop-off in terms of players from the ages of 17-22 years-old. People go off to university and start getting jobs, which can lead to them never making it up to the senior game.
“We currently have 25-30 players training at the moment. The Under-15s have roughly 35 players, and then the seniors have maybe 40. So I think retention is certainly a key thing.
“In terms of recruitment, it’s important for the players to do what suits them best. If they want to change sports and try something new, then that’s great. But if they want to continue their development in rugby then that’s great as well. We just want them to have something to enjoy.”
With the current climate affecting sports and the young athletes who play them, it will be essential for rugby to continue developing their youth players and allow them to grow both on and off the field.
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