The coaches of the eight quarter-finalists in last year’s World Cup had at least one thing in common: they started playing before the game had turned professional, a time when observation and gut feeling influenced decisions rather than data.
Head coaches and directors of rugby breaking into top division clubs are now of an age when they have known only professionalism. Products of a very different system, emphasis is now placed on statistics and technology, to the detriment of players and the game itself according to a new study by Andrew Manley and Shaun Williams of the University of Bath.
They interviewed 10 players, a coach and an analyst from a Premiership club for their paper, finding that the approach from the top was data-driven, with players gaining or losing a new contract through key performance indicators, and a work efficiency index based on an individual’s contribution in games.
“It is a reflection of where life is,” says Dr Williams, a teaching fellow at the university’s department of health and a rugby coach himself. “We live in the big data society in which everything is broken down into numbers. The club we researched was an extreme example of that and one conclusion was that a lot of the data lacked relevance.
“I recently read an interview with George Ford [the England and Leicester fly-half]. He said that when he goes home from training he watches reality television, needing to switch off from the pressures of rugby. Players do need space away from rugby, as clubs like Saracens appreciate with their emphasis on dual careers and more of that is needed. Too much data is limiting players with pressure to perform to the stats and the anxiety around that having a detrimental cost in terms of enjoyment and performance.”
Williams, like the England head coach, Eddie Jones, is concerned the professional system, starting with academies, is producing players who lack dimension, used to being told what to do and regimented, making them more comfortable executing a gameplan rather than reacting when a game is slipping away.
“The data approach takes away core human qualities, such as intelligence, creativity and emotional connection,” says Dr Williams. “Life for players is mechanistic and restrictive with coaches concerned that if they do not keep up with technology they will become out of touch. Data has potential per se, but it creates an aura of the truth while taking away the instinctive feeling and emotion of coaches.
“And there is another issue. Who owns the data? The players? The club? It is a grey area which lawyers are trying to tidy up, but if a player loses his contract and another club wants to check on his statistics before offering him a deal, should they have access? Football sides use data to develop algorithms that show what a player is worth in the European market, but an agent will feed the same stats into a different algorithm and come up with a different sum.
“But there are qualities you cannot measure. The captain of the club in our study was not the greatest player in the team, but he was a really good leader, emotionally charging people and bringing players together. I was told the example recently of a top player who was the worst tackler in his side but the best defender because of his ability to organise others. It shows that less data needs to be given to players and it needs to be made more meaningful.”
Dr Williams has read Jones’s recently published autobiography and believes the Australian’s considerable life experience inside and outside rugby makes him an ideal leader of players. “His observations are interesting and his book shows that life experiences for coaches coming through now are vastly different, far less rounded for a start.
“Coaching should be educational for players, not controlling. The knowledge coaches have now tends to be procedural, how to go from A to B based on technical expertise. They are mimicking the cultures they have been part of and there is a cost to players in terms of happiness because data causes fear and resentment and leads to a psychological grind. And so the game becomes more predictable and formulaic and less entertaining.
“Japan were a pleasure to watch in the World Cup because the scrum-half got the ball away quickly and they were always looking for five on fours and three on twos, but the game in England is highly structured and regimented. Where will the unstructured coaches come from and will the game look outside rather than go for former players all the time? Why are there no coaching mentors?
“Professionalism has meant there is far more time to fill compared to the old way of two evening training sessions a week. And so players are on their laptops, becoming bogged down by data and the way they are managed. I remember Brian Ashton taking coaching sessions at Bath University and he said that, when it comes down to it, rugby is 15 against 15. Everything about his approach was fluid.”
He would like to see the academy system tweaked. “I think players should go through university before turning professional to give them more life experience. Development today is too insular and the game is producing decision followers rather than decision makers. Data is forcing players to be individualistic, rupturing social bonds. It is not the truth that solves all the problems and players are becoming worn out before they reach 30, tired of acting out their numbers. It should be about who they are, not their digital persona.”
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