Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Potential .....

Potential .....

The fall ramp up has officially begun, and, like every other coach on the planet, I think about potential. It's a word that coaches use often when speaking of players - "gee, she's got so much potential!"

Since "potential" is a scientific term as well, I've been thinking about what it means. Presented for your amusement are my conclusions (be kind, I've been spending a lot of time in the dentists chair recently and not a lot sleeping).

We coaches really have very little idea how much potential an individual player has - not unless we know what they want,what they are willing to do to get it, and at least a little about their background and what makes them tick. Sure, we can look at, for example, a kick ass shot putter, and proclaim "DAMN she'd make a fine prop! So much potential!"

What we mean, of course, is that this individual exhibits certain attributes that mirror certain attributes of a rugby player. Does this individual have potential in rugby? Not unless she actually wants to apply those attributes TO rugby, and develop all the other things required to play.

So now I've used the word potential AND apply. And I sound like my Mom. Young lady, you have so much potential, if only you applied yourself! Well, my Mom wanted me to be a Dr. and I didn't. So as far as I'm concerned, I had zero potential at doctoring.

Where am I going with this? In physics (or electronics, or whatever), potential refers to theoretical stored energy. A rock on a ledge has potential energy. If and when it falls (or is pushed) off, it will have kinetic energy. Potential energy is nothing more than a prediction - because there is always an "if" associated with it. That brick with a specific set of attributes (mass for example) can never have MORE potential energy in that moment in time and space. To increase potential energy we have to add more mass, perhaps relocate to a higher location, or, if there are other items with potential energy, find a way to them to our brick.

In the theoretical frictionless environment that high school science teachers talk about, potential energy and kinetic energy express different states, but the value is the same. In the real world, this isn't the case. The wind blows and there is friction .... which despite the bricks potential energy, reduces its kinetic energy. Maybe the brick picks up some rubbish on the way down, increasing it's wind resistance. Maybe someone throws a rock at our brick, hits it on the way down, and knocks it off course. Reduced kinetic energy. Maybe, as a result of the collision, a chunk of our brick breaks off, and it no longer has the same mass. You get the picture. It's pretty easy to reduce potential, damn hard to increase it.

Bottom line is, our brick doesn't have potential tomorrow, it has potential today. Right now. Right at this instant. Tomorrow, the brick might be changed, ever so slightly, and it will have different potential. Maybe more, maybe less.

Our players have exactly as much potential on a given day as their physical and mental skills (speed, size, agility, technical prowess, mental toughness), the environment (the weather, the length of the grass, the grippyness of the ball), and their preparation (rest, nutrition, injury management, hydration, arousal level etc) will allow them to have. Not more. In addition to all of this conditional stuff, there just has to be the willingness. A massive muscular devastating player, coiled to execute a bone-crushing level iii tackle, has the POTENTIAL to destroy. The moment they choose not to tackle, the potential is gone.

I believe that there IS such a thing, on any given day, as "the best you can possibly do". We as coaches can only change that within limits - we run an optimal warm up, say a few inspiring words, and make sure there is plenty of water and plenty of oranges at half time. We must accept, at the end of the day, that players will NOT play to their maximum potential, because perfection is an unreasonable expectation, especially in a 80 minute rugby game.

Gee Lisa, that sucks. Are you seriously saying that I will never achieve my potential? HOW POSITIVELY DEPRESSING ... clearly you've spent too much time in that dentists chair. YOU SUCK.

What I'm saying is that, in order to improve a player's performance, we need to CHANGE their potential. There's lots of ways to do that - rugby practice, mental training, fitness workouts etc. We could reshape our brick and make it more aerodynamic, just like we can help develop the skills of our player - but to REALLY alter the potential of our player, we need to add something.


Rugby is a team sport - and the holy grail of any group of rugby players fall into two categories. Two on ones, and mismatches. Since a mismatch really is MY potential at exactly this second vs YOUR potential at exactly this second, lets look at two on ones.

When our players work together to create a 2 on 1 - be it offensively or defensively, they change their individual potential. This dynamic is always and forever being altered, but one thing is sure. Unless there is a gross mismatch - two players in combination will ALWAYS have more potential than one player alone.

Rugby math problem:

Average player plus awesome player vs awesome player. Who has more potential? Just like in chess, a queen AND a pawn pose a greater threat than a queen alone.


clearly I'm making a case for teamwork, but its more than that. I'm making a case for working not only to individual players potential, but to the potential of groups of players.


Wicked fast player in red goes 1 v 1 with wicked fast player in blue, blue is defending her 22ish. Wicked fast player in red is supported by average speed player in red.

Case 1. Wicked fast player in red goes wickedly fast and is tacked by wicked fast player in blue. Since average speed player in red can't keep up with the pace, wicked fast player in red turns over the ball.

Case 2. Wicked fast player in red takes just enough off her pace to allow average speed player in red to work at the limits of her potential. Blue defender (wickedly fast) tackles red player (wickedly fast) but, since the average speed player is able to support, the offload occurs an a try is scored.

At first glance, it sounds like I'm recommending that we ask the faster or bigger player to LOWER her potential to that of the average speed player. NOt at all. In this scenario, the potential of the "average speed player" has shot through the roof. At the moment in time that this average speed player puts the ball between the posts and finishes the try, we've re-defines that individual's potential. Tommorrow, that player's potentil is markedly higher because he or she has learned how to support and finish, at top speed. The wicked fast player's potential has increase - she, at that moment, became a play maker.

Alternate scenario for forwards who put everything in scrummaging perspective:

Tight head vs loose head, Red tight head is stronger. Hooker vs hooker, equal strength. Loose Head vs Tight head, blue tight head is stronger.

At first glance, the two teams, each with a dominant tight head, seem equally matched. What happens if all six players drive at maximum effort? Wheel, every single scrum. Since the loose heads are weaker, and the tight head on their own team is CONTRIBUTING to the wheel, both 1s are victims. What happens if the tight head on the red team backs off just a little bit? The loose head on the red team can stabilize, her opposite isn't as enabled to push since OUR tight head isn't making the scrum spin, and lo ... the team putting out LESS raw power, but an even application of power, will have control of the scrum.

So basically, as relates to potential, 4 things I'm thinking about pre-season - particularly when tackling the challenge of working with 50 plus players of varying skill, experience, desire, and POTENTIAL.

1. You or I, as the coach, have no idea about what a player's potential is. If she doesn't want for herself what you envision for her, the her potential is limited. She's not failing to meet it - it just isn't there to begin with. The moment an individual player says to herself - "I DO want this, and I'm willing to work at it", their potential skyrockets. When presented with a selection choice - choose the player who really wants to be there. Not the player who's convinced the team will crumble without her, or who believes she's doing the team a favor showing up.

2. On game day, we can't change anyones potential. We do what we can to optimize the environment, and the rest is in the hands of the players. On game day, our job is basically over.

3. Potential can be changed by increasing individual proficiency, but TEAMWORK, even in the smallest of units, creates increased potential and as a result creates increased performance in all players involved. If we, as coaches, work our very hardest to change the potential of our individuals, we'll change the potential of our team, and vice versa. Play players next to players who make them better players.

4. Everyones potential at any given moment in time is NOT the same. This goes not only for our team, but for the opposition. As a result of this difference in potential, mismatches occur. Learn to recognize these mismatches on the field, and the team's potential goes up. Learn to CREATE the mismatches on the field, and every player's potential goes up AND the teams potential goes up. Make smart selection choices and do not place players on the field in positional situations where they will repeatedly be the victim of a mismatch. Let the other team be victims.

Bring on the fall!


G said...

I think, often, when we (coaches, players, friends, whoever) talk about a players "potential" we are really just referring to our image of what they could do. I think you hit the nail on the head by noting that our perception of someone's potential is essential a moot point if they don't have the desire to achieve whatever goals we are imposing on them.

chiefcua said...


I found it interesting that you noted a huge problem that we as coaches can easily run into with players who not only have ton of potential, but also project very well-- and that is the mental work of "wanting to be there" vs "they need me/ I am doing the team a favor." In the 5 or 6 years that I have been coaching, I have made the error far to often of relying on that player, and in essence feeding into thier mentality-- but as you point out, it has the opposite effect (turning the ball over, running away from support, and turning a team sport into an idividual vs the world.)


Em said...

I wish I had 50 players to worry about!

Spot on with the rest, though.

Rob said...

That's a great post.

If you consider potential as talent, then if you add coachability (being able to accept coaching) to the equation, then the potential on any given day should be higher.