Interview with Dan Cottrell, Head coach and editor at Rugby Coach Weekly

Rugby Blindside spoke with Dan Cottrell who told us about his background in coaching and advice for any aspiring coaches.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got involved in rugby?

I played rugby for Bath and Bristol in the 90s, though mostly for their 2nd teams. I went into teaching eventually ending up as head of Economics and Business Studies at a large private school in Surrey. From there, I was made Director of Rugby. I did my coaching badges, took the 1st XV and helped coach Surrey U16s, U18s and U19s. In 2003, while still teaching, I launched “Rugby Coach” with a publishing friend. In 2005 it had grown enough to leave teaching. From there, I moved to Swansea, where I coached the Osprey U16s, Swansea Schools U15s and did a three year stint with the Wales Women team as assistant coach. I also coached my son’s team from U6s through to U16s. All of this helped my develop my understanding of coaching and help share my experiences with the Rugby Coach Weekly audience.

I’m now in Bristol, my home town, coaching every night of the week, with University of Bristol Women, Bristol Bears DPP and Broad Plain 1st XV.

Tell us about Rugby Coach Weekly and its role within the grassroots game.

Rugby Coach Weekly is both a weekly magazine and a huge website with over 3000 pages of drills, activities, games, videos and advice. But, I would like to emphasise, it is not the Dan Cottrell show. While I do have a number of ideas, the aim is to share as much of all the great coaching content from the widest range of coaches possible.

What works for one coach with one team might not work in many other circumstances. If you are coaching more than one team, it might mean you need to find different solutions to the same problem, because of the variety of situations you might face.

We hope to speak to the grassroots game, using good practice from all over the world. This year we launched the Women’s Rugby Coaching and relaunched the weekly magazine. We have online courses too, something we would like to develop further.

What are your core philosophies / coaching fundamentals?

This is a great question because I think they are changing all the time, so it is difficult to give an exact answer.

Currently, I think that players often lack understanding of why they are doing certain things on the field. If it works at a moment in time, if they don’t know why, then they are unlikely to be able repeat that.

My current philosophy is to embed knowledge through building up a strong understanding of the game in front of them. They need to know how to win the game. That leads to some principles and ways to use those principles.

My coaching fundamentals are to go to a game first if I can. However, the players cannot guess their way to the answer. That needs a careful balance of challenge, information and reinforcement.

I would love to think I get this right most of the time. I know I don’t, so I’m constantly trying to find ways to make my coaching more substantive and relevant.

In the past, I’ve been guilty of trying to embrace the newest, shiniest ways. In the end, through 25 plus years of teaching and coaching, the fundamentals remain the same. Connect with your players, have an excellent knowledge of the game they are playing and use a range of teaching styles to impart that knowledge. You are helping the player understand their pathway. They may know themselves or need guidance. Your interventions need to recognise when to say something and when to leave it.

What are the common challenges you hear from rugby coaches at the grassroots level?

On the what to coach: poor tackling, poor handling, poor rucking skills. On the how to coach: our players won’t listen, our players don’t seem to grasp the concepts.

The main challenges often happen because there’s a disconnect between the coaches’ perceptions of the problems, the players’ own perception of the problem and, what you might call, the game problem.

The game problem is about how to “win” a game moment. For example, in defence, how to get the ball back, or in attack find space to go forward. That means that the coach will know that they need to improve passing, but don’t connect it fully to the game problem. It’s the same with the players. The connection might be there, but it’s weak.

Then both the coach and player expect to solve their own problems with some easy fixes. Yet, we don’t bend our solutions to suit our players or our own strengths. For example, there are lots of excellent YouTube videos out there to show how to improve tackling or rucking or passing. The better coaches adjust this content to their players.

Often the challenge is rooted somewhere else. Teams will struggle to play an expansive game if their catching and passing is poor. One very simple solution is to make sure you have the best ball for handling! For the youngest players, I will even take a little bit of air out of the ball to make it softer and smaller.

In your opinion, what are the key attributes that a rugby coach needs to succeed?

The clever answer questions what is meant by success? Getting a full team out at the weekend is a good starting measure post-pandemic.

In which case, I think you need to model the behaviours you would expect from your players. The RFU TREDS is a pretty useful guide: Teamwork, Respect, Enjoyment, Discipline and Sportsmanship.

My own mantra is that you need to listen, lead and lose. Make sure you know what others think. You don’t need to do what they say, but you do need to acknowledge their contribution. “Thanks for that input on who should play 10 on Saturday. This time I’m going to disagree and go with another player. Let’s review this after the game.”

And that sentence includes leadership. You have to be bold and make things happen. Leading means doing. It also acknowledges that you will make some tough decisions. You can’t cover everything, or select everyone.

However, a good leader sticks to their principles. If your measure of success is to keep a group together, you might have a rotation system for games. Leaders keep to that even if a stakeholder suggests differently.

Finally, to succeed, you have to be prepared to lose. Again, acknowledge that. “I got that selection wrong.” Or “That activity in training didn’t achieve what I think we needed.” I suppose the last “L” I should state is “Life”.

You can’t let it become all-consuming. You have to be able to step back. Much easier said than done. If you can, think that there’s always another game next week.

What words of advice would I have for someone who is considering taking their first steps in rugby coaching?

Coaching is many things to many people. You could be helping out for 10 minutes for your child’s team on a Sunday or leading the U9s for a new season.

My advice is this:

  • Coach something you know to start with.
  • If you don’t know much, ask the players what are their favourite games, ask them to set it up and let them play. Encourage them. Enjoy their enjoyment.
  • Watch other coaches. Take from them things you can do.
  • Week two should look like week one, but with only a couple of small adjustments.

And finally, what are your future plans for Rugby Coach Weekly and how it can help the game grow and develop?

We are going to get out on the road more. We want to listen and connect with coaches and help coaches connect with each other. When an U9’s coach and U10’s coach chat that creates an enormous amount of rugby capital. We are also keen to spread the net far and wide for contributors. Sometimes it is the same “game” but with a wrinkle that gives you a new angle.

For example, I saw a two-player knee touch warm-up the other day, but the players were either side of a line. The players were only allowed to have one foot over line at any one time. Clever wrinkle.

This article appeared in the Autumn 2021 issue of Rugby Blindside magazine – Read the full issue here