The Use of Themes in Coaching: A Framework for Coaches

What are we, if not our stories?

The Walworth Farce

Having spent the past season exploring how ‘Themes’ can be used in rugby, I have learned about how effective this can be for forging team bonds. Coaches are privileged to have the opportunity to do so. My desire is to ensure that I can contribute to those people while at the same time connecting with them in a common purpose.

This year I have looked to introduce something unique to my coaching by using themes or the use of a story for the groups with whom I work. This was inspired by the ‘Break-dancing’ Coach Scott Robertson of the Crusaders who uses ‘themes’ to tell a story to motivate his players. So far it has worked very well; they have won 3 Super Rugby titles in a row under Robertson.

Whereas the Crusaders have been known to have used a Muhammad Ali theme in the past, we used the story of Apollo 11 with a school-boy team and the Endurance Expedition of Ernest Shackleton with a men’s team. Both provided some great moments and reflections throughout.

Below are some key areas and questions I will use when planning to use a theme or story again. I hope it proves useful for anyone out there who is looking to do something similar.

Finding a story we belong to:

It is essential to think carefully about what kind of story you wish to use. What may have worked for others may not work for you. Choose wisely. If you and your coaching group are passionate about the story you have chosen but your playing group are not, then there is little point in proceeding with it.

My biggest piece of advice here is: start with the players. Think about what might resonate with them. If you are new to the club or the environment, do your utmost to find out as much as you can about the group. It is also integral that you know the story inside-out. You should delve deep to find areas that might fit – or identify areas that could clash and might be a reason to not pursue this theme or story.

Key Questions:

  • Why this story? Why will these people care about this story?
  • How will this story resonate with your group?
  • What do you – as individuals and as a group – want to achieve and how does this story help you to achieve those goals?

‘Landmarks’ in the story that can link to us:

By exploring more about the story, you will find aspects of it that might link to your own group. Try and identify a series of ‘landmarks’: key episodes or ‘mini-stories’ that will be useful to draw on throughout the season. Think carefully about when you might introduce these landmarks to the group and do not worry if it breaks the chronology of the story. Find what works for you and use it accordingly. ‘Landmarks’ can be key teaching moments and often are what holds the story together.

Key Questions:

  • What are the key moments, events or individuals within the story that could be useful for us to explore further?
  • Is there a natural way (ie responding to setbacks or failures) to connect these moments in our season?
  • What key dates or moments might work at creating a solid link between the story and your team?

Values that underpin the story (That you want to encourage): 

Study your chosen story carefully and examine what kinds of behaviours or values you wish to promote. If this story is going to grip and inspire your players, make sure they are emulating people and values that align with the team’s goals and reputation.

Key Questions:

  • What values do you want your team to live by? Do these emerge in the story and can you promote and live by them each week? 
  • What do those values look like in training? In matches? How do they apply to the different units within the team – coaches & players?
  • How can we live the story by what we do- on and off the pitch?

Find some ‘Totems’ – Bring the Story to Life:

At times, the story you have chosen may seem very distant from your own team. If you could find a physical object that can bridge that chasm, you can maintain its resonance. An example of this in the Endurance theme was the (awful) bottle of Shackleton Whisky. When Scott Robertson and the Crusaders used the Muhammad Ali theme, they would get everyone to sign a pair of boxing gloves and then present them to the man-of-the-match. Such incidences can invigorate and embody some of the values or the interactions you want to encourage. Totems can make your story tangible.

Key Questions:

  • Are there any symbols or ‘props’ within the story that you could draw on?
  • What rituals can you use that reinforce the values and overall aims of your story?
  • What leadership or social structures – in Apollo, we used the term ‘Michael Collins’ to embody the hard-working, unseen individuals who are key to our success – are in the story that could be useful within your group?

Language: Co-Creating your ‘vernacular’

As an English teacher, this is an area that fascinates me. With a specific story, you could explore how language works in your team – coach to player, player to player, coach to coach, team reports, weekly newsletters, social media – and see how you could merge these if useful. The Crusaders used boxing terminology in their tactical technical framework and this could be an area for you to re-write some of the cliches or jargon that may have pervaded your own coaching and team.

However, I would advise that you ensure the language you agree is co-created rather than imposed on a group. You must agree words or phrases that will be used and it is therefore wise to avoid one person (probably you!) who is drawing up a list of phrases the team should use. Remember: language lives because of the people who use it and it is changeable and adaptable. Make sure you all know what your language means and that is actually used. Otherwise, it will not last.

Key Questions

  • What language will you use that will be unique to this group? What terminology or phrases do we currently use? Do we all know what they mean?
  • How can language help create cohesion among the group? What messages are we portraying by the words we use?
  • What language might exist within the story that you could draw on for your group?

Team Architects’: Coaching & Playing Group

It is imperative that you do not take a ‘Lone-Wolf’ approach to using a story or theme in coaching. Ensure you explain the purpose behind your story and why you think it will be worthwhile. Draw on the advice and support of your coaching group first and then a small number of key individuals who are leaders due to their technical ability or their social influence. If you cannot convince these people to support the story, you may have trouble selling it to the wider group.

If they do support the idea, give them some part to play in shaping the delivery of it. Allow them to lead on certain aspects or get them to research the story so you can enhance the impact it could have.

Key Questions:

  • Who can help shape and breathe life into this story?
  • Which coaches share your vision of this story and its power to assist your group’s aims?
  • Which players might enjoy the responsibility of being custodians of the group’s story?

‘Red-Teaming’: How robust is your story?

Before you decide to launch your chosen story or theme, you should definitely ‘Red-Team’ it by placing it under scrutiny. If everyone in your group loves it, find someone with a cynical eye or get someone to play the devil’s advocate. Test it out. Ask difficult questions. If it cannot withstand these challenges, then fix that before proceeding. You do not want things to unravel due to an unforeseen circumstance. If it does hold up then you should be all the more reassured that it has done so.

Key Questions:

  • What happens when your team’s aims and goals bifurcate from the story?
  • What happens when you have a run of losses; drastic change in personnel; or short term aims are not met?
  • What if people start to question the story mid-season?

Story Launch:

Once you have considered all of the above and got the requisite buy-in and support from your ‘cultural architects’, think about the best way to present it to the wider group. With Project Apollo, we used the clip of JFK claiming the US would reach the moon before the Soviets. It just so happened that we launched Project Apollo 57 years to the day that Kennedy gave that famous speech. Using a team highlights reel interspersed with images or clips from the story can be a good way to try and link them together in a clear and succinct fashion.

Key Questions:

  • How will you start the story? How will you sell it to the wider group? Could your cultural architects take a lead on this?
  • How is this story better than others and how will it help you in your team’s aims? Will this be clear in this ‘launch’?
  • How do you sustain the buy-in from the group once you have launched the story?

If you are interested in discussing any of the above, please feel free to get in touch. I have learned so much from connecting with others and exploring their thoughts and ideas for new ‘stories’ to use.

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