Chris Assmus is a World Rugby 15s and 7s ref and a friend of the Rugby Ref site.
Coaches have game plans; players have their personal game plans as well. “I’m the ref. I call em as I see em.” While it’s important not to over map, design, pre-analyse or plan, preparing for the picture you may see is a useful process. At least, this process has been valuable… when I actually learned how to do it.
For those of us fortunate enough to have refereed test rugby or referee top class games in our countries, submitting a game plan is a necessary thing that you must do. Failing so, you will not please the assessor/coach/PR (these terms have ebbed and flowed over the years). Any referee simply wishing to referee a higher grade of rugby in their local society often has to “do” this process.
What is the difference between “doing” the process and actually sharpening your mind for the pictures you may see on the day?
I will try and unpack how we can make this process a meaningful, individualised tool.
When: In professional set-ups the preparation (or game planning) process is routine, usually on a Tuesday or Wednesday. Not all of us have this luxury (I am a full time school teacher and director of sport). We must all find the time in our week. It doesn’t have to be a lot of time; it can be 15 minutes.
The benefit of a professional environment is routine and structure. These elements eliminate unnecessary personal decision making and allow people access to uninterrupted mental focus on the task at hand.
In order to make the game plan process real and possible for us all, a modified timeline must be adopted. We can emulate the professional environment by setting aside anywhere between 15 and 60 minutes uniquely for mental/game preparation each week. Building a routine allows the same luxury of shutting out distraction and simply thinking about the game ahead.
How: This process varies on availability of technology, experience and the nature of the game you are about to referee. Often looking at video of the teams involved in the next game is a useful exercise. We must exercise care not to pre-empt what we may see, but rather prepare for where we may position ourselves and what strategies in attack/defense each team tends to employ. Our whole preparation time should not be spent on video. We must take time to work on the mental/human component (visualising how we may feel; what pressure may feel like on the day).
What: Spending roughly half the time available looking at video (I like to use Super Rugby or European Championship) and building positive mental pictures is a great strategy. In teaching we are always evolving our assessment practice. We have gone from “what can’t the student do” to “what CAN the student do.” The same can be said for our approach to rugby. Do we know what a good cleanout, a good turnover, a good choke tackle or a dominant scrum actually looks like. We can often use our words to describe it, but what good are words on the day. The best referees have these pictures embedded in their minds. Since our game continues to evolve and players/coaches continue to innovate, we must always be updating these mental pictures in our mind.
Why: Referees are human. They have lives. This is why we must always have a reason for what we do in our preparation. Referee preparation is really meant to ready the mind for what it is about to experience so that it may increase the chances of making credible decisions with relative ease.
What do we cut out first when we are strapped for time during a busy week. Do we ignore the footage of the teams, do we cut out looking at ‘positive pictures’ of what good rugby looks like or do we cut out the time we spend readying our mind for what we are about to feel, see and hear? Opinion may vary but an overly technical referee is always regarded as “pedantic.” This word seems to be a favourite of coaches, players and spectators when describing a poor referee performance (or perceived performance).
If we want to be accurate referees, we must work on building those positive pictures and know them instinctively. If we want to be referees with a good read on the game, we must know the teams and what strategies to expect. If we want to be referees with empathy and feel for the game, we must get our minds ready to experience the stress and challenges of a beautiful, yet imperfect game.
Below is what my game plan looks like (from a game I refereed a week ago). It’s a brief document but every word has been considered as part of the mental and technical preparation process.
Americas Rugby Championship week 1 – 4 February 2017 – Toyota Field, San Antonio TX
I will work to “get what matters” at the breakdown and protect the space needed for the players to compete. The key for me will be to get my pictures right in the contact area and setup well at set-pieces. Law interpretation guidelines are very clear.
-Tackle area: ensure space from tackler/support players
-Foul play: Accurate with high tackles and cleanouts
-Scrum: Get the ‘set-up’ right, be transparent with the competition’s closed law variations.
-MO Team: Own decisions in real time. Get the info, decide and act.