Treating young rugby players equally benefits everyone

Treating all players equally benefits everyone


One of the most hotly-debated topics in youth team sports coaching is whether coaches should select teams based on ability or whether every player should be given an equal opportunity to play and develop their skills. Pressure to select winning teams comes from players, parents, other coaches and from a coach’s own competitive instincts. This is, after all, a sport and winning is a key element in sporting success. The RFU’s equity policy states that everyone in the game must be offered equality of opportunity regardless of race, gender, age or ability. The first three potential prejudices are rather obvious but the latter one often gets overlooked, especially in the heat of competition.

What is often not discussed in these mandated policies is the growing evidence from coaching science research that suggests equality of opportunity for all abilities benefits the more able as well as the less able. This article will present some of the established evidence in the hope that you might use them to inform your coaching and team selection.

Team cohesion

In a study of rugby coaching, Boardley, Kavussanu and Ring (2008) showed that players commitment, effort, enjoyment, self-motivation and sense of fair play were directly related to their coaches’ ability to influence the psychological skills of their players, provide effective instructional feedback, develop effective game plans and focus on the personal growth of their players. One of the key benefits of effective coaching was improved team cohesion resulting in more effort and player enjoyment. It could be argued that if some members of the team feel they are being treated differently from others, regardless of their personal performance, team cohesion may be impacted with consequent effects on effort and enjoyment. Other studies have shown that team cohesion is higher in teams with coaches who exhibit high levels of democratic and delegative decision styles (Carron, Eys, and Burke, 2007).

MotivationCoaches are critical in creating the right motivational climate for their players. Psychologists identify two types of motivation: task-oriented (sometimes called mastery-motivated) and ego-oriented.

A task-oriented climate shows the following characteristics (Smith and Smoll, 2007):

  • The perception of ability is owned by the player not the coach or the parent
  • Success is measured by skill improvement
  • Irrespective of perceived ability these players will work harder at improving their skills
  • More effort is given by all players
  • Players show greater persistence and try harder
  • Teams perform to their potential more consistently
  • Teams are continually working on their game

In an ego-oriented climate success is judged by external measures e.g. winning or being better than another player. This may not be a problem if the player or the team is ALWAYS winning or is ALWAYS better than everyone but that is unrealistic. Consequently when an ego-oriented player’s ‘superiority’ is challenged the following negative effects are more likely:

  • The player begins to question their ability
  • They hold back effort – self-handicapping
  • Anxiety increases
  • Player drops out

The work of Frank Smoll and Ron Smith has shown that task-oriented coaches create

  • Greater enjoyment and satisfaction
  • A belief that effort is an important cause of success
  • Perceptions of more positive and instructional support
  • Better intra-team relationships

While their players and teams exhibit:

  • improved self-ratings of performance and improvement
  • better adaptability, lower burn out
  • higher levels of cohesion
  • a greater work ethic
  • positive moral functioning e.g. less cheating
  • less self-handicapping and making excuses before a game

Ego-oriented coaches create

  • Higher anxiety and performance related worry
  • Belief that ability is an important determinant of achievement
  • Drop out
  • Comparison of self with others
  • Greater self-handicapping
  • Less moral reasoning, more cheating

Player motivation is also affected by the players’ self-esteem. In another study (Smoll et al 1993) coaches were encouraged to focus on behaviours that promote self-esteem, including:

  • verbal and non-verbal encouragement of good play
  • instruction following a mistake
  • encouraging effort over winning
  • separating their teams sense of self-worth from their win-loss record
  • rewarding persistence
  • involving the players in team rules
  • developing their own self-awareness through self-monitoring and individual feedback

The study went on to show that coaches trained in this way had the following effects:

players viewed their coaches more positively

  • there was better team spirit
  • there was increased self-esteem with the biggest increases in initially low-self-esteem children
  • more enjoyment
  • all players liked their coach and teammates more
  • there was lower performance anxiety
  • there was lower drop out – down from 30% to 5%
  • importantly there was no difference in win-loss percentages compared with the control group who did not receive the training

Recruitment and retention

In a study of young swimmers Fraser-Thomas, Côté and Deakin (2008) showed that dropout rates were higher in swimmers who:

  • Were engaged in fewer extra-curricular activities i.e. they over-focused on swimming
  • Did more rigourous swim training as opposed to swim play
  • Received less one-to-one coaching

Dropouts tended to reach developmental milestones such as club first teams, representative squads, high level training camps, before the swimmers who remained in the sport. Dropouts tended to have parents who had also been committed athletes, were more likely to have been the youngest in their training group, and were less likely to have a best friend at swimming. In summary, early success often led to burnout caused by pressure to train and compete from coaches and parents.

At my club there are two key points at which drop out from mini and midi rugby occurs:

  • When contact is introduced. Currently this is at under-9. Nationally drop out rates run at 40% at this stage
  • At under-13

The reasons for the increase in attrition at under-13 are complex and include players beginning to specialise in fewer sports and increased workloads at secondary school. Historically at my club we have experienced higher rates of attrition among players from independent schools. This has led to some dramatic reversals in performance for some age groups with a large proportion of independent school players in the ‘first’ team. Teams that have been undefeated county champions one year have been at the bottom of the county league tables the next.

Players under the age of 13 at independent schools benefit from playing more rugby at school, often with better trained and more experienced rugby coaches, and by playing with more able players. As a result these players are often the core of any successful club first team. So it becomes a circular process, the better players get even better because they get to play more, the less-able play less and don’t develop their skills. Then, come the under-13 season, a significant proportion of the better players no longer play for the club and the age group is left with the less-able, less-experienced players whose skills and playing time have been neglected in the previous seasons. While this is anecdotal evidence, it is seen so often in this and other clubs as to be recognized as a real and problematic trend.

A personal view

I have been coaching junior rugby now for 10 years both at Wallingford and at the county school of rugby. I came across a lot of the research evidence cited above while studying for a Masters degree in sports coaching at Loughborough. I wasn’t looking for these issues specifically and indeed equity in coaching was not a specific part of the curriculum. However, for a number of reasons the findings I came across caused me to question my own practice.

Over the 10 years I have been coaching I have been involved in a number of debates about the benefits of ‘streaming’ players according to their ability. Over the years I have gone from one extreme to the other in my opinions from being firmly against streaming to being very much in favour. However, throughout that change in opinion, I was never in a position where I was able to stream – everyone had to play as much as possible because I didn’t have enough players to do otherwise.

At under-15 however, we had attracted a sufficient number of players so that selection did become an issue. One or two players spent more time on the bench than others either because they did not attend mid-week training or, to be honest, because I felt they were less able. This culminated in a title-decider where three of the players did not get on the pitch at all. I had never done this before and even while I was making that decision it felt wrong. Moreover, we still lost the game!

When I reflected on why we lost I realized that the players and I had put too much pressure on them to win that game – to put it simply, we choked. Worse, I had sacrificed what had been one of my core values – that of equality of opportunity for all – to the desire to win. Consequently, we had the worst of both worlds.

Happily, the team bounced back. We came within a hair’s breadth of winning the title and had our most successful season ever. Many of the lads went to the County school of rugby and Wallingford provided a significant proportion of players for the county teams last season. Several lads have gone on to be involved in the under-16s development squads; one has represented England under-16s and three have now joined the London Wasps advanced apprenticeship scheme.

My views have come full-circle. I am now firmly convinced that equal playing time and mixed ability teams are the best way to provide long-term development opportunities for all players not just the less-able. The more we do to improve the skills of the less-able, the better the standard of rugby for all, and the more secure the long-term viability of an age group. While I may not always be able to achieve a perfect balance of playing time for the whole squad, the principle of equality will be the basis for all my selection decisions.


I hope that by highlighting research evidence for the importance of coaches in helping to improve team cohesion, motivation and self-esteem I can convince you that one of the least helpful things you can do as a coach is tell a player he is better or worse than another one. In branding a player as an A, B, or C teamer you are directly affecting his self-perception of his ability in relation to others. This is especially true with Tag which favours small, fast and nippy players over bigger, stronger, slower players. You’ll need both when contact starts.

In writing this article I tried to balance my own prejudices by trying to find evidence that streaming in young players was beneficial. I simply was not able to find such evidence. As coaches your views will be formed by your own experience, values and prejudices and as a club or a Union we do not mandate how a coach structures his squad or teams. However, as a fairly experienced and widely-read coach, I would seek to persuade you that my experience as well as that of many others is that an equable selection policy benefits everyone.




Boardley, I., Kavassanu, M, and Ring, C. (2008) Athletes’ Perceptions of Coaching

Effectiveness and Athlete-Related Outcomes in Rugby Union: An Investigation Based

on the Coaching Efficacy Model. The Sport Psychologist, 22, 269-287

Carron, A. Eys, M. and Burke, S. (2007) Team cohesion: Nature, Correlates and Development. In Social Psychology in Sport Eds: Jowett and Lavalee. Human Kinetics: Champaign. IL.

Cushion, C.J. & Jones, R.L. (2006) Power, discourse and symbolic violence in professional youth soccer: The case of Albion FC, Sociology of Sport Journal, 23(2), 142-161.

Fraser-Thomas, J., Coté, J. & Deakin, J. (2008) Understanding dropout and prolonged engagement in adolescent competitive sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 9, 645-662.

Smith, R and Smoll, R (2007). Social-Cognitive approach to coaching behaviours. In Social Psychology in Sport Eds: Jowett and Lavalee. Human Kinetics: Champaign. IL.

Smoll, F. L., Smith, R. E., Barnett, N. P. & Everett, J. J. (1993) Enhancement of children’s self esteem through social support training for youth sport coaches, Journal of Applied Psychology, 78, 602–610.

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