Brian Ashton: Giving more power to the players

I was brought up in the era of street games.

No adults, no coaches, no-one to interfere and no-one to inhibit what you were doing. We looked after ourselves and self-learned techniques to adapt to ever-changing situations.

This should have been ingrained into my personality, but when I started teaching and coaching I was completely the opposite. I wanted to be the all-powerful, all-knowing person in control of everything.

I instructed my players and pupils and if they did what they were told all was fine and dandy with the world. Of course education, sport and life in general doesn't really work out like that. There are too many variables and unpredictables.

In competition (a healthy word) the opposition might use tactics you didn’t anticipate, your star player might get injured/ red carded, there could be torrential rain, the referee makes a bad decision - the list goes on.

Players need to be alert, adaptable and inventive, because they’re the ones in the centre of the storm and, therefore, must determine what needs to be done.

So thank goodness, over a period of time and with the influence of sporting people, educationalists and a very good friend of mine called Kevin Roberts, my life swung round full circle and I came back to my street games approach.

These influences challenged and disrupted my thinking and behaviour. I learned to break free of status quo thinking. Positive challenge and disruption leads to improving change. We all need it.


By a street games approach, I mean giving players a sense of engagement by encouraging experimentation and sharing decision-making and planning.

It means integrating players fully, with the objective of the coach becoming a resource to be used as and when both parties feel the need. So not a looming figure dominating the landscape!

This isn’t quite as easy as it sounds though. It isn’t just a case of putting players out on the training pitch and saying ‘get on with it’, which has been a misconception I’ve often encountered.

As a head coach (or teacher or CEO), you have to prepare the way, giving players the tools, resources and opportunities. Why? Because you’re the one who is accountable for what the organisation produces.

The key is to prepare a purpose and share it with the influencers, who then engage the others. The others are then given opportunities to take ownership of various areas and to lead them.

There will, initially, be some resistance. Not everyone - administrators, coaches, players - are comfortable with this approach. Big egos abound and many in charge do not like - or are not comfortable with - devolving responsibility or being challenged. I know from personal experience that it is easy to talk the talk. Translating talk into action is a different ballgame.

My golden rule is to stick my ego in my back pocket and zip it.

On that subject, this section from Michael Atherton’s excellent autobiography struck a chord with me. He writes about Lancashire’s coach leaving midway through the 1999 season and the unexpected impact that had.

“The first 11 were better organised in those [subsequent] six months than at any other point in my career. It proved what I had long felt - that coaching is often over-rated and that with an experienced and good team such as Lancashire’s there is rarely a need for them. It forced the captain to engage the players more in decision-making and forced the senior players to become more actively involved. The result was that everyone had an input: decisions were more easily accepted and, therefore, more eagerly pursued.”

It is a shame that there are also players who back off when the concept of taking ownership is introduced. They’d rather be told what to do, so metaphorically and literally they can point the finger elsewhere when things do not go to plan.

Danny Cipriani

Danny Cipriani: "I worked with Brian at the National Academy when I was a teenager. He'd put on these ludicrous defences to break down, things you didn’t think you could do at first. You’d get traditional rugby answers like, ‘you need to get over the gainline’, without any real purpose or understanding what was going on.

Brian would always open-end the questions, so you would have to find the answers. We’d have conversations and might come up with crazy ways to break the defence down.

It might be completely wrong, but it helped us to think and to evolve. Then we’d do drills on the field where you’re thinking for yourself and that played into my mind and fed my imagination.

That’s why my relationship with him is so good, because he was constantly challenging me to keep getting better, to keep improving. If we did it completely wrong, he would eventually step in and say, ‘have you thought about this?’

He was trying to get us to answer the questions, because on the field we’re going to be the ones answering the questions."

(Danny Cipriani was talking to Ugo Monye for the Rugby Union Weekly podcast).

The good news is that I am seeing real evidence of player ownership being addressed in the football Academies I am privileged to visit. There is always a balance to strike between the direct and devolved approach, depending on the age group involved, the knowledge of the players and the outcome of the session.

The best guys will travel up and down that continuum depending on what’s required and what the situation demands at a particular point in time.


Let kids be kids! I was a school teacher for 24 years and discovered that kids have a very creative and innovative way of looking at the world.

They don’t carry baggage with them in their early years and tend to look at things totally differently from adults. Allow them the opportunity to express this, either in words or actions. I remember one of my earliest headmasters saying, ‘if you give kids opportunities, they will constantly surprise you’ and he was spot on.

What kids won’t do is come up with the obvious. They’ll come up with something you never thought of. The good teacher or coach will be willing to reflect and decide ‘that’s much better than my idea - let’s go with that instead.’ That’s the bit that takes courage and humility. It develops trust and creativity.

The last summer rugby camp I ran was for two groups of players aged 10 to 13 and 14 to 16. When the parents arrived to drop their kids off on the Monday morning I remember saying, ‘make sure you’re here on Thursday afternoon, because both groups are going to run a session you can watch.’

I’m not sure they believed me, but, along with a group of mentally tough, like-minded coaches, we worked incredibly hard to make that happen. There were a couple of occasions when the younger group came over during the Thursday session and asked, ‘we’re going to try this, what do you think?’

And I said, ‘go with it. If it works, carry on. If it doesn’t, think of something else.’

In four days we gave lots of guidance and opportunities for them to be inquisitive and develop their ownership and leadership skills and they were very proud and excited to be able to demonstrate it to their parents.

The interesting thing will have been what happened next, which I can’t actually tell you. Were they then allowed to continue to take ownership, at school, at the clubs where they played and, most importantly of all, at home?


As my Headmaster said, ‘if you give players the opportunities, you’ll often be surprised by the outcomes’. This is true throughout the ages.

I remember one particular example, at the England Rugby National Academy, which I facilitated for four years.

Jon Callard, one of the coaches, put on a kicking to score game.

This meant you were only allowed to score by kicking. And the only way you could transfer the ball was by kicking also. Other than that, it was up to the players to decide how to interpret this.

They could kick the ball on the floor, in the air, backwards, forwards, sideways - whatever they wanted. It was about improvising and experimenting and having fun. Well, in one of these games, Matt Banahan, who attended the Academy as a second row forward, deftly chipped the ball over the full back, caught it and sped off to score a try in the corner. Matt went on to represent England’s senior team on the wing !

By giving players opportunities to experiment - and this was just one of many examples - we discovered that, irrespective of the numbers on their backs, some of them had unexpected skills and views of the game the group could utilise in different ways.

Afterwards I remember a journalist who’d come along to watch writing that this was the start of a ‘rugby revolution’. If only!

Many who work in development environments say their objective is to produce players for the senior team - it’s the standard line. I think it is a flatlining cop out.

They should be far more imaginative, pioneering, futuristic, innovative than that, in terms of technology, sports science, skills, conditioning and mindsets of how to play. These environments surely must be laboratories and everyone working in them should have the raison d’être of changing the way the game is played.

Incidentally, some of the greatest innovators I have ever encountered have been players - when offered the opportunity.

  • Brian Ashton will be presenting at Cohesive Coaching 2 on November 29th. You can buy tickets HERE.

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