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'The role of that U10s coach is just as important as Leo Cullen's role'

IRFU head of coach development, Matthew Wilkie, told The42 about his work around the country.

MATTHEW WILKIE DESCRIBES himself as a “curious learner” and it’s an element of his personality that appears to make him ideally suited for his role as the IRFU’s head of coach development.

The Australian has been in the job since 2016 and works directly with professional coaches around the country, as well as overseeing the programmes that guide the development of coaches at grassroots levels.

Essentially, his job is to make coaches better at coaching.

IRFU Matt Wilkie at an IRFU coaching conference. Source: Irish Rugby TV

While we might instinctively think that involves Wilkie guiding coaches on a tactical and technical learning journey, he is more interested in how coaching is done, rather than the specific content.

“The key thing successful coaches have is probably off the field,” explains Wilkie. “It’s their ability to connect, the relationships they form with their players, and their ability to man-manage.

“I honestly don’t think it’s so much the technical, tactical, strategic – that’s a very small slice of the pie that maybe gives you a competitive edge at the very top level sometimes.

“But those interpersonal skills, communication, the emotional intelligence – those seem to be the key attributes of the successful coach.

“If you look at what drives them, most successful coaches at any level have a continual desire to learn. They never think they know it all.”

Throughout a thought-provoking discussion, Wilkie repeats the mantra that “context is king” and stresses that the attributes required to be a high-performance coach are different from those of a grassroots coach. But he firmly believes the “non-rugby elements” of the art are widely undervalued.

“People don’t know what they don’t know,” says Wilkie in highlighting that coaches can be unaware of how they’re communicating with players, although that doesn’t refer only to poor interaction.

“Even the really good coaches – and there are a lot of good coaches in Ireland – aren’t aware of how good they are in that relationships-connections piece. Working with them to acknowledge and appreciate that is important.”

Wilkie’s hands-on work is with the IRFU’s professional coaching staff – from the senior Ireland teams, through Munster, Leinster, Ulster and Connacht, the men’s and women’s 7s teams, the provincial academies, the Celtic Cup staffs, and national age-grade coaches.

Wilkie stresses that working with him is totally optional but the vast majority of coaches on the IRFU’s books have used him as a resource, mainly focusing on things like “leadership, communication, learning outcomes, and educational models.”

Wilkie works with individual coaches on a “bespoke basis” and the process starts with a one-on-one conversation, where the coach delivers self-evaluation to pinpoint their strengths and weaknesses.

“Even what they don’t say is really insightful because if a coach isn’t acknowledging certain areas that are important, it means they’re not aware of it and therefore not working on it.”

Wilkie The scope of Wilkie's role is large. Source: Irish Rugby TV

Once areas of development have been identified, Wilkie engages in video observation of the coach at team meetings and training sessions, as well as before, during and at half-time of games. Throughout this video observation, the coach wears a microphone to allow Wilkie to capture exactly what they’re saying.

The team meeting observation can be particularly revealing, with Wilkie having one camera on the coach and one directed at the players to note their levels of engagement. After the meeting, Wilkie will often grab a number of players and independently ask them about the three key things they’ve taken away from that meeting.

“Because if that’s not aligning to what the coach has said, then there’s something wrong there. If it is aligning, then we can identify what part of their delivery was effective so that they can keep doing that.”

At training sessions and during games, the coach will also be mic’d up and Wilkie will focus a camera directly on them, later syncing that footage with the video of the session or game itself. At half-time, Wilkie sets up two cameras in the changing room before getting out of the way.

“Coaches are often not conscious of how they behave and react and what they say. Most coaches reflect on training but very few will think about what they did and said during a game.”

After analysing the footage, Wilkie compiles a report and meets the coach, concluding with them putting in place a ‘learning and development plan.’

“For some that might be formal training and education around key aspects of high performance,” explains Wilkie.

“For others, it might be regularly throwing them journal articles, some podcasts, some books. It might be a second round of observation in a month’s time. That’s the bit that gets really individual.”

Wilkie is well qualified as a coaching expert, having started off as a P.E. teacher before joining the Australian Rugby Union in 2005 and spending over nine years there in a number of coach development roles, while also picking up a Master’s of Sports Coaching.

He worked with current IRFU performance director David Nucifora during that time and – following a one-year stint as the Queensland Reds’ team manager and another year heading up sports coaching at a third-level institute in Brisbane – accepted an offer from his ex-colleague to make the “big move” to Ireland with his young family in 2016.

Wilkie says his role with the IRFU is “pretty unique” within governing bodies and unions, and he has been pleased with the level of interest from professional coaches in using him as a resource.

“One thing I have learned is that coaches are looking for support. It’s very often an isolated life they lead because there aren’t too many people they can turn to.”

David Nucifora IRFU performance director David Nucifora worked at the ARU at the same time as Wilkie. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

While much of his time is dedicated to helping the IRFU’s professional coaches to get better, Wilkie’s work overseeing the development of grassroots coaches in the clubs, schools, youths and all underage rugby is just as important.

“That’s where the majority of our coaches sit, that’s where the majority of our players are,” says Wilkie.

“The impact they have on players and the health of the game far exceeds the impact the professional coaches have. They’re the ones responsible for winning the hearts and minds of players at all ages, then providing an environment where they start to develop.”

While Wilkie understands the temptation for youths and schools coaches to mimic starter plays and tactics they’ve seen Leinster or the All Blacks use, as well as focus purely on results, he stresses that the needs of the developing player have to be prioritised at these levels.

“If you take a schools player from that point of view, they’ve still got a lot of development and learning to do around understanding the game, their positional requirements, managing their recovery and all of that. It’s hard to measure that, it’s easier to measure the scoreboard each week.”

Wilkie has three IRFU staff underneath him centrally, while each province has four or five who are responsible for coach development and training in the grassroots game.

The IRFU has recently invested more heavily into online resources for coaches who can’t travel for face-to-face courses, while those in-person courses have been reshaped.

Interestingly, Wilkie is keen for underage coaches to get away from the traditional idea that they must progress up through the ranks in order to develop.

“We want to build what we call horizontal expertise, so getting rid of this idea that if you’re a good coach at U10s, you should keep moving up.

“Because Irish rugby needs the best U10s coaches that they can have. The role of that U10s coach is just as important as Leo Cullen’s role, for example. Because if they get that right at U10s and all the other bands are right, suddenly the health of the game gets better.”

Wilkie’s desk at the IRFU offices sits across from that of Nick Winkelman, the union’s director of athletic performance and science, and he has enjoyed bouncing ideas off the American, particularly with regards to their shared passion for the importance of language.

Listening to Wilkie in this area is engaging, as he details research that supports positive praise for players as a far more effective way to elicit behaviour change than negative error correction.

Festival of Flight Wilkie has visited the Red Arrows to study their world-class review system. Source: Niall Carson

Winkelman and Wilkie teamed up to run a programme with a PhD student at the Cork Institute of Technology to study the effects of their coaching development workshops and interventions, with positive signs so far as the project moves into its third year.

To tie in with the various IRFU courses for coaches, Wilkie has been keen to bring in visiting experts to stimulate continuous learning.

He himself has visited the Royal Academy of Music and the Red Arrows in the UK to stimulate ideas, while he has an interest in the military and medicine industries for their expertise.

The likes of sports psychologist Bill Beswick, author Damian Hughes, self-determination theory expert Cliff Mallett, coaching figure Wayne Goldsmith, Google’s head of creativity Kirk Vallis and Wade Gilbert – who also met with the provinces and Joe Schmidt – have been among the visitors to IRFU conferences on Wilkie’s watch.

The Australian speaks with keen interest about these learning opportunities and other topics like games-based coaching – here, he stresses that “understanding the learning mechanisms that go in behind it” is essential.

It’s clear that he is brimming with energy to continue his work developing coaches at all levels in Ireland, and the same message crops up time and time again.

“Let’s focus on how we’re coaching, rather than what we’re coaching.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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