This weekend I was attending the World Rugby Level 1 coaching course under the guidance of Steve Harries. It was a really excellent couple of days and had a mix of lecture slides, sharing experiences, group work and running drills in the glorious Munich sunshine.

Some of the group work required us to design our own games in a short space of time. In the afternoon, our table (various ages from South Africa, Uganda, Italy and Ireland) had to come up with a game to develop players in a certain aspect of Rugby. We focused on defending horizontally and how to create space for attack in tight situations. While applying what we had learned in the morning, this exercise had to incorporate the Whole-Part-Whole framework.

Honestly I had not heard this term before and had not considered organising a session like this. The concept is actually very straight-forward: have a game that utilises a stack of skills, use a drill to practice one of these skills in isolation, return to the game and (hopefully) witness an improvement. Using this approach as opposed to Part-Whole or just Whole, means the middle drill can be tailored to what the players need to work on most. If they are dropping balls, run a passing drill specific to the scenario in the game. If the issue is with body position, get some tackle bags and build up the co-ordination. It also allows players to see for themselves how a particular skill fits into a game and how improving that skill can improve overall rugby performance.

Another concept important to Whole-Part-Whole is the difference between techniques and skills. If a technique is the mechanical act of doing some rugby related task (pop pass, tackling, jumping for a ball) then a skill is the execution of that technique at speed or under pressure. It can happen that a player at training is being put under pressure to execute a skill in a game situation when they still do not fully comprehend a technique. I have seen this happen many times in adult rugby. For example a player clearly doesn’t understand fixing a defender or how to orient their hands passing a ball but are still put under pressure to execute this in an attack drill. A framework needs to be provided for players to learn and then apply what they have learned.

Will games and pressure improve your skills? Absolutely. Will they teach you the technique of keeping your hands up perform a quick catch and pass? Only if you learned to drive a car while sitting in the passenger seat. Techniques need to be taught before they are improved into skills and I think Whole-Part-Whole or Game-Drill-Game really supports this.

So in the context of our game, we had 5 attackers against 3 defenders playing touch rugby. The defenders were lined up across a narrow try line and were not allowed to move off it. The attackers had to score two tries in the allotted time (2 minutes). The first time we played this, there was a lot of lone running and attempting to superman dive under the defenders feet. The defenders would of course get the touch and we, the coaches, were not awarding any tries for such efforts. Because the try line was very narrow and the attackers were not passing there was really only one player to mark. The game was very frustrating for the attack and easy for the defence. No tries were scored.

Because of this, the Part in our Whole-Part-Whole was a draw and give to a trail runner. We set up a small square with one defender and two attackers. The support player would be running a few metres behind the player with the ball and would run into space once the defender had committed to the attacker. Generally, the attacker will step one direction and pass the ball in the opposite direction to the oncoming support player. This primarily promoted creating space by fixing defenders but also encouraged communication from the supporting player, footwork and good running. We did not concentrate on the defenders in this drill as the players had little difficulty defending the line in our game. But if this was not the case, a different drill could have been used to improve the defence. After running this drill for 2 minutes, we returned to the game.

This was a completely different story. The attack now had a purpose. Players were running and stepping at defenders to keep them in position which left gaps for the supporting attackers. A very simple principle in rugby but the game, otherwise unchanged from the original, was seeing much improved results. This little drill had awoken a different mindset in the players. Attackers no longer tried to dive to score but instead were dotting the ball down unopposed after the space was created. In fact, to make the game more difficult, we increased the number of defenders from 3 to 4. Both sides were working at a higher intensity and several tries were scored. There was a measurable improvement after practicing this one skill in isolation.

The players who were taking part were the other coaches taking the course so a certain level of rugby competence already existed in the group. I don’t think our drill introduced any new concepts to them but definitely highlighted the importance of a skill and created an environment to practice it. The players were getting feedback that their skill had improved and it was helping them to solve a common rugby situation.

I was very impressed by the benefits of the format Whole-Part-Whole and could immediately see how it would be appropriate to game design in other fields. I’m sure structures like this already exist in video games. I’ve most recently watched the skill of throwing the Leviathan axe in the latest God of War. Check out the Game Maker’s Toolkit if you’re not familiar with this awesome mechanic. This ability is available almost straight away for use in combat but has many more applications in puzzle solving and exploration that you get to practice without the pressure of combat. You can learn to throw it more accurately and also use its flight path when it is returning to your hand. As the game progresses, you need to use the axe, your son’s bow and other techniques to effectively beat your foes. I think this is a good example of Whole-Part-Whole and will certainly be keeping an eye out for it in games in the future.

Have you heard of this learning format before? Maybe you have seen it used in other types of games or experiences? I’m really interested to hear your thoughts on this! Especially if there is an example of the drill adapting to the challenges the player is having with the game.