RugbyWorks coach Tom gives an insight into daily life on the programme in the first instalment of his new blog series: The Coach's Diaries. 

Tuesdays are good days in my timetable this year. This school has provided a consistent group of engaged and keen young people since we started work with them in September. As is the case with any successful school across the RugbyWorks programme, support at every turn from staff has been integral to our progress with these young people. With this support, they have since fought their way to the semi-finals of our London tournament and surveyed London in wonder from the balcony of Google’s offices on an employability trip. Nonetheless, recent weeks have highlighted that overall progress for us is never plain sailing, more a numbers game of forward and backward steps.

This was clear three weeks ago as I clung desperately to restrain Casey as a heated argument escalated into a fight. He had returned to sessions after trouble with police over knife possession had kept him out of school, who had issued him a final warning. He had sealed his fate in a matter of seconds with a flurry of punches and aggressive threats. The other combatant, Emile, had answered the bell and struggled to break free from the teachers that held him. Usually calm, he was incensed. He was escorted away by staff and Casey managed, to his credit, to regain control and we withdrew to a quiet corner. Praising him for this small victory was bittersweet; we both knew it was too little too late. Bravado and adrenaline had faded and it was difficult to see him awaken to the finality of his situation. This was a step in the wrong direction to close a half term that was overwhelmingly positive for the group as a whole.

Recent weeks have highlighted that overall progress for us is never plain sailing, more a numbers game of forward and backward steps.

A week is a long time in Pupil Referral Units though. Last week, we made the most of the balmy weather and held the session in a nearby park. We’re always keen to take the group off-site as a change of scene from school is always welcome, though never at first. The horrifying prospect of getting dirty trainers is a hard one to negotiate with our young people, not to mention the universal failure to bring appropriate kit as requested. Added to this, readjustment to school routine brought its own challenges. Fun was paramount and the park would enable it.

In the confined space at school we limit kicking because the temptation to unleash maximum force with minimum accuracy is too great. In the park this was not a problem, so we began with a great game to encourage teamwork, communication and mental agility: Kick tennis (see below for details of the game).

It was a major victory for us to coax one student in who had been particularly hard to engage of late. Keen to spectate and listen to music from the side lines, we negotiated a deal with her: The music could stay on if she joined in. As we had come to expect from previous sessions, the moment the game started an entirely different Samira emerged. Tentatively at first but with increasing confidence, she began to show an ability to kick that surprised herself far more than her coaches. She punched the air as her kicks gradually found their way over the net and at last into space to score. Far from the retiring and uninterested girl that had arrived at the field, she forgot about the mud and chaos and was lost in the competition. It was great to see her take that risk and enjoy success as a reward; the fundamental mechanism of the RugbyWorks programme.

Throughout the group the teamwork and communication was fantastic. They discussed how to defend the space efficiently and where to place each kick. When both balls were on the same side, they paused to coordinate attacks. For them to do this of their own accord marked major progress. Perhaps trivial from the outside, these interactions confirmed the growing level of autonomy and confidence we have been working towards. A number of games were needed to decide the overall winner before we moved into a game of touch rugby to finish.

Carrying through the skills from Kick tennis and with space to stretch their legs, we saw proper rugby for perhaps the first time. Emile was again the focus, but now for all the right reasons. He bagged a brace of tries with a blistering turn of pace and footwork which left this coach grabbing at thin air on more than one occasion. We were a world away from the infighting of our last encounter.

It was great to see her take that risk and enjoy success as a reward; the fundamental mechanism of the RugbyWorks programme.

The session drew to a close with handshakes and high fives. We had overrun; the most prized seal of approval and engagement. It was hard not to step back and reflect on the reversal of fortune from the previous session. Whether the intervention of half term, a change of venue, the sun, or a complex blend of each – the recipe had been right. That’s not to say it will always be. Our challenge as coaches is to be agile to the ever-changing dynamic within each group, to learn for each what works and what doesn’t. Even then, our plans are ultimately and always subject to the attitude and mood of our Young People.

On this day though, the students at Wandsworth put up no barriers. We had, following a stumble backwards, pressed forwards as a group. Let’s see what next Tuesday brings!

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