Contact in youth rugby

While USA Rugby’s senior national teams are competing on the biggest stages around the world, youth rugby in America is helping to support the Eagles.

The United States has plenty of coaches and parents growing the game across its 50 states and boasts numerous strategies as to how to teach children the game of rugby.

Richie Walker, who has helped the coaching staffs of both the Men’s and Women’s Eagles Sevens at the United States Olympic Committee’s Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., helps Serevi Rugby’s youth development in the southern California area.

Born in New Zealand, Walker has his own personal techniques to teach kids some of the basic skills of the game.

“For young kids, I tell them to hold the ball like a PlayStation controller,” he said. “That’s something they can relate to. Then when I tell them to swing their arms [for the pass] it’s like an elephant trunk swinging. Then at the end of the release it’s like Spiderman or like a crab to get rid of the ball.”

USA Rugby Youth Development Director Kurt Weaver agrees with Walker’s methods of using video games and animals to get younger athletes to understand the basic points of the game.

“Starting kids at basic skills and teaching them in a way that is appropriate for them is wildly important,” Weaver said. “Additionally, starting them at an appropriate level in rugby is equally as important.”

With USA Rugby’s Development Pathway, contact is not introduced to kids until the under-nine level, and even then just Mini 7s. At the under-12 level Midi 10s utilizes contact, and 15s is finally introduced at the under-15 level. Rookie Rugby encompasses all tackle and non-tackle programs up to age 10.

Weaver thinks contact can wait. The important thing, he says, is giving kids the tools to learn the basics.

“We need those “nerf” years – the time when it’s a small, easy-to-catch ball on a small field with your friends,” he said. “We need to be able to learn the skills that we have in those small environments. When starting a rugby team or rugby opportunity for kids, think little pee-wee soccer: all the friends from one neighborhood coming to one park and playing against each other and that’s the entire league.

“Don’t think, ‘Start a team and start traveling across the state or the country.’ Let’s start with an appropriate entry-point for kids. Teach them to hold the ball first; equally, the first league they play in is only four weeks long, it’s right down the street, and it’s against their friends in a different color shirt.

“We’ll then grow into the rest of it: adding tackle, expanding travel, expanding the seasons. All of that comes later. We need those “nerf” years for rugby for our kids to be able to learn spatial awareness, utilizing the field, gamesmanship and the concept of the game, as well as pass, catch and score. Those are the things you only learn in the backyard when you’re trying stuff.”

Research commissioned by the RFU in 2007 found some interesting points regarding rugby taught to children under the age of 12. One finding was “children learn best by doing and acquire most of their skills by playing small-sided games with limited rules and regulations,” while “important building blocks (learning) of decision-making and skills can be optimally developed from the age of seven onwards, and have a lasting effect throughout a player’s future.”

In essence, Weaver’s comments are backed by Exeter University’s research for the RFU: by increasing ball-handling time and “friendly” play, children will be better prepared when contact is finally introduced.

“In order to provide emphasis on ball handling, evasion & support at younger ages, contact will need to be de-emphasised. It is not suggested that contact should be eliminated, but that children should be looking for spaces and not contact.”
-Exeter University, 2007

An important step in introducing tackle rugby is making sure the players are constantly reminded as to what is correct and what is not. In that respect, parents become secondary coaches.

“We can’t get it wrong, otherwise the kids are going to get hurt and they’re not going to like the game,” Walker said. “We teach the easiest, safest possible way we can. Then we also encourage parents . . . to come over and watch and help us.

“So when they go home and they’re talking about stuff at the dinner table and the kids are like, ‘Oh, we learned this part in contact,’ we make sure that the parents know what they’re talking about. Or if they remember something and it’s different, the parents can say something to their kids.

“If their kids get hurt, it’s our fault, so we need their help as much as possible. The kids’ role models are their parents, so if we can teach them as well and they can have that conversation that really helps our development.”

Though the way the game is taught to children ensures contact is as safe as possible, parallels can be found in the way the game is taught to older players picking up the game.

“Carlin Isles – he probably did contact his first day,” Weaver said. “We brought a track athlete over and immediately put him in contact. That’s crazy to think about. If you also look at football numbers and you look at the population numbers of the U.S., a very small percentage of people, men and women, play football. Although we’re not football, we share contact.

“Contact immediately rules out a massive percentage of the population. So we’re never going to reach the saturation point with 350 million people playing because contact rules out 98 percent of them the first day. If we keep non-contact as long as we can and keep those skills being built, then people will transition over to contact when they’re ready instead of the only way to play rugby.”

Another interesting finding by Exeter’s research: “Profound inequalities in body size during 7-18 years of age mean that a game heavily focused on contact and set-pieces encourages a “bigger is better” mentality from a very young age, rather than skilled play and decision-making.”

Youth teams of most sports in America can suffer from having one dominant player. In soccer, the child who is six inches taller than the rest of his or her teammates can take over a game with a longer stride.

In rugby, a child weighing more than another possesses an advantage in contact. The younger the athlete, the less time he or she has for strength training to help with tackling.

Walker combats the ability of one player to dominate a game with utilizing the player in different roles.

“With a dominant player, some coaches’ game plans are to give that kid the ball and he’ll run and score the team tries,” he said.

Hear Walker discuss his methods:

Rugby is a game for everyone. At the youth level, this point should be made obvious before a ball is even used. Children will grow to become Eagles and respectful human beings with rugby if taught correctly, from gamesmanship to how to tackle.