Maximus Decimus Meridius – a matter of coaching style
Gidday to all gameplan Rugby readers. As you read this, I hope
that all your pre-season dreams for your team are becoming reality,
that all your patterns of play are reaping rich rewards and that
your team is scoring try after scintillating try and defending their
territory like the Maori battalion.
I would like to begin apologizing deeply to a bloke Shakespeare
(who played occasionally at second five for Stratford-upon-Avon
and wrote a bit) by paraphrasing Hamlet’s soliloquy. To
tell or to question – that is the real question. Whether ‘tis
nobler for the coach to tell the player what to do or to take arms
against a sea of doubters and question to establish self-awareness
and self-discovery. You’re probably thinking by now that
I’ve been on the hard stuff again, but in this article I want
you to think about coaching style, think about what you are trying
to achieve with your players and to reflect upon your own way of
If you’re thinking that the Maximus Decimus Meridius referred
to above rings a few bells, that’s because you’ve seen
him in all his glory on the big screen, the Roman general, heroically
played by Russell Crowe, who does the right thing, kills the bad
guy and dies a hero. The reason that I’ve included him here
to line up opposite Socrates is that he was a general and he, like
most traditional military men (although they tell me things are
changing in the military these days), told their men what to do,
when to do it, how often to do it and how to do it. If soldiers
asked questions of their superiors, it was when to jump and how
high. Soldiers didn’t question the ranks above, they just
did what they were told – and they normally weren’t
short of orders.
Socrates (ca. 470-399 B. C.) was an early Greek philosopher/teacher
and developed what has become known as the Socratic approach to
teaching, based on the practice of disciplined, rigorously thoughtful
dialogue and questioning. You’ll see by the date he lived,
this is not the Brazilian mid-fielder, although you can be pretty
sure that the gifted soccer player was named after the great Questioner.
In Socrates original approach, the instructor professed ignorance
of the topic under discussion in order to elicit engaged dialogue
with students. Socrates was convinced that disciplined practice
of thoughtful questioning enables the scholar/student to examine
ideas logically, to understand them more deeply and to be able to
determine the validity of those ideas.
Socrates was one of the greatest educators who taught by asking
questions and thus drawing out answers from his pupils rather than
telling them the answers. Socrates left no writing behind him and
all that we know of him has been provided by his most famous pupils
Plato and Aristotle (it’s not a bad legacy as a teacher to
have a couple of pupils such as these!). It was actually Plato wrote
up most of what we know of the wisdom of Socrates. Talking of teachers,
it is interesting to note at this point that the word educate –
and hence education - comes from the Latin ex duco, meaning
to 'lead out' or “draw out”. If you look at the Latin
base of educate, there is little about telling and a lot about drawing
knowledge out of the student. The best way to do that is by the
effective use of questions. I mention Socrates, not just because
he is a fascinating man, but because he appears to have been the
first to use questioning in a rigorous and systematic way. I, for
one, am sad that his legacy has not been followed more closely especially
in sport coaching.
Here are the six types of questions that Socrates asked his pupils.
Conceptual clarification questions
Get them to think more about what exactly they are asking or thinking
about and to prove the concepts behind their argument. Basic 'tell
me more' questions that get them to go deeper.
• Why are you saying that?
• What exactly does this mean?
• How does this relate to what we have been talking about?
• What is the nature of ...?
• What do we already know about this?
Probing of assumptions makes them think about the unquestioned beliefs
on which they are founding their argument.
• What else could we assume from that?
• You seem to be assuming ... ?
• How did you choose those assumptions?
• Please explain why/how ... ?
• How can you verify or disprove that?
• What would happen if ... ?
• Do you agree or disagree with ... ?
Probing rationale, reasons and evidence
When people give a rationale for their arguments, dig into that
reasoning rather than assuming it is a given. People often use poorly
understood or mythical supports for their arguments.
• Why is that happening?
• How do you know this?
• Show me ... ?
• Can you give me an example of that?
• What do you think causes ... ?
• What is the nature of this?
• Why is ... happening?
• Why do you think this……….?
Questioning viewpoints and perspectives
Most arguments are given from a particular position. These types
of questions challenge the position and bring to the player’s
attention that there may be other, equally valid, viewpoints.
• What alternative ways of looking at this are there?
• Another way of looking at this is ..., what do you think?
• Why it is ... necessary?
• Who benefits from this?
• What is the difference between... and...?
• Why is it better than ...?
• What are the strengths and weaknesses of...?
• How could you look another way at this?
Probe implications and consequences
The argument that they give may have logical implications that can
be forecast. Do these make sense? Are they desirable?
• Then what would happen?
• What are the consequences of that assumption?
• How could ... be used to ... ?
• What are the implications of ... ?
• How does ... fit with what we learned before?
• Why is ... important?
• What is the best ... ? Why?
Questions about the question
And you can also get reflexive about the whole thing, turning the
question in on itself. Use their attack against themselves. Bounce
the ball back into their court. Etc.
• What was the point of asking that question?
• Why do you think I asked this question?
• What does that question illustrate?
If you’ve read my stuff before, you will know that I am an
ardent advocate of non-directive coaching approaches. I am convinced
that implicit learning (where players figure things out for themselves,
guided by their coach) is hugely more powerful that explicit learning
by didactic (telling, instructing) coaching. Have a think about
Socrates’ approach and have a think how you could apply it
to your own coaching. Let’s now imagine Maximus and Socrates
as rugby coaches.
The scenario is as follows: a No 10 (named Brutus) has thrown a
wide, cut-out pass from a ruck in phase play. He has his fullback
running a dummy cut on his inside, and one defender immediately
in front of him. The opposition halfback is sweeping behind his
backline to mop up any chip kick. Unseen by the No 10, the opposition
No 12 has (not for the first time) rushed up out of the defensive
line and this time intercepts the ball and scores 60 metres away
under the posts. Some of you may be thinking that this is an instinctive
decision, and the optimal way to improve this decision in future
might be doing something about it rather than talking about it,
but let’s leave that for the moment. Here’s how I think
the two coaches (one Roman, one Greek) might have handled it.
Brutus, that was clearly a poor option when you threw that long
cut-out pass after the third phase. Their No 12 rushed up out of
the defensive line and it was an easy intercept really. You had
Hercules running a dummy cut on the inside and you’d have
been better served giving it to him. He was up against two fatties
and could have stepped them easily. You need to scan more quickly
before the halfback gives you the ball and make better decisions.
You should go away and practice it.