All Team Sports Tactical Principles are based on 4 basic foundations.

In my upcoming book “Game Changer” I explore tactical concepts—and they all start here:

  1. Location/Positioning
  2. Man Circulation/Movement
  3. Ball Circulation/ Movement
  4. Relationship, Timing/Sequencing

These are the most important tactical understandings for team sports coaches.

Next time you watch any children’s playground, NFL, Soccer or NBA game, you will see these universal principles in action at all age groups.

Every time there is an engagement in team sport or combat these are the 4 key principles at play in unison. These also form the basis for all improvement and player development. They are the basis of what we refer to colloquially as ‘game sense.’


1. Location and Positioning

Before and during any interaction in any team game there is the foundation principle of location – where are you? Where are you in relation to the field sidelines? Team mates, opposition? In CQB Close Quarter Combat, the same principle applies, where are the walls? Point man? Enemy combatants? Of course in some sports, such as football, this is predetermined or a lined-out in rugby, but the player must still have the understanding of where they relationally are in space.

Why? Once the ball is snapped, passed, thrown—and play resumes, it’s too late – all movement by the player is now being processed cognitively in relation to this last understood location. They can’t look at the opponent and the side line at the same time, they can’t check for depth and width as they track the player and ball.

Players who don’t have good sense of this are the ones who (under or over estimate field width), get caught on the outside by the winger or receiver or underestmate how far away the side line was. The actual position of course depends on the context—defending? attacking? or transitioning?

As a coach, as you help players develop, this is the first area they need to critique – positioning before the engagement even begins.


2. Man Circulation and Movement

As play begins, a player moves—with an assigned goal and task to complete—in respect of the other players and their identity.

All player development and game correction needs to be based with this in mind. ‘Were you too close or too far away from your team mate?’ ‘How close should you be on defense?’ Where are you in relation to your cover?

This relational movement is seen easier in small sided games, in children games or in short basketball plays, where you can see the movement as a totality.

Defensively the movement will tend to be reactionary, closer so to be able to provide close support, whereas offensively the distances are greater and proactive, (generally speaking).

Again, should players be accused of tactical naivety, is it poor positioning awareness? Or an inability to move properly in relation to team mates? Perhaps it’s ball circulation?


3. Ball Circulation and Movement

How the ball in any game is moved or allowed move, determines the movement of the opponent.

Offensively, you move your opponent around the court or field by moving the ball, you can move them a lot or a little, compress them or stretch them. Defensively you direct the opponent to areas you want to by how you position and move your players.

There is nothing worse than seeing teams who hand initiative to the opposition when not in possession. In fact you probably have more control over the game without the ball as you have one more man free.

Developing a players tactical ability with the ball in hand is important so that they can exercise proper control over the game, but also know their limits of influence.


4. Relationship, Timing and Sequencing

Finally there is the timing of these. How they move, and in what order is as how it is done. Again, watch any short period of play in basketball. The sequence of movement is critical. This is the most complex to develop, because you have to play the game and it is dependent on the game sense of the player.

Why are these concepts so important? 

Any and all practice must replicate the game scenarios you face and want to improve (otherwise why even practice?).

These four foundations form the basis for identifying the areas of focus and improvement of game sense in your players. Is the player making tactical errors, are they not aware of their positioning? Which we can address and fix by using more frequent breaks to allow them practice self-locating.

Perhaps they are not moving properly in relation to team mates on defense or not close enough as they move to offense? Which we can develop by changing numbers or making uneven numbers for the small sided games in practice or 7v7?

Or is it simply a timing issue, where the player hasn’t played the game enough? Perhaps the team preparation is still in the dark ages trying to periodize according to archaic methods used in Olympic sports? Perhaps the teams have been simply lifting and running with no game play to develop among other things, game timing sense.

Either way, we can use these 4 foundations to begin to teach tactical ability and intelligence in players and build our model on this.

Game Changer is available for preorder here on Amazon.com.

The 3 answers

People have asked me about the “3 answers” poster mentioned in Paul Kimmage’s (excellently) written article.

Here’s the background story.

Many years ago in the U.S. I was given a book as a gift by a coach I was pestering for information. I was a little more than 19 at the time. Many of the details in the book made little sense to me. It was about a sport knew nothing about—college football (life goes at you fast!).

Amazingly, the manner in which the stories were told and the skill of the writer were so enthralling the fact it was about a game I had never seen never mattered—the sign of a great writer.

The book, written by John Feinstein, is A Civil War: Army Vs. Navy a Year Inside College Football’s Purest Rivalry.

In it, he tells many stories, but one of which is the tale of Ryan Bucchianeri, a first year place kicker who takes a kick in dead time at the end of game. Feinstein tells the story of … well why not just let Feinstein tell the story!

“The time out ended. Bucchianeri lined up. The snap was perfect, the hold was good. Bucchianeri swung his leg through the ball and it sailed over the arms of the flailing Cadets. But as soon as it came off his foot, he knew something was wrong. The ball didn’t hook as much as he had thought it would and it sailed 18 inches to the right of the near goal post.
Wide right.Those two words seemed to follow him off the field, up the tunnel, through the locker room and onto the team bus. Those two words would become his legacy, a larger-than-life one, because, when he was called on to explain them during a press conference that lasted less than five minutes, he unwittingly made himself into a hero.As a plebe, a midshipman is allowed three answers when addressing an upperclassman:

“Yes, sir.”

“No, sir.”

“No excuse, sir.”

The last is a critical part of training at the academy. If someone else spatters mud on your boots, you do not explain that to an upperclassman when he demands to know why they’re muddy. You simply say — you must say, “No excuse, sir.” No one else is responsible for your failures. And so, when the media offered Bucchianeri excuses: the wet field, the angle, the pressure, perhaps even the hold or the snap, he kept shaking his head and saying—in essence, “No excuse, sir.”

“I missed the kick,” he said repeatedly. “I did my best. I tried. I missed the kick.”

In an era when athletes blame everyone and everything for their failures, Bucchianeri’s simple “No excuse, sir” became national news.” 

[Here’s a link to a longer piece]

The lesson is simple—no one else is to blame. In life, if you want to be a Game Changer, you get it done or you do not.

You can have all the excuses you like, but in reality, none of those matter.

You can blame someone else, you can b*tch, moan and look for sympathy.

Be certain of this—you’ll be approached by weak-minded people who will want to give misery company.

They can come in the form of so-called friends, bandwagon jumpers, lazy journalists, hypocritical former coaches, or Twitter fans—all people who haven’t done anything themselves and more importantly whose own success is not on the line.

Most of all—know this truth—nothing they can say can change those 3 answers.

If you want to get anything done, you need to avoid and protect yourself from those kinds of people. They don’t matter. Ignore them.

Get the win.

The truth hurts, but get over it.


Donncha O’Callaghan is an Irish International and former Munster rugby player who is still playing at 52 years of age now with Worcester Warriors in England. Most people only know him for his practical jokes and constant grin, but working with him in Munster over 2 years, he is one of the people I’ve a special respect for, and learned a huge amount from.

He told me of a time when he was dropped from the Munster team and a player came to him to suggest he was being harshly and unfairly treated by a coach. Donncha had one response to the teammate: “Get away from me” he growled through gritted teeth.

Donncha wasn’t interested in sympathy or misery from anyone. He wasn’t blaming anyone. He knew that was weakness. He was getting busy working harder at fixing what the coach told him he wasn’t getting right.

The mindset that makes Ryan, Donncha and other Game Changers has only 3 answers:

“Yes, sir.”

“No, sir.”

“No excuse, sir.”

Be ruthless. Get after it.

No excuses.

P.S. Donncha is really only 38 years young!

Don’t coach them better

Over the next few weeks I’d like share some of the principles and topics from my upcoming book GameChanger.

It ‘might’ satisfy the emails I’m getting from people and teams looking for advance copies, especially now the NBA season is over (for most). 

Some regard coaching as the process of getting an athlete to do something, by telling or showing them how to do it. One secret I’ve focused on for years is getting an athlete to do something without having to instruct them at all.

How can get an athlete or tactical operator to do something without interacting with them?

First of all, some of you will ask, “Why bother? Whats the point?”

The point is, the point of all coaching—train athlete instinct and make yourself invisible and irrelevant.

As Dan Pfaff told me best years ago, “Good teachers make themselves irrelevant.” He’s right, the most insecure coaches want the player to rely on them.

  • A golfer about to make a critical putt.
  • An NBA center making a free throw to edge ahead in the final quarter.
  • The QB in the pocket with time on a final drive.
  • The point man in a CQB (Close Quarter Battle) facing a loaded gun

All that matters in these moments is instinct.

Act without thinkingIf you can get players to act; develop habits and instinct without thinking you develop seamless operators.

While waiting to catch a plane in Schipol airport, Amsterdam, over 10 years ago, I made a quick stop to the mens room. No one wants to be in a window seat on a long haul flight needing to go to the rest room.

I’ve never expected a restroom visit to provide a learning moment.
On the inside of the urinal there was what seemed like a small fly, which I instinctively tried to move. It slowly dawned on me that it was not a fly. I thought at first it was a mark or crack, then I thought perhaps it was a manufacturing logo that looked like a fly.

What I was actually looking at was a detailed image of a fly, the invention of Aad Kieboom economist who helped Schipol airport reduce splashback and misdirected waterworks from male restroom users. It has since been adopted by many restrooms – you can even buy them here if you feel so inclined.

Don’t coach

Aad Kieboom ‘coaches’ millions unconsciously each day to do something he wants, how can we—it’s actually our job?

We know team sports athletes drink too much sugar. What about if you thought about how you stock your Gatorade or Powerade fridges?

If you want to reduce the volume of high-sugar drinking, what would happen if you placed water at eye level and G2 on the row above and below and Gatorade in the bottom rows only? Try it and watch how you will slowly impact sugar intake unconsciously.

There’s many other ways to impact your make your players better without ‘coaching’ them (directly) on the field also.

Play the one-side dominant player on the other wing of the field putting him on his ‘weak’ side, put the player who is lazier on the lower numbered team or matched against the best player, and so on.

The main benefit is that you allow the player to use his slow thinking energy for stuff that actually needs high cognitive energy.

Remember, you don’t have to hear your own voice to coach.

GameChanger by Fergus Connolly & Phil White is out September 2017. 

The Law of Space and Time

Continuing on the lessons from #GAMECHANGER

Space creates time, but time cannot always create space.

The most important law in all sports, regardless of moment, context, or phase, is the law of space and time.

Often you hear people refer to an athlete who seems to have more time on the ball, or a player who creates time for others. In reality, what is really being referred to here is the creation of space. Time and space are both created using the four macro principles of team sport. The law of space and time states that space can create time. This law is not reversible in sports—time does not necessarily create space.

To create space in one area, we compress players in another.

The biggest difference between professional and collegiate games is speed of play. In any game, if a player gets enough time they can achieve almost anything. Creating space gives them this time.

What is special about this is that it applies to all the sports I’ve worked in. In AFL, Clarko’s cluster is one of the most extreme examples of how by compressing space with men, time on the ball was reduced. In the NFL, no quarterback has any chance if the O-line can’t give him space. Even as you watch the NBA finals, you see players making space and therefore making time. In rugby, the greatest teams will seem to make time, but in essence they are making space, creating an illusion of time.

Of course different teams use different techniques and strategies. Clarko’s Custer is one, Warrenball, favored by Warren Gatland is another, No-huddle attempts to do the same—all replying on different approaches to achieve the same thing—space. Generally, and I will cover this in later posts, there are two broad approaches to this, using physicality or using techno-tactical ability. In almost every case the later is infinitely more successful and sustainable.

We move the players through force, the ball, or misdirection. Phillip Meilinger suggested that “John Boyd’s entire theory of the OODA Loop is based on the premise that telescoping time—arriving at decisions or locations rapidly—is the decisive element in war because of the enormous psychological strain it places on an enemy.”

Great players either find or make space for themselves to allow them the time needed to execute.

GameChanger by Fergus Connolly and Phil White is out September 2017.