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Learning in the workplace

What can we learn from coaching kids’ rugby on a cold Sunday morning?


Jamie Thomas | 2 March 2015

Learning in the workplace – What can we learn from coaching kids’ rugby on a cold Sunday morning?

Put yourself in this position: it’s a freezing cold Sunday morning in the midst of winter. Despite it being past 9am, the sky is so dark and gloomy it feels like the dead of night. You are eight years old, and you have a choice: turn on the iPod and snuggle up indoors, or put on your rugby kit and step into the frosty world outside.

What would you do?

Every Sunday morning, throughout the year, thousands of hardy kids from the age of four make the decision to get up, get out and get stuck in. There is no boss to force them, no financial reward, no central L&D team, and no compliance manager. They are compelled by little more than their own willingness.

Similarly, every Sunday morning, thousands of volunteer coaches-me included-make the same decision: to get up, get out, participate and help kids learn new skills.

Now, rugby is a complicated game-the official RFU rule book is 216 pages long-but I am an L&D professional, so it should be easy, shouldn't it? I'll simply email the rule book to the kids and ask them to read it; call the Sunday sessions 'Embedding Workshops'; send out a questionnaire to make sure that the rule book, admin and facilities were of a high standard; pat myself on the back for a job well done…and then scratch my head when no kids turn up the following week! Undeterred, I'll be thankful that I had the foresight to film the previous week's session. I'll put the video up on the web and hail it as a great success, highlighting the time/cost savings achieved by using new media. After all, the kids can now learn rugby without getting muddy or even having to leave the house!

Of course, I am exaggerating. Video can be a fabulous learning tool in the right context, but obviously no-one would ever suggest teaching kids rugby that way!

The world of learning has changed. The internet has made information immediately accessible, and often L&D teams are struggling to stay relevant in a world that is moving faster than they can. So perhaps we all need to appreciate that everyday our clients-the learners-make exactly the same decision as those kids on a Sunday morning. Do they participate? Do they learn a new skill? Or do they continue as they were, by snuggling up and settling back into their old/safe ways of working?

In fact, there are many interesting parallels between workplace L&D and those cold Sunday mornings

Create good habits

We can't predict every scenario that will come up in a game, so we don't try. What we do is help the kids develop good habits and decision making so that they can react effectively.

Don't call it 'training'

Do the kids even think about the fact they are learning? They want to play games. Our job is to be creative, to develop activities that are both fun and will help them improve core skills relevant to their performance.

Be clear about how you measure success

We are not training the kids to win the six nations (yet!). We know we are being successful when the kids are turning up, smiling and getting involved. These are our leading indicators - what are yours?

Seek out brutally honest feedback

While eight-year-olds may not be able to articulate that something is not engaging, they will definitely tell you if they are bored! We ignore this feedback at our peril because fifty bored eight year olds is not a recipe for a good session.

Engage the stakeholders

If you lose the parents, you lose the kids. We communicate with the parents continually, updating them about the plans and getting them involved wherever we can.

Encourage people to take charge of their own development

If the kids enjoy the sessions so much that they badger their parents to take them out and practise, or they play games with their mates at the weekend, then we have already won a huge battle.

Communication is everything

Would you ever talk to eight-year-olds or even their parents about capability, or competence, or skills frameworks, or Kirkpatrick? Do your clients talk in this way? We use language that eight-year-olds can understand.

Break it down and build it up

Kids don't start by playing 15-a-side on Twickenham-sized pitches; it's four-a-side on tiny playing fields, but the basics are the same. As they grow in confidence and ability, more complexity can be introduced to the sessions.

Question whether training should be compulsory

You can't bully an eight-year-old. There is no point forcing a child to complete an activity if they don't want to: they won't engage, they won't listen, they won't learn, and they definitely won't try it out. Is that so different from mandating training?

Training doesn't equal skills

Many of our kids have been with us for years, done largely the same training sessions, yet they are all at very different skill levels. We must recognise this and work with them as individuals at a pace that works for them.

Make a safe place to try things out

Kids learn by having a go. We look for little signs of improvement, however small, and use those as building blocks.


And finally, if all else fails, we bring hot chocolate… lots and lots of very sweet hot chocolate!


Most people know that QA provides courses, but we also run some of the UK's largest Managed Learning Services where our team of learning consultants help clients think through the practical application of learning.

Feel free to email me for more information: jamie.thomas@qa.com


QA Training | Jamie Thomas

Jamie Thomas

Business Services Account Director

As Account Director for our Business Services vertical, Jamie is tasked with working with QA’s largest clients, helping them deliver effective learning services which have a demonstrable impact on their organisation's capability.
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