The Secret Behind the Success of Coaching with CARDS.

by Sam Jarman

Many coaches, particularly rugby coaches are aware of the CARDS coaching framework, created by Russell Earnshaw and John Fletcher of the Magic Academy. You can buy packs of cards and find out more about how to use them at

The success of CARDS is due to a number of factors. But most important is that it points players and coaches towards their innate potential – to what is already true about human beings.

It reconnects them with their natural propensity to enjoy and excel, rather than blocking or stifling it.

CARDS is an acronym for :

Decision Making
Self Organisation

Encouraging young players to embrace and look to show these characteristics and behaviours is a worthy ideal, and certainly a step forward when compared to rigid ‘command and control’, top down coaching models which might have been employed in the past.

What can make the use of CARDS even more powerful is when the coach and the players develop an understanding of the psychological principles which underpin both performance and enjoyment of sport. When you understand these principles, it allows the innate behaviours which CARDS seeks to enhance to come to the fore more often.

Understanding these principles allows us to come up with answers to questions such as:

Where does creativity come from?
What makes someone more or less aware?
What makes one person appear more resilient than another?
What is decision making?
How does self organisation happen?
What is going on when a player exhibits strong performance in these areas one day, but not the next?

Understanding how the human mind works allows coaches and players to see these attributes for what they really are; symptoms of a state of mind, rather than as behaviours that need to be coached into someone, or that should to be strived for as goals on the part of the player.

In the rest of this article I’ll take each of the CARDS skills and explain the principles which underpin each one, and how a coach can help players to access the innate resources they always have at their disposal to encourage these behaviours to shine through.


Three Principles – Infinite Implications

But first, I’d like to point towards three fundamental principles of the human experience which allow us all to function in the world, and which create and shape our feelings and our behaviour.

When a player or a coach understands these principles, they are naturally more creative, aware, resilient, decisive and organised

The primary principle which gets missed most regularly is the fact that human beings think. While this sounds like an obvious fact, it is universally overlooked, and the implications of our thinking are widely misunderstood. I’ll expand on this as we progress.

The second closely related principle is that human beings feel their thinking, not their situation or circumstances as is widely believed. If you forget that you think, you are hardly going to look in that direction to explain how you or someone else is feeling.

The third one is that we all have the innate potential to be successful. This is already in every single one of us. Our job as coaches is to draw out that potential, rather than add to it as might be assumed.

Understanding these simple principles allows a coach or player to maximise the effectiveness of the CARDS coaching model, and to understand what is happening if a player is struggling to make sense of it.


1. Creativity

When someone has less on their mind, less things they are trying to think about, there is more space for creative insight to flow.

If a player has a head stuffed with instructions from outside, then there is less room for that player to have their own insights, to come up with their own solutions to problems.

When we encourage a player to be creative, what we are really doing is providing space for them to see the game through their eyes. We are giving them the freedom to have their own ideas as to the best way to move through that game successfully.

This is much more likely to happen if both the coach and the player have an understanding of the nature of thought, and a realisation that overthinking and information overload is the biggest obstacle to creativity.

Suggesting a player should ‘be more creative’ without helping them understand what might be blocking that creativity probably isn’t going to work.


2. Awareness

Creativity and awareness are closely linked. They are symptoms of the same thing, clarity of mind. A player with less on their mind will be more aware of what is going on around them than a player who is preoccupied with their own thinking.

We have all had the experience of someone talking to us and being lost in our thoughts, having no idea of what was just said to us as a result. The main thing which prevents awareness is our thinking.

If a player is not aware of what is going on around them, they will be far less likely to come up with a creative solution at the moment it is required. Opportunities are lost and mistakes happen.

When we are caught up in our own thinking, our perceptive field closes in and we sometimes don’t ‘see’ the very thing we are looking at. (Can’t see the wood for the trees.)

3. Resilience

True resilience stems from an understanding that there is no causal relationship between how someone feels and their situation or circumstance. The game situation, the crowd or the opposition have no power to make a player feel anxious, nervous or ‘under pressure’.

How we feel comes 100% from our thinking moment to moment. Our thoughts ebb and flow. Our feelings do the same. The more a player understands that it’s normal and OK to feel nervous or insecure sometimes, and that those feelings have no power to affect their performance, the more resilient they will be.

The more a player tries to control their thinking, or to correct or manage or cope with their feelings, the worse they will feel and the less resilient they are capable of being.

Human beings are innately resilient. You only need to watch young children playing to see this. One minute they are upset, the next minute they are playing happily. Our experience changes from moment to moment and our feelings come and go with that experience.

Misguided thinking which tells us we should feel a certain way at a certain time or in a certain situation blocks this flow and we get stuck in a bad mood or an insecure feeling. Understanding how this works is the key to resilience for both players and coaches.


4. Decision Making

Decision making is one of the most misunderstood aspects of sport, and of life. It stems from the illusion that human beings are in control of their thoughts and therefore their actions.

Anyone who has stubbed a toe, lost their keys or said something silly in the heat of the moment might suspect that this isn’t the case. How would these things happen if we really were in control?

We think what we think when we think it, and we can only act on the thinking we have in that moment.

In that sense, a decision isn’t a decision at all. It is a reaction to whatever thought popped into our head at a particular moment in time causing us to do something, or not do something.

It is only with hindsight, when another thought happens moments later when we realise we could have acted differently. This is where it looks like we ‘made a decision’, when in the moment we just did what we did.

In the same way that we are more aware and more creative when we have less on our minds, we are also more decisive and more prone to act wisely, simply because the quality of our thinking is liable to be better. Insights come from wisdom or common sense, rather than from intellectual or personal thinking.

It looks like our ‘decision making’ has improved, when what has really happened is that our mind has got quieter and we are less distracted by our thoughts.


5. Self Organisation

Self Organisation can be seen as a by-product of confidence and trust. Confidence of a player in their own abilities and trust in their team mates. Confidence to speak up and put forward their ideas, trusting that they will be listened to.

Again, confidence and trust are widely misunderstood. They are innate. They don’t need to be learnt or acquired from outside or come from achievements or attainment of skills. We naturally feel confident and trusting when we don’t take our doubtful or insecure thinking seriously.

Understanding the nature of thought, the way it ebbs and flows is the key to confidence and trust. If we understand that if and when we don’t feel these things, it’s because we have some thinking going on, but that when that thinking clears we will feel fine again, we are less likely to worry and try to cope and make things worse

Self Organisation is also a function of the first four behaviours. If a player is creative, aware, resilient and comfortable making decisions, then naturally they will be adept at organising themselves and working within a team towards an objective.

The more instruction you give to a player, and the more rules and structure you have in a game, the less chance they have to organise themselves. Allowing a team to find their own way is a great way of fostering this behaviour.



Encouraging players to be more Creative, Aware, Resilient, Decisive and Self Organised is a great step forward in the way we coach. It is far more in line with the way human beings naturally access high levels of performance in any endeavour than the top down, ‘provide the answers’ style of coaching which may have prevailed in the past.

However, it’s important to remember that these behaviours are already innate in the players we are coaching. They will reveal themselves when players see the Inside Out nature of life clearly, and have less on their minds rather than more.

A great coach will help those players uncover and tap into these abilities as a way of being and a way of playing, rather than as something they think they have to learn and implement. CARDS is an excellent framework for helping players realise this innate potential.

If a coach understands that the power of CARDS comes from the fact that it is pointing to what is already true and will always be true, then it will be something they can use for the long term, rather than being just another technique or strategy which will come and go.

CARDS is a great first step in understanding the simple principles behind the way the human mind really works. This understanding will help any coach to build more productive coaching relationships and offer more enjoyable and successful sessions.

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