In my previous article, Rugby: A Guide to Developing a High-Performance System, I briefly referred to the physicality involved in the sport. As a rule of thumb, a male professional player is likely to weigh between 90 kg and 110 kg. In the women’s game, although their mass can be significantly lower, the external forces are always going to be relative to their size. For both male and female rugby athletes, their ability to tolerate repetitive force is essential.
The objective of rugby is quite simple, in all honesty. The goal is to advance up the field in order to score a try and inevitably, at some point, make contact. With contact comes the risk of injury, whether that be acute (direct) or chronic (over time).
The majority of field sports, such as soccer and Australian Rules football, have a competitive schedule that lasts anywhere from seven to nine months. Rugby is no different, which limits the window for physical development. Generally—and I’ll place emphasis on generally—rugby is a matter of maintenance and ensuring that players are available for selection. The idea of strict maintenance does, however, lend itself to limiting the intensity and volume of training, thus leaving players underprepared. That is, in itself, a challenge.
The purpose of this article is to offer information regarding the development of athletes, with the focus on rugby players, although there are always going to be crossovers between various sports. Specifically, I consider underlying reasons for injuries occurring and, from there, potential preventative measures. At the core of this topic is Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD), because I look upon it as an excellent way to subdue injuries.
Understanding what causes the particular physiological system to fail in the first place is paramount when planning rehabilitation or, if you’re ahead of the game, suppressing injury. For the sake of simplicity, it is far more beneficial to build efficient rugby players who can tolerate the specific biomechanical stress. I think it’s important to say that I don’t give all of my attention to injury prevention because that is quite a pessimistic way to view performance—almost as though I am wrapping the athletes in bubble wrap and removing them from all combative situations. I obviously want to see players sprint fast, jump high, and evade tacklers but, at the same time, I like the idea of seeing them do that on a regular basis.
Rapid acceleration and deceleration, efficient cutting, and jumping and landing are the foundations of rugby. All place significant stress upon the musculoskeletal and neuromuscular systems. Usually, musculoskeletal injuries occur during acceleration and deceleration and, generally, rate of force development (RFD) is greater in eccentric contractions. In contact sports, there will always be acute, external injuries that can be kept at bay, which will be discussed as this article progresses. I hear a lot of rugby fans complain when a player sustains a number of injuries throughout their career, and they question what the sports science staff members are doing with their time. The reality, however, is that rugby is a very physical game and, regardless of our efforts to keep players fit, injury is a factor that can take down even the strongest of professionals.
The important element when looking at a rugby player’s mass is the momentum that they carry when making contact. Momentum is the product of mass (kg) and speed (m/s). To calculate speed, distance is divided by time, as shown below.
|Distance (m)||Time (s)||Speed (m/s)|
Momentum (kg m/s) can be derived from those calculations. In rugby, momentum is particularly high, as a result of the player’s mass. In a study by Dan Baker (1999), running speed and quickness were compared among elite (NRL) and amateur/club (CRL) level rugby league athletes. Granted, rugby league and rugby union are different sports, but they share similar physical qualities. I’ll refer to the average speed over 10 meters, because the large majority of contact is made within that distance. Times for 40 meters are also found in the table below.
|10 m||40 m|
As Figure 2 shows, there is no significant difference in average speed between NRL and CRL players. However, when mass (kg) is introduced, that data becomes noteworthy. Average body mass and the resultant momentum (P) are provided from the same study in the next table.
|Position||Mass (kg)||Momentum (kg m/s)|
To summarize the data displayed in Figure 3, there is a significant difference in momentum between elite and amateur players. The predominant reason behind this is, quite simply, that NRL players are much heavier. With that in mind, long term athlete development should become more integral, in terms of developing players that will be able to tolerate the physicality across both codes of rugby.
Long Term Athlete Development
We know that momentum carried by rugby league players is extremely high. That indicates the importance of LTAD in the sport. There is a degree of reliance upon the physical qualities, purely because so much is dependent upon the ability to withstand the demands. Also, perhaps from a more cynical perspective, clubs invest heavily in their players financially, which is understandable. But, with effective youth training, we could see a larger number of academy graduates playing on the professional stage.
Before I delve into the LTAD model, I believe it’s vitally important to understand that the number of juniors who will progress towards professionalism is small, in relative terms. While I acknowledge that, as coaches, high-performance sport is usually at the front of our minds, there must be a degree of realism involved. Sport participation rates, or physical activity for that matter, are extremely low. Inactivity becomes a habit and we all know the benefits of exercise, particularly for schoolchildren. Do not ignore the overriding principle in this model because long-term health, fitness, and well-being are, arguably, equally as important as athletic performance (Lloyd et al, 2015).
The Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model is a physiological framework proposed to manage the focus, volume and type of training applied to athletes as they develop through adolescence into adulthood. (Tucker, 2013)
With this definition of LTAD, the focus is on the transition from adolescence to adulthood. In rugby, it is known that the progression from amateur to professional is significant. Fundamental movement skills and fundamental sports skills are the contributors to effective long-term development (Ford et al, 2010).
Fundamental Movement Skills
From a strength and conditioning perspective, fundamental movement skills are hinging, cutting, accelerating, decelerating, jumping, landing, rotating, pulling, and pushing. It sounds like an overfilled plate. If we get those right or progress towards proficiency, we can unlock doors that welcome further progression. Now, there will be variations across different sports, but these movement skills will, largely, remain the same, especially with younger athletes.
Through observation and conversations with coaches of a similar age to myself, I’ve found that there’s a worry that we might apply too much stimulus and “overtrain” young athletes. Essentially, we want to “wrap them in cotton wool” because, at university, we are taught that they are “still in developmental stages,” as if they are a prototype running trainer. I, myself, am guilty of taking the safe option and making sessions far too easy. On that note, don’t be afraid to make those errors, because no mistake is a silly mistake as long as you don’t do it again.
I’ll tell you now, hopping about on one leg is not going to develop a great rugby athlete. What might, however, is sprinting and developing force. We see gimmicky, commercialized training methods an awful lot and they are not overly effective. Bear in mind that we do, unfortunately, work in a field in which gimmicks do sell and, once one established coach takes the bait, a boat load of young coaches could follow.
Fundamental Sport Skills
Conversely, fundamental sport skills, specifically in rugby, are those that devise the game. So, for rugby, they are tackling, passing, catching, scrummaging, throwing, kicking, and jumping. With these skills in mind, what do they all require in order to execute them efficiently and under fatigue? The fundamental movement skills, perhaps to an extreme level. It is in this area that the New Zealand All Blacks are known to invest, both with time and with resources.
Performance is dependent upon the amalgamation of both fundamental movement and fundamental sport skills. As and when we successfully combine the two ingredients, the athlete should obtain the status, as such, of being physically literate. Essentially, this means being in a position where all of the listed movement skills can be performed while executing the sport skills. In my opinion, it is this area that can be particularly detrimental to long-term performance. If movement proficiency is not demonstrated, we leave the door slightly open to allow injuries and limitations to creep in. If, however, we get the fundamentals nailed down early on and firmly shut the door, we, as support staff, give the athlete a great chance of performing at a high level for a prolonged period.Performance depends on both fundamental movement & fundamental sport skills. Click To Tweet
As I alluded to “closing the door” and developing proficiency as early as possible, there are periods where development can be accelerated. This element of the LTAD Model fits into the supposed “window of opportunity.” It is a highly debated topic, particularly among the academics in our field, due to its unsubstantiated claims and, ultimately, the lack of literature surrounding it. As Ford and colleagues (2010) state, it cannot be claimed that the LTAD Model is 100% factual.
Having said that, however, there is a reasonable amount of sports science and coaching common sense that shapes the idea of developing athletes. None is more simple than, in a nutshell, introducing strength training as a means of making athletes more “robust” and resilient. If a young rugby player wishes to take on a 110kg gorilla, without sufficient strength training, I wish them good luck. So, on that basis, while there is not an awful lot of literature that justifies particular statements, we can always resort back to common sense. A lot of excellent results are often a product of the wonder that is common sense.
Window of Opportunity
Blink, or take a sip of your coffee, and you may well miss the “window of opportunity.”
This term used for the period in which junior athletes are, hypothetically, believed to be more receptive to imposed demands, does not help its cause. It creates an element of panic, whereby coaches are scurrying around, calculating when their athletes are going to approach the window. Have they missed it? Have they jumped through the window too early and blown the opportunity? The simple answer is that not every athlete will jump through the same window. Half of the group might speed towards the developmental stairway in early 2017, while the other might be progressing, incrementally, at the tail end of 2017. One size does not fit all.
I prefer to view the window of opportunity as, simply, childhood. Ultimately, children are extremely trainable because they almost always respond to the stimuli that you offer and they usually recover at enviable rates. A lot is said about when a junior athlete should be in the weight room, squatting, deadlifting, and bench-pressing but, first things first, does the “athlete” move like a child? How does a child athlete move? Hopefully, not like a toddler because, if that is the case, we have bigger fish to fry.
I’m sure most people would associate child’s play with activities such as climbing trees, making use of their levers in push and pull actions, or sprinting away from a neighbor’s property while playing “knock a door and run.” (Please note, I am not endorsing this game, even though it promotes running at the speed of light). As you can imagine, that kind of fun has diminished in recent years, with the rise of child safety and the draw of technology taking control of children’s attention.
Before I begin to sound like an older gentleman sitting in his leather armchair, I am not placing the blame on technology because it has played, and will continue to play, an integral role in athletic development. I also think technology is viewed as a scapegoat and younger coaches, like myself, are hounded for making use of it. However, it is an undeniable statement that a lot of children would rather play “Angry Birds” than play “tag.”
Solidity From Bottom to Top
The goal of LTAD is to lay “solid foundations” on which we can build strong, fast, and agile athletes. I’ve used Jenga as an example because I’m sure we all have experienced our bricks collapsing because somebody (naming no names) has erected a structurally unstable tower. It is a reasonably similar situation to athletic development. If the foundations that we work on with the athlete are shaky, the chances of building towards the necessary physical requirements are significantly reduced. We might get halfway through the build and realize that we forgot to reinforce the concrete.
The goal of LTAD is to lay solid foundations on which we can build strong, fast, agile athletes. Click To Tweet
Strength usually increases, exponentially, up until the age of 14, for both males and females (Ford et al, 2010). Hopefully, it is clear that this statement does not mean that strength cannot be trained after reaching 14 years of age. Fortunately, we now know that the theory surrounding resistance training and the risk of it “damaging growth” lacks empirical data. If the programming and selection of movements are well-thought-out, the benefits of strength training in adolescents outweigh the risks, which, again, if well taught, should not be an issue. Muscular endurance, strength, neuromuscular coordination, body composition, injury management, and self-efficacy are just a few of the components of performance that improve with well-prescribed strength training.
On the list of benefits that strength training carries, neuromuscular coordination is the greatest ability that a young athlete can maintain. Ultimately, everything, from the fundamental movement skills to the fundamental sport skills, is determined by neuromuscular control in some way. In layman’s terms, if muscle mass, as a result of hypertrophy, can increase, motor unit excitation will follow suit. Motor units are essentially a component of the nervous system that “control” muscular contractions, both voluntary and involuntary.
The diagram shows a simplified overview of the process of rate of force development. There is definitely more to the story, but that is the basis of my point concerning neuromuscular coordination. Our goal, as coaches or sports scientists, is to improve the stimulation of the neuromuscular system and increase the conduction of impulses, with the ultimate intention of enhancing force development.
To draw this article to a close, I feel that self-efficacy is a vital “cog” in the high-performance machine and it is vastly underestimated. To rattle away from my first year at university, self-efficacy is how confident we are of achieving our goals. It’s a sub-division within Albert Bandura’s Social Cognitive Construct and, in my eyes, it is extremely beneficial to understand from a coach’s point of view, especially if you are involved in youth development.
Rugby players, both male and female, have a pre-written “rule” whereby they are some of the toughest, most durable, athletes going. After all, if they can take a physical beating for 60 to 80 minutes, they must be confident souls. I think an awful lot of young players, with aspirations to play for their favorite professional team from childhood, are often overcome with doubt. Trials, assessment games, and physical testing are actually quite a daunting experience for some people; perhaps even the vast majority of them. This view does not apply to everyone, because I have come across plenty of confident players who believe in their ability, no matter what. That’s exactly what we want, without arrogance seeping in.
However—and I take this role on with a degree of pride—as the coaches of young prospects, we have an opportunity to influence their behavior, their mindset, and their future as an athlete. Please don’t abuse that opportunity. Time and time again, coaches are becoming part of the downfall of many potentially great athletes because they feel they are in a position to “release the hounds” on young players. Prepare. Empower. Enjoy.
A special thank you to Nick Newman and Glen Thurgood, who both kindly offered advice and input towards my development and, ultimately, the thoughts in this article.
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- Baker, D. “A comparison of running speed and quickness between elite professional and young rugby league players.” Strength & Conditioning Coach. 7(3):3-7. 1999.
- Ford, P., Croix, M., Lloyd, R., Meyers, R., Moosavi, M., Oliver, J., Till, K., and Williams, C., 2010. “The Long-Term Athlete Development model: Physiological evidence and application.” Journal of Sports Sciences. 29(4): 389-402.
- Hendricks, S., Karpul, D., and Lambert, M., 2014. “Momentum and Kinetic Energy Before the Tackle in Rugby Union.” Journal of Sports Science Medicine. 13(3): 557-563.
- Lloyd, R., Oliver, J., Faigenbaum, A., Howard, R., Croix, M., Williams, C., Best, T., Alvar, B., Micheli, L., Thomas, P., Hatfield, D., Cronin, J., and Myer, G. (2015) “Long-Term Athlete Development-Part 1: A Pathway for All Youth.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 29(5): 1439-1450.
- Tucker, R. 2013. The Science of Sport. (Online). Available: Long-term athlete development:FOUNDATIONS AND CHALLENGES FOR COACHES, SCIENTISTS & POLICY-MAKERS Accessed: 17th October 2016.