Tips - The Modern Game
Tips for Players - The Demands of the Modern Game
Strength and Conditioning
Rugby is very physically demanding sport and in recent years has changed from being considered a contact sport to a collision sport. As the game becomes more and more professional there is more emphasis on physical conditioning the players to become individual athletes who not only show good strength, power and skills but who also excel in every aspect of fitness.
It is the goal of the modern game to produce athletic rugby players who can interchange positions with ease.
As a result conditioning is becoming a key aspect of professional rugby and therefore it is important to introduce conditioning from an early age.
In the past if you mentioned resistance training and children in the same sentence most people would start giving you funny looks. This is not surprising considering that until recently the benefits of resistance training to athletic performance had been dismissed in the UK. Only now are coaches at all levels starting to realise the benefits of resistance training in improving performance.
Much research has been targeted into the effects of resistance training of children aged 11 and upwards. Resistance training includes bodyweight exercises, free weights, resistance equipment, Olympic lifts, all these methods can improve a childs balance, proprioception, strength and power.
Researchers and coaches alike are now confident that if a suitable training program is employed by a qualified strength and conditioning coach that significant gains can be made in strength and power in young performers. Injury risk is minimal when training is carried out in a supervised structured manor. The key to training with children is avoiding training at or near maximal loads with children.
The main emphasis during the early years is improving technique and coordination in key exercises that will be used later in the athlete's career. It is important to get started into resistance training programs from an early age in order to prepare the athlete for future training programs and building the strength and power base will help to improve the athlete's performance but also act as to prevent injury during training and playing schedules.
The demands of the modern game
Today's rugby players must be fit enough to last 80 minutes, fast and agile to avoid contact, strong and powerful to break tackles and retain possession. Although some players are stronger in some areas than others it is vital to train in all areas of fitness to continually meet the demands of the game. The key aspects of rugby include:
- Speed — ability to move quickly
- Strength — the amount of force which can be produced
- Power — the ability to produce force at high speeds
- Flexibility — ability to move through an extended range of motion
- Game specific fitness — aerobic and anaerobic endurance
- Agility — the ability to change direction at speed
- Acceleration — ability to get to top speed in a short time
Strength and Power
Rugby players need high levels of strength and power in order to break tackles, make tackles and be effective in contact situations. At younger ages (11-16) this is best improved by bodyweight exercises such as single leg squats, lunges, press ups, sit ups, chin ups, dips, etc.
These can be performed on a regular basis and provide a good base for resistance training at a later age (16+).
Technique for other strength and power exercises can also be learned during this time to prepare for future training. The importance of bodyweight exercises should not be underestimated as they provide an excellent platform for later training. As a guide 2-3 sets of increasing repetitions 2 per week to start and building up to 3-4 times per week. Seek advice on performing these exercises properly as they are easily performed with technique which can lead to developing bad habits at a young age. Aim to master these exercises before moving onto weight training.
Older players and more biologically mature players (16+) can use resistance training programs using a combination of machine weights are used under supervision from a qualified strength and conditioning coach. Olympic lifts can also start to be introduced with selected loads these are highly effective at improving power and strength but require good technique and the supervision of a qualified coach.
Speed and Agility
Top end speed is a valuable requirement in rugby however the ability to accelerate, decelerate and change direction is of greater importance as these abilities are used more often in a game of rugby than sprinting in a straight line at high speeds. Players such as Jason Robinson are a prime example of demonstrating these skills and being highly successful.
These skills can be improved by using speed ladders, uphill and downhill sprints and using resistance sprinting equipment. These exercises will help improve foot speed, leg strength, stride length and ultimately speed off the mark.
Modern day rugby players cover varying distances depending on their position. As a guide a total distance of 4-6km are covered in a game of rugby at varying speeds. Much of this time is spent between sprinting, walking and jogging and competing for the ball. It is important therefore when training to train at high intensities in order to replicate the demands of the game. Anaerobic fitness and repeated sprint ability are required in rugby and are key areas to focus upon in training. The anaerobic system provides fast acting energy for the body without oxygen such as during a sprint. High intensity interval training will help to improve fitness in these areas, this type of training can be performed on a rowing machine, treadmill or on a rugby pitch and involves working at high intensities interspersed with periods of short rest repeated several times.
You should only perform the exercises that are given to you by your conditioning coach for safety reasons and also to ensure that you are performing the most effective form of training for you and to ensure that you do not overtrain.
Flexibility is an important aspect of rugby union as good flexibility is associated with lower injury risk. It is also a key factor in preparing for training and games. It is recommended that before a game no static stretching should be performed as this can increase injury risk and also lowers the potential of the muscle to produce force. It is instead recommended that dynamic stretching is used before performing exercise. This involves moving the limbs through ranges of movement in order to stretch and warm the muscle in preparation for games and training.
Post training static stretching is recommended as this aids muscle relaxation and helps lengthen the muscle fibres post exercise. Stretches should be held for around 30 seconds for sets each muscle group. Holding stretches should not be painful in any way. Ideally stretching should be performed regularly through the week in order to improve the length and the muscles and help aid recovery. Good muscular flexibility will help reduce injury and improve strength in the muscle to perform to its best.
Rugby players should place a big emphasis on neck strength as the neck is involved in a high amount of contact situations. Obviously front row players should place greater emphasis on this training as scrimmaging places great strain on the muscles of the neck. Strengthening these muscles will help lower the risk of injury. The use of weighted neck slings are a useful tool for improving neck strength, neutral alignment is also important in preventing injury as the neck is strongest in this position. Neutral alignment should be employed during resistance training as this will train the neck muscles to stabilise in this position. Neutral position or an ideal alignment describes the position of the ears, shoulders, spine, hips, knees, ankles and feet in relation to one another in a standing position. Ideally a plumb line should run through all these points to show ideal alignment. This ideal alignment is the position which causes the least amount of musculoskeletal pain and strain. Poor alignment can lead to muscular imbalances that can lead to long term problems. Try to maintain good alignment in everyday life especially when sitting down as this tends to be the time when most cases of bad alignment occur.
Core strength and stability
The aim of core stability training is to learn to effectively control the muscle of the trunk to control the position of the lumbar spine during dynamic movements. The key reason for training these muscles is that they contract before any limb movements and act to stabilise the lumbar spine and therefore training these muscles can lead to improved efficiency of movement, agility, coordination and balance.
The key muscles involved in core stability are the deep abdominals, lower back and oblique muscles. Exercises for training these muscles include using wobbleboards, swiss balls in order to learn to recruit the trunk muscles. Basic exercises such as performing a press up with your feet on a swiss ball will help in learning to recruit the correct muscles. Once these basic exercises have been learned , more functional exercises can then be introduced.
Exercises like this will help you learn to stabilise your core during many other dynamic movements. It is essential to perform these exercises with your conditioning coach in order to ensure that you are performing them correctly.
Management of training and playing
One of the main difficulties faced by rugby players is the busy playing and training schedules. The most important part in these playing schedules is making time for rest. Many athletes tend to overplay at a young age and don't devote enough time to training skills and physical conditioning. Training skills and physical conditioning will set the basis for any potential future in professional sport and ensure that not only basic skills improve but also ensure balanced muscular development to avoid developing muscle imbalances and ensuring sufficient rest between these sessions. As a rule you should only be playing one game a week and fitting in gym time and skills training in between. Training will provide the stimulus for improved performance however it is during rest that these adaptations will take place and therefore it is of great importance to ensure enough rest is taken in order to continually improve performance and avoid overtraining.
Important aspects to remember
- Control and technique should never be sacrificed for more weight.
- Reps should always be controlled in order to gain maximum benefits from the exercise
- Weights should be progressively increased in order to see continued improvements.
- Specificity is key to maximal gains and transferring these gains to the rugby field. Choose exercises that are more rugby specific over general exercises.
- Breathing correctly is important as breathing in during the downward motion of an exercise helps to stabilise the midsection and spine.
- Always obtain a training program from a qualified strength and conditioning coach and perform it under supervision ideally from a qualified coach who can guide you in the gym and reduce the risk of injury.
Long Term Athlete Development
It takes a lot of hard work and commitment over a prolonged period of time for a player to excel in sport, hence the need to adhere to the principles of Long Term Athlete Development. LTAD is a process that involves developing a planned training, competition and recovery programme that enables players to fulfil their long-term sporting potential. Rugby is regarded as a late- specialisation sport due to its physical nature and the various requirements it places on both body and mind so the focus of training and playing will change during a player's adolescent years depending on where they are in their development.
Training should be based around what is termed the growth spurt and in boys this usually occurs between the ages of 13 and 16 but everyone is different. Training should be specific to the individual and should be based on biological age not chronological age. People mature and develop at different rates and if someone is subject to any training or playing programme that is not best suited to that individual, it may inhibit the player from ever reaching their long-term potential.
FUNdamentals (approx. age 6-9)
The emphasis during this stage of development is on enjoyment and participation in as many different sports as possible. This is a key time to develop basic running, jumping, throwing, kicking and catching skills as well as balance, co-ordination and agility. Without these fundamental movement skills players will struggle to maximise their long-term biological potential.
Learning to Train (approx. age 9-12)
This stage involves learning general sports skills and being introduced to spatial awareness and team work. As well as continuing to develop fundamental movement skills, players will be gradually introduced to the concept of training through invasion- type games. Conditioning work should be based around game play, body- weight exercises and flexibility.
Training to Train (approx. age 12-16)
Training will start to become more sport specific and core skill development is key. Game understanding and basic mental skills should be introduced to players. Conditioning work involves general conditioning and functional fitness for rugby as well as an introduction to appropriate lifting techniques.
Training to Compete (approx. age 16-18)
Sport specific technical skills will be practised under competitive conditions and tactical and mental preparation becomes more advanced. Conditioning programmes should be individualised and based around the player's growth spurt, but by this stage most players will be in a position to work specifically on their physical conditioning, particularly as they gain independence.
Training to Win (approx. age 18+)
Players are integrated into adult programmes as their maturity allows. It is important to optimise the development of technical skills because tactical, mental and physical components become more paramount at this stage. Players now have full responsibility for their own learning and development and should be in a position to manage their own lifestyle accordingly.
The very nature of rugby being a collision sport means that some players will get injuries. For some injuries, it might mean a lengthy period on the sidelines, for others it might mean a short period of rest. Either way, it is important that you fully recover before you start to train and play again. Players must ensure the appropriate personnel are aware of any injuries so that the appropriate treatment can be given:
- If you get injured or have any problems, report them to the coach and physio immediately
- If you have any existing or ongoing injuries/medical conditions, you must report these to the coaching staff before the start of any sessions
Injury prevention guidelines
- Always wear appropriate clothing and footwear (trainers with appropriate arch support)
- Always perform appropriate pre-hab and/or warm-up exercises before any activity
- Always notify the coaching staff of any existing or ongoing injuries/medical conditions you have
- Maintain good posture and body control throughout exercise to reduce the risk of injury
- Stretch after training/playing to help reduce muscle soreness and aid recovery
Injury management guidelines
- If you get injured or have any problems, report them to the coaching staff immediately
- Use ice-packs for 10 minutes for any soreness injuries
- Always consult your doctor/physiotherapist on the use of pain relieving drugs
- If you suffer an open wound or laceration consult a doctor or trained first aider immediately
- Use the RICE principle for most injuries (unless you have an open wound or laceration):
- REST - Ensure the injured area or limb is not unduly stressed until you have consulted your physiotherapist
- ICE - Apply ice to the injured area for 10 minutes every 2 hours (for the first 24-48 hours). Remember ice burns, so use ice bags/damp cloths to avoid direct contact with the skin
- COMPRESSION - Pressure applied to the injured area must be evenly distributed and firm enough to compress any swelling. It must not compromise circulation or feeling and you should never leave a compression bandage on when you go to bed
- ELEVATION - When appropriate, elevate and support the injured area to assist in the drainage of fluid that accumulates during inflammation
If you suffer a head injury, you must attend the local accident and emergency department if any of the following occur: loss of consciousness, persistent vomiting or nausea, continuous or worsening headaches, drowsiness, memory loss, any neurological signs or symptoms (tingling in arms/hands or lingering pains in the neck) or if you are concerned that you do not feel quite right.