Informing Your Practice – Dan Tobin

Dan Tobin – Head of Performance at Gloucester Rugby
THE NEED FOR UNDERSTANDING

An important part of working as a high-performance coach is understanding the competitive demands that athletes face in their sport. The more informed you are of those demands, the more specific and representative your training strategies can be. You are ultimately looking to maximise the transfer of training into competitive performance.

In recent years there has been a big emphasis on GPS (global positioning system) data and similar tracking technologies to shed a light on the physical demands athletes face in sport as well as quantifying their physical output. However, video analysis plays an integral role in understanding movement characteristic requirements of players, in this case, rugby union.

Like with any part of our physical program at Gloucester Rugby, when we target speed development with our players the priority is improving game-relevant speed. After all, our players need to be quick in rugby moments. Having a high speed capacity is obviously a relevant quality, but the reality is that most of the game is played at submaximal speeds.

OVERLAPPING DEMANDS

From a technical perspective, the specific running demands of attack in rugby are not isolated. Rather, they are combined with the coordinative challenges of catching, fending, cutting, curving, stopping, passing, kicking, or entering a contact zone.

Add to that mix the cognitive demands within a hugely competitive environment, for example, the rapidly changing and situational reading of the defence or understanding the context of the game or even relevant strategies for a particular moment, and very quickly the stressors on a player can be amplified. Furthermore, the player themself may be feeling confident, fresh, or fatigued at any given moment.

With all of those factors combined, suddenly your top speed doesn’t seem like a very big player in successfully taking advantage of situations the game throws at you.

Newell (1985) describes this as the interaction between the task, the individual, and the environment. Any change in either one of these performance “constraints” will have a significant effect in altering the challenge faced by the player.

The ecological dynamics approach underlines the need to couple physical movements or actions with the specific perceptual demands of the task (Gibson, 1988). The theory here is that the system (in this case the athlete) self-organises spontaneously to find a solution to a problem. But, we know that players aren’t always able to find solutions and are not always successful in achieving positive outcomes for a variety of reasons.

In this instance, potentially, the scenarios faced by a player are too complex or too chaotic for their current skill level. Here they could be simplified somewhat through the training process in order to establish some element of control within the task itself. This helps promote successful outcomes being achieved in the future and encourages learning.

PROBLEM BREAKDOWN, SOLUTION BUILD UP

When trying to improve the on-field performance of a player, a good process might be to identify:

1. The typical scenarios that these players face (in attack and defence)?

2. The principles of play that we want to emerge in each of these scenarios?

3. How we can manipulate the constraints of the task in training environments in order to guide players towards desired behaviours?

4. The limitations that are restricting the performance of the player in each scenario

Are they physical issues, such as poor acceleration or evasion speed?

Are they technical, coordinative elements like the ability to run square at pace while performing the catch-pass action?

Are they more decision-making-based elements, like reading cues from a defender or making the right pass selection in the right situation?

5. What methods can we employ to simplify the task but maintain elements of specificity or representation to the task as a whole?

COLLABORATING FOR CLARITY

Answering these questions clearly must be a collaborative approach, connecting the entire coaching, performance, analysis, and rugby staff in order to come to the right conclusions. This is in itself a significant challenge as strength and conditioning and rugby personnel often come from different educational backgrounds, and different working environments resulting in the arrival of different conclusions.

Collaboration and aligned thinking may not be the tradition for many in the industry and the siloed approach will place clear restrictions on the development of the performance program if these types of discussions are not able to take place in an open and inclusive way.

We successfully used video analysis to fully understand the trends in the movement demands of our back three players. This deeper understanding and “new knowledge” allowed us to enhance the specificity of our training program for this position group.

We studied the video to analyse any important “typical” scenarios that these players found themselves in, taking into consideration the following;

  1. What type of pace are they moving at in attack when they receive a pass?

2. Are they running straight or curving or running at an angle?

3. What support players do they have and where are they in relation to the carrier?

4. How many defenders are in each differing scenario?

5. How far away are the defence and what tendencies can be observed of varying defences in differing situations?

6. What are the options at play for the carrier?

7. Do they need to run square, fix defenders and pass, or do they frequently need to use footwork to create space?

NEW KNOWLEDGE

These types of cross-department questions were asked to try and explore the problem to arrive at specific solutions that can positively influence a player’s ability to achieve positive outcomes.

Only through using video analysis and the reviewing of relevant footage can you attempt to narrow down the wide field of potential scenarios that each positional group in rugby finds themselves in. This process allows for the identification of trends or recurring patterns of play which provides a manageable level of information to work with.

By studying the movement characteristics of our back three players in games, we found we needed to value the needs of the group to not just run fast in a straight line but to be able to hold high speed while running a curve or cutting an angle relative to any given rugby moment.

They needed to be able to execute a pass while running at a high pace against an on-rushing defender or arrive in the right space at the right time from set plays, at the end of a curving run. We derived information on the type of space the attacking players typically had and the types of defence they typically faced. This began to then inform our training practice.

INTO PRACTICE

Within a periodised training model, we can move along a spectrum of highly specific and representative training on one end of the scale, to a highly simplistic model on the other end. For example, we might simplify the back three scenarios in our warmup strategy to involve some cutting and curving at pace without any decision making to establish a foundation of ability within a given movement type, and evolve from there.

It was important to make sure we had consistent technical models in place for patterns of movement that emerge regardless of the scenario. For example, in a cutting movement, we cue “lift and hit” with the outside foot to ensure there is good force production and the appropriate angle of force coming out of the cut.

Regardless of the decision-making challenge or the chaos of a competitive moment, this action (lift and hit) should be a stable part of the cutting motion. We also look at the ability to run and fast square with an adaptable upper limb that can rotate to perform the catch pass action without unduly affecting their running biomechanics.

As we slide up the scale we started looking at 1v1 scenarios in various spaces with the defender and attacker coming from different angles at a different pace. Again, we may ask for aggressive, decisive actions in these scenarios as a stable habit. This adds some of the specific perceptual and decision-making demands required in the game, but in a simpler format. The complexity can then build from there into 2v2 or 3v3 scenarios and you inevitably end up operating within an entire 7-man backline that is then integrated into a full 15v15 picture.

On the outside it would be easy to perceive the physical requirements of a back 3 player in rugby to be simply out and out pace. It’s a significant factor for sure, but it’s wrong to ignore the complexity of the challenges they face in competition.

Taking that deep dive into the fine detail requires a concerted effort from all the parties involved in a cross-department effort to maximise training effectiveness. This level of cooperation and shared understanding across an entire backroom team unlocks the potential of each individual skillset whether it be in coaching, analysis, or physical performance, into a multidisciplinary, diverse problem-solving unit.

This approach, I would suggest, will drive a new wave of competitive edge in high-performance sport.

2 Responses

  1. Hey Dan, I really enjoyed the read. I am pleased the value being placed on watching how players move (video) and not just looking at data (gps).

    Due to the constraints you mention sport speed is unlikely ever to be as fast as track max velocity for example. Do you think all ‘speed’ training should be contextual , or can improving higher speed capacity lead to better decisions or on field speed?

    Having just reviewed some of Rob Grays podcasts and currently listening to Shawn Myszka on an ALTIS chat , this article arrived at a good (or bad!) time.

    Thanks

    Nick
    ALTIS Performance Coach and Programs Director

  2. Hi Nick

    Firstly, thanks very much for your comments, we are big ALTIS fans and it’s had a significant effect on our philosophy.

    In terms of your question, we do value acceleration and maximum velocity as capacities in and of themselves. We set minimum standards for our players depending on playing position and we target improvements in those qualities, particularly through preseason and the early inseason period through very traditional methods. The nature of rugby here dictates a relatively short preseason (7-8 weeks) and a long in-season (about 9 months) with pretty much week to week games so finding time for development of these qualities through the competitive period is difficult. We spend significant time in and around our gym program working on mechanics and efficiency of movement and on building generic qualities such as ankle stiffness, hip lock, trunk integrity etc that hopefully transfer to all types of high intensity movements as well as coordination drills like dribbling and switching variations throughout the training year.

    We are very lucky at Gloucester in that we have an excellent rugby department who are keen to collaborate with other departments and this gives us great access to the specific or representative end of the scale in terms of speed exposure. So in short, we work across the spectrum of general to specific or traditional to context specific. I’d love to say it’s a highly organised periodised plan but in reality it’s more of a shared decision-making progress amongst staff as to where the group or the individual is at any point in time and where the training should be directed for the next block. The important thing we need to consider if we’re performance focused is how do our players cope in the highly important moments of the game that require a mix of high speed and skill? We try and find solutions in our program to improve that performance which might be capacity, technique or skill-related in a multidisciplinary way, rather than just ticking our speed box and hoping everything transfers.

    Hope that makes sense, and it’s just an indication of our current approach. It might change and we certainly don’t claim to have all the answers! I welcome your thoughts and comments.

    Many thanks
    Dan.

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