Typically, in the earlier stages of the career, strength and conditioning coaches can be fooled into thinking that physical development is the secret to elite level performance. We assume that all professional players must be elite level performers in the weight room, and that for players not quite making the grade, more physical development is the remedy. However, experience has taught me quite differently…
Unfortunately for strength coaches, physical development rarely tends to be the distinguishing factor between professional players. Rather, it is the non-physical factors like technical, tactical and psychological development that are the difference makers. Premiership academy teams abound with big, strong, fast, powerful young players that would put a lot of international players to shame in the gym. Many of them never come close to playing international rugby, because of severe deficiencies in the other areas.
To illustrate this, I drew the above quadrant. Note that in reality players lie on a spectrum for each quality. There is no clear dividing line between talented and untalented. However for the sake of simplicity I have divided players into four quadrants.
When a player reaches the elite level in all areas, you have a world class player on your hands (group 1). They are that rare. Players like these include Billy Vunipola, Sonny Bill Williams, Maro Itoje, Bryan Habana etc; guys who possess skill, mindset and tactical awareness in abundance, but who are also so physically gifted that they could turn their hand to any sport they choose (and sometimes do!). For rugby league fans, I would include Jarryd Hayne and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck in this rare group.
What is a lot more common is players who still possess great technical, tactical and psychological preparation for their position and sport, but are physically mortal like the rest of us (group 2). And there are more of them than people would think playing in international rugby union. Examples from my own experience include: a number 8 who could squat less than 1.2* bodyweight, an overweight winger barely scraping 1.70s for 10m, a flanker who could broad jump less than 2.5m, the list goes on. I will not name names, but all played at the highest level.
What is not common is a player who exhibits the opposite profile (group 3). This is what the NFL likes to call a “combine warrior”; a player with a blazing 40 yard dash, who can jump out of the gym and squat a house, but just cannot play. They lack the skill, the game experience or the psychological profile to perform on the biggest stage.
There are very few of these that make it in professional rugby. Typically they are seen as long term projects, where clubs will invest time and effort to try and turn an athlete into a rugby player. This usually results in failure and the athlete is sifted out of the system. The notable exception to this is Carlin Isles, but even his success has been limited to rugby sevens. Whilst physically world class, he has been unable to make a dent in the much higher paid world of rugby fifteens.
Lastly we have group 4. This the category I fell into as a player, as do 99% of amateurs. Players in this quadrant are simply not gifted or prepared enough in any area to play professionally. Don’t give up the day job!
So as strength coaches, what lessons should we take away from these experiences? In my opinion:
- Recognise how truly rare quadrant four athletes are. People like to throw the word “elite” around in sport. Personally I have worked with 3 or 4 truly elite level players in my entire career, and the number of players I have worked with certainly runs into the hundreds at this point. In this situation the strength coach should just try not to F up. The player will make it anyway, so just don’t do anything stupid!
- As sports organisations, invest more time and resources into technically, tactically and psychologically developed players who need more physical preparation. Time has shown that this is more likely to result in a successful outcome for club and player. In this situation the strength coach needs to work actively with the athlete, push them to get better, but keep their role in proportion (you’re not the reason they are on the pitch, you’re just helping them to stay there).
- Understand that trying to turn a physically gifted but technically-tactically useless player into a professional is a long shot, and will require a huge investment of training time and effort away from strength and conditioning. In this situation the strength coach needs to pull back and let the player concentrate on the limiting factors.
- If you’re completely devoid of talent in any realm, either become a coach or remain a player and enjoy sport as an amateur pursuit!