I am a big believer that strength and conditioning for rugby cannot exist in isolation. All coaches and players must be mindful that physical preparation for the sport comprises only 25% of the puzzle. The remaining 75% of technical (skill) preparation, tactical preparation and psychological preparation must be considered, firstly for their own impact on the game, and also in their relationship to the other areas, as I wrote about here.
Often when a team suffers a poor result, the media/coaches/fans will be quick to blame the result on a lack of physical fitness amongst the athletes. However, all too often we see a heavy loss immediately followed by a win, often against stronger opposition. Can physical fitness really be responsible for such a quick reversal of fortunes?
In my experience, guys will experience no more than a few percent variation in the various physical qualities throughout the season. If guys are really feeling crushed, that number might drop by up to 10%. But that will typically only happen in the day or two after a game that really empties the tank. For players to enter into a game in such a deficit, the coaching staff really have to F up.
Is that statistically significant? Of course. But certainly not to the extent that guys can suck one week and then crush it the next. And although we should always try to strive for peak readiness, I’ve anecdotally seen quite a poor relationship between physical qualities and how guys perform week to week. Sometimes you can train the house down and they play like garbage. Other times they are less than fresh but the team plays great. Think about Michael Jordan’s finals appearance against the Utah Jazz in the midst of a bout of flu- it is clearly possibly to play at the elite level whilst eating shit.
I don’t have the numbers available for skill that I do for physical ability, but I would argue that skill execution is similarly stable from week to week. Good players tend to be good players on a consistent basis, and the crappy players stay crappy. The actual execution of skill also appears to be relatively stable throughout the season when one looks at the stats. Again, in the example of a kicker who drops from his regular 80% success rate to 70% would be considered a seriously bad day at the office. Yet teams frequently win when the kicker has an off day. The team either finds an alternative way to win, or the remaining 22 players step up to account for his or her off-day.
Now we are getting to the real culprits. A cursory examination of both Game Changer by Fergus Connolly and The Governing Dynamics of Coaching by James Smith tells us that the tactical game plan should be devised to maximally exploit the strengths of the team, maximally exploit the weaknesses of the opposition, and have enough contingencies built into it to allow the team to react to unfolding situations. Maybe a traditionally kicking team turns up and decides to run. Perhaps a traditionally wide attacking team prefers to carry through the middle. A tactically well prepared team will have an answer for these situations.
But what if the coach hasn’t devised a tactically sophisticated enough game plan to win the match? What if the other team easily defuses the first wave of attacks and we have no answer? What if we foolishly play to their strengths, rather than their weaknesses? Does a percent here or there in physical ability really matter? As a hooker, I might actually be throwing more accurately than normal in the lineout, but does it matter if I consistently throw to the opposition’s tallest and most skilled lineout forward? Nope!
True, the degree of physical development will have a profound influence on the type of game plan that can be executed. It’s tough to carry up the middle and break through the line when you weigh 70kg and couldn’t break through a paper bag. Likewise skill will exert a similar influence. For example, a fly half with woeful kicking accuracy is unlikely to score many tries by kicking to the corners. But remember here, we are talking about reasons for the fluctuations in performance from game to game, not about overall performance.
Now, for my money, the ultimate candidate. How so? Well, powerful as tactical preparation may be, it is still relatively stable from week to week. There may be small changes from one game to the next, but the overall flavour of how a team plays the game will not change; Wales will try to crash through the defence with the biggest, most powerful backs they can find. South Africa will kick territorially and try to dominate with their forwards. Argentina will look to play wide and run evasively etc.
Psychological is the ultimate controlling factor. It is the reason why sometimes players are able to push themselves physically longer and harder than normal. It is the reason why when guys are in the zone, they cannot miss. It is the reason why when a team in which everybody knows his or her job, and executes the game plan flawlessly, they look unstoppable. Conversely, it is why teams can look sluggish and lazy, execute skills sloppily, and tactically shit the bed.
So how do we ensure that teams are psychologically robust to weekly fluctuations? As with any ability, we want to try and develop the greatest possible buffer between the demands of the game and the capacity of the athlete. Look at what the game demands of players, break these qualities down into their constituent parts, develop training drills that raise these qualities, and do so in a progressively more intense manner.
So what can we take from the above? Firstly, when the team experiences large week to week fluctuations in performance, don’t immediately look to physical preparation as the reason why. Understand that whilst we should look to raise physical, technical and all forms of preparation in the long term, the quality and execution of the tactical game plan, and the psychological preparation that controls it are likely to be the chief culprits for fluctuating performance.
Once we acknowledge that the game plan and the mindset are king to performance, all other forms of training should seek to support these areas. Wherever possible the load should be synchronised to simultaneously raise these qualities with others e.g. technical training that benefits aspects of psychological preparation e.g. concentration, teamwork, or physical training that develops tactical awareness and game understanding e.g. small sided games or competition drills.
If at any time training serves to enhance physical qualities at the expense of the other three, we have deviated too far from the game plan. Likewise, these fundamental qualities- tactical awareness and psychological preparation- should be trained year round. Given their fundamental role in performance, teams and athletes cannot afford vast swaths of the year where they are left to stagnate, or worse, decline.