As with most false dichotomies in strength and conditioning, coaches tend to fall into two different camps when it comes to conditioning. Typically half believe that small sided games (hereafter SSGs) are the way forward. Others tend to favour what I will call an “exercise only” (EO) approach i.e. just run, bike, row etc. So what are the benefits to each approach?
Small sided games
The major advantage of SSGs is the synchronisation of physical, tactical and technical elements of training. When you only have limited time to train each week, SSGs provide an opportunity to exhibit game specific skills, make decisions in the context of the game, work on tactical schemes, and build teamwork whilst developing physical qualities. A lot of birds killed with one stone!
Research also shows that- when they are implemented well- SSGs allow for far more skill actions to be performed in a conditioning session than would be seen in a typical match. Studies have also done a good job of studying the variables that tend to alter the intensity or demands of a conditioning game e.g. player numbers, pitch size, rule constraints etc.
The biggest advantage to the EO approach is accuracy. For example, using the maximal aerobic speed (MAS) method popularised by Dr Dan Baker, a short 10 minute test and some work in excel is all that is needed to develop highly individualised training programmes based on percentages of each athlete’s MAS. For the record, I don’t really like or use MAS, but every time I meet a coach who doesn’t have a lot of time or equipment like heart rate monitors, I tell them to utilise a MAS approach for this very reason: it’s simple, it’s individualised and it doesn’t require any equipment other than cones, a whistle and a clock.
Another advantage: due to the consistent nature of the activity it is very easy to control intensity. Run 5km per hour faster expect your heart rate to be X beats per minute higher. I can’t prove it, but for this reason I would expect an EO approach to yield significantly higher physiological improvement than an SSG approach over the long term.
The problem with SSGs
As ever, there are drawbacks to each approach. The biggest issue with SSGs is the ability to hide. Unless you have real time heart rate monitoring (which is most non-pro teams, and even a lot of pro teams), SSGs provide massive opportunities for lazy players to slack off and generate a sub par training effect. If you do have real time HR monitoring it can still be like herding cats, constantly telling 20 to 30 different players to “Speed up!” or “Slow down!” .
Even if they are earnest, a poorly designed drill e.g. wrong sized pitch, numbers or rules, will yield the same effect. On rare occasions the opposite will also occur, typically when trying to develop lower intensity aerobic adaptations- excited players will become too involved, work too hard and create excessive fatigue and a poor quality stimulus.
And whilst it is true that SSGs entail a large number of game specific actions to be performed during the course of a session, all actions are not created equally. The high fatigue of SSGs can cause players to “revert to type”, falling back into mechanical inefficiencies and cementing poor decision making. Without large control over activity, players will seek the path of least resistance like a river carving its way through a valley.
Here’s the real kicker that people don’t talk about very often with SSGs: the best players tend to benefit the least from them. The best players, due to their far greater tactical awareness, technical skill and decision making, will instinctively expend the least energy in the group. This is a valuable ability in the game itself, and convincing players to do actively not do something that comes naturally to them in training can be difficult to do.
Overall, I tend to agree with the research. SSGs do produce an average increase in fitness qualities across a group of players. But beware averages: the average person has one testicle and one breast. As coaches we are not responsible for failing half the group, shrugging our shoulders and saying “Well, at least they got better on average.”. We have to try and enhance the performance of all players.
The problem with exercise only
The problem with EO is essentially the opposite to SSGs. Yes, there is no place to hide, but there is a negligible amount of synchronisation between the physical, technical, tactical and psychological areas of preparation. When you only have a limited amount of “money” in the bank to spend on training, if you spend 60 minutes on each area (240 minutes total), rather than 120 minutes on a variety of activities that combine all those aspects, it is easy to see how an isolated approach can quickly lead to fatigue and stagnation.
At the very least, EO is not an efficient use of time and it doesn’t account for the significant physiological effects that “non S&C” training like rugby practices and matches can exert. Without paying attention to these effects, rugby coaches and strength coaches can often inadvertently work against one another, pulling the body in different physiological directions, often within the same day or session.
The biggest disadvantage is that players hate EO with a passion. Understandably, SSGs are a lot more fun way to condition than EO, which can be a tough sell to implement at certain times e.g. training unused bench players after a match, when the weather is crappy, or when the club is going through a difficult period. A little sugar helps the medicine go down, and SSGs are the sweetest of all to rugby players.
The middle ground: conditioning drills
It has been said that there is nothing in the middle of the road but dead possums and yellow lines. Where conditioning is concerned, I disagree. The longer I work with rugby athletes, the more I have come to favour a conditioning approach that finds the middle ground between SSGs and EO: conditioning drills (CDs).
By CDs I mean specific match actions performed in a repetitive fashion, in very small groups (no more than 2-3 players), adhering to set loading parameters that coincide with the desired physical qualities. I will not go into detail in this post, but I would direct readers to James Smith’s fantastic book “The Governing Dynamics of Coaching” for guidelines on how to develop the various bioenergetic qualities.
As long as you can justify the exercise in terms of teaching/reinforcing the key aspects of the skill/movement you are trying to train, the drills you use are up to you. Just make sure they are reflective of the key sporting movements of your position and sport. For rugby, this will typically entail variations of sprinting and contact skills (tackling, rucking, mauling, driving through contact etc.). There is also scope to utilise position specific drills.
Here is an example of some contact based CDs my own athletes performed this pre-season. Drills were performed to target development of aerobic power: 60s of work, 120s of rest, working at 8RPE. Athletes were coached on the key technical aspects of the skill before each rep and during the rest periods and encouraged to adjust their intensity to stay within the RPE guidelines:
I would argue that due to the smaller group sizes, there is actually a far higher number of game specific actions that can be practised and honed when performing CDs than SSGs. Due to the more controllable nature of the CDs, there is also less likelihood that athletes will get sloppy in their technique and reinforce bad habits. There is also ample opportunity to tweak drills from rep to rep to explore different tactical approaches and address technical deficiencies in a focussed manner that is not possible with SSGs.
In comparison to EO, CDs offer a far better integration of the various areas of preparation, and they tend to be received far more favourably by players, because they can see the direct relationship between the drill they are practising and their sport. Are the loading parameters of the drills as easy to progress and control compared to EO? No, but my hunch is that by developing technical proficiency as well as providing a physical stimulus, CDs will yield greater “real world” improvements in performance on the pitch.
Another example of wrestling based CDs:
Putting the pieces together…
Obviously I am not advocating completely doing away with either SSGs or an EO approach. There is nothing that comes close to SSGs for the development of tactical awareness and decision making, for teaching players how to work alongside one another, and learn in a guided discovery environment; it is difficult to encourage players to be creative in tightly constrained activities like CDs or EO training. In short I think they are good for the integration of all elements of training, and to express and utilise fitness.
Likewise, an EO approach will definitely have a place at some points in the athlete’s training; perhaps during rehabilitation when other forms of activity are not possible, during extra or off-season training when players are forced to train alone, or when physical qualities are an obvious and urgent weakness that must be addressed in a hurry- all other concerns go out the window. To me, EO is a great way to prepare or lay a base for other forms of training.
I believe CDs best serve the coach as a transitionary training means; to build on the foundation created by EO in a time efficient manner, whilst developing technical and tactical preparation, before lastly learning how to put all the pieces together in SSGs. As such I would recommend an approach as follows:
Off-season and very early pre-season: heavy focus on EO, with the remainder of training made up by CDs and SSGs.
Early and mid pre-season: heavy focus on CDs, with top ups of EO and the remainder of training made up by SSGs.
Late pre-season: heavy focus on SSGs, with top ups of EO and CDs.