This is the second part of a series of posts I’m doing on a bunch of random training thoughts that have been swirling round my head this year in Argentina. If you haven’t already checked out part 1, go read that now. If you have and you want a recap, or you’re super lazy and don’t want to read it, here is the post in a nutshell:
- There are many examples of athletes with markedly different styles, physical abilities and movement strategies who are able to reach identical levels of performance.
- All sporting movement is ultimately problem solving. Athletes are presented with a series of movement based problems to solve, and it is the job of the coach to give the athletes the tools they need to most effectively solve the task.
Thinking specifically in terms of physical preparation, in my experience athletes will vary in how they approach movement problems in sport as a consequence of their natural abilities, personal preferences and their training history. Sticking purely to the physical, there will be athlete to athlete variation in (no specific order):
- How well they utilise the stretch reflex, and other, passive forms of stiffness
- Where in the region of the FV they are most comfortable producing force
- The development of their various strength qualities and how quickly they can produce them
- Their ability to relax the musculature quickly
- Mechanics of sporting skill (both active and passive)
- Aerobic/anaerobic energy production balance
- Conscious/unconscious CNS tolerance of fatigue
Some of you may be impatiently wondering “We already know this! So what?!” but I think acknowledging these facts can have serious implications on how we work as coaches. Firstly this should re-affirm what the Omegawave guys have been talking about for years (read this blog post now if you haven’t already). In broader training philosophy I think this raises a few significant issues:
Be careful in your needs analysis
The average person has one testicle and one breast. Beware averages!
As sport science students one of the first things we are taught is to perform a needs analysis to inform our programming. Take a sample of elite athletes from your chosen sport and position, look at how they perform on average, then try and train your athlete to hit those numbers. If you do, pat yourself on the back. Well done, coach.
Here’s the problem: averages can be the extremely misleading. The average human being has one breast and one testicle. It’s probably better to be all man or all woman. Likewise, in elite athletes you are probably better off deciding to more of what you already are rather than trying to be average at everything.
In my experience the best performers in the world excel at a limited number of key things on the rugby pitch. They aren’t terrible at the other stuff, but they are certainly uneven in their development. Good luck to any player who wants to play international rugby and is the perfect average of their teammates: too short to play in the lineout, too weak to scrummage, too slow to play on the wing, not explosive enough to play centre, not skilful enough to play in the halfbacks. If you want to be average at everything take up Crossfit.
Be careful with your stats
Another thing we are taught the importance of as students is statistics. We need to be using tools like the T-test, ANOVA and various correlations to show that, on average, our athletes are improving. If the group on average improved their squat by 10kg, p<0.01, pat yourself on the back again.
But yet again we have to beware the averages. It is perfectly possible to significantly raise the average performance of a group and have some members of your group make zero progress. If, say, you’ve got 20 athletes who increase their squat by 20kg and 20 who make zero improvement, you’ve got an impressive 10kg average improvement.
To steal from Al Smith, as coaches we are not judged on our ability to raise the average performance of the group. We are judged on our ability to raise the performance of the individual. It can be argued that if 50% of your athletes make no improvement whatsoever, you’ve failed 50% of your group no matter what the average says. Especially if your star athlete or future prospect falls into that unlucky 50%.
We need to think more like elite music or arts performers- find what works for each individual to maximise their individual performance. Try and be like a bespoke tailor; they don’t make their living by making suits that fit most of the people, most of the time. They make their living by making every suit perfectly, every time.
Maybe it’s OK to suck?
I am struck by a discussion I had with my friend and former colleague Dan Howells. We were putting the academy boys through the first team jump testing protocol so we could compare data between the two groups and maybe get an idea of who had the potential to move up.
One of the numbers we were looking at was elastic utilisation ratio- basically how much higher you are able to vertical jump when you use a counter movement vs. not. The higher the number, the better your ability to tap into your myotactic stretch reflex. A prop from the group did the test and his EUR sucked. There was almost no difference. I doubt he even knew he had a stretch reflex, let alone used it.
Dan remarked that we wanted the value to be a certain number, and we discussed what the training prescription might be to address that problem. However the test got me thinking and I came to a few different conclusions:
- Should we really be surprised that a prop sucks at EUR when all they do for most of the game is push from a static position?
- Maybe the things that make him a great prop are the reasons he sucks at this test?
- If we spend so long trying to “correct” this issue, might we actually be taking away from his ability to do the thing that makes him such a good player?
There are other examples I can think of here. Wingers who are so-so in the weight room yet world class in terms of their rugby speed. Props who cannot be moved in the scrum and score a measly 11 out of 21 on the FMS (when we are taught to worry if they score less than 14). Some centres who have crappy aerobic engines but can perform a sustained explosive effort to break through multiple tackles in a test match.
Marcos Ayerza has all the mobility of a rock. But maybe that’s why he is able to do this to other props?
My conclusion here is that sometimes the reason they suck at a particular test might be the reason they are so good somewhere else. Perhaps as a coach I should not sweat that a particular test is lower than the team’s average, on even lower than their peers in the same position. Doing so might detract from the precious few opportunities I have to make them even better at what already makes them elite performers. So long as their weakness is not a catastrophic one and an injury waiting to happen, I can take it on the chin.
What matters to me is that they are truly elite at. What is the thing they are better at than anyone else? How can I make them even better at it? In the last post on this series I hope to try to answer those questions and share the direction in which my coaching thoughts are going. Thanks for reading.