In 2013 Sonny Bill Williams had a big year. In addition to winning the NRL Premiership and reaching the world cup final for a 2nd time, he was voted by the Rugby League Press as the world’s best player. And then at the end of it all, I got to train him in my 6 month stint at Sydney Roosters. Although my time at the Roosters did not work out, it was still a massive moment in my career and one that I am still very proud of…
Ever the optimist, and rather than sulk about how short the experience was, today’s post will be all about the coaching lessons I’ve learned from coaching a truly world class player like Sonny. What’s in it for you? Maybe just pure interest, but also hopefully some lessons that you can apply to your own training or coaching. Here’s what I learned from the experience:
Lesson #1: Strength isn’t everything
People look at a player like SBW and conclude that at 6″4+ and 110kg with ridiculously low body fat that he must be pushing some herculean loads in the gym. People imagine 180kg bench presses, 250kg squats and the like. Well, bad news. I hate to disappoint you but the most I ever saw him bench press was a touch over 140kg (and this was after several weeks of pre-season training). And he didn’t squat much more.
To put that into perspective that is a 127% of bodyweight bench press. Personally I can lift that for 8 or 9 reps. Most people here will be able to at least do that for 1, and a lot can probably rep it for 10 or more. Not world class rugby strength by any stretch of the imagination.
What is truly world class about his performance in the gym however is his power output . Where he performed head and shoulders above every other athlete I have coached is his ability to maximally accelerate a moderate load. I personally recorded him bench throw 40kg at in excess of 1.7ms (that is FAST), and I saw him perform similarly on other exercises.
The same was true of speed training sessions. He may not be the fastest guy on the pitch under running normal conditions, but give him a player, sled or band to pull against and you will lose 100% of the time. Think of how many skills that he is renowned for being world class at performing- breaking tackles, fending off opposition, making explosive tackles, the occasional punch to the face!- and they all entail maximal force production with moderate loads.
Take home message: whilst strength is important, once you reach an acceptable level of strength for your position, what counts for more is your ability to express maximal force in minimum time. Furthermore, that level of maximal strength development may be lower than most imagine.
Lesson #2: Skill is King
The corollary to this natural and trained physiological ability to express large amounts of power at moderate load and speed is world class levels of movement skill- both general and sport specific. I’ve written before about how skill is king in rugby, because of it’s ability to fully express your potential for power, minimise energy leaks- which is vital from both a performance and injury prevention perspective- and increase your effectiveness on the field.
The big difference I have experienced in working with world class players and the rest is skill- at the top they all have great skills, and SBW is no exception to this rule. Although some of his skill as a player is obviously innate, what shocked me about watching him train was how much extra training he performed on his skills. He invests a ton of training time in the things that many people to consider to be basic and “below” a world class player: passing, foot placement in the tackle, offloads.
The same is true of Sonny Bill William’s general movement, and by general movement I mean non-specific skills like running, jumping and changing direction. All very clean movement patterns, and when he needed coaching, he got it very quickly. Definitely not what we would call a motor moron- a trade term for some of the less gifted athletes out there (I’m looking at you, front rowers).
Take home message: listen to your coach and practice your skills, even when you might think you are good enough not to.
Lesson #3: Less is more
So equipped with this abundance of natural talent and a tremendous work ethic, you might be surprised to learn that Sonny Bill Williams actually missed more training sessions (or trained with a reduced load) more than any other player during my time at the Roosters. You might think that this is counterintuitive, and that the world’s best player only stays that way by training 100% day in and day out. Wrong.
In actuality, the worlds best player’s in any sport actually need to train LESS, the older and the better they get. There are a few reasons why here:
Preparation vs. readiness
Once you have world class talent developed, performance is all about readiness i.e. how well can you perform to your potential every single weekend and come up with the goods. The irony about training hard is that you have to sacrifice readiness and performance in the short term to get long term increases in preparation. At the elite level where performance counts above all else, and the playing schedule is most dense, readiness counts for more and you have to train less as a consequence.
If you have the good fortune to be what we term a “high output athlete” like Sonny Bill Williams, capable of very high displays of strength, speed and power, the downside of this is that the same activity becomes far more fatiguing for you than it does lesser mortals. This is the same reason that an elite level sprinter can often only be good for 1-2 big training sessions per week without risking, whereas a young child can sprint around all day every day without consequence.
Regeneration becomes a training means in itself
Following on from being a high output athlete, if you fall into this category you need to be far more diligent in your efforts to recover and regenerate following intense training. The reason for this being that because despite each training activity is comparably more intense for you relative to your peers, you only have the same window of time to recover for the next session or match. If you don’t recover in time you have a choice of either miss the session, or do it and risk under performing, under adapting and/or risking injury and illness.
So for a high output athlete like SBW, recovery training like soft tissue work, flexibility, corrective exercise and low level aerobic work actually becomes a performance enhancing tool by permitting a higher frequency and intensity of training than would normally be achievable. And this is something that I saw Sonny diligently invest a lot of his own time in. Rather than this being a coincidence I think it is something that he has instinctively understood about himself.
Take home message: the more powerful you get, the less frequently you should be training with maximum intensity and the more you should be investing training time into recovery. The same training programme is not suitable at all stages of your career. As you progress, training has to change significantly.