What a lot of athletes and coaches forget is that power output on the rugby is not just about lifting a weight, sprinting or throwing around a medicine ball. I used to fall into this trap, and thought that any training where my athletes had to think was to be avoided. All I had to do was add weight to the bar, increase their strength, increase their power, and my job was done. This was one of my oh-so-many mistakes.
In correcting this mistake I have had to reacquaint myself the idea of technical mastery, a term I was first exposed to when reading the work of Professor Yuri Verkhoshansky- who is coincidentally the father of plyometric training. According to the good professor, performance is determined by two main factors: motor potential and technical mastery. Motor potential describes the theoretical maximum force that can be produced by the human body for a particular regime of work. This is determined by stuff like muscle size, fibre type, tendon strength and so on. Motor potential is easy to measure- hence why I like it.
On the other hand, technical mastery describes what proportion of one’s motor potential an athlete can tap into. This is essentially the science of motor control and movement efficiency. At university I was hugely put off by motor control and I think this is why it took several years to come around to the concept of technical mastery. The problem with technical mastery is that it is difficult to measure outside of the lab, which means you need a coaches eye for it in the field.
In a nutshell here is the lesson I learned: motor potential and technical mastery are two side of the same coin. Maximum rugby performance requires both to be trained. I’m sure as you read this you can recall an athlete who had huge physical potential in the gym, but never translated this into world class performance on the pitch. An athlete like this might be head and shoulders above their team mates in strength, speed and power. Then when you get them on the field… they fail to live up to the hype. Maybe these athletes have motor potential coming out of their ears, but such poor technical mastery that they can’t fully express it.
Now consider another kind of athlete that we all know: pretty average in the gym, perhaps a little lazy, but they make the game look effortless. When they play the game, time seems to slow down for them. Despite their physical shortcomings they stand out on the pitch. Huge amounts of technical mastery allows them to tap into every bit of what motor potential they have.
It stands to reason that the absolute best, once-in-a-generation players possess stacks of motor potential AND the technical mastery to fully utilise it. Rugby strength and conditioning has to be about identifying which of these two factors is most lacking, and addressing the deficiencies. Without it, world class performance just isn’t going to happen.
I now think that if you aren’t training technical mastery, you are only training 50% of your potential. With my athletes we dedicate almost as much time to developing technical mastery as we do motor potential. My athletes all learn how to accelerate, sprint, cut, shuffle and crossover; by teaching the guys to move more efficiently I’ve found they are less likely to put themselves into mechanically precarious positions, reducing the risk of injury. They are also able to express more force when they run, jump, tackle and sidestep by better utilising their motor potential. More efficient movement also allows them to maintain a particular work rate whilst tapping into a smaller proportion of their potential, which reduces fatigue.
But perhaps the best aspect of technical mastery is the cost to benefit ratio. Improving motor potential is a tough, dirty affair; at the higher levels of the game you have to break yourself in the gym for perhaps only a 2-3% improvement. Now compare this to addressing technical mastery: a few simple and well placed coaching cues can have a substantial and almost instant effect on performance, and with no additional fatigue.
Just try this example: run 40m as fast as you can with your hands on your head. Once you’ve fully recovered, run 40m again and compare your time. Obviously you can expect to run a lot faster the second time around. Your motor potential hasn’t changed, so where has the improvement come from? Technical mastery.
The analogy for technical mastery I like to use is driving a car around the Top Gear track. If you put Lewis Hamilton behind the wheel of the car, he is going to get every drop of power out of it and lap the track as fast as that car is capable. If you put a half blind Sunday driver behind the wheel, performance is doomed to suffer despite every single aspect of the car’s potential performance remaining untouched.