Fitness v Skill

You’re coming up to pre-season. You start to think about the squad you’ve assembled or inherited. Your mind wanders off into visions of the final game and holding up the League trophy and then a night of, no, wait,  a whole weekend of celebrations….*

And then you’re back on the ground with a bump. Are they as good as you imagine? Could they really be as good as you imagine? Do they need just that little bit of bit of luck to bring the dream to reality? Do they actually need a lot of luck to bring the dream to reality? Should we go for the fittest team in the league?

And that’s the moment right there – where your league leaders dreams are shattered. As soon as you think about the being the fittest team in the league, it means that you fear that their skill wont get them through…

But can the fittest team also be the most skillful? Do they need to be? Can a more skillful team beat a fitter team? Should you, as a coach, ensure a reasonable approach to both?

I’m asking more questions than I’m getting answers to here. It’s played out on a weekly basis where the favourite team in a game of rugby are held out for the first 20 to 30 minutes by determination and effort but as the lesser side start to tire, the favourites over-run them and the free-flowing scoring starts. Cup matches, where one team is a few leagues below the other, often plays out the same scenario. The lower league team surprises the so called ‘better’ team with it’s tenacity and grit but in the end the higher team just over-power them. Is this better skill or better fitness and can either provide a winning margin over the other.

I’m asking because there are coaches out there currently in their ‘pre-season’ phase and I’ve already witnessed some of the bodies left prone on the ground after climbing ‘Scammy Steps’ and hitting the Shibden Park sledging hill. Those who know, know…….

Scammonden Dam Steps and Shibden Park hills

Does this all-out, lung-busting, throw-up on the floor routine actually make sense? Or should you try to adopt a more game-centric approach where exercise bursts are generally 30 seconds to a minute long and where the entire time playing the game is around 22 minutes per half in Rugby League and even less in Union. Do you train your body to hit it hard for a minute and a half and then recover thereby training your body to get used to the frequent bursts or do you just go all out to try and make your whole body fitter? Personally, I think there is room for both – ‘a little of a lot goes a long way’ as my old headteacher used to say.

Do you put this fitness acclimation above skill training? Surely, if you’ve had 6 to 7 weeks off, the old handling and kicking is going to be a little rusty, is it not? Again, I think a little bit of both goes a long way. I’m currently of the belief that it works well if you can train your skills whilst under pressure and tired. After all, this is what happens in a game. It’s all well and good that a player can hit a 30 metre miss pass on the captains run but what about in the last 10 minutes of a game when he’s got a 17 stone back rower about to hit him and the score is 10-10. The same with tackling skills. Yes, brilliant to get a tackle bag out for the under 9’s to practice their technique on but at senior level I don’t ever remember seeing tackle bags dotted around a pitch during a game. Tackle a human. They’re much harder to hit. And they move when you’re trying to tackle them! “But what if we get injured?”, Learn to tackle properly and you shouldn’t.

Anyway, I digress. Fitness v Skill. There is a lot of room for both, and indeed, I believe a winning team should be competent in both. Now, if I just had time to squeeze it into 2 training sessions a week…

* Please see attached form for relevant clearance

night out

Calderdale Rugby League Development Squad

When I was growing up (yes, some may argue that never happened) the highlights of my week were when I was playing sport. Whether that was rugby, football, cricket, golf, swimming, whether it was organised or just us on the park playing an impromptu game of American Football! It meant that I didn’t have to think about anything else…

What made me really proud, though, was playing for the area teams, the county select teams or representative teams. These teams made me feel like I’d achieved something, like the work that I had put in on the training ground, in the gym, pounding the street was not all in vain.

So it saddens me, now, to see lads within Rugby who don’t have an area team to play for, or a West Yorkshire squad to aim for. These lads at 13, 14 or 15 either get into an academy or don’t. If they don’t, they keep playing for their local teams knowing the better players have been whisked off into a professional outfit and they’ve, well, they’ve just lost their best players.

I’m no scientist who has conducted study after study on why competitive games at 14 will break the ‘system’ (but is the system working anyway?). I’ve not researched why having selective teams (i.e. representative teams) will suppress the will of those not picked and send them into obscurity. I’m going by common sense and my own experience. At 16 I went to a Yorkshire trial day. I got through the rounds and was in the final match – 15 against 15. The other stand-off was better than me. And as they read out the 20 names of the selected players, my heart sank.  Mine wasn’t on there. I was nearly in tears.

So did I go home and quit rugby? No. I worked harder. I got fitter. I trained better. And the next year I played for Yorkshire U17’s. In my honest opinion, I think that we worry about hurting kids who don’t get picked. We reduce their resilience by giving everyone a reward. We don’t prepare youngsters for the real world where not everything is fair. I think it’s summed up brilliantly by Jeff Walz, a basketball coach.

So whilst everybody is happy in their non-selective fraternities, Calderdale College’s new rugby academy are expecting kids to turn up ready to train and play in a pretty professional environment without ever having been involved in anything like this before. Amateur to professional in one jump. Some make the change easily, some struggle but I feel that’s our fault for not preparing them.

And that’s the crux of the matter. We haven’t prepared them, so lets prepare them. Let’s get the lads that haven’t been selected for a Super League academy and give them an opportunity to develop in a game that has shaped my life and personality. The friendships I’ve formed, the places I’ve been, the experiences I’ve had. Most of the best ones are in some way linked to rugby. Why should these lads fall out of love with a life changing sport because they are, at 15, not deemed good enough to be at an Academy.

Let’s provide them with that environment in the form a development squad where we can help them learn the ‘art’ of rugby. Let’s add to the amazing job their amateur coaches do and give them some things that these coaches don’t have the time or resources to give them. Lets provide professional strength and conditioning advice. Lets give them sprint training. Lets get a sports psychologist to talk to them about the mental side to the sport. Lets provide full analysis of their training sessions and games. Lets put it all into practice and get them competitive games against harder opposition.

Oh, wait. We can’t do that. The Rules say we can’t have competitive games. That might mean somebody loses and, well, we’ve seen what happens if not everybody gets a trophy.

Yes, I may have a small bee in my bonnet about this.

I recently saw a documentary about rival sporting teams. This one was about 2 American Football teams. The biggest derby in Miami. But these were different. These were 4, 5, and 6 years old. There were different reasons for them playing in one of the hardest neighbourhoods in Miami – they were playing to keep them off the street, to stop them joining gangs and to stop them from being shot and killed. But at 4 and 5 years old they were playing full contact sport and smashing it. In 2016, Miami accounted for the most  starting NFL players – 27 – with most emanating from Liberty City, a 5 square mile area where these two teams play and with a population of 19 725. The nearest competition for producing NFL talent? Houston, with 18 and a population of 2 489 558 more than 6 times larger than Miami. And players continue to spill out of Liberty City, so much so, that Ivy League Universities visit every year to offer kids coming out of Liberty full scholarships at ages as young as 13. So, even though for different reasons, this example shows that competition from an early age produces exceptional talent.

So because we can’t have competitive games, we find a work around. We are allowed to have ‘training’ games so we can just organise training around a game scenario….is this just a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Yep. But rules are rules.

We currently have 29 lads in our training squad. We meet once a month and have ‘training’ games if and when we can find opposition who want to train against us. We have been formed for 2 months now and we’ve had one such match. The match was videoed and all the players have access to the footage. They have received group and individual analysis, they have the game broken down for them so they can watch defensive sets, exit sets or good ball sets. They have completed self-assessment forms that we talk to them individually about. We discuss what they did well, what they thought they can improve on and we decide on an improvement plan together.

This month we’re working on speed and in the month prior to this session, we have emailed all the players with pointers and advice on the subject we’re covering. We ask them to do additional work (not to overtrain) but to do extras after their training sessions. This may be as simple to complete 50 passes off each hand. As we’re working on speed this month, we’ve asked them to actually do some short and medium length sprints – to actually practice sprinting (who does that??) and get used to how sprinting actually feels. We give them information on the subject, advice on where they can do further research and how they can incorporate it into their training. What we want is for them to get used to being responsible for their own development.

We don’t stipulate that you have to be at a certain level to attend, but what we do ask is that the players attending have the right attitude. I would much rather work with an average player who works hard, than a prodigy that can’t be bothered. If the players don’t want to do extras, don’t want to learn but just want to play, then the development squad probably isn’t for them.

So – is picking players on ‘coachability’ being selective? Yes. Yes, I think it is….