This is Part 1 of a 3 part series, written by Ovidiu Octav Florea. He is a Rugby coach and Rugby fitness coach in Canada, France, and Romania. He earned his Masters degree in Sport Management from Université de Technologie de Troyes (UTT).
Understanding challenges in rugby training and why EMS could be necessary
The big challenge for a rugby coach is to develop all physical qualities/fitness components, to mix all forms of solicitation/stimulation with ONE supreme obligation – they have to optimize (or at least to preserve) players speed, agility, strength and velocity. It’s not easy to mix all these elements in order to get to the best compromise. As we know, endurance training could (at least temporary) limit the speed if not even worse. Also, strength cycles could diminish the “explosive capacity” or bring fatigue sensations if they are not "perfectly" balanced and programmed. In my opinion, nobody is capable to prove that he/she knows exactly when, how much, how long and in which order "things" are better to be done. We are getting close however, we got intuitions and feelings, but we are never sure! That’s why the training process is a constant perpetual observation/evaluation and reformulation – they need permanently to be adapted.
In rugby’s physical preparation this uncertainty is a real issue and the trainer has to face it permanently. Its experience is probably more evident than in most of the other sports; players need speed (reactions), velocity, strength, power and endurance – all in the same time. Until recently, substitutions were allowed only in case of injury, so those guys had to sprint, jump, wrestle, hit, push, lift and of course being hit/pushed/lifted, run and tackle all with no protection; also they need to read the game, take tactical decisions, handle and kick the ball during 80 minutes. The technique and tactics are not really basic skills or process, but sophisticated ones… Always under pressure (which sometimes can be extremely tough), always in movement (repairs are changing all the time) so oxygen “has to arrive in enough amount to the brain cells”, otherwise catastrophes can happen. The break was only 5 minutes long and body protection were not allowed. In these conditions, it was obvious to see the play’s intensity decreasing as we approach the end of the game. Actually, games were fractionated and in spite of beautiful plays, games per ensemble were not very dynamic…
Talking about finesse, skills, reading spaces and opposition’s actions – is what we call game lecture – here we have a piece of jewel video on YouTube.
Beginning with the 90’s, a new generations of players were coming. At a first glance, they do not look as their predecessors. They are big and surprisingly strong, fast, agile, resistant, skillful for their weight – it is the rugby’s new beginning era – it starts to be professional. The game started to be faster (much faster), longer (much "longer" – effective time playing grew up from 15′ to 30’ in boring matches to 55-60′ in intense ones) and it became dangerously tougher…much tougher!
I do not know if it was voluntary induced or it came as a natural result of the competition or concurrence process, or maybe because of the progresses in sport sciences (especially in nutritional and supplemental sciences!) – it may be a bit of all – but one thing is certain: rugby evolved into a different sport – it crossed the frontier and became a game of speed, agility and strength – actually one of the key word is POWER. Today, players have to be capable to deliver constantly the same repetitive high intensity efforts and performance during the whole period of the game. In rugby some players are specialized more than the others; it depends on the positions they occupy in the field, but ALL of them have to participate in all the phase of the game – fixes, defensive, and offensive – so they are brought to execute the same tasks during the game. It does not matter which post they play, the rugby players have to run, tackle, pass, kick and catch the ball in full speed perfectly.
Rugby: Agility, Balance, Coordination & Power
To resume, I would conclude this is what modern rugby is all about: agility, balance, coordination and power. In the same time the discipline necessitates an important endurance capacity… Well, it was at the beginning, during the "romantic era" as we like to call it. Today, rugby players need "less endurance" but rather fast recovering capacities. Some will say that they are linked. The answer is “Yes” but not necessary as some "classics" understand it. More on this later.
All these changes – bigger, faster, longer – improved the quality of the show, money arrived, competitions multiplied – players passed from 13 games per year average (maximum 20 for national teams components) to a 30-35 games/year average (even 50 for national teams components). To the old dilemma of rugby coaching staff (i.e. how to make players competitive in all fitness components) a new one appeared and got added to it – to keep players healthy, fresh and competitive and if possible, to “last” as long as possible. Well, how to do that when it has been statistically proved that most injuries in rugby are due to the training process and not related to matches. This is by far one of the most complex issues that coaches have to face with and that pushes them in to rethink their perspective: objectives, methods, programs, etc.
It is hard to preserve a healthy body so harshly challenged to become in the same time specialized but also multipurpose adapted, without increasing the risks of damaging it "very soon" or "fast", especially in a running contact sport. In southern hemisphere a professional player’s career lasts in average 2 to 3 years. And that’s for more of 50% of them. Protections are not very effective – I’d say even “symbolic” and it’s the only sport were the contact means a 100 kilos of muscles, bones and determination can hit the ball carrier at 30 km/h… If the ball carrier runs at 30 km/h himself, I’ll let you do the math. In Rugby League it happens that you can get hit by 200 kilos at the same speed. If the contact and impact comes on a small surface, a Mike Tyson punch could be a joke…. It is similar with American football or hockey (if not, worse), but without protection! For a better comprehension regarding contact and impacts, this short video in YouTube might help (apologize for the sound quality but today’s young audience needs epic stories :)
All these make rugby a potentially high risk discipline… So every method which could help saving some energy, reducing the risk of injury and “make it last longer”, it is extremely welcomed!.. And so is Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS)!