In the last article I set out the basic outline of how we intended to approach preparing for the Asia Rugby Sevens Trophy with the Jordan Rugby Sevens team and this time I want to go into the primary areas we focused on during the first month, which were:
- Core skills (with the main focus on passing, tackling and decision-making).
- Improve their rugby knowledge/awareness (using analysis and feedback).
Before we could begin working on any of those areas the first stage of the process was fitness testing.
Fitness testing was one of the most important parts of the fitness programme obviously it gave us a standardised benchmark for all the players at the start of the program (some scored well, some couldn’t finish the test). I also think testing is extremely exposing and that hopefully gives them a reason to be better when the next testing comes around a month later.
We knew at this stage we wouldn’t get amazing results but it wasn’t just about measuring their fitness. We as coaches wanted to indicate to the players how serious we were taking this and also how intense the training sessions were going to be. There is lots of talk in the sport about setting down a marker – for us as a group of coaches this was it.
Jesse took the lead on fitness and we discussed early on how to do the fitness testing. We wanted it to be something new to the guys, but also relevant to the sport. We looked at a few different options but in the end, settled on a simple variation of the RFU’s Anaerobic Fitness Test.
For those that haven’t encountered it, there is a great explanation here: http://www.coachmag.co.uk/exercises/sport-workouts/502/mf-takes-england-rugby-fitness-test
We used this for a few reasons, mainly because it’s easy to administer – you need very little equipment to do this test. There are also lots of reference points online – so it was easy to show the squad the relevance to them and where they stand in the bigger scheme of things. It's also easy to interpret the results.
To record the times we did two things:
- Got all the players to time each other
- We taped all the fitness tests so we could get more accurate timings from the video timeline (I put it in a video editor and used the timeline to measure in 10th of seconds)
The first gave everyone some instant feedback post-test, the second gave a more consistent testing measurement as it removed different interpretations of what was the finish point.
We took the results, put them on a leaderboard and posted them for all to see. This made sure there was transparency around fitness. Sure we got some excuses around poor resulting but pretty much everyone to a man realised they could be a lot fitter.
So message sent.
None of us has a background in fitness and none of us has the ability to coach proper S&C.
Therefore we opted to stay away from weights/power work and, with Jesse leading on fitness, instead focused on Aerobic and Anaerobic sessions with the occasional old school exhaustion drill thrown in.
Fitness has never been my speciality so I won’t go into massive details past this, suffice to say they ran a lot. Did a lot of classic style circuits – think multiple stations and exercises like Burpees and Spider crawls etc… We also used a lot of constant movement exercises where they continually move inside an area for say 10 minutes performing certain exercises on the coaches command such as “down & ups, sprint 5 steps, jog forward/backwards” with no rest period (recover while jogging) and long-running drills think Hennie Mullers figure of 8 style running drill.
For amateur players, it’s a lot tougher than it sounds.
It was also important to us as coaches that the guys enjoyed their training so to supplement the pure fitness-focused work we also played a LOT of conditioned Touch Rugby:
- 360 degree Touch – basically Rugby with basketball-style movement and scoring in an end zone
- Turn & Burn – you score and immediately turn and continue attacking
- Loaded Touch – more defenders/attackers to give an advantage to the area we wanted focused on.
Drop off Touch – when touch is made the defender:
- Runs back to try line before they rejoin the game
- (2x defenders) do a press up
- Form an attacking ruck
- and so on.
I’m a big fan of conditioned touch if it’s done in the right way and tailored to what it is you’re trying to do.
Fitness wise some of those games were 40-50 minutes. That’s a lot of continuous running in an area approx half pitch with around 15 players. All the time they are passing and trying to make decisions under fatigue, it also supplemented the skill work we were trying to do.
Skills were led on by myself with Freih also running a lot of the sessions. Early on we made a decision to work skills for the first month and then develop structure and cohesion in the second month.
What I’ll say now is Coaches who don’t believe in ever using repetitive unopposed drills, look away now.
I agree that technique should be predominantly practised under pressure but we actually used a fair few repetitive unopposed drills to build up the core of the skills.
I can hear coaches the world over weeping, but I'm not trying to tell anyone how they should coach, and I fully understand the thinking in coaching that repetitive drills don’t develop skills.
Simply put though, in the time we had, we felt that it gave us the best chance of seeing rapid improvement across the entire squad and importantly also showing the players things were measurably changing. That, early on, was key in getting more difficult players on our side.
Could we have done it differently? Probably, in fact almost certainly given more time, but as with the fitness we needed to make an immediate impact and with only 3 hours a week to work attacking and defensive skills and decision-making we made a judgment call to go this way.
As an aside, the other thing I would also say about using simple technique drills was that for us they were good at drawing a line at the start of the session. For focusing the players from laughing and messing about with friends to “now it’s time to work”. So when we did move onto opposed drills they were switched on mentally the majority of the time
Freih and I chose to keep it simple, and opted for some really traditional passing drills things like:
- 10m 4X4 lateral passing
- Short Wide Short Passing Channels
- Basic realignment drills – make them move and then realign on a specific point (e.g.ruck)
In that first 3 weeks, we went from guys being able to make 4-5m passes off one hand to making 8-10m passes off both. Yes, when we put those skills under the pressure of opposition they often broke down at first, but they very quickly got through that barrier and were able to apply that to the games they were playing.
I’m not trying to convince anyone this is the only way to coach and I think you do whatever you have to to make a difference. These drills merely performed a function for us at this stage in the cycle and it’s important to understand we didn’t only do unopposed drills, as you can see from the session plans posted earlier we tended to start the early session with 10-15 minutes max of these drills and then everything from then on was opposed in some way.
In general, Rugby isn’t a neat and tidy game, especially Sevens, so we tried not to split our sessions into attack and defence too much and worked on both attacking and defensive skills continually. For example, if the attackers were scoring too easily, or beating the defensive line too regularly we’d switch our coaching focus to the defenders and how they could apply more pressure.
I’d estimate on average the players were doing around 1:3 unopposed to opposed play in the skills sessions.
For opposed play we again we kept it simple and quite traditional. Using lots of:
- Channel drills: 2v1, 3vs 2 and 3vs3 – sometimes with the players turning and attacking a wider channel with different defenders, sometimes with a chase down defender.
- Locked channel drills – where we’d overload defence or attack and then force defenders or attackers to stay in certain channels.
- Unsighted defensive drills – where the defenders can’t see what the attackers will do and have to react once live.
And as outlined above we also used lots of conditioned Touch Rugby to replicate areas of Sevens we wanted to focus on. The key was to keep it simple and keep mixing it up as much as possible. We wanted familiarity but not for the players to get overly familiar.
Within that, if someone was struggling with a specific aspect we’d try and speak to them in isolation on the fringes of the exercise, or remove them and work in isolation with them.
Below is a promotional video made at one of our training sessions, about a month out from the tournament, where you can see the some of the fitness the squad did, some of the 360 degrees Touch and some of the conditioned attack work we did:
At this point we were staying away from trying to get the guys bogged down in heavily structured play, as we approached the first set of trial games we talked about basic patterns of play but the overall idea was to see what they did, who took control and let them define their own style of play and then build on that.
Next: Trial Games and Cutting the Squad Cutting.