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Rugby League - Wrong Pre-Season Focus

With rugby league pre-season about a month away I start to hear a lot of talk about what things they will be focusing on at training. A lot of it is about how hard the training will be, mostly in terms of conditioning. This is the wrong focus in my opinion.

Conditioning (fitness) is the quickest quality to develop but it is also the quickest to diminish when you don’t train it. It doesn’t take more than 4-6 weeks for most athletes to be at their best, or very close to it. When you take a look at most pre-season’s, they focus on a lot of conditioning before Christmas, which could be 6-8 weeks for most clubs. The players reach peak or near peak levels but then must maintain this throughout the season, a very long time.

Whilst the volume of training for conditioning are high, other physical qualities such as strength and speed have to be sacrificed, or even if they aren’t, you can’t get the increase in results that are generally required.

I focus primarily on strength at the beginning of pre-season (actually in the offseason this begins for our athletes) as this takes the longest amount of time to develop and once the season starts you can’t really increase strength levels, it is more about maintenance and recovery. The second focus is on speed, and then finally conditioning.

In a regular offseason that would mean the focus before Christmas would be on strength, skills, defensive technique etc. These already begin to build a base level of conditioning but you don’t have to sacrifice the strength or speed benefits you are trying to achieve. Once the players come back in January, you can start to add in more position specific type conditioning / movement patterns as that will give you another 4-6 weeks before the trial games start, which is plenty of time when you consider the work they would already be doing during the defence and skills drills prior. People really underestimate the amount of conditioning you gain from those drills anyway. It is a reason why you see a lot of overtraining as a lot of trainers don’t take that volume into account.

Now, that is if the athlete is already in good condition, which they should be. If they are well behind, conditioning wise, then those individuals need to do extra conditioning to get up to the base level they should be at BEFORE the beginning of pre-season with their team.

This is one of my biggest pet-peeves. Clubs do all sorts of fitness tests but they never individualise the training based on those results. I’m talking more so at the Matts and Ball levels, or lower grades. If for example, they do the 1.2km type shuttle test a lot of clubs are doing, then you can easily have norms as to where players need to be to follow the above preseason outlined.

If you come in over 5:30 say, you are part of an extra’s squad. If you are under that time, you can focus on strength and skills.

Instead, all players end up doing the same amounts of conditioning. This means the fitter players, who are generally told they need to get bigger and stronger, can’t do so because they get broken down by all the conditioning and end up overtrained. Their performance and long-term development suffer. Then the lazy blokes barely make it up to the appropriate level of conditioning anyway, and you are left with half the squad who missed out on the strength and hypertrophy gains they desperately need, and the other half who are still too unfit to match the demands of the game. You get stuck in the middle, plus you waste time that could otherwise be used to develop skills or game tactics.

They use team testing to monitor progress which is fine but the testing you do should help you prioritise what you focus on in training. The more individual you make this, the better the result. This is most overlooked and why you don’t see the development of players that could really be achieved with just a little bit more investment and planning.

Also keep in mind there is no fitness like match fitness. You can do as much running as you like but the more specific you can get to the actual game then the better off you will be. Defensive / wrestling drills and conditioning games will work better than running 400m repeats for example. You can build a base with the other stuff but you have to time how long you do it for and when to get more specific. If you have limited time with your team then go specific so you develop skills, tactics etc. as well as the conditioning side of things.

So, I like to prioritise:

  1. Strength

  2. Speed

  3. Conditioning

Then when it comes to the conditioning side of things, follow a short to long type plan. Starting with anaerobic a-lactic power and progressing through to anaerobic lactic capacity for example.

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