Fitter, stronger, faster: a needs-based approach to individualizing team sports training

Working in Olympic sports you are afforded an almost unlimited amount of time to work with your athletes in small groups allowing the delivery of all sorts of bespoke programs. In rugby, with 45-50 players and I have a staff of three coaches plus three student interns, individualization becomes a bit more difficult.

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The job of strength and conditioning coach in rugby is multi-faceted: we take responsibility for sport science and physiology, monitoring of training load and nutrition, all whilst managing the injured players (in rugby union at the moment you can expect around 15-20% of your squad to be injured at any time in season on average due to the nature of the sport). On top of this the number of fixtures and the amount of work that needs to be completed in the week means that you get around 2.5 hours contact time with your players for strength and conditioning spread across 2-3 sessions and you have around 25 players in the gym at the same time. As you can probably tell, individualization requires a different approach.

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Individualizing group training: where to start

When you strip back the basic demands of rugby and analyze the athletes, you can usually place an athlete’s primary needs broadly into one of three categories:

  1. Need to lose body fat/improve fitness;
  2. Need to gain muscle mass/improve strength; or
  3. Good fundamentals: Need to maintain strength/improve speed and/or repeatability.

Whilst there is more to the requirements of rugby than these narrow range of physical qualities, most players can be generalized as one of these groups, and that is the starting point for individualization. I use the player needs as the starting point rather than their position as the needs can vary even among those playing the same position. For example some front row forwards might need to bulk up, while others might be too fat. Most players at each position will likely fall into the same category, but by looking at their individual needs to can better categorize them.

Diagnosing which group athletes are in can be quite simple for most players. For example, it doesn’t take fancy technology and a stringent battery of tests to spot an athlete carrying too much body fat. For some it can be more complicated and factors that can be considered are age, position, strengths/weaknesses of the player, and training age. If in doubt, look into their data. Assessing an athlete’s ability to produce force, be reactive, accelerate, top speed, aerobic system, anaerobic abilities and body composition will usually enable a coach to settle any disputes if in doubt.

Digging deeper

It’s quite easy to add another layer of detail. You can dig a little deeper as athletes within each group can still vary significantly. For instance, players who need to lose fat and also lift a high volume of weights to maintain muscle mass (e.g. younger players) vs those who need to lose mass and will be able to maintain mass with limited resistance training (typically Polynesian athletes and players with a long training age fit into this category).

The same is true in the other categories. Within those who need to increase strength some will benefit from higher volumes of work to promote increases in muscle mass and therefore increase maximum force production as a product of this vs some who simply need to lift heavy weights to chase neural adaptations.

Within the players who are targeting increases in explosive strength and speed, some will require more work at the higher force end of the spectrum and others more work at the velocity end of the spectrum.

Creating a plan

The end result is that if you use the three common requirements as a starting point, you can split your players into six training groups should you wish. With that, you have a very organized method that will help nearly every athlete on the team better meet his or her individual needs. Importantly in team sports, delivering this becomes easier as there are essentially three different adaptations being targeted with individual variance within this making coaching a lot easier.

To create the final training plan we have to get from the groups to the programming. A training week for a professional team will be dictated by fixtures and on-field rugby requirements. By thinking of “weights sessions” as “S&C sessions” it is easy enough to distribute the content of these sessions according to what the global goal is. In my first HMMR media article I mentioned that to get stronger: lift more weights, to get bigger: lift more weights to failure, to lose weight: burn more calories than you consume, to get quicker: sprint more. With this in mind, a strength and conditioning session can reflect this as this is our starting point. A group losing weight may do some high volume weights to maintain muscle mass for 50 mins and then 10 mins of high intensity conditioning to great an EPOC and burn as many calories as possible. A speed group may focus on explosive plyos and sprints and finish with some maximum effort maximum force generating weights. The other aspect you have control over in professional sport is diet and many teams will provide dietary plans that are focussed on losing weight, maintaining weight or gaining weight, which will include supplementation.

Another level of individualization can also be included. Personally I am a big believer in individual exercise selection being important, particularly in an attritional sport like rugby where you encounter so many individual restrictions. For example: if you want to develop maximum force, choose the exercise that allows the athlete to express the most force, whether that’s a squat variation, a deadlift variation, some kind of leg press or a unilateral lift. We would then use that exercise consistently with that player as a means to develop maximum force and add whatever supplementary exercises are required to compliment it. So, within three training groups you can have potentially six sub groups, individual variation of exercises which together will form individual programs, that still target three common goals.

Effectiveness through efficiency

With three staff and a need for players to all train together at the same time and be time efficient, it presents a challenge to individualization but I believe it is still possible and many teams I speak to structure their programs in this kind of way or something similar. The key is to make individualization a process based on experience, logic and data. The process I explained above is just one way but can help individualize training in a very efficient and effective manner.