Putting tactical periodization into practice

A lot has been written about tactical periodization on HMMR Media this month, including a primer on tactical periodization from Craig Pickering and a detailed discussion of Dean Benton’s experience with tactical periodization. I’ve come to tactical periodization from a different route. Much of the discussion around tactical periodization looks at complex data modeling and GPS metrics. With a background in physical education and coaching rugby at the grass roots, I simply looked at tactical periodization as a tool to help us better define how we wanted to play and train for that. This article aims to show you how I’ve taken some of the ideas from tactical periodization and put them into practice.

Filling up the silos

As Juan Luis Delgado-Bordonau and Alberto Mendez-Villanueva explain in their introduction to tactical periodization, every game action involves a decision (tactical dimension), an action or motor skill (technical dimension) that required a particular movement (physiological dimension) and is directed by volitional and emotional states (psychological dimension). The premise of tactical periodization is that these elements are never trained independently.

The common approach to training is to break down each part of the game into individual silos and train them through drills. A drills team will experience short-term gains, but in the long run they will be out-run by a tactical periodization team that slowly fills up all silos together. The key message is that you keep building, you keep improving, you keep progressing. When you train things together it is easier to pick up where you left off. but when you jump from one silo to the next,  then you’ll experience the complete opposite and you’ll wonder why your players can’t do what they did last training session or last season.

Integrating the elements

You can really see the impact of tactical periodization and how each of the four elements are combined when you look at how each unit is designed. Setting up a unit involves manipulating the four components of training with a focus on overloading how you want to play the game.

A good example to share would would be something we use in training to improve our defense. We focus on the principle of having a ‘brickwall’ to stop the opposition from scoring, which translated, is having a flat line across the field with players evenly spread out so that they can prevent gaps and and tackle the ball carrier.

To train this we might set up two teams with equal numbers, as well as a small group of players in a separate color that would always be on the defending team (i.e. two sweeper players (who are roughly five meters behind the brickwall) and 3 pendulum players (who are 30-50m behind the brickwall depending on the situation). The attack would always keep the ball from a breakdown, but if there was a handling error then I would throw a second ball behind the defending team, making them the attaching team and having the small group change sides. I would do the same if the phase of play lasts for two or three minutes.

The following table shows how we focus on each of the four dimensions of the game, and how they can be manipulated to focus on different elements of technical, physical, and psychological preparation.

Tactical Technical Physical Psychological
Focus is on having and holding the brickwall Have the defensive line move back 5m each time there is a Breakdown. Variation 1: When there is a “tackle”/breakdown, make the brickwall move back 10 meters. This then forces them to sprint up fast to close the attack down (speed and agility conditioning). Variation 1: The only players who can communicate are the sweepers and the pendulum
Variation 2: Pair up some of the defensive players in the brickwall each time there is a breakdown. This forces the players to work harder/communicate more as it is awkward running around in pairs. Variation 2: The brickwall does a roll back towards their try line after each breakdown (i.e. contact with the ground conditioning) Variation 2: The brickwall can’t move up unless they shout, e.g. “Ready, Ready, UP”, when the ball is moved out from the breakdown.
Variation 3: Have the breakdown passer count to three in their heads before they pass the ball out. This allows time for the brickwall to get organized, but the counting can be varied to keep the defense on their toes. Variation 3: The brickwall players are in 2 different colors, so say a Red bibbed players makes the “tackle”, then all the Red bibs run back towards their try line (i.e. general Conditioning). Variation 3: Have 4/5 players fall on the floor right next to the breakdown. This reduces the number of players in the brickwall, therefore putting more pressure/stress on them.

Putting together the session

The above example is just one unit of training. As Dean Benton explained in his interview, he uses vertical alternation throughout the training session, which essentially is a mix of units of a different nature. As a result, a session will include intensive qualities, extensive qualities and contact conditioning in the context of the game model.

Here is an example of how vertical alternation would look in a session:

  1. Individual player work-ons, e.g. Normal Passing, Breakdown Passing, Kicking, Catching;
  2. Athletic Development (Lunge, Crawl, Balance (Static and Dynamic), Gymnastics;
  3. Med ball (gallon jug of water) work, e.g. walking chops, squad and twist, lunge and chop;
  4. Robust Running, e.g. Hip Lock work, PoGo Hops, Sprints with plastic pole on shoulders, Hill Sprints, Bullet Belt work, Zig Zag sprints with water jug;
  5. Wrestling/Breakdown work/Tackling/Tower of Power (scrum position);
  6. Games for Understanding (attack or defense focused for 5-7 minute sets with 2 minute Q&A in-between).

Every session includes athletic development work from the warm up through robust running exercises, following the philosophy of “a dollar a day” and using microdosing of athletic development to make large gains over the long-term. This does not require sophisticated equipment, as I’ve written about before.

For the last two items I use a whole-part-whole organization of the training. We create three groups that spend 10-15 minutes rotation through those exercises. This is the part of training where you also hear a lot about technology for tracking the loads and ensuring goals are met. While this is nice to have, it is not required. Sufficient feedback can be accumulated through better design of the game and standard feedback mechanisms. For example:

  • Keep count of tries that are conceded in defense-focused games;
  • Self-reflection immediately post training whilst things are still very fresh in your mind;
  • Have conversations at the end of practice with you players to hear their thoughts; and
  • Pose questions to the players to check their understanding/learning.

From my perspective, the only real benefit of having GPS units, and the software that goes with them, are that they are able to show how fast the players are running in the games you as the coach design. From this data, you’ll then know whether or not you got your planning right. The key performance indicator you are looking for is knowing whether the players are running ‘at Game Speed’, ‘below Game Speed’ or ‘above Game Speed’ because you want to be “preparing players for the most intense periods of the game – not the average intensity” (Dean Benton) and spend most of your training time ‘above Game Speed’.

Putting together the microcycle

While vertical alternation is used in the session design, horizontal alternation is used to set up the training week and/or microcycle. As Benton explained in his interview, this is where “contrasted, as to prioritize physical qualities within the context of the game plan, but also to offset training stress and reduce injury. This is facilitated by interchanging the type and nature of running and making training sessions more or less discontinuous throughout the week.”

In my current environment at Virginia Commonwealth University, we train Tuesday, Thursday and Friday evenings for two hours, with matches on Saturday afternoon. Tuesdays are more of a full-contact based session, Thursdays are more of a “fast” session with very little contact. Fridays are a Team/Captain’s Run with a very low Physical aspect where the players only walk. Focusing on one aspect at the game each session allows us to overload that. For example on fast sessions we can aim to play above game speed, something that is not possible if you do that every session. As Benton has also said, you can always slow a game down, but you can’t speed it up unless you have trained fast. The same is true for the other aspects of the game and horizontal alternation allows for that.

It’s about good planning

At the end of the day, tactical periodization is just about good teaching, good coaching, good planning, and good practice design. It doesn’t take any money to apply its principles. If you get your practice design right, then you’ll feel a sixth Sense as to whether you achieve training ‘above Game Speed’ or hitting other targets, with or without a big budget.