Talking tactical periodization with Dean Benton

I first met Dean Benton at the 2013 International Festival of Athletics Coaching in Glasgow. Benton was presenting about his work in rugby at a track and field conference and I was entranced at the dynamics of the sport. As we shared a mentor, Vern Gambetta, we kept in touch. Two years ago he moved to Europe from his native Australia to take over sports science at England Rugby. Since then I’ve had a chance to visit his training several times and see first hand how he puts some of his concepts in practice.

» Related content: Learn more about periodization and planning on HMMR Media, and if you like our interviews check out our new book, compiling out top interviews from rugby and beyond over the past decade.

Benton has a unique background in terms of knowledge and skill set. He knows both the theory and practice of training, and is on the cutting edge in both areas. One area in particular where he has been at the forefront is in regards to tactical periodization. In short, tactical periodization is an innovative approach to planning for team sports that incorporates a more holistic training concept.

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Benton has used tactical periodization in his most recent role as head of sports science for the England Senior Rugby Team. He also had experience with it in past roles with the Melbourne Storm and Brumbies. He is best known in rugby union, having also worked also worked with the Australian Wallabies, and consulted for many other professional and national teams. But he has a diverse background with experience working with other football codes such as Rugby League and AFL, as well as athletics and other sports through his work with the Australian Institute of Sport and Queensland Academy of Sport.

Our conversation below focuses on tactical periodization. We start out by looking at how he first learned about the concepts and adapted them to rugby, before looking at some specifics on weekly planning and individual session planning. If you want to learn more about Benton you can find him on Twitter @Atletico_Dev, or read our training talk last year where we looked at recovery methods and travel strategies.

An introduction to tactical periodization

MB: Tactical periodization has become a buzzword recently, but when you started looking at better ways to plan for team sports and stumbled upon tactical periodization several years ago, it wasn’t really known outside of soccer. How did you discover and first start to explore the topic?

Benton: I first became aware of tactical periodization as a concept mid-way through 2013 after reading Juan Luis Delgado-Bordonau and Alberto Mendez-Villanueva’s paper, Tactical Periodization: Mourinho’s best-kept secret? It immediately resonated with me. I promptly alerted Eddie Jones to the paper. It was at a period in time when Eddie and John Pryor were coaching in Japan and I was working as the Athletic Performance Director at the Canberra-based Super Rugby franchise the Brumbies. During this period, we exchanged a lot of ideas and information around the planning, construction and analysis of training. In hindsight, we were already implementing a basic, but practical, version of tactical periodization for rugby. However, what Alberto and Juan described in their initial English translation was a complete theoretical framework that offered an infinitely superior periodization framework to traditional models previously used by team sports.

The breakthrough into gaining a deeper understanding was when I spent three days with Alberto in Spain and then Melbourne. It was an epiphany. Alberto explained many of the nuances of the methodology and how translations from Portuguese to English could be misunderstood. Since then I believe Alberto’s book Tactical Periodization – A Proven Successful Training Model is currently the single best resource on tactical periodization. I believe what separates this book from other resources is the authors’ theoretical and practical knowledge, as well as the quality of the translation.

Whilst tactical periodization has its origins in football, I have found the concept to be very effective in both rugby league and rugby. I have been extremely fortunate to work with great coaches in Craig Bellamy and Eddie Jones who were both very receptive to it.

Historically traditional periodization has erroneously been imposed on sport coaches, which only focuses on the physical dimension. At the same time tactical and skills elements were commonly programmed and coached where physical and mental demands did not meet game conditions. Some of this was on account of coaches not being able to quantify training intensity. Often too, coaches liked training to be executed perfectly and offered a great deal of explicit feedback. All of this resulted in training being non-specific. Under tactical periodization the aim is to train these elements together as much as possible, since during the game you need to call on all of them at the same time. The central concept of tactical periodization is that all training must be specific. Essentially, tactical periodization is making training as specific as possible – not just simply specific to the sport, but importantly, specific to the game model.

MB: I don’t think most coaches’ first instinct would be to look at soccer for ideas in the strength and conditioning world. Coaches outside of soccer tend to have a negative stereotype of the S&C work in the sport. But what they miss out on is that, while revolutions in strength training are not coming from soccer (nor should they be), they are a step ahead in other areas like this.

Benton: Tactical periodization, or put simply, the holistic planning and construction of training is one area soccer is a long way ahead of other rugby-football codes such as AFL, rugby and rugby league; it is a whole coaching/training methodology that does not exist in any other football-rugby codes.

Adjustments need to be made when taking the concepts from soccer to the rugby-football codes that contain contact and associated strength training needs. I believe technical periodization is very pertinent for rugby-football codes, which is best applied using Frans Bosch’s concepts and Anatoliy Bondarchuk’s principles. This involves classifying training exercises so they are programmed and coached specifically to the sport, positional group and importantly game model. The day you facilitated with the England rugby and S&C coaches helped us enormously with our planning and coaching. This is a broad, but important topic and probably best addressed in another discussion.

Defining the game model

MB: So you mentioned some of the differences between the football codes. Furthermore, two teams in the same code might have vastly different game models that require different forms of preparation. As an example, I think of the hurry-up offense in American football compared with more traditional offenses. How do you go about defining the game model?

Benton: Designing of the game model is a complex process, which requires a lot of thought. It is a principle-based frame of reference, that continually keeps evolving from season to season. First and foremost, it gives clarity and discipline to planning and helps organize a team and staff around that model. There are a number of factors, which dictate whether the game model is simple or sophisticated:

  • Resources either human, financial and time (e.g. quality and quantity of staff)
  • Long or short term priorities
  • Player capabilities and capacities (i.e. can players physically carry out the game model?)
  • Coach’s philosophies and strategies
  • Club or country culture

Designing a game model to ensure a team is competitive, or ideally has a competitive edge at the highest level, always sees players, coaching and support staff stretched to the limits of their capability in a healthy sense. This a good reason why all major stakeholders must contribute to it, understand it, and be able to demonstrate how they can support it.

One of the biggest mindset changes athletic performance coaches need to make when considering tactical periodization is to not think of physical testing being the exclusive benchmark for player fitness. The true benchmark is the capability and capacity of a player/team to being able to execute the game model for the entire game. When a player/team is able to do this, all energy can be directed towards skills, game sense, and communication.

MB: What is the balance between the demands of the game, and the demands of the specific tactical approach you are implementing? For example, there are some standard demands all rugby union teams need to prepare for, as well as some specific demands that might be dictated by the unique game model.

Benton: The game model is the objective reference, and that is very specific to the team. There exists a great deal of variability in match demand and playing style in international rugby. Particularly, between the southern hemisphere and northern hemisphere. Another consideration for us was the significant difference in physical match demands and playing style between the club-level English Premiership and international rugby, which we needed to take into account. Defining this required comprehensive analyses to establish our model’s physical and tactical demands and trends. When playing southern hemisphere teams, certain components of the game plan require the physical and tactical dimensions to be very well thought out and developed concurrently.

Applying tactical periodization to Melbourne Storm was very different to the England Senior Team. Mainly as differences of it being different rugby codes, and that one was a club situation and the other a national team. In a national team situation, players are only with the team for brief periods, which demands training and coaching methods be very concise. This also placed an emphasis on different principles of tactical periodization. In the NRL you have the luxury of a generous 12-week pre-season leading into a 7-month season, which is a big advantage in terms of being able to improve a team. I sat down with the Melbourne Storm coaches at the end of the 2015 NRL season. Based on match analysis, review of training data and testing data it became obvious that is was the Storm’s attack where we needed to prioritize. This needed to be realized tactically, as collective team speed and physically, as individual speed. Storm had been for many years the best team defensively. However, you can always slow a game down, but you can’t speed it up unless you have trained fast. So this required a paradigm shift in terms of the nature of training, training intensity and more concise link between GPS prescription/analysis and how it related to the game model.

Session and microcycle design

MB: Once you understand the game model and physical demands it will impose, you start with a weekly plan. In working with a national team, the microcycle has to be the most important unit of training since you don’t have to the time to think about bigger blocks. How do you start you in breaking up the week to focus on different aspects of the game?

Benton: In-season the first priority is allowing players to recovery from a match – not only physically, but mentally as well. This is when the principle of tactical fatigue applies both on and off the field. Programming in the initial part of the training week is directed towards active recovery. These sessions are organizational in nature, but also at an intensity to facilitate physiological recovery and allow them to get ready for the main training session of the week. This is not a dissimilar concept to Charlie Francis’s of either being < 75% or > 95%. Not having this distinction is where I believe a lot of inexperienced players and team get caught out.

The physical training day does have vertical alternation, which is simply a number of training units of a different nature within one training session. This typically includes a mix of intensive qualities, extensive qualities and contact conditioning in the context of the game model. Here we aren’t trying to mimic the game, but often distort-overload it. Or another way of putting it, rather than train like you play, we adopt an attitude of play like you train.

The fast training day focuses on intensive and speed qualities. Both training days have a focus on different, but relevant GPS metrics

Horizontal alternation is where training days are contrasted so 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. This can be combined with the well documented high-low approached. However, despite some thinking often associated with medical models you can train back-to back during the week. With creativity these back-to-back days can involve meaningful and productive training load. Although to do this, planning, treatment and recovery needs to be very integrated and concise. 

MB: In watching your training a few times at England, when looking at the microcycle, all the elements seem to set up the next session. This includes training and non-training time. For example learning, video review, and related meetings were confined to specific times. You wouldn’t do a lengthy video review before a speed-focussed session because athletes wouldn’t be as mentally fresh and focussed. Instead such sessions were the target of learning days. In my interview with John Pryor after the 2015 World Cup he explained how short morning gym sessions were used to set up on-field sessions later in the day. Can you also give some other examples of how one session led into or set up another within the microcycle?

Benton: John (JP) and I have known each other for around 20 years. We have always exchanged ideas and information. Particularly in the last 12 years when we have either liaised or worked directly with Eddie. Throughout this time, we have devised many methods designed prepare or enhance players’ ability to train leading into sessions. Some of these could be flexibility-mobility sessions the preceding evening, or morning of a training day.

As mentioned, the fast training day focuses on intensive and speed qualities. The training unit prior to this session would involve speed and power modalities made specific to each positional group. Furthermore, this is an example where ‘options’ programming devised by Frans Bosch and JP is perfectly placed.

MB: If we narrow the focus even more to the individual training session, this is where I think the modern-day strength coach or sports scientist can impact an area they wouldn’t have imagined influencing a decade ago. On field training used to be the sole realm of the head coach, and it still is their baby. But your work shows how a sports scientist can consult to add value here and continue to get players to adapt towards the game model. How do you go about helping design the on field session so that it meets the physical, tactical, technical and emotional goals needed for the game model?

Benton: This is typically done as collective coaching staff. Of the two coaches I have applied tactical periodization with, Craig Bellamy and Eddie Jones, both always had a very clear picture of what needed to be programmed tactically. They would often come up with their session plan and ask what order of training blocks would help maximize the session. Other times they would of course ask for guidance on drills that offered the best intensity. In answering both questions, there are many factors to consider:

  • Which game moments will be addressed and in what sequence in the session
  • Balance of structured vs. unstructured practice
  • Amount of extensive vs. intensive rugby, which relates to the nature of running, type of speed qualities and dominant energy system you want to target

MB: When I watched some sessions, what I noticed first was how short they were. Is that a nature of Eddie’s coaching, or also related to tactical periodization?

Martin: Shorter more intense sessions are Eddie’s philosophy, but I totally support that. I think it important to look at ball in play times. This statistic hasn’t changed much in recent years and is approximately 39-40mins of an 80min game. It doesn’t make sense to train any longer than ball in play time, but use that time to train appropriately. Any longer than that players simply pace themselves and training then becomes less specific. The primary differentiating factor between levels of competition and teams within competitions is always intensity. Providing you don’t train at an inappropriate length of time you cannot train too intensively! The more specific, or the higher quality of your training, then the less you have to do.

I have found this to have a two-fold benefit of improving: stabilizing team performance and a significant injury prevention benefit. Non-contact injuries, a large portion which are preventable in field sports, can often be attributed to poor planning and preparation. Quality and integrated prospective planning makes the retrospective analysis of training load look like a poor third cousin. As such, I have found tactical periodization makes the retrospective Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) approach redundant.

Aside from training intensity being main variable to be considered, I have found over the years training density is often a variable that is overlooked. It is important work-rest ratios similar, or less than a game to ensure training specificity. Optimizing, or ideally exceeding training density is another way to overload tactical concentration.

Other considerations in taking tactical periodization methods from soccer across to other rugby-football codes is the use of small-sided games. Just because you have a ball involved doesn’t mean you will attain transfer to the game plan. Craig Bellamy believed the tipping point in rugby league was 10v10 before you started to lose sense of the game. Eddie Jones believed this is tipping point was 12v12 in rugby union.

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MB: It would be great to take a look at how one part of a training session is designed and then refined. Can you share an example of how you set up one element of training to address a particular need, and then worked to refine it?

Benton: One example would be how you would design a contact conditioning block. This could be tackle, or breakdown focussed. To provided transfer to the game plan there should always a be decision making element, which somewhat addresses the tactical dimension. A drill should be coached technically, but ‘coached on the run’ and implicitly – otherwise the physical element is compromised. To build physical capacity the density of contacts/min must be optimized. The game of rugby doesn’t take place in a ‘telephone box’, so acceleration capability preceding tackle focussed drills must be emphasized and coached, which can be assessed and feedback retrospectively with GPS. Importantly, psychologically, behaviors, intent and toughness must be demanded and reinforced.

And like all analysis and assessment, the data assessment is only ever valuable when you do something with the GPS data. It is important coaches are given feedback in a timely manner to ensure implementation went to plan. In addition, providing individual feedback to players is vital so they are aware how their physical output has, or has not contributed to what is required of them technically and tactically.

Technology in training

MB: As we’ve seen, technology and data play a big role in implementing tactical periodization, but not like you might think. If you look at how GPS and other technologies are currently being used, the trend is to use them reactively, rather than proactively. Recently on the GAINcast we talked with soccer sports scientist Tony Strudwick who put it best in saying that technology is often limiting players and focusing on loading, when it should be supporting players and focusing on physiological response. What is the role of the technology in tactical periodization?

Benton: One way of ensuring that the physical dimension of training complies with the game model is the use of player tracking such as GPS. Primarily, GPS should be seen as coaching tool to optimize training, or programming. To a much lesser extent it is a tool for restriction of training. It is about what can be done, rather than a mindset of what can’t be done.

I believe it is important that GPS planning must be understood, planned and implemented with coaches – not for them. Sometimes rugby and football coaches are not involved or precluded with this planning, which is a missed opportunity for tactically-led performance planning. In order for the optimal transfer of theory (data) to practice (performance) it requires a coach. The true measure of the effectiveness of sport science is to help improve coaching practice – not lead it.

With Melbourne Storm and England, we used Grant Duthie’s rolling average to establish peak game intensity across the primary GPS metrics. This was updated after every major tournament with England. This allowed us to establish the physical demands based on opposition played, as there are differences between northern and southern hemisphere playing styles.

MB: Unfortunately not all teams have access to the same set of tools and technology that you have in your most recent roles. Do you have any suggestions for coaches try to implement these principles on a budget?

Benton: Always having a mindset of preparing players for the most intensive periods of the game – not the average intensity. Irrespective of football-rugby code this is best measured via ball in play time with GPS. If you don’t have GPS, then always back your coaching eye.

Final thoughts

MB: At the start of our chat you mentioned that before you were doing tactical periodization you were already doing a similar version of tactical periodization without even knowing it. You can look around at a lot of top coaches and you can also see some of these same principles being applied even though they’ve never heard of the term “tactical periodization.” How revolutionary do you think the concept really is? Or, to put it another way, if you took a look at your training now versus 2012, does it look more or less the same? Is it just a matter of looking at the details and paying more attention to them, or is it a big change all around?

Benton: Tactical periodization simply offers sound principles for coaches to abide by. It does not replace good ol’ quality coaching and thorough planning. Historically, the great coaches from different sports like John Wooden probably did this organically. What we are doing with England on/off the field compared to the Brumbies in 2012-2013 is a lot more advanced. Did tactical periodization theory help us? Undoubtedly.

MB: Where do you see further innovations in the area of planning for team sports?

Benton: Innovation happens at the intersection of different fields and bodies of knowledge. Unlike science, coaching and art have no rules – this is how the art in coaching is born and how breakthroughs happen in sport. Coaches in the future will be able to make better interpretations and decisions when the integration all forms of analyses and planning are combined better. This will lead to a clearer understanding of game demands and the effectiveness of training. This in turn can lead to better defined game models and more specific training.

The football-rugby codes evolve and change every year. As such, game models must evolve with it. Unless you’re changing the game you are playing someone else’s game.