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Developing the Healthy Young Rugby Player

Last weekend, the Carnegie Applied Rugby Research (CARR) Centre was supposed to be hosting our 5th CARR Conference at Leeds Beckett University. Unfortunately, due to the recent COVID-19 pandemic the conference has been postponed.

Developing the Healthy Young Rugby Player

What the recent COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated is that the nation’s long-term health and safety is number one priority. It comes before the economy, education and our day to day lives. Whilst many are unsure of what the immediate future looks like – we know we must prioritise health!

Whilst our work on developing rugby players is hardly comparable with COVID-19, the issue of health is an interesting one where some key questions emerge. How do practitioners working with young rugby players prioritise their players health and wellbeing? Does health and wellbeing come before performance and winning? What can practitioners do to develop a ‘healthy’ young rugby player?

Whilst many coaches and practitioners cannot coach and train their players, attentions may move to planning their return to training. This may provide a good opportunity to consider the long-term development of the ‘healthy’ young rugby player.

Last month, we published ‘Applied Sport Science for Male Age-Grade Rugby Union in England’ in Sports Medicine-Open. Working alongside our former and current PhD students and rugby experts from other institutions (Stephen Mellalieu, Cardiff Metropolitan University; Keith Stokes, University of Bath; Mike Hislop, World Rugby; Andy Rock, Bath Rugby) we explored the scientific evidence available for some of these questions.

Sustainable participation and player development within young rugby players is a focus for the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and World Rugby. The RFU aims to ensure all players enjoy rugby in a safe environment and develop a wide array of skills, demonstrating that healthy development is a necessity for all young players. However, one challenge that practitioners are required to overcome is that many young rugby players play multiple sports and within multiple environments. This can raise issues regarding player health, wellbeing and performance potentially challenging the aims of maintaining participation and supporting player development towards the elite level within the sport.

Our recent paper summarised the available scientific literature in relation to the applied sport science of young rugby players in England. This included (1) match-play characteristics, (2) training exposures, (3) physical qualities, (4) fatigue and recovery, (5) nutrition, (6) psychological challenges and development and (7) injury. The information in the paper provides a framework to assist practitioners to effectively prepare young players for the holistic demands of rugby developing ‘healthy’ and high performing players.

So what did we find? And what does this mean for coaches, practitioners and policy makers within the rugby codes?

 

  1. Age, playing level and position influence the match-play characteristics. Academy match-play is a higher intensity than school competition.

    Prepare players for the demands of match-play at the current level and future playing levels which may be different

     

  2. The training exposure of young rugby players are highly variable due to players participating in different environments. This has have been described as ‘organised chaos’.

    Carefully plan and schedule competition and training to optimise long-term player development and participation within the sport

     

  3. Training and match-play induce different levels of fatigue in young rugby players. Players typically take up to 72 hours (3 days) to recover (e.g., return to normal) following a match.

    Carefully plan training and competition considering fatigue responses for activities players have just participated in. Aim for at least one day recovery (active or passive) post match play and hard training sessions.

     

  4. Due to the demands of rugby, players require well developed physical qualities (e.g., strength, power, speed, body size, endurance). These physical qualities increase with age and playing level and are important for player development and injury reduction.

    Consider the planning of physical development sessions within your training plans that focus upon strength and power related qualities for enhancing physical performance and reducing injury risk.

     

  5. Nutrition intake supports adaptations to training and match-play alongside maintaining appropriate growth and health of the young rugby player, given players have high energy expenditures.

    Ensure energy intake is sufficient to support the training requirements of players. The support of a qualified nutritionist should be consulted where required.

     

  6. Young rugby players face a range of psychological demands and adopt numerous strategies to cope with these challenges. Perfectionism tendencies is a key challenge that can result in negative health consequences such as injury and burnout.

    Consider the psychological challenges present within young rugby players and plan interventions to support and challenge players appropriately at certain stages of their development. The support of a qualified psychologist should be consulted where required.

     

  7. Injury! Soft tissue injuries and concussion have high incidence in young players. Targeted preventive exercise training programmes (e.g., RFU Activate) can reduce incidence of both.

Careful planning of training including physical development, load and fatigue and recovery principles alongside the inclusion of a preventive exercise programme help reduce the injury of young rugby players.

The above areas identify and summarise some of the challenges to practitioners working within all levels of rugby to developing a ‘healthy’ young player. Overall, careful planning considering the competition schedule, the training exposure and fatigue recovery responses post match-play and training are important. The inclusion of physical development sessions, injury prevention programmes, appropriate nutrition, psychological support and regular monitoring would help long-term player development. You can see videos from our previous CARR conferences for more information.

We wish you well in these testing times and hope you can take the principles of developing ‘healthy’ young players forward to maximise participation and performance within the sport of rugby. 

About the Authors

Professor Kevin Till

Kevin Till is a Professor of Athletic Development within the Sports Coaching Group in the Carnegie School of Sport at Leeds Beckett University. Kevin contributes to research, PhD supervision, teaching and project management combining his academic expertise with his practical experience to enhance applied research within the fields of athletic development, strength and conditioning, coaching and sport science.

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Professor Ben Jones

Ben is a Professor of Sports Physiology and Performance. His research has explored various aspects of sports performance and youth sport.

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