High Performance Strategic Plan
The Elite Rugby Programme (ERP) at the Hong Kong Rugby Union is a professional platform for elite rugby union players, who are eligible to represent Hong Kong, to train full time. The programme is quite unique in that players on the programme play for both a professional team and a semi-professional team at the same time. All players on the ERP, train together like a professional club team in the Super 15, Pro 14 or Premiership competitions, although the programme acts as a feeder for the National rugby team, and play only during international test windows – November and May/June for the Asian rugby championship.
This unique set-up brings about unique challenges. While players train full time for the national programme, they also train part-time for their semi-professional club teams in Hong Kong, who compete in the domestic league and grand championships. During the domestic club season, players will train full-time from Monday to Friday (Wednesday always being off) with the ERP, and will have team training on Tuesday and Thursday nights, with a game on Saturday. The league that all players compete in consists of 6 teams, who will play each other 3 times throughout a season. This means 15 games for each team in the league from September to January (breaks for the November International test window and Christmas), followed by a knockout grand championship, which means an extra 1-3 additional fixtures for each club.
Training for the ERP throughout the club season aims to bridge the gap between the club game and the international game, but it is designed to optimise players’ performances during their club game on a Saturday. Here lies the challenge for the professional platform for rugby union in Hong Kong.
Periodisation of Skill Training Framework
The Periodisation of Skill Training framework, as detailed previously, will form the basis of the high-performance strategic plan. All training will fall into one of the three categories within this framework: coordination training, skill adaptability training, and performance training. While these three categories have been created to optimise skill development (as the name suggests), it is important to consider also the physical loading from the various types of training and how this can impact performance readiness for the club game on the weekend.
This training consists of the lightest training that athletes could do. The task complexity is relatively low, and this gives athletes an opportunity to explore their own movements without many time- or space-constraints. It is about reinforcing basic movement patterns that commonly occur during the game. As this category of skill development is relatively light from a physical load point of view, there are a number of suitable opportunities to prescribe this into the programme, such as after a long break (week 1 of pre-season) or when aiming to reduce the overall load of the week to act as a taper (final week before the international test window).
Skill Adaptability Training
This type of training will be most prominent throughout the programme, but even within this there are 3 sub-categories which can result in significantly different loads:
Movement Variability training: this is the next step up from coordination training, with the progression being some greater task complexity, such as the introduction of defenders. From a physical load point of view, this is the lightest form of skill adaptability training, and it is particularly useful in rehab or recovery settings.
Complex training: this is implemented mostly during unit sessions or team splits (forward and backs split – common in rugby union). Due to the increased numbers, the task complexity increases further, and the ability of the coach and players to prescribe more physically representative training also increases.
Team-based training: this is a key aspect of any training programme, as it provides the most representative training to a game. Not only can this training maximise skill transfer through the strengthening of the bond between players identifying affordance and their actions, it can also optimise physical preparation for the game.
Throughout the macrocycle programme, skill adaptability training is prescribed but this can vary between movement variability training, complex training and team-based training. The specifics of each skill adaptability training session are broken down further in the microcycle section.
Training for optimal performance will occur on the day before club games (Friday). As rugby has a number of specialist positions, and each specialist position has specialist duties during a game, performance training will be devoted to these specialist duties. For example:
Hooker (number 2) – lineout throwing
Lock (number 4 or 5) – lineout calling
Fly half – goal kicking
The primary aim of these sessions was not optimal skill development, but performance optimisation, which may mean training for performance to build confidence, and not learning (Soderstrom and Bjork, 2015). Players, will work individually or in small groups, and will have the option of they wanted a coach present or not. The session content is typically low volume, and it will be player driven.
Figure 2. Macrocycle (8 month) plan for ERP program.
As mentioned previously, the goal of the ERP training programme is to optimally prepare players for the international game, and keep players fresh to perform in their club games throughout the season. This presents a delicate challenge.
Across the 8-month period (Figure 2), coordination training is included in the programme when:
the chronic load of players is low (returning from a break) or,
there is a planned reduction in load for the players.
Low chronic load
There are 2 occasions during the season where this happens. The first is after the off-season break when players return for pre-season. Coordination training is included on day 1 and 2, which coincides with some physical performance testing (speed, strength, power etc.). Over an off-season, players can typically perform some physical training (weights, running) on their own or in small groups, but commonly don’t perform any skill-based training. Coordination aims to ease players back into skill-based training, while controlling the increase in chronic load. The content of a coordination training session will be discussed below.
Planned reduction in physical load
Again, this occurs on two occasions. In the week before the international test window in November, coordination training is included to reduce the overall physical load of the week leading into the international window, which will be an increased intensity to a typical club week. To ensure freshness for this key window, there will be a planned reduction in physical load in the week before, achieved through the inclusion of a coordination training block as opposed to a typically more strenuous skill adaptability block. The week after the league season ends, preceding the start of the grand championships consists of only coordination training from an ERP perspective. This is to allow the players to recuperate after a long league season so they are fresh heading into the grand championship.
Variations of skill adaptability training will form the bulk of the macrocycle. This will occur in a conjugated fashion, where the skills involved will vary throughout the week. Depending on the physical focus on any given day, this will impact the skills being developed. For example, on a typical “fast” training day, the physical focus will be speed and high-speed running. On fast days, it would be counter-productive to work on the skill of tackling, as this would require activities/drills with small pitch areas to allow to encourage contact. Instead, the technical skills trained on a fast day would include passing for example, to encourage evasion. The aim with skill adaptability training is to enhance motor learning, despite potentially poor motor performance in training (Soderstrom and Bjork, 2015). This will come through movement variability sessions, complex training sessions, and team training sessions will form the bulk of the week, across ERP and club training. Team sessions occurred every Tuesday morning with the ERP programme, and every Tuesday and Thursday nights with club teams. The team sessions with club teams consisted of both team training and complex training in the form of unit splits.
As touched on before, performance training on a Friday before a Saturday club game coincides with a gym primer, and like a typical primer, the aim is high intensity and low volume.
Each microcycle throughout the season is slightly different, due to the context around each one. Each microcycle is impacted by the microcycle before and will impact the microcycle after. Taking the week discussed above preceding the international test window – coordination training is included on the Monday of that week to reduce the overall weekly load in anticipation of an increased load in the following block, and on the back of 4 game weeks in a row.
Below, 3 distinct microcycles from the programme will be discussed.
Figure 3. Microcycle (7 day) plans. (a) Pre-Season Microcycle; (b) In-Season Microcycle 1; (c) In-Season Microcycle 2.
Pre-Season week - Figure 3 (a)
The pre-season phase will aim to gradually enhance players’ chronic load in anticipation for a challenging club season ahead. As previously mentioned, coordination training is included to reduce the overall weekly load, but also to reintegrate skills into the training programme. The remainder of the training week consists of skill adaptability training in various forms – ranging from collective team training, unit splits and movement variability training.
A key aspect of coordination training throughout the pre-season phase will be the use of the differential learning approach. Differential learning is a method of training that emphasises the exploration of movement patterns (Scollhorn et al., 2012). Coordination training will be designed to encourage athletes to explore a range of movement solutions, and, importantly, there will be no coaching instructions to correct technique.
A sample catching exercise can include a player throwing a tennis ball against a wall with their right hand, and catching with their left hand, and vice-versa, for a period of 30 seconds. A passing activity can include 2 players passing a football over and back to each other, while standing on one leg. After 2 minutes, the players replace the football with an American football, or a cricket ball.
Unit training will consist of set piece for the forwards, and starter plays off set piece for the backs. Depending on the number of players in each given session, this could be against reduced opposition numbers or a full defensive unit. Ideally for forward unit sessions, there will be a full defensive pack to ensure a realistic contest at line-out and scrum. Alternatives can include use of the scrum machine.
Team training will consist of a variety of conditioning games, with the specifics of each game depending on the coaches’ aim for the session. 2 examples:
6v6+3: one game where the attacking team will always have an overload in attack, encouraging players to exploit space.
Tight 5 versus the Rest: this game involves the tight 5 players always defending, the aim is to encourage the defending players to keep a good body position (hips square) to force the attacking team to go wide, where in a game this is where the typically faster players will be.
In this pre-season week, there will be no substantial reduction in load in preparation for the pre-season game. This is planned with the aim of maximising physiological adaptation from the pre-season period, as opposed to ensuring players are fresh for the game on a Saturday. On Friday morning, players will perform movement variability training. This is the next step on from coordination training, with an increase in task complexity and removing the differential learning component of training. 2 sample activities for movement variability training include:
Passing: 2v1v1: 2 attacking players start on the halfway line, with one defender on the 10m line facing them, and another defender on the 22m line, both facing them. The aim is for the attacking team to score a try. The attacking team can get by each defender with a pass or by feigning a pass and running on.
Catching: One player must catch a high ball that is kicked downfield. As the player jumps to catch the ball, he or she will be put under pressure by 1 or 2 other players with pads (depending on the level of task complexity the catch requires).
In-Season week 1 – Figure 3 (b)
This in-season week is the 2nd game week of 4 straight game weeks. During the slot that consists of coordination training in pre-season, there is a game review session to analyse the previous game from two days before. This theme will continue into the unit sessions on Monday afternoon, where coaches and players will address some of the individual mistakes and faults from the previous game.
Tuesday will be the most challenging day of the training week, where everyone will complete two team training sessions, 1 each for ERP and club. While the ERP session will contain many team activities, like those mentioned above, the club session will be a combination of team training conditioned games, and complex training addressing the collective faults of the previous weekend.
Thursday’s morning ERP session will be complex training, looking forward to the weekend’s game, and also the international tests to come in November. The club session Thursday evening will allow each team to preview their opponents for the weekend game and prepare accordingly.
The big difference from the pre-season phase to the in-season phase will be the freshness of players as they move into the weekend. The aim is for players to perform to their best on a Saturday in-season, and their Friday will be prescribed accordingly. Players will undertake performance training, aiming to enhance confidence going into the game. This means that motor performance can be prioritised by players in training, as opposed to motor learning (Soderstrom and Bjork, 2015). This session will be player led, place kickers will typically practice kicking, hookers will typically practice lineout throwing, for example. The week ends with the game on the Saturday, and players are afforded 2 full days off in the week – Wednesday and Sunday.
In-season week 2 – Figure 3 (c)
The second in-season week is preparing for the grand championships, which is a knockout competition based on the final league standings. This will come after a non-game week, and as such, there will be no game to review. The first session of the week is a movement variability session. Due to not having played 2 days previously (looking at figure 1 players had the full weekend off), players can be moderately loaded though a movement variability session. The remainder of this week will remain consistent with a typical in-season week, with training consisting of skill adaptability training and performance training, followed by a game on Saturday.
Sample activity plans
Figure 4 below details sample session plans depending on the category of session. For the more representative styles of training (complex and team training), the skill in focus rarely occurs in isolation, as there are other skills that players must execute in each activity, similar to a game scenario. However, training must be designed so players get the opportunity to work on the selected skill for a suitable number of repetitions.
Figure 4. sample session activities for the skill of tackling.