Nick Winkelman is the IRFU’s Head of Athletic Performance and Science. He has a wide ranging brief within Irish Rugby developing and establishing athletic performance best-in-class standards for players within the high performance pathway. Working with all the Athletic Performance leads and staff across the provinces Nick drives education within the Irish system to ensure our professional staff and players are supported with cutting edge insight and data to support athletic development and on-field performance.
Nick is the author of the soon to be published The Language of Coaching: The Art & Science of Teaching Movement – available to pre-order now.
Robustness & Player Development
Rugby is a team sport. It requires fifteen (or seven) individuals to think, move and play as one. From organizing a scrum to moving the ball across the pitch, each player, directly or indirectly, depends on the other. Similarly, the backroom staff supporting these players must also operate as a team, seamlessly integrating a diversity of specialist areas across rugby, medical, athletic performance, and nutrition.
Whether a player is injured, completing a return to perform programme, or healthy, competing for a starting spot, they depend on their backroom staff to create the conditions necessary for them to thrive on the pitch and perform week on week – what you might call robustness or the capacity to consistently engage in training and games with maximal effort.
Irish Rugby has long recognized that the only way a small nation can compete and stay at the top is to ensure that each player is robust and able to repeatedly perform at their best when called upon by club or country.
To achieve these ends, Irish Rugby, in partnership with each province, continues to build and evolve a holistic player development model that seeks to balance the needs of the individual with that of the team. Importantly, this model is designed to support a player’s journey as they enter the professional pathway (e.g., via the National Talent Squad or Academy) and ascend towards a senior contract and an opportunity to wear the green jersey.
To design and evolve this Player Development Model, we are consistently asking ourselves two questions:
WHAT ARE THE DEMANDS OF THE GAME?
This question serves to remind us of the outcomes we are trying to achieve and ensures that player development strategies are tightly linked to the action on the pitch – we begin with the end in mind. As such, when evaluating a player development strategy, to steal a line from Ben Hunt-Davis, we ask ourselves a simple question – “will it make the boat go faster” or, in rugby terms, “will it improve our performance on the pitch.”
It is important to recognize that there is a trap with this question. That is, through this lens, it is easy to fall into the, “if it doesn’t look like rugby we will not do it” trap. This false view of player development would see speed without the ball, ground based mobility and stretching, and core and preventative exercises thrown to the side, as their direct impact to rugby is not obvious to the naked eye.
As such, to pursue a holistic model that supports playing career longevity and performance, we must ask one additional question
WHAT DOES RUGBY NEED, BUT DOES NOT DEVELOP?
This question helps us to shine a light on our blind spots and protects us from inadvertently omitting a development strategy that will have an impact, albeit, indirectly at times, on rugby performance. Very quickly, this question helps us to recognize that while rugby doesn’t develop joint mobility, we know that without it players would have difficulty picking-up a ball at pace or squeezing into a scrum.
Similarly, rugby, just by playing, will have very little impact on how strong you are or how fast you can run, however, we still expect that our players will carry strong into contact and run fast when called upon to do so.
WHY A PLAYER DEVELOPMENT MODEL MATTERS
With these two questions guiding our thinking, Irish Rugby has created a Player Development Model that seeks to provide continuous streams of information about a player’s physical profile, which guides programming strategies; a player’s daily readiness to train, which guides day to day management of training load; and a player’s training and game exposure, which further supports day to day management of training load.
This information, combined with a player’s subjective rating of how they’re feeling, is then connected to on-pitch performance and injury incidence, giving us both input, what they’re physically exposed to, and output, how they’re physically responding over time.
We, as a country, have identified technologies and protocols, which we refer to as National Standards, that govern these three areas of information gathering. Once a National Standard is created it is deployed, at scale, across all national and provincial teams. With this level of alignment, we are able to understand how every player within Irish Rugby is developing and responding to the various training environments.
What’s more, this model allows us to operate as a team of teams, where each entity operates autonomously and is in control of the methods they use to develop players, while also agreeing to systematically collect and share data around the impact they’re programme is having on those same players. By sharing and storing this data both centrally and locally, we, as a country, can learn significantly faster, with our teams and players reaping the rewards.
Follow Nick on twitter @NickWinkelman