Weights vs Skills Debate

Weights vs Skills Debate

In case you missed it the other evening on BT Sport’s Rugby Tonight Austin Healey set about putting the S&C industry back 20 years when he decided to proclaim a number of the old ‘myths’ about weight training and young athletes were true facts. Stating on national TV they shouldn’t be lifting weights before they are 17 and that it would damage them and stunt their growth! You can check the clip out on Twitter here. Since then the debate has raged on about whether young players should focus on weights or skills as a priority.

Now whilst the educated viewer will know research has shown that resistance training is both safe and beneficial for young athletes, the danger now is that less aware parents and their kids who would directly benefit from resistance training, may now be put off the idea of engaging in a structured S&C programme as a perceived Rugby expert and role model has made these statements (Healey being a former England International and British Lion).

It was interesting to see the reaction on social media with a strong S&C community on Twitter. There was a backlash with many coaches pointing him in the direction of the many documents of recent research, and many high profile coaches stepping forward to try and rectify his views, but he seems fairly set on his beliefs and is unwilling to be educated on the area. We have even extended and invitation to him for the Child To Champion conference early next month, but we’re yet to receive his RSVP…

After my initial outrage settled down, I started to consider his point of view and whilst completely misguided and ignorant in terms of the ‘facts’ he presenting regarding the safety of weight training, don’t shoot me, but I think in there somewhere there may actually be some good messages or reminders in there that we can take away.

Having worked with a lot of young rugby players over the last 8 years, I think I do understand where he is coming from. With older athletes in the 16-18 range, that haven’t come up through a structured LTAD system, I’ve had to do a lot of work to undo pre-conceived ideas about training that are heavily biased towards upper body pushing exercises and bicep curls, which Austin mentioned, in the pursuit of increased muscle mass. Many of them completely ignore glaringly obvious deficits in their technical-tactical skill set or other physical capacities (e.g. speed, agility, cardiovascular endurance).

However, rather than remove weights from their development our job as technical and/or S&C coaches is to educate them in how to train effectively, guide and motivate them towards further developing strengths and addressing their weaknesses wherever they lie.

Here are some key things I think we need to consider:

1) We must pursue balance and address the needs of the individual athlete

It is important to keep balance in our programmes and ensure the technical, tactical and mental aspects are developed as well as the physical elements. For me it isn’t an either/or situation for physical preparation and Rugby specific skill training, it is both. To get the balance right we must consider the individual needs of the athlete. I can think of some phenomenally skilful players at our school that lack the physical presence to dominate the contact situation. Likewise, I can think of some monster strong kids who can’t catch a cold and just run straight into contact. We aren’t going to train them the same way.

As athletic development coaches I think we can take some responsibility for helping to developing higher level manipulation skills by incorporating challenging tasks with smaller objects (e.g. tennis balls, golf balls) to warm ups or expose them to a completely different sport skills with some skills that could transfer to Rugby, in some of my sessions recently with I’ve done 5 minutes in a warm up dribbling and passing a basketball with both hands, which has been a big challenge for some players. The athletes were switched on, concentrating and engaged from the off and we had a great S&C session after.

2) Weight training is only ONE of many tools

Weight training is only one of many tools that should be in the S&C coaches tool box, and we must understand why we are using it with a specific athlete. For me it’s about producing more robust players, that can produce high levels of force relative to their body weight.

However, there is also a lot of training that can/should come before we begin traditional weight training with dumbbells and barbells. As well as a lot of different training that needs to be done to complement it (see point 3). With a lot of our young athletes on the Elite Performance Pathway we spend a considerable chunk of time up to 1-2 years developing strength and grooving the fundamental movement patterns against their bodyweight then low/soft load resistance (e.g. bands, powerbags) in a wide range of progressive movements across the squat/lunge/push/pull/hinge/brace categories before getting into any significantly loaded traditional weight training exercises.

3) Develop a broad range of sports generic movement skills

“Sport is movement, if we improve movement, we improve performance” Ian Jeffreys

In addition, to the basic movements, it is important that we teach/coach young athletes a broad range of sport generic movements through effective movement training in addition to resistance training so they can safely and effectively accelerate, decelerate, cut, spin, jump, land, leap, hop and throw at a range of speeds, in all planes of movement.

If we do a great job of developing these movement patterns in progressively challenging and specific situations (e.g. closed -> open -> reactive/CHAOS) as well as enhancing the force producing/reducing and energy system capacities of the athlete we can see significant improvements in a players ability to exploit and use space on the pitch, rather than taking route one into contact all the time.

Movement training in open & reactive scenarios for me is vitally important for several of reasons. First, it provides a highly engaging and challenging environment that young athletes really enjoy. Secondly, it allows us to develop the perceptual-cognitive component of agility by challenging decision making and familiarising the athlete with common movement patterns they may need to read quickly/anticipate in defence and execute swiftly in attack.

Certainly, the feedback we’ve had from our Rugby coaches at the school is that the boys who have been involved in this combined approach of strength development and movement training over the last couple of years have significantly improved their performance on the pitch.

In summary, I think it is vital we keep our eye on the big picture and not become to obsessed/biased towards any one type of training. In my opinion we need to be developing players who can efficiently and effectively produce high levels of force using appropriate means for their stage of development, and then ensuring they are capable of utilising it in a broad range of movement patterns at varying speed. Crucially this shouldn’t be developed at the expense of technical and tactical skills rather a solid working relationship with open communication channels should be established between the Rugby coach and the S&C/Athletic Development coach to ensure a rounded development of the individual player into a highly skilled and physical, elusive runner.

If you are interested in learning more about Long Term Athlete Development you can join a host of practitioners from across the developmental continuum at Child To Champion on April 9th & 10th 2016 in Gloucester.

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