Speed is often stated as being the difference between a good player and a great player. When most people think about a fast player, they visualise a winger flying down the touch line to score in the corner or a centre making a mid field break and out sprinting the full back.
However, how often do these situations actually occur in a game or even a season? On average, most players cover less than 10m per ball carry. There is no doubt that it is important to be able to finish once a break is made but surely what is most important is to make each and every ball carry as effective as possible.
Question – How does a player make each and every ball carry as effective as possible?
Answer – By avoiding contact.
This will at best, lead to a greater number of breaks (and therefore tries) and at worst, ensure that the player takes contact on their own terms. Therefore, the key to becoming a great rugby player is multi-directional speed (also known as agility) not flat out maximum speed. This means that the coach and player would be best served by spending the majority of training time improving agility rather than performing repeat 50-100m sprints to improve maximum top end speed.
Agility is the ability to change direction at speed and under control. Changing direction or side stepping involves decelerating from the direction the player was going in then re-accelerating towards the new direction. The key to a quick change of direction is to shorten the amortization phase (time between the deceleration and acceleration). Doing this requires a great deal of strength, body control and coordination in order for the change of direction to be effective.
Just like tackling and passing in rugby, side stepping is a skill that needs to be taught and learned. There are progressions that go from simple to complex for teaching tackling that a player needs to go through in order to build success and confidence. The same can be said for side stepping. In addition to this and most importantly, just like tackling, there is a desired technical model that the coach should expect, teach and reinforce in order for the player to improve their side stepping technique. There is much more to agility development than setting out cones or poles and asking your players to run around them.
The Chaos step
The ‘Chaos Step’ is the most aggressive side step a player can use and is one that would create the greatest separation between the attacker and defender (thus creating ‘chaos’ in the defence).
The following technical model should be taught statically at first and then progressed to dynamically (involving lateral and linear movement) and finally with a reactive component to make the side step more game related (going from simple to complex and slow to fast/reactive activities):
Step outside the box – The box is an imaginary line that goes from the shoulders down to the floor. The player must step outside this line in order to create an angle to push off in the new direction. The further the player steps outside the box, the bigger the change of direction (as long as the leg is loaded, see below).
|Step outside the box|
Load to explode – The side stepping leg must be bent (loaded) at the knee and hip in order to be in a position to immediately decelerate momentum and push off (explode) in the new direction. Side stepping on a straight leg means that time is wasted while the knee flexes and the muscles get in a position to contract. It will also create harmful shearing forces on the knee and ankle that could lead to injury.
|Load to explode|
Step on a flat foot – To change direction quickly you must be on your toes – is an agility myth. This is the call I hear most often in relation to well intentioned coaches trying to give their players agility advice.
By giving this cue you are telling your players to put their foot into plantarflexion (pointing your foot down) which is an unstable position that could lead to ankle injuries. Dorsiflexion (toes up) is the best position for the foot during all speed and agility activities as it stabilizes the ankle joint thus prevents injuries (not only to the ankle but
also to the knees and hips) and importantly in terms of producing powerful movements, it initiates the stretch shortening cycle in the gastrocnemius (calf) and soleus. This is the basis of plyometrics, which states that a muscle will act more powerfully if it has been pre‐loaded or stretched before it contracts (this will help to reduce the amortization phase – see above). In order to achieve maximum power the foot should also point perpendicular to the direction in which you are about to move and should be actively driven into the ground to take advantage of newtons 3rd law of motion: “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. This means that the greater the foot drive into the ground, the more force that will come back from the ground and help propel the body in the new direction. Using the teaching point “pop the balloon” helps the player to understand and visualise the forceful foot drive into the ground that is needed.
Lean to the space – The players upper body should lean towards the new direction (or the space you are stepping towards) in order to prevent “shoulder sway”. If the player leans over the side stepping foot, they will not be able to change direction until the body is realigned with the side stepping leg to create the angle for push of. This shoulder sway creates lag time before the step can occur.
|Shoulder sway – the body is leaning towards the side stepping foot. This will lead an increase in time between the deceleration and acceleration in the new direction = slow side step|
There are many varieties of the “Chaos Step” that players could learn and utilise in a game (for example, speed step, double step, split step and spin step) but only by mastering the techniques previously outlined will the player be able to perform any side step variation with the maximum success. Only once the technique has been learned will it be appropriate to have your player perform repeated agility runs. Failure to do this will result in your players ingraining inefficient movement patterns which will lead to a much slower side step (longer amortization phase) that the defence will find easy to read. If you want to make the most of every ball carry and increase your line break and try scoring statistics then spend more time training for agility.
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