The Science of Rugby  //  Articles of interest and the revisiting the role of science in sports performance

22 Apr 2010 Posted by

We’re building up to the big London Marathon weekend, which has thankfully come one week after the Iceland Volcano and so most of the big names will line up in London on Sunday. As always, we’ve got the race covered – a preview tomorrow, then in-race coverage and splits, and the post-race analysis, so join us for that in the coming days!

For now, I have been putting off a post on the science of rugby for a while, but tonight I was an invited guest on a weekly South African TV show called Boots and All (Hollywood next week – my agent will be taking future bookings! Just kidding!), and the topic of conversation was rugby and the science of performance. The site got mentioned on the show, and so partly out of necessity (for those who now visit it looking for rugby pieces), but also out of a desire to post on this topic, below are the links to some interesting articles that those of you who follow the sport may enjoy. For those who don’t know the sport, it’s the newest (along with golf) Olympic sport (in the form of Sevens rugby) and well worth watching and enjoying if you haven’t already! I’m sure I’ll post on it in the future!

The articles – rugby through science’s lens

So below are links to the four articles I have written so far – I was commissioned to write these as part of Powerade’s sponsorship of the Super 14 tournament, which is the biggest tournament in the Southern Hemisphere, and arguably the toughest rugby tournament in the world. In terms of playing intensity, level of competition, depth of competition, you’d be hard pressed to find this level of play anywhere else in the world. Add to this time-zone travel, jet-lag, and playing matches at altitude, and you have an incredibly tough tournament.

Answering the question vs explaining the answer? The true value of science

And finally, related to the above pieces and the topic of sports science in general, I have a philosophical thought regarding the application of science to rugby, and any sport, for that matter. Regular readers will know that a big focus here on this site is the role of science in improving sports performance. There are coaches who don’t see the value of the science, and there are coaches who embrace it.

My personal and professional battle in the last few years, in the South African sporting landscape, has been to promote the value of the science, to help people realise what it can do to improve sports performances, because in SA at least, it has largely been under-valued.

And what has gradually dawned on me, particularly as a result of some fascinating discussions in the last two days (thank you Jimmy and Clinton) is that a big part of the problem is that the science itself has not communicated the value to the coaches. Instead, what has happened is that science has tended to explain the answers, rather than answering the questions.

So what often happens is that science arrives too late to the ‘party’, and then produces research that only serves to explain the mechanisms behind what is already known. The coach, who typically spends 8 waking hours a day (and probably a good few hours in their sleep) thinking about the sport, has often figured out the answer long in advance of the scientist arriving to tell them what they need to do. This kind of science is still valuable, of course, and there is enormous value in both understanding mechanisms and validating current methods and practices, but it often makes the science seem “out-of-touch”.

The coach is less interested in looking back and proving himself correct than he is on finding the advantage moving forward, and so this kind of science is often dismissed as unhelpful. When the science is too forceful, and fails to appreciate this, it even creates hostility – the “who are you to tell me what I’ve known for five years?” syndrome. Good science, at least from a coach’s point of view in high performance sport, is science that answers a very specific question and allows the coach/athlete to make changes in advance of failure or a negative outcome. It is prescriptive rather than reflective.

The way to achieve this is to have coaches and science working intimately with one another, so that the science is “coach-driven” to answer specific questions that he/she may have regarding player preparation, strategy, match tactics, injury rehabilitation, environmental management (heat, cold or altitude, for example) and ergogenic aids to performance. If the science is not “immersed” in the team environment, and not driven by the central character, the coach, then the likelihood of it adding value is greatly reduced.

I have said many times, and repeat it here – the value in science is NOT the content, but the process by which new things are discovered. In other words, the scientist is not there simply to contribute specific knowledge on energy, heart rate, muscle injuries and so forth. This is important, certainly, but the real value comes from implementing a “hypothesis-driven” approach, and then embarking on a process that produces deeper understanding of what would otherwise remain intangible and unknown.

In elite sport today, where the margins between winning and losing are so tiny, the purpose of science, in my opinion, is to instill a culture of measurement, monitoring and hypothesis testing at every level of player preparation and performance. You cannot manage what you don’t measure is one adage, and science is there to help measure and manage the right things. In doing this, it could help the coach, his support staff and the player find 1% improvements in five different areas. If that happens, the result may be a 3-5% improvement, and a completely different outcome.

The articles I’ve linked to above are not intended to provide those answers. They are more of the “explaining answers” type of science, but their intent was to give a new perspective on the sport of rugby. If they stimulate discussion and force you to ask another question, to challenge a finding, then you’ve understood the value of science, and you’ve taken the first step towards understanding how science helps performance, because the answers to your questions, and the questions they generate, will ultimately help to inform decision-making.


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