by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
Dear Coach Billups,
As someone who coaches high school and college, I’m always worried about too much contact in practice. When do you advise that the players do heavy hitting (tackling, rucking, etc.) and when do you say ease up? Do you recommend less heavy contact as you get closer to playoffs?
Your question is a good one and something that I think all coaches wrestle with during each season. Rugby is a physical game and while it is wise to minimize the amount of contact, some contact during the course of the season is inevitable. By using various training tools, such as contact suits and hit shields you can mitigate the chance that a player will suffer an injury while training the hard parts of the game. As the season progresses, we aim to train at a higher intensity than early in the year and shorter duration. This helps reduce the chance of a fatigue related training injury.
I would suggest also using different teaching tempos during a give training session. This allows for our training sessions to not become some kind of a scrimmage. At Cal we have found that scrimmages make for a very difficult environment in which to teach.
The first tempo we call “teaching tempo”. This is a tempo we use when we are installing new techniques or tactics. Safe tackling mechanics are introduced at teaching tempo for example.
The second tempo is called "wrap/win". We use this often during training as it allows for all players to train at match speed and intensity, but minimizes the amount of energy at the point of contact. In this tempo, players do not tackle the ball carrier to the ground, but would perform all other aspects to making a tackle within our defensive system. If the defending player launches well, moves his feet and keeps the attacker on the correct shoulder, he is then able to "step, strike, and wrap" the attacker using his shoulder and arms, and if performed correctly, the defender has wrapped up the attacker and won the contest (“wrap/win”).
Educational experts confirm that while someone is learning an athletic skill it is helpful to receive an auditory reinforcement. With this in mind, you can add clarity for the players of the moment by calling out "tackle" as the attacker is being wrapped up, so the attacking players are not confused as to when to decelerate their run with the ball.
The final training tempo we refer to as "live". This doesn't need much explanation, but I would say that we coach the players who are giving the defensive team a "look" to not jump in the air for kicked balls, not to dive on the ground for loose possessions. Even in our live tempo, we are coaching both groups of players on the given tempo. Sometimes the emphasis is on attack, so we ask the defenders to move their feet and get in front of the attack, but to also keep their elbows and knees to themselves. When the emphasis is on defense, the attacking players are there to service the defenders and thus run the attacking ploys of the opposition, but decelerate if the defenders has done a go job moving his feet using a good step, strike, wrap technique.
Our experience has been that by establishing different tempos, we are able to teach better and minimize the number of bumps and bruises our players experience during the training week.
Hope this answers your question and best of success with your rugby.
Tom Billups began his rugby career in 1984 and has spent time as a player in New Zealand (Bay of Plenty), the U.S. (The Old Blues), England (London Harlequins), and Wales (Pontypridd) for domestic teams as well as representing the U.S.A. at international tournaments with the Eagles. After hanging up his boots, Billups got into coaching leading the Eagles and now with University of California – Berkeley. Read the entire bio of Tom Billups as well as Billups first column My Rugby Path and then check out what Billups is saying about the game of rugby in The Billups Column on Rugby Rugby.
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