by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
Recently I was speaking with a parent of one of our rugby campers. The father had several questions about what an athletic development timeline should look like for his youngest son. I shared with him that many experts believe that it requires ten years or ten thousand hours of training and competition to reach the elite level in sport. However, smaller chronological age driven stages do exist. It merits mentioning that, ideally, biological age would dictate the timeline of development, but chronological age, similar to school grade levels, is more commonly used as a gauge. The best development processes are athlete centered and coach driven. Coaches are able to take into consideration the intellectual and emotional maturity of individual athletes while in each development stage and make adjustments if necessary. In the initial stage, often referred to as the fundamental stage, children ages 6 through 9 should be encouraged to simply participate in non-contact rugby activities and have fun. Kids who participate in youth rugby programs at this level are able to experience rugby in a very informal way, learning basic rugby skills while playing the non-contact version of the game. Players simultaneously develop important social skills such teamwork and cooperation in a fun game-based environment.
During the next stage of the timeline, 8 to 12 year olds are encouraged to “learn to train.” While the fundamental stage is all about fun, this stage encourages players to learn general sport skill and how to practice acquiring them. While in the learning to train stage, young athletes are exposed to structured training sessions including drills and activities designed for desired outcomes. Socially, at this stage athletes should be motivated to develop further rugby-related character traits such as discipline, respect and problem solving (individual and team-based). In this age group, players should not specialize in any one position. "Flag” rugby matches are used to promote core skills such as running straight, passing and catching the ball. Using a non-contact version of the game assures safety for the players. Introductory versions of contact rugby may also be considered at this stage depending upon programs’ availability of qualified coaches. These may include Mini and Midi Rugby for example, or modified version of Seven-a-side (7’s) or 10-a-side (10’s). Regardless of the version of rugby being played training should be more structured and more frequent, it should not be at the expense of the youngsters' opportunities to participate in other sports throughout the year. In stage three, players ages 12 to 16 are “training to train.” The goal of this stage is to learn position specific skills. The frequency of the training increases to as many as nine sessions per week depending on the seasonal periodization used by the team. Players’ character traits are reinforced from prior stages with leadership and commitment excelling among more developed athletes. At this level, players may be introduced to the full 15-a-side version of rugby with age-appropriate safety variations.
It is important to have a good balance between the amount of training and the volume of competition this age group is exposed to. In many mainstream American sports, the balance of competition to training is tilted toward too much competition and not enough training. Coaches should try to target a 40:60 ratio of time spent competing versus training. Players should engage in proper matches, but quality training should also be emphasized. As rugby athletes enter the fourth stage, players between the ages of 15 and 18 are “training to compete.” The goal of this stage is to advance match and position specific physical conditioning and furthered positional specialization. Training to compete includes rugby-specific technical, tactical knowledge and continued position specific skill acquisition. The game played at this level would reflect Under 19, 15-a-side variations. Rugby specific fitness, designed around competitive skill games, is a key element of the weekly training environment that is driven by the team’s annual plan. Depending on several program variables, the competition to training ratio may vary but should still favor quality training. Learning how to be a good sportsman goes hand in hand with training to compete as character traits from previous development stages meld and mature. The fifth stage is “training to win.” This age group includes 17-18 year old athletes and older. During this long stage of a player’s development, they are encouraged to work toward daily improvement as their bodies physically mature. Athletes should strive to develop a high performance lifestyle that encompasses proper sleeping, nutritional, and training habits. If good habits are instilled just before or during this stage, rugby players will have the best opportunity to reach their potential. Players’ focus, determination and resilience will further enhance their potential as both individuals and team. Ongoing skill advancement and tactical/technical understanding is important for a player’s continued development.
In established rugby nations, it is not uncommon to see players in this age group earning a living as professional rugby players. The final ladder rung is the retirement stage. Even as former players take time away from the game to focus on furthering a professional career or raising a family, the goal of the retirement stage is to stay engaged in some way with the game of rugby. Our sport requires experienced administrators, coaches, and match officials and retired players are a rich target population to fill these roles. Our responsibility at this final stage is to give back to the game and promote the same rugby values to our kids that we were able to enjoy ourselves.
As rugby continues to improve at the scholastic and collegiate levels, so should our understanding of the stages of a rugby athlete’s development.
My thanks to former Eagle hooker Mark Griffin, who offered suggestions for this column article. Mark was a player of mine while I coached the national team who traded in a high profile banking career to teach youngsters 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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