It was a tough year for international rugby. Due to COVID-19, official international matches and tournaments have been canceled. Polish 7 ‘and 15’ teams only played friendly matches. In addition to it, lockdowns, changing in the restrictions and the need to train in the sanitary regime. “But for us, paradoxically, it was an opportunity to develop volitional and physical qualities. We have worked hard during this period and should see the results soon at the European Championship,” – says Paweł Stempel, strength and conditioning coach of the Polish national rugby team.
As a strength and conditioning coach, you have a broad understanding of the physical condition of all national teams. How did all of this affect their physical preparation?
This year wasn’t easy for all of us, both in sport and everyday life, still it was a very good time to develop our potential. Thanks to remote work and breaks between the games, we had time for the development of volitional and physical qualities. We can now see a change in the balance of power in many sports, who used this time and worked hard, and who decided to wait this period out. We also focused on hard work and the girls put a lot of effort into training. Sometimes they trained twice a day and we should see the results soon at the European Championships. There we will find out who really took an advantage of this period. However, I also have to mention the negative effects, as we certainly were lacking the game and competition on an international level. Fortunately, with girls, there were several opportunities to challenge the best ones.
Has the pandemic affected your work?
Quite a lot, the remote system showed me many new possibilities, but at the same time I could use it only to a minimal extent. For example, I managed to conduct several online trainings for coaches, thanks to the fact that there was no need to go anywhere, there were many more people participating, which was a plus. On the other hand, unfortunately, they had to be limited to lectures, and as you know, talking about physical preparation is not enough, we must also try it in practice. That is why I often exercised in a chair to convey as much as possible and tried to visualize what I was talking about to the participants. The same thing is with training, in many cases we had to limit the schedule, often without additional supervision. Therefore, during this period, we focused on monitoring players and their physical parameters. Here, the Sonda Sports system helped us a lot, because even if we did not have visual control over the player, we could manage the work he or she is doing. I also tried to use this time at its best. There were a few opportunities to participate in online international trainings, which I would not have been able to afford if they were held on a regular basis in the USA, England, etc. In addition, I had more time to monitor the players’ work at the computer, learn some nice dependencies and the impact they have on training. Fortunately, the time of full lockdown did not last long, so as soon as such an opportunity appeared, we returned to contact work with players.
Let’s go back to the players. You work with both male and female teams. Rugby 7’ and 15’ have different characteristics, and you probably work differently with men and women. How do you manage to reconcile it all?
Some people think that these varieties are completely different, but that is not the case. Certainly, if we take into account the tactical preparation, pitch space or playing time, then yes, but if we consider technical preparation, volitional and physical features of the players, there are no such huge differences. From my perspective, i.e. motor preparation, I believe that the bigger distinctions in training are due to the players’ positions in Rugby 15 (mill and attack). In fact all players in Poland playing the 7-person variant play in 15-person clubs. They are mostly attackers, because of their dominated physical features that we can use in the Olympic variant. That’s why I distinguish the motor training between players of 1-2 lines, 3 lines and attack, and here I see bigger differences and requirements. The key here may also be the individualization of training for the features that we require from a specific player. However, I always say that a well-prepared Rugby 7s player will certainly do well in a Rugby 15s, especially in attacking positions. This is not a problem for girls, because in Poland they only play the 7-person variant, so with a few exceptions their motor training looks very similar.
10 out of 12 players train every day in one club in Gdańsk. You live in Warsaw, what does your work look like on a daily basis?
There are a few more players in the team, although only 12 players are already participating in the main tournaments, but there are small rotations in the line-up. On the other hand, most of the players actually represent Ladies Gdańsk. As I work in Biała Podlaska at the local University of Physical Education, and I live in Warsaw, I cannot afford to go to Gdańsk too often, especially since I have several national teams under my care. Fortunately, the Sonda Sports system makes it easy for me to plan training, monitor the girls’ work and their progress. Thanks to the fact that the girls train with Sonda every day, I know what stage they are at, whether they manage to meet the training assumptions and the loads are appropriate. To some extent, we can also allow ourselves to individualize training to the capabilities of specific players. Of course, I cannot entrust everything only with the collected data. I try to monitor their progress in live mode as often as possible, and on a daily basis everything is coordinated by the coach of the Polish national team, Janusz Urbanowicz, and strength and conditioning coach, Jakub Wach. Such combined work is effective, and the girls, after so many years of training, are also aware of what we do and what for.
With men and women, do you pay attention to exactly the same parameters or do they differ depending on whether you are working with a 7 ‘or 15’ team?
When it comes to the men’s and women’s representations, my work with them looks completely differently. The team of girls is selected, there are 14-16 girls (most of them are from Gdańsk and they train together every day). While the team of men is much larger, and the players are from different clubs. The women’s team trains with a more organized training scheme and implements the program during joint training, bringing the elements of competition (all this is additionally monitored by the Sonda Sports system), and only individual players get a plan that must be performed at home. Meanwhile, men get a training plan for self-realization and also train in their clubs, which means I do not have full control here. But aside from this aspect, there are large anthropometric and physiological differences, not only in terms of gender, but also in terms of positions or individual predispositions. To sum up, there are many differences in planning with these representations. First of all, it depends on the level of players, or the location, as the calendar of the national team matches varies significantly. Girls play more often. I also try to take into account the individual predispositions of the player in planning, which we want to develop depending on whether the player’s advantage is speed and whether he or she can overtake opponents without any problems, or be a pillar of the mill whose main asset will be strength and stability. It is similar with the parameters that I pay attention to. I have players who, for example, achieve a high heart rate very quickly and those who, during the same training, will not rise above the resting level. That’s why I am more interested in deviations over several training sessions, when based on several parameters, you can observe, for instance, fatigue (overtraining) in individual players and then you have to react quickly. Sonda Sports introduces a small element of competition in both men and women teams. Often after a training session or a tournament there are some comparisons – who ran faster or more, who had a higher heart rate. This makes the players be aware of their specializations and also willing to improve the weak sides they have – and this naturally drives the progress in training.
What data from matches and training help you most in planning your sessions and training loads?
I am primarily interested in the heart rate ranges and speed zones in which the player was during the match, and of course whether he was able to withstand the hardships of the entire match at maximum efficiency. The players of the national team are a good example of this. They play against each other during training sessions – it is a perfect reproduction of match conditions, and thanks to this I know who needs to work harder or what to pay attention to, so to be ready for the tournaments. Such indicators as average heart rate or TRIMP are also important, because thanks to this I can plan the next training days and more or less determine how long the player will need to regenerate. I should also say that there are some parameters that show if the players really did their best on the pitch, but Rugby has no problem with that.
It is definitely a very contact and traumatic sport. Of course, there are injuries that occur when colliding with other players or the ground. But running alone there is also the risk of overuse injuries such as tendonitis and bursitis. How to minimize them?
We cannot deny the fact that it is a highly contact sport with many collisions, but here proper physical preparation also protects players from possible injuries. What we can observe is that most of these injuries are due to poor physical and technical preparation rather than some accident. Therefore, properly selected motor and preventive training to a great extent protects us against this type of injury. But the key here is to adjust the loads, because just as the lack of preparation increases the risk of injury, the same is with inappropriate and not adapted to the players training, which makes it all even worse. Here the principle of “more, harder, longer” does not work, you have to train smarter, focus on the quality of exercises and, of course, properly adjust volume and intensity. In addition, we must remember that physical preparation is only a small part of the training, players perform technical and tactical (field) training on a daily basis, which are crucial for them. Unfortunately, while with properly selected physical training we are able to some extent to control its quality, intensity and volume, in the case of field training we cannot do it with the naked eye. Thanks to the fact that we train with Sonda Sports on a daily basis, I know what loads occur during these trainings and I can easily choose the appropriate physical training, thanks to which we avoid the risk of overtraining, and thus unnecessary injuries.
As you said, depending on their position and specialization, players have very different specifics, so their physical and motor characteristics should be completely different. How does your work with players in different positions look like in practice?
The specifics of individual positions are even more complex. In fact, in 15-player rugby, the requirements for each position are completely different, but the whole motor training regimen is very similar, with some specialized elements for the players of the attack and the mill. The players of the mill are stronger and more stocky, they have more of the aerobic exercises and work with resistance, while the attacking players are more agile and faster, therefore the development of these qualities determines their training. In 7-player rugby there is not such a significant difference between the players – everyone must be agile, dynamic and prepared for anaerobic work during the match, which is why there is no distinction in the training plan. Thanks to the GPS data, I know which element every player has to work on, especially after the training camps, where the match conditions are reproduced. In the players of the mill and in the attack, in both rugby varieties I use the same training / match evaluation parameters – heart rate, speed zones, TRIMP, distance run, changes in the pace of the run – depending on the position on the pitch, playing time in the match and individual characteristics of the player. Later, I include the results in planning the next training sessions.
What are the most important conclusions that you managed to draw thanks to the GPS system and how did it translate into the players’ work and development?
The GPS system makes my work much easier when it comes to the comprehensive analysis of the effort, both for one training unit and for the entire week or microcycle. The program shows all training parameters not only in terms of one training session, but also for the entire month, so I can use the appropriate periodization of the training, control the volume and intensity of training. In addition, it allows me to adjust the training properly, any shortcomings in the preparation of the entire team or individual players, and check the progress we are making in preparation for the target event. Although I do not spend time with the players on a daily basis, we are able to work on their weaker parameters, as well as set time for regeneration when training loads are too high. Working in a group we look at the team as a whole, but many features must be considered individually. Sonda Sports allows us to do that. If I know that someone is working properly on the given parameters and then I notice significant drops, I am able to react. It is not always the result of training loads, sometimes the player simply has a bad time, including work or family problems, which is not mentioned directly. Observing and implementing individual regeneration, or reducing the load can help a player come in training. When I am there, I might be able to notice these aspects during training, although it is not so obvious, but thanks to training monitoring – the GPS data inform how the player reacts.
And how do the players themselves approach these data?
At the very beginning, they focused mainly on comparing and competing (how fast I ran, how much did I run and what my results were against the team). Later, players realized that they really need to focus on themselves, so that in every training or match they will be the best version of themselves and give their best. At the beginning, there were many questions about the individual parameters – what do they mean, what are they for, how to improve them? Now they can see how their approach to training, regeneration (fatigue) or focus affect individual parameters which make them devote their free time to training and use it effectively. That’s why I noticed that from the first training with the Sonda Sports system, they work harder. Initially because of the competition and awareness of control (because the coach will see that I am not showing my best), and now knowing that he or she cannot waste this time and have to use every minute of it.
For nearly a decade GPS technology has been used at the highest level, now it is becoming more and more available for everyone and spreading rapidly. This applies not only to the national team, but also to the clubs that until recently could not afford such an investment. How do you think this will affect the development of the discipline itself?
Such monitoring has been widely used all over the world, but here, unfortunately, we still have it at the development stage. We started with the national team, now there are a few Ekstraliga clubs that use the Sonda Sports system, so the awareness of coaches is definitely growing. We try to stick to the “more is better” scheme, and we start to work smarter and here, above all, we need this monitoring. On the pitch there is a rule of “it’s better to stand smart than run stupidly” and the same is with training. If we adjust the training for the player, choose the appropriate volume, intensity and the training period, then we will use this time much better. I think that such “smart” work allows us to fully use the players’ potential and reduces the risk of injury. I also hope that more and more clubs will start to constantly monitor their players, because it will have a big impact on the professionalization and I think that the players themselves will also be more aware of their work. And this will certainly contribute to the development of the entire discipline in Poland and its popularization, because faster and effective play is more spectacular. But to play at such high intensities, we also need to train at such intensities. This is evident in the women’s team, which begins to bravely compete with the best ones and endure the intensity of such a game. Girls do it every day, each training, each exercise is done at high intensity, they do not run unnecessary kilometers and each repetition is used to the maximum.
How do you rate the Sonda Sports system?
The technology itself, including the fact that it provides us with lots of parameters, is quite easy to use. In fact, each coach has different key parameters to focus on. I noticed that the technology and the application itself are becoming more and more user-friendly and that it has new possibilities every month. I encountered the Sonda Sport system for the first time in 2018, then I had a lot of problems to fully use the capabilities of this system and I could not quite get everything I wanted from it. Then I wrote a few remarks to the technical department and, to my surprise, all of them were introduced very quickly, thanks to which our work is much easier and we can use more things. But as you know, you can always improve something, so I am in constant contact with the technical support and the product is constantly developing, which is why I am very “friendly” with this technology 🙂 It allows me to combine my scientific development with my coaching development, because I am able to help more coaches and players at the same time. If we provide the appropriate knowledge and tools for work, then each coach will be able to use it in his own way – according to the needs of a given team. Thanks to the constant control of players during training, we will stop wasting time on unnecessary and ineffective things, because unfortunately we are not able to control the time itself.