We continue the study on athletic preparation, or rather Strength & Conditioning, in the Premiership championship with Francesco Dimundocoach of the Worcester Warriors and researcher at Birmingham City University in a project that is investigating the processes to support the Identification and Growth of Sports Talents (read the first part of the interview here).
On the other hand, how is athletic training viewed by the players?
At the professional level, athletic training is vital and the players really like it. It is nice to see that the boys, even from a young age, challenge each other in the gym and on the field in competitions of healthy camaraderie, and then for example, in the weight room, when one of them reaches the ceiling or scores a personal best, they play a bell and everyone celebrates the progress of the individual. This is part of the “head” factor, it is part of increasing group cohesion, vital in a team and even more so in a rugby team: it is part of suffering, winning and being cohesive. As players well know, however, the “heart” is not enough to be considered Premiership athletes. In fact, now in every English club, the motto “champions do extra!” Always echoes. If you are not ready to work hard, to be disciplined, to pay attention to detail, to give a measurable and tangible high quality extra, you can forget about being in the Premiership. This last concept also applies to technicians of course.
Making a comparison with Italy, however, we can say that from the point of view of athletic training we have nothing to envy to other countries. In short, it is not true that the neighbor’s grass is always greener. In fact, it is in Italy that the first concepts of strength training were born. So how is this perceived abroad?
I am fully convinced that Italy, in sport, has absolutely nothing to envy to other countries in terms of athletic training, both at national and international levels. Personally, I am proud to be an Italian strength and conditioning coach who lived abroad. Since in most cases the investment both instrumental and personnel of the Italian clubs in athletic training, touches on levels of “barely sufficient” (many of the athletic trainers in fact are even volunteers), it is evident that the Italian players really perform miracles in the field. In fact, it is to be appreciated the strength of the staff of our clubs and of the players who with fewer resources are able to achieve excellent results on the pitch. On the other hand, the Samoan and Fijian teams teach us how, even if they have zero economic resources, the quality of their training is very high. One cannot, however, not ask what is the term of comparison that some Italian strength and conditioning coaches use to evaluate the level of the quality of athletic training in Italy, of the training standards in local clubs compared to foreign teams (for example Premiership). I had the opportunity to hear of Italian colleagues who praised our work without having the slightest idea of the normal practices across the Alps. Let me explain: we should ask ourselves how we are sure that the quality of the methods used by the Italian trainers is equal to or even superior to those of the Premiership? To answer this question it would be more reasonable to know closely the characteristics that are being compared. Not having a term of comparison, and above all, not having practiced the role of strength and conditioning coach abroad, represents a factor that risks leading to conclusions that are not completely objective. Therefore, one should know both sports realities to have a clear idea of the magnitude of the differences. Once the diversity of realities is known, one should then accept one’s position and proceed to fill any qualitative gaps, in order not to risk reproducing the scenario of the famous fable of the “fox and grapes”, in which the preparer “cradles” that there is no need to put extra effort. Instead, as regards the theory of strength training, I am convinced that the teachings of Prof. Carmelo Bosco, one of the “fathers” of athletic training, must be known by every athletic trainer. However, I believe that we cannot pretend that the world of research and experimentation in athletic training has stopped forty years ago and it is therefore good to keep up with the times.
Now, however, let’s go even further into practice: which physical aspects of the players are trained most in Premiership clubs?
All physical aspects are adequately trained by Premiership clubs, since the athletic demand of rugby, described in the answer to the first question of this article, imposes high coordination and conditional qualities on the part of the players. In particular, however, the aspects of strength and power play a fundamental role in a player’s weekly training. We therefore prefer strength training from powerlifting (for example squats, deadlift, benchpress, and variants) and power training (both those of the strength-speed and speed-strength type) from the world of Olympic weightlifting (such as clean , jerk, snatch, plyometrics and variants). Sprint as well as agility are fundamental elements in rugby union and therefore all the works that aim to improve acceleration, maximum speed and endurance of sprint and directional changes are placed at the center of each training session. On the other hand, the element that unites strength, power, mass of the player and speed is very important: this is defined as the “moment of the sprint”. If strength and power are trained with specific exercises at certain workloads, the speed of the race is also trained through the improvement of the sprint technique, the player’s mass, on the other hand, must necessarily be trained with specific techniques that aim at muscle hypertrophy. The muscle growth process must then be supported by the individualized nutritional plan. The centrality of this point represents the key to raising the success of a team. Interesting scientific research just published by our team shows, in fact, how the high level of lean mass of a player is strongly correlated to the level of rugby in which he plays. In a nutshell, the teams with the biggest and fastest muscular players are the teams that play at the highest levels of national and international rugby. Clearly, agility, changes of direction and aerobic and anaerobic capacity are physical characteristics that Premiership players train using specific training methods that are structured in a calibrated daily, weekly, monthly and annual schedule and are differentiated by roles.
What methodologies do they use most in the Premiership to recruit strength and conditioning personnel?
Above all, competence and professionalism. A proven academic track record, international qualifications and years of field experience. To these are added, as I have already said, inter and intra personal characteristics which are fundamental for being a reliable Leader. Their theory in recruiting is simple: if you want to take the athlete group to high levels, you have to start recruiting competent staff – something that is not taken for granted nowadays in other European realities.
To conclude, from your experience with the two Premiership clubs (Wasps and Worcester Warriors) what is the advice you would like to give to those who already work in athletic training or who are embarking on the path of coach in rugby?
I would explicitly suggest what they have always advised me and which I constantly report to my university students and trainees: always keep up-to-date, professionally practice what you “preach” and, above all, read articles that report international studies, research and experiments. Always remember that if you want to train elite players you have to train as an elite. Updating is extremely important in the field of athletic training because our work has the beauty of serving as a bridge between science and practice, so if science advances every year, practice must adapt too. In general, one should be convinced of the idea that a good player is not automatically also a good manager. It is necessary to reply to a coach who prescribes training on the basis of “it has always been done like this, I always trained like this” that sporting practice at an international level is the result of past experience in addition to advanced scientific knowledge. The training course never ends but is constantly updated. In conclusion, therefore, I would suggest that we are happy to be the first to know the news of the sector and to put them into practice. Constant discussion with colleagues and the desire to improve should be the engine that pushes us to do our (complex) job well.