During the past few years technology has started to play an increasingly important role in the search for the competitive edge and for optimising player management. This section describes a few examples of what is being used and what may become prevalent in the future.
Global Positioning Systems (GPS)
The concept of GPS has been around for a while, but only during the past two years has its use become prevalent in rugby. The purpose is to scrutinise matches and training sessions to better understand the type and intensity of movements that players are being exposed to, allowing coaches to better understand the demands of training so they can plan sessions that specifically address the demands of the game.
Some coaches like the big brother concept of GPS, whereby players know they are being monitored and work harder as a result.
The great benefit of using GPS units during training is the ability to accurately monitor players’ training effort, push players to an optimal level of work duration and intensity, and simulate match scenarios.
The benefits of GPS are maximised when teams are provided dispensation by the International Rugby Board (IRB) to wear the units during matches. This is already happening in the English Premiership, where a joint venture between Chester University and the RFU is generating fascinating data on the demands of the game. This is allowing coaches, medical professionals and sport scientists to fine-tune preparation and injury prevention strategies. Players are also keen to see how far and how fast they have run.
Player Monitoring and Management Software
The increasing amount and variety of data that teams are collecting have led to the creation of software packages and websites that examine these data. For example, at www.rugbytrain.com, players enter well-being data such as sleep quality, injury history and perceived energy levels plus training and game load feedback. Coaches and players can access these data at the press of a button to review player status, monitor the effects of training and predict the chances of injury. The system also facilitates the creation of communication pathways for managing training schedules and caters to virtual coaching (e.g., sending important updates and individual player messages).
The assessment of body fat via skinfold measurement is useful but is often subject to measurement error. A gold standard for assessing body composition analysis is dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA). This system separates the body into fat, bone and lean mass while also calculating data about the arms and legs.
A major benefit of DXA is its ability to measure lean mass and the differences between limbs. Players can set targets for fat loss and muscle gain, and DXA scans can be used to assess their progress.
DXA scans can be used to compare measures between the start and end of pre-season, thereby assessing the effect of this phase of concentrated complete conditioning on body composition. Another key question answerable via DXA scanning is how the in-season phase of the year affects player body composition. As competition takes priority and players are exposed to greater levels of physical contact, it is important to ascertain whether they are experiencing significant losses in muscle mass.
Virtual reality is fast becoming a way to enhance complete conditioning by creating realistic simulations of a rugby environment with audio, tactile and other forms of feedback.
The CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) is an advanced system for immersive virtual reality that was developed at the University of Michigan. Researchers and coaches are using the CAVE to simulate the American football stadium environment and exposing players to specific aspects of a game to enhance visual perception (e.g., estimate distances, enhance awareness of other players and speed up reactions). In the future, rugby teams likely will employ this type of technology as well.
Portable Testing Devices
Accurately measuring the health and fitness of players to determine whether they are ready to train or peak for performance are gold dust to coaches. This knowledge can also enhance player longevity, which is high on the agenda given the increasing injury rates and demands of the sport.
One device that has been used for such measurement is the Omegawave Sport Technology System. This system monitors the function of multiple biological systems and provides a comprehensive picture of changes in athletes as they respond to training, life choices and emotional stress. The assessments are non-invasive, are mostly done at rest and can be performed anywhere in as little as two minutes. As a result, athletes can be tested as often as desired.
The Omegawave system is based on a deep scientific understanding of human responses to physical and mental stress. It assesses the functional state of the organs and systems (cardiovascular, metabolic, neurohumoral, neuromuscular and sensorimotor) that either define or limit physical work capacity.
The system generates a report that identifies any limiting factors that may need to be taken into consideration when planning the day’s training activities. It is also helpful for determining the cumulative effect of past workouts.