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The strength exhibited by Canadian Nanyak Dala, centre, surrounded by New Zealand Maori All Blacks defenders, isn’t gained easily or quickly in the gym. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
The strength exhibited by Canadian Nanyak Dala, centre, surrounded by New Zealand Maori All Blacks defenders, isn’t gained easily or quickly in the gym. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

The Inner Competitor

The six keys to a perfect rugby body (and mind) Add to ...

Building the perfect rugby player is a tall order. Not only do they have to be fleet of foot, but he or she needs the physical capacity to power through tackles, the endurance to cover huge swaths of ground, all the while withstanding injury while opponents attempt to drive them into the mud by fair means or foul.

For those wanting to improve their standing as a rugby player, or in any recreational discipline, a word of warning: Take it slowly. A lot of people want to get out there and train like an Olympic athlete when they’ve been largely inactive for years and end up disappointed, either because they become too sore to move the day after or because they suck it up and annihilate their muscles even further.

“You want to stimulate [your body], whether it’s muscle growth or fat loss or whatever your goal is and allow your body to adapt, give it the time it needs to do that and stimulate it again,” says Matt Nichol, former strength coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs and current trainer of a number of professional athletes. “But I think some people [think] if something is good then more is better and that doesn’t work out for many people.”

Tyler Goodale, senior strength and conditioning coach at the Canadian Sports Institute in Victoria, works with a number of Rugby Canada’s players in both the sevens and 15s programs. He says to truly excel, players need to accentuate their abilities in the following six areas:

Speed

Speed is in my opinion the No. 1 important physical characteristic. Running speed is extremely important in both codes, 15s and sevens – sevens even more so than 15s. Players really want to manipulate time and space and the faster you are, the better able you are to do that and the better you can put your opponent under pressure.

Strength

The reality is in rugby there’s a contact element and you have to be able to not only produce force but you have to be able to absorb it. That means you have to be able to exert your physical will either at the breakdown, set piece, or in contact, but then you’re going to have to absorb other people’s physical contact.

Aerobic capacity

Just as speed is even more important in sevens than it is in 15s, aerobic fitness is even more important in sevens than it is in 15s, the pace of the game in sevens is almost double that of what it is in 15s. So even though the games are much shorter, the athletes have to work at such a higher rate per minute it’s just so much more metabolically taxing than 15s is.

Resilience

You can’t injury-proof anybody. But what you can do is try to minimize the risk of injury, and you can definitely minimize the risk of chronic injury. You can’t do a ton for a broken bone. But you can make a person fitter because if they’re fitter they make better decisions, and if they make better decisions they’ll be in better positions on the field, and if they’re in better positions on the field they might not be in the kind of bad position to have their leg broken.

Unlike in American football, rugby players are their own suit of armour. So the stronger you are and if we can increase your muscularity, we’re increasing your padding as well. So that’s one thing that’s really unique to rugby because there aren’t a lot of other contact sports where if you look in North America, you’ve got American football, you’ve got hockey, they’re wearing armour. Rugby, they’re wearing no armour.

Mental toughness

This isn’t necessarily in the traditional sense of the word like a Marine Corps drill sergeant, but really being an intellectual athlete in understanding how a strong mind and a strong mindset will support everything you try to do from a physical perspective. The same thing you’re seeing in the business world with things like mindfulness and breath work and the like becoming popular with high-powered executives has a huge transfer to the high-performance sports world.

Where physical abilities really transfer to the game is you want to help the athletes do a couple of things. Make better decisions so they’re physically able to make better decisions because their body can do what their mind is asking them to do, and they stay fresh because they’re fit and fitness is huge when it comes to decision-making. Try to do a word puzzle rested then do hard conditioning session and try to do that same word puzzle. It’s tricky and it’s the same thing when fatigue creeps in on the field.

Combat sports

I think combat sports are beneficial for a couple of reasons. One, they obviously teach the athlete to deal with contact; it helps them learn how to manipulate another person’s body mass. Typically we do elements of wrestling and judo and the like to help them, but you could expand this to anybody, whether it’s boxing or jujitsu, wrestling, whatever it may be because not only does it transfer to the mind it gives a real big boost to your physical confidence. I really like combat for athletes because to me it’s three-dimensional chess. It’s a whole different level of thinking; it’s a very tangible [example] about how the physical trains the mind.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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