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This Notes From article is brought to you by Gemma Bridge and Cédric Leduc. Gemma is a PhD candidate at Leeds Beckett University, studying the role of the state and commerce in the healthy eating debate. She shares thoughts on her research on her blog; Musings of a PhD student. Cédric is also a PhD candidate at Leeds Beckett, investigating sleep, recovery and fatigue in rugby players.

Details of the overall schedule, the insights into recent studies parallel sessions, and the insights into future studies parallel sessions can be found on the Leeds Beckett website. For further information and pictures from the event, check out @CARR_LBU on Twitter or search for #CARR19.

The Carnegie Adolescent Applied Research group, as it was called, was initially launched in 2014 by Leeds Beckett Professors, Kevin Till and Ben Jones. At the launch, the group was composed of only 5 PhD students, all of whom were conducting research with adolescent rugby players. Five years and over 100 peer review publications later, the group has expanded massively and was recently relaunched and renamed as the Carnegie Applied Rugby Research Centre (CARR), reflecting the number of those involved, and the diverse research activities.

On April 6th 2019, rugby coaches, sport scientists, academics and students gathered for the fourth annual CARR conference to share research and best practice across both rugby codes. The conference, organised by Leeds Beckett University, included speakers from leading international researchers in the field, to PhD students and practitioners currently working with athletes at various levels. Here we provide you with the key messages of the conference, as well as a summary of current and future research conducted by the ever expanding CARR centre.

Keynote 1: Dr Anthony Turner, Middlesex University

In the first keynote of the conference, Dr Turner presented: Building a high-performance model for sport: a human development-centred approach (HDCA). Unlike existing models, which can ensure efficiency and opportunity for achieving success but over-simplify the process into data-driven steps, while ignoring the individual athlete, and the necessity of a shared vision within a team, the HDCA takes into consideration more of the complex factors involved in team sports, helping to ensure complexity is embraced. Turner argued that the HDCA should be embraced by sports teams as the approach can not only ensure that the team is united through the shared vision but can also provide a rationale for why a sporting program exists. Instead of solely focussing on winning games, the model promotes consideration of the whole athlete, ensuring that the health and well-being of the individual is not ignored. Turner finished by asking the audience to consider the purpose and vision of their team when making decisions to ensure better performance outcomes, and improved athlete wellbeing.

Presentation 1: Dr Padraic Phibbs, Leeds Beckett University and Yorkshire Carnegie

The recently titled Dr Phibbs took to the stage to present: Embracing the Chaos: Understanding the complex training and competition demands of youth rugby union. Dr Phibbs described the chaotic schedule of training, competition and academics for youth players. This chaos can make it hard to assess the demands that are placed on players. However, it is important to consider demands because not doing so can increase injury risk and stress for youth players. Phibbs discussed the potential methods of measuring load, considering the pros and cons of different methods to collect RPE. He concluded by stating that youth rugby is inevitably chaotic, but that by being organised, ensuring players are open about their schedules, and communicating with the coaches, it is possible to protect the players and ensure continued athletic development.

Parallel Session 1: Insights into Recent Studies

To allow for as much current research as possible from the CARR centre to be presented during this one-day conference, two parallel presentation sessions were held during the event. The first of these sessions saw members of the multidisciplinary CARR centre team present current work, covering topics such as quantification of training load, injury risk reduction and enhancing athlete support.

Understanding and Optimising Performance

Dr Jason Tee kicked off the session with his presentation: Within-match pacing in collision sports. Dr Tee explained that pacing within a game is complex and not solely related to fatigue. Instead the distribution of energy resources such as fuel availability, physiological factors such as temperature, and perceived bout length all play a part in the pacing tactics used by players. Tee’s key take home message was for coaches to always give players a clear indication of play length as this is a simple way of enhancing play intensity.

Up next was Kevin Shattock presenting: A comparison of velocity based training versus Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)/Repetitions in Reserve (RIR) based intensity methodology on measures of strength, power & speed in men’s senior rugby union. Shattock described the benefits and drawbacks of each method concluding that, due to the necessity of familiarisation, RIR-based scales should be used for training when the players are well accustomed, even though they are arguably more subjective.

Talk then moved to tackle height with Dr Greg Tierney’s presentation: The effect of tackle height on head impact and inertial head loading in rugby union. In this emotive presentation Tierney described the prevalence of concussive events within rugby union; explaining how repeated concussions can increase the risk of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). More recently, Tierney explained, sub-concussion (i.e. non direct head impacts) could also increase the risk of CTE. In order to investigate what could be done to reduce concussive events, Tierney conducted a novel study using model-based image matching to assess tackle height. Results suggested that lowering the tackle height could reduce inertial head kinematics by up to 60% for the ball carrier, and also reduce head impact risk for the tackler.

Reflecting one of the key themes of the conference, complexity, Nick Dalton-Barron presented a systematic review about contextual factors influencing running demands in Rugby League. Dalton-Barron described the findings of the review, and explained why it is important to consider complexity when assessing match demands. He explained that the use of appropriate statistical methods such as computer modelling can make the process easier and the data collected more robust.

Cédric Leduc was up next introducing his novel ‘invisible’ technique for monitoring fatigue in rugby union. This intriguing study used GPS technology to measure fatigue during a standardised warm up. This, Leduc explained, could be implemented in order to reduce player reluctance to take part in monitoring, improve coach buy-in, and also enable more time for communication between sports science practitioners and coaches.

Quantifying Match and Training Characteristics

Dr Dan Weaving kick-started this parallel session with a presentation of the study titled: The relationship between contextual player motion and technical-tactical performance in professional rugby league players. Dr Weaving outlined the observed relationships between motion completed in specific areas of the field and attacking and defending performance in professional rugby league players. He went on to explain the potential impact the results of this study could have for practitioners and coaches, for example by helping to filter which variables to monitor to ensure players are exposed to these higher motions during tech-tact training.

Sarah Whitehead then took to the stage and presented: Seeing the wood for the trees; the difference between senior and academy rugby league match-play using machine learning techniques. Research often utilises inappropriate analysis that fails to take into account the complexity of data. To improve outcomes, Sarah and her team, devised an innovative study that used machine learning techniques to determine which performance indicators (PI) could be used to best discriminate between academy and senior level competition. Findings suggest that random forest classification can accurately distinguish between academy and senior league match-play at one club, and that a combination of PI is important. Such findings provide coaches and practitioners with a manageable number of PI upon which to focus on developing during training, in order to aid appropriate progression through the playing pathway.

Presenting a second study from her PhD, Sarah Whitehead took to the stage again. This collaborative study, involving nine clubs across the U19 European Super League Academy Championship, aimed to first quantify the duration-specific peak average running speeds of Academy level rugby league match-play and then compare the duration-specific peak average running speeds between specific positions. Sarah described the novel findings, explaining the range of positioning differences observed, such as the fact that outside backs were found to be faster than forward positional groups. She also explained the relevance for coaches and practitioners for example how the peak average running speeds identified can be used for prescription of training.

Dr Dan Weaving began his second presentation: Acute dose-response relationships between training load and the musculoskeletal response in elite rugby league players by describing the training process. Then, Weaving described how they investigated the relationship between external load and fatigue over a short period of time (2 to 7 days), using a reductionist approach. They found that the musculoskeletal response appears to be related to the interaction between the total distance covered in the previous 2-3 days and the VT2IFT distance (i.e. high-speed) covered in the previous 6-7 days. Individual differences, as well as other factors that were not accounted for (e.g. recovery strategies, nutrition, collision load) were suggested to contribute to the individual differences in musculoskeletal response. Such findings could help coaches and practitioners to prepare players appropriately for match-play.

Enhancing Athlete Support

Dr Carlos Ramirez introduced the U18 Six Nations project, which involved the investigation and measurement of recovery kinetics and sleep behaviours of athletes, using a variety of methods. The results of the project were varied but suggested that well-being measures could be a sensitive tool for measuring fatigue. The results also identified that full recovery following match-play during this period takes approximately 72 hours. Such findings can be used by practitioners to plan training and competition during future Six Nation competitions.

Sarah Chantler reviewed the effect of exercise on gut damage and gut permeability in sport, via an in-depth meta-analysis. She explained that exercise can induce damage and increase permeability of the gut, an effect that is increased in the heat.

Tom Geeson-Brown presented findings from a recent study investigating the differences in body composition by position, age and standard in rugby league and rugby union. Findings from this research could help practitioners ensure players are prepared for match-play, as compared to others in the league.

Tom Sawczuk spoke about his recent study which aimed to predict illness using salivary IgA in youth athletes. He discussed the relationships between perceptual and biological responses to training in youth athletes. Such findings could help to monitor well-being in an efficient and effective way.

Optimising Strength and Conditioning

Dr Phibbs presented initial results of his current project conducted in collaboration with the RFU, in which the physical and anthropometric measures across all the Rugby Union academies in UK were assessed. Phibbs described the differences across the academies, thus giving practitioners an idea of where their teams are within the league.

Ben Nicholson discussed his systematic review with meta-analysis, which identified the strengths and limitations of different training methods for developing linear sprint performance in football code athletes.

Matt Ireton presented the relationships between physical qualities and movement ability with tackle ability in academy rugby league players. He found that the ability to produce large forces in a pulling motion appears beneficial in skills associated with tackle completion, which reinforces the necessity to develop muscular strength.

Dr Josh Darrall-Jones from Wasp Rugby presented the results of a study investigating the validity and reliability of a device used to measure eccentric hamstring force. He described how this device may have a small mean bias, as well as a moderate typical error of estimate. Despite this, the data from the device were of a similar level of reliability to other devices already used in the literature.

Presentation 2: Dr Gregory Roe, Leeds Beckett University and Bath Rugby

After several presenters had described the complexities and challenges of working in a team sport environment, discussion turned to how research could help practitioners. However, as discussed by Dr Gregory Roe in his presentation: The Challenges of Applying Research to Optimise Practice, the application of research can present a new set of challenges. Roe stated that selecting the appropriate scientific epistemology for research is a practitioner’s nightmare since there are caveats to all methodologies. He explained this through a discussion of lab research vs field research. He started with the pros and cons of lab research, arguing that although such controlled research is interesting, due to the variations between individuals, and sporting contexts, such research may not be transferable to practice. At the other end of the spectrum is field research, which has good ecological validity but due to the number of potential confounding variables, it may lack scientific rigor. Roe concluded the presentation by arguing that a range of methods should be considered, any findings should be scrutinised before being applied, and experts should be consulted before any changes are implemented.

Presentation 3: Professor Ben Jones

Continuing the discussion started by Roe, Professor Ben Jones took to the stage and presented: Integrating research within sport; Understanding physical qualities, injury risk, match demands and performance. In yet another engaging and relevant talk, Professor Ben Jones described how current CARR centre research is being successfully applied in order to support training and performance for a range of teams. In a similar way to Roe, Professor Jones highlighted the necessity of scrutinising research findings, and the importance of considering theory when analysing data. Jones described how through scrutinising findings, referring to the literature and talking to experts in the field, the CARR centre has been able to build a bridge between research and practice, helping practitioners to work effectively and successfully.

To evidence this, Jones introduced the Injury Monitoring And Physical Profiling support system project (IMAPP), which was developed collaboratively by the Rugby Football League and the England Rugby League. The project, which is using the biggest data set ever collected in sport science, aims to maximise player development, potential and welfare. The system which was developed with practitioners and athletes in mind, involves rapid data collection, simple data input and automated individualised reporting. The IMAPP system, Jones described, should help to improve injury monitoring, reduce injury prevalence and thus improve overall team outcomes.

Parallel Session 2: Insights into Future Studies

The second parallel session of the day provided delegates with an idea of what research to expect from the CARR centre in the coming months. For further information about future work, please see Table 1 below.

Table 1. Insights into Future Studies

Quantifying Match and Training Characteristics

A continuously important topic for coaches and practitioners is how best to quantify the characteristics of match-play and training in order to understand what it takes to win. To help shed some light on this, a range of studies are being planned by the CARR centre. For example, Sarah Whitehead is planning to investigate the physical and technical-tactical performance factors across European Super League match-play in order to understand what it takes to win.

Ryan White, a recent addition to the CARR team presented his future study that will aim to identify frequent movement patterns during game. The findings of these future studies may help coaches to prescribe training, to prepare youth players and to develop coaching systems, amongst other things. 

Understanding and Reducing Injury

Future studies to understand and reduce injury risk where presented in this parallel session. Richard Partner, who is in the process of developing a contact and collision sport shoulder tool using a Delphi method, presented his ideas and possible implications for coaches. Such a tool could help to assess injury risk and identify thresholds of dysfunction to improve return to play metrics. Jason Tee also proposed research for injury prevention. He explained that because injury is complex and every team and individual is different, it is important to consider a range of factors and measures to reduce injury risk, and that these measures must be context specific.

Optimising Strength and Conditioning Practices

In this session on optimising strength and conditioning practices, we sawCédric Leduc present his study on the sleep patterns of rugby union players across age groups. Leduc explained that sleep is an essential element of recovery but as yet is not well explored. Using survey measures and actiwatches, Leduc aims to describe sleep patterns in order to aid the understanding of the relationship between sleep and fatigue, and to develop effective interventions to improve sleep behaviours of players. Cameron Owen presented another future study, in which he and his team aim to assess the physical qualities of academy Rugby Union players in order to improve understanding and further guide training interventions.

Nutrition and Psychology Support

In this final parallel session, a range of future studies aimed at improving nutrition and psychology support for athletes were presented. Lucy Chesson presented her ideas for how to better monitor and reduce illness amongst rugby players. Chesson described why this is important since illness is higher in rugby than in other team sports. She proposed that improving and developing current strategies could help to reduce illness and therefore, improve performance in professional rugby league. Andrew Jenkinson, one of the only non-rugby researchers of the day, presented ideas for future research to assess energy intake and expenditure objectively in professional football players. Such findings could help nutrition practitioners to better develop nutrition interventions for players to improve recovery and performance.

Presentation 4a: Professor Kevin Till, Leeds Beckett University, Leeds Rhinos and Yorkshire Carnegie

In the 4th presentation of the day, talk turned to decision making. Professor Till presented: Coach Decision Making: An integrated approach to your planning. He described the challenge of knowing how best to prioritise strength work and when to prioritise on field training for coaches. To reduce the challenge, Till emphasised the importance of planning for the short and long term, using a range of metrics. The effectiveness of planning has been emphasised by serial winning coaches. Till concluded that although research and evidence can help, planning must always be context specific.

Presentation 4b: Dr Dan Weaving, Dr Shaun McLaren and Nick Dalton-Barron

In this interactive session titled: Managing and analysing performance data, the presenters began by describing the data journey, and highlighting some of the challenges that practitioners can face. They explained the best ways to deal with data, from collection to presentation, in order to reduce inaccuracies and to ensure that valid conclusions can be drawn.

Key note 2: Dr Mike Hislop, World Rugby

Dr Hislop described how World Rugby is improving the safety of rugby for athletes, titled: Did it, Done it, Doing it tomorrow: World Rugby’s approach to make the game safer. Hislop argued that professionals have an important role to play in managing the health of the athlete, but that this can be difficult considering the complexities of sport. However, Hislop explained that advancements in technologies can help and have assisted coaches and support teams in their efforts to continuously monitor and manage athlete health and performance.

Closing Remarks

This interactive and highly relevant conference saw researchers from the CARR centre and beyond present their current and future research. Key themes included the complexities of the sporting environment, the importance of embracing this complexity and working together, and the necessity to ensure research is applicable to the sport and team in question. We look forward to the next CARR conference, and seeing more fantastic research from this diverse team in the future.