Team sport coaches commonly use small-sided games in the training environment to provide a ‘game-like’ training stimulus to players (7). Given the low incidence of injury and that the greatest improvements in performance occur when training mimics the demands of competition, small-sided games are viewed as a safe and effective method of replicating (and exceeding) the physiological demands of competition, while also providing an opportunity for skill to transfer to a competitive environment (4,7).
Several studies have investigated the utility of small-sided games in the team sport environment (5,6,14,15). Of these studies, the majority have revealed that small-sided games are associated with lower injury rates than are traditional conditioning activities (e.g., running without the ball) (9,11), elicit similar heart rate responses (10) and changes in fitness to traditional conditioning activities (17,18), and effectively simulate the physiological demands of competition (10). More recently, researchers have investigated the effect of various rule changes (e.g., changing field size and player numbers) and coach feedback on the physiological and skill demands of small-sided games (13,16,19,20). Increasing field size and coach feedback and decreasing player numbers resulted in a greater volume of skill involvements (i.e., ‘touches’) (20). Collectively, these results demonstrate that appropriate manipulation of constraints (e.g., rules, field size, player numbers, coach feedback) increase the likelihood of players receiving an adequate training stimulus to enhance performance.
Rugby league and rugby union are team sports played throughout several countries worldwide. In rugby league and rugby union, each team may perform up to 300 tackles per game (2,13), with static lifting, scrums, and mauls also placing considerable demands on players (2). Consequently, the physiological demands of the rugby codes are significantly increased through the large amounts of tackling, wrestling, grappling, and physical collisions that occur during match play (10). Although small-sided games are commonly used as training tools in these sports, games that are solely based on running are likely to result in players being underprepared for the most demanding passages of play (i.e., sprinting, tackling, and wrestling) that occur in competition. One method of simulating the most demanding passages of play is to intermittently integrate wrestling periods throughout the small-sided game. However, although integrating wrestling periods into conditioning activities may facilitate the development of repeated-effort ability and a resistance to the fatigue associated with the grappling, pushing, and pulling tasks that occur during competition, it also has the potential to restrict the running loads of the small-sided game. Furthermore, an increased emphasis on wrestling as a conditioning tool may hinder skill development, restricting the number of skill involvements, passing, and decision-making opportunities. To date, no study has determined what, if any, effect the introduction of wrestling has on the physiological and skill demands of small-sided games. With this in mind, the purpose of this study was to investigate the influence of wrestling on the physiological and skill demands of small-sided games.
Experimental Approach to the Problem
The physiological and skill demands of small-sided games, with and without intermittent wrestling were investigated in elite rugby league players using a within-subjects crossover study design. We hypothesized that small-sided games without wrestling would elicit greater running demands and a greater volume of skill executions (i.e., “touches”) than do small-sided games with intermittent wrestling.
Twenty-eight elite male rugby league players ([mean ± SE] age, 21.6 ± 0.5 years) participated in this study. The players were members of a National Rugby League squad. Testing was performed in the precompetitive phase of the season after the players had completed a 3-month preseason skills and conditioning program. All the participants were in peak physical condition and free from injury at the time of testing. The participants were requested to abstain from strenuous physical exercise for 72 hours before testing. All the participants were given a clear explanation of the study, including information on the risks and benefits, and written consent was obtained. The Institutional Review Board for Human Investigation approved all experimental procedures.
This study was completed over 2 training sessions, performed 5 days apart. Two ‘off-side’ small-sided games, with or without intermittent wrestling, were played in each session. The players were separated into 4 teams of 7 players. On day 1, 2 teams played two 8-minute small-sided games without wrestling, whereas the remaining 2 teams played the small-sided games with intermittent wrestling. Each game was separated by 90 seconds. On day 2, the groups were crossed over. Small-sided games were played in a standardized (40-m-wide × 70-m-long) playing area. The ‘off-side’ game permitted players to have 2 ‘plays’ while in possession of the ball. The players were permitted to pass backward or forward (to an ‘off-side’ player). For each play, defending players were required to touch their opponent with 2 hands. For the small-sided game with intermittent wrestling, all rules were identical to those of the small-sided game without wrestling; however, at random periods throughout the game, the players were required to wrestle a partner for approximately 5 seconds. The players were encouraged to provide maximal effort and wrestle their partner to the ground. Although all of the players received coaching on wrestling techniques, these techniques were tailored to the specific demands of rugby league and were designed for players to gain control of their opponent and to lever and pin their opponent into a submissive position. In this respect, the wrestling periods employed grappling, pushing, and pulling tasks that were similar in nature to the demands of a rugby league tackle. Although there is a risk of injury when incorporating physical contact and wrestling into conditioning activities, we have previously shown that the incidence of injuries sustained in these types of activities (6.4 per 10,000 collisions) is relatively low (8). A total of 8 wrestling periods were performed throughout each 8-minute game (for a total of 16 wrestling periods). All other rules, including the field dimensions, numbers of players (7 vs. 7), duration, and coach encouragement were identical between conditions.
Movement was recorded by a global positioning system (GPS) unit (miniMaxX, Catapult Innovations, Melbourne, Australia) sampling at 5 Hz. The GPS signal provided information on speed, distance, position, and acceleration. The GPS unit also included triaxial accelerometers and gyroscopes sampling at 100 Hz, to provide greater accuracy on speed and acceleration and information on physical contact and repeated high-intensity efforts. The unit was worn in a small vest, on the upper back of the players.
Data were categorized into (a) discrete acceleration bands, corresponding to mild (0.55–1.11 m·s−2), moderate (1.12–2.78 m·s−2), and maximal (≥2.79 m·s−2) accelerations (1); (b) discrete movement velocity bands, corresponding to very low (0–1 m·s−1), low (1–3 m·s−1), moderate (3–5 m·s−2), high (5–7 m·s−1), and very-high (> 7 m·s−1) velocities; (c) recovery between efforts, corresponding to short (<30 seconds), moderate (30 seconds to 2 minutes), and long (>2 minutes) recovery; and (d) repeated high-intensity effort bouts. A repeated high-intensity effort bout was defined as ≥3 high acceleration, high velocity, or wrestling efforts with <21 seconds of recovery between efforts (21). High correlations (r = 0.99) and low coefficients of variation (1.2–1.7%) have been reported between GPS measurements of speed and actual speeds determined by chronometry (22). In addition, GPS technology has been shown to offer a valid and reliable method of detecting isolated sprints and repeated-sprints commonly observed in team sports (3). We have also found the minimaxX units to offer a valid measurement of tackles and repeated efforts commonly observed in collision sports (8).
Volume of Skill Executions
A 37-mm digital video camera (Sony, DCR-TRV 950E, Nagasaki, Japan) was used to track the performance of the players. Post hoc inspection of the footage was undertaken to count the number of possessions and the number and quality of disposals. The intraclass correlation coefficient and coefficient of variation for the coding of skill involvements ranged from 0.90 to 0.99 and 0.2 to 0.5%, respectively.
Differences in the physiological demands and volume of skill executions between the ‘intermittent wrestle’ and ‘no wrestle’ conditions were compared using a 2-way group (wrestle − no wrestle) × task (game 1 − game 2) analysis of variance (ANOVA). Minute-by-minute differences in the physiological demands and volume of skill executions between the ‘intermittent wrestle’ and ‘no wrestle’ conditions were compared using a repeated measures (group × task × time) ANOVA. The level of significance was set at p ≤ 0.05, and all data are reported as mean ± SE.
The games without wrestling resulted in a greater (p < 0.05) total distance covered, relative distance, and distance covered in low, moderate, high, and very-high velocity movement intensities. Conversely, the games with wrestling resulted in significantly greater (p < 0.05) distance covered in mild, moderate, and maximal accelerations, a greater number of repeated high-intensity effort bouts, and greater distance covered at very low movement velocities. There was also a significantly (p < 0.05) fewer number of short duration recovery periods between efforts in the games with wrestling (Table 1).
When expressed as a percentage of total distance covered, the games with intermittent wrestling had a significantly greater (p < 0.05) distance covered in very low (5.9 ± 0.2 vs. 2.8 ± 0.2%) and low (42.9 ± 0.8 vs. 37.6 ± 0.7%) velocity movement intensities and significantly less (p < 0.05) distance covered at moderate (38.2 ± 1.1 vs. 45.2 ± 0.9%) velocity movement intensities (Figure 1). No significant differences (p > 0.05) were detected for the percentage of distance covered at high and very-high movement velocities.
In comparison with game 1, significant reductions (p < 0.05) occurred in the total distance covered, relative distance (Figure 2), distance covered in moderate, and high velocity efforts, and distance covered in mild acceleration efforts. There were also significantly fewer (p < 0.05) short duration recovery periods in game 2 than in game 1.
Volume of Skill Executions
No significant differences (p > 0.05) were detected between games with and without wrestling for the total number of involvements (“touches”), receives, passes, effective passes, ineffective passes, and disposal efficiency (Table 2; Figure 2). In addition, no significant differences (p > 0.05) were detected between game 1 and game 2 for any of the skill variables.
The number of players experiencing <20 total involvements was greater in the games with intermittent wrestling (N = 4, 14.3%) than in the games without wrestling (N = 0). The number of players experiencing >40 total involvements was greater in the games without wrestling (N = 4, 14.3%) than in the games with wrestling (N = 0). Over 85% of the participants (N = 24) had between 21 and 40 total involvements for both the games with and without wrestling (Figure 3).
The purpose of this study was to investigate the influence of wrestling on the physiological and skill demands of small-sided games. The results of this study demonstrate that intermittent wrestling reduces the running demands but increases the repeated high-intensity effort demands of small-side games. Furthermore, these physiological changes occur without compromising the volume of skill executions, the number of errors, or disposal efficiency. These findings suggest that intermittent wrestling may be a useful supplement to small-sided games to concurrently train repeated-effort ability and skills under game-specific fatigue.
This study is the first to compare 2 commonly used approaches with game-based training in the rugby codes. The first set of 2 games employed ‘off-side’ rules without wrestling, whereas the second set of 2 games were identical, apart from intermittent wrestling periods integrated throughout. The results of this study demonstrate that the addition of wrestling to small-sided games results in significant reductions in running loads. Indeed, the games played with intermittent wrestling were associated with significantly lower total distance covered, which occurred because of the lower distance covered at low, moderate, high, and very-high movement velocities. Significantly greater distances were covered at very low-intensity movement velocities during the games involving wrestling. In agreement with the finding of higher absolute running volumes in games without wrestling, the relative distances covered during the games with wrestling (i.e., distance covered in each movement velocity as a proportion of total distance covered) tended to be greater at low movement velocities (i.e., very low, and low intensities) and smaller at moderate movement velocities. Clearly, these results demonstrate that if absolute or relative running intensity and distance covered in a session is of relevance, then small-sided games that employ high running loads and do not employ intermittent wrestling should be a priority.
Although intermittent wrestling was associated with lower running loads, these activities also recorded fewer short recovery periods, a greater number of mild, moderate, and maximal acceleration efforts, and more repeated high-intensity effort bouts than games that did not employ wrestling. High-intensity, intermittent team sports (e.g., soccer, field hockey, and Australian football) are characterized by high running loads, and the ability to perform prolonged high-intensity running is also important in collision sports (e.g., rugby union, rugby league, and American football). However, collision sports are also characterized by short duration, effortful sprints, followed by short recovery periods (2). In addition, the ability or inability to perform repeated high-intensity efforts is thought to be critical to match outcome in collision sports (21). Despite the lower running loads in the games with intermittent wrestling, the higher number of repeated high-intensity effort bouts, mild, moderate, and maximal acceleration efforts, accompanied by the greater proportion of short recovery periods, may suggest that small-sided games with intermittent wrestling offer a more specific training stimulus for collision sport athletes than do small-sided games without wrestling.
Although intermittent wrestling reduced the running loads in the small-sided games, no significant differences were observed between wrestling and no wrestling games for the volume of skill involvements. Indeed, the volume of skill executions, the number of effective and ineffective passes, total errors, and disposal efficiency were similar between wrestling and no wrestling conditions. These findings may suggest that despite the added physiological cost of wrestling and the reduced ball-in-play time (because of the multiple 5 second wrestling periods), players adapt to these constraints by producing faster ball movement and maintained skill execution. However, we cannot eliminate the possibility that an emphasis on high running loads during small-sided games without wrestling limits skill development opportunities.
No significant group differences were detected for the volume of skill involvements (i.e., “touches”). In addition, >85% of the participants had between 21 and 40 “touches” during the small-sided games, irrespective of whether the game included wrestling. However, small-sided games that included intermittent wrestling were associated with a high proportion of players (N = 4, 14.3%) involved in few skill involvements and no players associated with a high number of skill involvements. From a skill acquisition perspective, clearly a balance must be reached between gaining an adequate number of “touches” to improve passing and catching skills, while also providing a game-specific stimulus that replicates the physiological, technical, and tactical demands of the sport. Although games with intermittent wrestling may prove beneficial in providing a variable training stimulus for competitors from collision sports, there are likely to be outliers within the training group that do not receive an adequate skill training stimulus from this form of small-sided game.
Despite consistent coach encouragement, physiological performance declined from game 1 to game 2 (Table 1) and within a single game (Figure 1). Reductions in total distance covered, distance covered at moderate and high movement velocities, and the number of mild acceleration efforts occurred from the first 8-minute game to the second 8-minute game. There were also fewer short and moderate duration recovery periods in the second 8-minute game. Although the reductions in performance tended to be smaller in the games with intermittent wrestling (12.9 vs. 5.6%), these physiological changes occurred irrespective of whether the small-sided games included wrestling. In addition, these reductions in running performance occurred within the first minute of 3 out of the 4 small-sided games, with 2 out of the 4 small-sided games demonstrating an increase in running work rate, as evidenced by an ‘end spurt’ in the last minute of the small-sided game. Although it is likely that fatigue contributed at least in part to the reduction in physical performance, the increase in work rate at the end of the small-sided games suggests that a degree of pacing may have occurred during these activities. Despite the reductions in physiological work rates, skill was maintained throughout both small-sided games, with no significant differences observed from game 1 to game 2 or between tasks (wrestling or no wrestling).
In conclusion, this study investigated the influence of wrestling on the physiological and skill demands of small-sided games. The results of this study demonstrate that intermittent wrestling reduces the running demands but increases the repeated high-intensity effort demands of small-side games. Furthermore, these physiological changes occur without compromising the number or quality of skill executions. Although the physiological and skill demands of wrestling and small-sided games may change as athletes adapt to this training stimulus, these findings suggest that intermittent wrestling may be a useful supplement to small-sided games to concurrently train repeated-effort ability and skills under game-specific fatigue.
There are several practical applications from this study that are relevant to the applied sport scientist, strength and conditioning coach, and skills coach. First, the monitoring of training performance through the use of GPS technology and coding of skill execution allows coaching and performance staff to plan training to ensure that players are receiving an appropriate physiological and skill training stimulus. Although there were no significant group differences between wrestling and no wrestling games for the number or quality of skill involvements, small-sided games that included intermittent wrestling were associated with a high proportion of players (14.3%) involved in few skill involvements and no players associated with a high number of skill involvements. From a skill acquisition perspective, games with intermittent wrestling may prove beneficial in providing a variable training stimulus for competitors from collision sports; however, there are likely to be players within the training group that do not receive an adequate skill training stimulus from this form of small-sided game.
Second, physiological and skill data were recorded at 60-second intervals throughout the small-sided games. Analyzing the time course of these changes, rather than a summary of physiological and skill data at the end of the game, provided an insight into the possible effects of fatigue and pacing on training performance. It is likely that fatigue reduced work rates both within and between the small-sided games and that intermittent wrestling added to this physiological cost. However, it should also be noted that in 2 out of the 4 small-sided games, an increase in running work rate occurred, as evidenced by an ‘end spurt’ in the last minute of the small-sided game. These physiological changes would not have been observed if time course changes were not analyzed. Importantly, skill was maintained throughout game 1 and game 2, in both wrestling and nonwrestling conditions, suggesting that in the current cohort, skillful performance was maintained irrespective of the effects of physiological fatigue or pacing.
Finally, although the running loads and repeated high-intensity effort demands observed in this study could readily be achieved in traditional conditioning activities (e.g., running or running and tackling drills without the ball in hand), the use of small-sided games to achieve a physiological training effect possesses the added advantage of providing a skill training stimulus where players are required to compete under pressure and fatigue (7). If small-sided games are used as a conditioning stimulus, then games without wrestling are likely to provide the greatest benefit in achieving prolonged high-intensity running ability. Conversely, if the development of repeated high-intensity effort ability is a priority, then small-sided games with intermittent wrestling offers a novel approach to develop this physical quality. Importantly, the addition of wrestling to small-sided games does not compromise the volume or quality of skill involvements, but rather, players appear to adapt to these constraints by producing faster ball movement and maintained skill execution. In this respect, small-sided games with intermittent wrestling offer collision sport athletes a game-specific physiological and skill training stimulus.
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