Rugby Coaching Blog | Professional Rugby Advice & Coaching

Why rugby players are not athletes by David Clarke
February 18, 2009, 1:03 pm
Filed under: Dan Cottrell, Rugby Coaching

I think some coaches get confused. They call their rugby players athletes. Does that mean that athletes are rugby players too? Of course not.

They can share some attributes and training regimes, but we must be careful not to lump them together.

Better Rugby Coaching

13 Comments so far
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Well the OED Defines an athlete as:

1 a person who is good at sports.
2 a person who competes in track and field events.

So using definition 1 all rugby players are athletes, but not all athletes are rugby players. You can of course replace rugby with any other sport.

Using definition 2, rugby players are not athletes.

Comment by Steve Tooke

Perhaps I should have said all good rugby players… but you get my meaning.

Comment by Steve Tooke

I think YOU are confused here, not some other coaches. First and foremost all sportsmen/women are atheletes.They continue to develop their overall athletic ability which is then tailored to their specific sport.
The RFU has finally acknowldeged this by adotping the Long Term Athlete Development.

When it comes to developing maximal speed, the principles used by elite sprint coaches are hands down the most effective. Top athletes of every sport go to Olympic Sprint Coaches to work on their speed.

Rugby is around 20-30 years behind the mindset and training principles of the NFL. They do treat thier players as the atheletes they are. If you consider the selection process (the NFL draft), it is based on a players athletic performance. 40 yard sprint time, vertical jump height, bench press abilty, shuttle sprint speed etc. These tests are carried out annualy at the NFL Combine to determine who the best atheletes are and who will be the number 1 pick for the teams.

Speed strength power and flexibilty are requirements for all sports people, so YES lump them all together! There is no difference, your body needs a good athletic platform to be able to perform your specific skill, be it – rugby, football, NFL, track and field etc.

Comment by Ruckoff

The RFU has adopted the Long Term “Player” Development model.

Training an athlete to sprint is different to training a rugby player to sprint. This is what I am alluding to. The mindsets are subtly different as well.

The problems I see are that rugby players have been given “athletic programmes” for conditioning and not rugby programmes. They have become highly tuned in the wrong disciplines. Only now are we seeing a more scientific approach to their diet and conditoning which reflect the workloads of a real game. They are losing weight and muscle mass.

I don’t disagree with the need to up the ante in terms of approaches. However rugby players are rugby players first, not athletes who play with an oval ball.

Comment by Dan Cottrell


LTAD was developed by Dr Istvan Balyi . His work was instigated by scientific research that shows it takes between 8-12 years of training for a talented athlete to reach elite levels (Bloom 1985; Ericsson et al. 1993; Ericsson and Charness 1994.)

There is NO difference in training a rugby player to sprint. Sprint mechanics remain the same and it is those sprint mechanics improvements and general improvements to speed,that allow for quicker, smoother running.

This ‘sport specific’ thing just won’t go away in some coaches minds. If you’re too slow, too uncoordinated, too inflexible, too weak and too out of shape to get to the ball in the firstplace, what good do all those ‘ball skills’ do?
The key is to develop their overall athletic ability by developing all the elements required for success in any sport: speed, agility, strength, coordination, power, flexibility and conditioning.
Some coaches still also believe that speed can’t be taught, stating – some people aren’t ‘naturally fast’ so the safe assumption is that they are doomed to always be slow. While it’s true not every athlete can be an Olympic 100 meter runner, most athletes have never been taught how to run or move correctly, if at all. That means that by making their weaknesses into strengths, they can operate at a much higher percent of their full potential.
The is true that most athletes have never been taught the most effective ways to warm up or develop power. They’ve never been shown how to run correctly or learned specific techniques for cutting and changing direction.

They’ve certainly never been in an athletic program that combined these elements in order to achieve maximum results.

Now these bad habits have become automatic and until you rid the athletes of these liabilities, they will forever be slower than they should be, slower than they are capable of.

As coaches, it’s our job to develop and prepare athletes to compete to the best of their ability.

So it doesn’t matter what sport, gender or age your athletes are. The areas required for improvement cover all sports, all ages and both genders.

Slow is slow, no matter what sport it is.

Poor flexibility, lack of coordination and physical weakness aren’t exclusive to one sport or age group, they’re holding back athletes in every sport and age group.

I show due deference to your knowledge in coaching rugby specific skills but completley disagree with you on this and your original post. Rugby players are athletes!

Comment by Ruckoff

Essentially we are agreeing on much on what is being said. Improving the movement skills of the players is vital. I know from personal experience the benefits of speed training. The RFU, along with many other bodies, have adopted the ltAd model. But where I think the subtle difference comes is in the skills, techniques and tactical awareness that comes with each stage. This is why some of the main movers behind the model in rugby circles have emphasised the word player over athlete, looking at the whole in the context of the game. A gymnast has a different model to a wrestler to a wieght lifter to a tennis player to a rugby player.
Yesterday I tutored on a level 1 course and we discussed in depth the ltPd model. Perhaps we can substitute athlete for player and vice versa. My thought though is that we can get to hung up on the technical “athletic” parts of the improvement, and not consider the specifics to positions. Hence why I would prefer an emphasis on player development, not athletic development. Research shows us that props don’t need to sprint more than 5m in a straight line.

Comment by Dan

“ath·lete (āth’lēt’) Pronunciation Key
n. A person possessing the natural or acquired traits, such as strength, agility, and endurance, that are necessary for physical exercise or sports, especially those performed in competitive contexts.”

The term athlete is not restrictive to purely sprinting. Any physical movement be it jumping, throwing or running should be considered athletic. Therefore all sports people are athletes regardless of what game specific skills might be required of them. The same biomechanical and physiological principles apply to passing a rugby ball as taking a basketball free-throw, shot putting or kicking a football. I think the term player is much less inclusive than the term athlete and is a backwards step in acknowledging the importance of conditioning and sports science in the professional game.

A prop may only need to sprint 5m (nonetheless they still need to sprint!), but they must possess other athletic abilities. An athlete must be competent in all components of fitness which include skill and coordination which are specific to the game of rugby.

Comment by Jason Pedley

Being a teacher/coach/educationlaist for over 30 years, I have encountered many debates over what is called what? One that for ever gnaws away is what to call the target or result of learning; Objectives, outcomes, aims – yawn! So now we debate whether a rugby player can be described as an athlete? Yawn again!

KISS, remember? Keep it simple stupid. Let’s imagine that ‘Athlete’ is a sportsperson in a general sense. Any other term used to describe them further details their identification by their specific activity. ‘Rugby Player’ is a descriptive term for a sub-set that resides under a hierachy of descritpive terms including the term ‘Athletes’.

Track and field does appear to monopolise the term, but even there the term is generic for a wide range of highly specific and differing activities – far wider ranging then the activities on a rugby pitch; should we wrestle with the use of the word athlete to differentiate shot putters from pole vaulters? Of course not they are all athletes. To suggest that rugby players are not or should not be termed athletes and that we should not lump them in with that term is simply a labourious exercise in semantics and attempts to removes a description that is capable of evoking an image of physical excellence to which all rugby players ought to aspire. I look forward to working with my athletes tonight who are also rugby players. 🙂

Comment by Gary Shanahan

I agree with both of you.

Teaching a rugby player to run like a hundred meter runner will help, and yes they can get faster, but most of the critical movements in rugby are complex multi-directional movements, not the cyclic movements of s track runner.

The top speed to break away from a tackler is usefull, but more important is the elusive and decisive sidestep or exploding through the defence. these actions are rarely linear and it is the change of direction that is critical.

I believe it was some Australian research that showed that actual performance was poorly correlated with the 40yrd dash. Sorry I haven’t got the references.

Also more research I can’t reference showed that in the NFL the second teir players often scored higher in the objective testing than the top performers – make of that what you will!

Comment by JK

Game of rugby meant for all different types of body structures. Beauty of this is any person can be fitted in to this at the same time rather than other sports. Even a football team does have average players.
There were times all rugby coaches use to believe that athletic running programmes are essential for training.
You cannot directly convert an athlete to a rugby player. Athletes are trained with resistance free running ,focusing on one aspect, but an average rugby player should concentrate on more than one thing, such as avoiding tackles, move on contact situations and etc. for these conditions free athletic type of training will not help that much.
Workouts which increases agility in small spaces and natural strength training methods very useful for rugby. Free athletic training most of the time demoralizes lot of rugby players.
A sprinter will do a 40m run less than 5-4 seconds, but without a resistance, but a slowest rugby player on the field will reach that distance within about 30 seconds avoiding tackles, while making 2,3 contact points and carrying much more than his weigh at the time he finishes.

Comment by Tikiri

[…] If you have been on the coaching courses, then you will be well aware of the Long Term Athlete Development programme, or Player (see my debate on coaching players not athletes). […]

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“Why rugby players are not athletes”! Really! You’re an idiot to think/say that.

Comment by James

Howdy I just wanted to swing by and say kudos for the knowledge in this post. I ended up on your site just after searching for fitness related things on Bing… guess I lost track of what I had been doing! Anyways, thanks again and I will try to swing in down the road and read some of your future remarks. Regards!

Comment by Morph Supplement

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