Stephan du Toit needs no introduction to the rugby S&C community. But for those who don’t know him, he is the longest standing S&C coach in South African Super rugby with almost a decade of experience of training some of this country elite rugby players competing at the highest levels.
I have known Steph for several years and was still playing when he started at Western Province, so it has been a great privilege to work with him the last couple of months and thanks to the effort he has put into answering some of my questions.
rugbyscsa: You have been involved with WP/Stormers for more than 10 years now. What would you say are some of the major changes you have made to your conditioning philosophy and what of your philosophy back then are still the same today?
SdT: When I started off at the end of 2004 my programming and training systems were a lot different. Very detailed but maybe too scientific and trying to achieve too much in a rugby environment with the time I had. I have always been focused on a strong and honest trainer-player and trainer-coach relationship and that has not changed; this is the foundation of my rugby conduct.
My systems now are a lot more sound and straightforward and I understand what it takes to make a rugby season work. I have made a conscious effort to network with High-Performance Professionals since I started and have many mates in rugby union and elsewhere from within South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Europe and all the way to the United States.
My training philosophy is based on players that are fit, strong and powerful and have accompanied skills to compliment them in their various positions. With the implementation of new technologies, it makes the measurement of these metrics easier.
rugbyscsa: What are your 5 non-negotiable (and why) for any rugby conditioning program?
SdT: The split between Strength and Conditioning must be made.
1. Strength could encompass Power and Hypertrophy and the decision what comes first is up to every trainer. You could also tie this section to the CNS.
2. Conditioning in my mind is the dynamic movement ability and will also involve the development of the energy systems on the field with the support of your cardiovascular machinery (stationary bicycles, rowers or inside a swimming pool) and can tie in with the metabolic side of conditioning. You will include MAS (Maximal Aerobic Speed) development in this section too.
3. Speed – The ability to achieve a high maximum velocity and build capacity for high speed running as demanded. A high capacity of this will protect players against hamstring injuries.
4. Acceleration and Deceleration. The ability to close down space quickly or to decrease your speed to change direction and accelerate again. Think of agility as two dogs chasing each other; this is the general component of rugby with the ability to change direction whilst accelerating and decelerating continually.
5. Conditioning games are high on my list and although the last section I mention. It will tie all your conditioning elements together. This is a macro variable and with the help of GPS tracking, you will find the best game for your needs.
rugbyscsa: What are some of the most common mistake you see in rugby conditioning?
SdT: We get too fancy with our rugby conditioning and copy and paste too quickly. Second to this is that when we have a good plan we change too quickly. Don’t get bored too quickly, find a good scientific plan and create your system around it.
Always ask yourself the question “why you are doing what you are” and what the principle is you are trying to get across. Leave the rugby coaching for the field, but when you see someone with a rugby ball inside a gymnasium ask yourself if there is maybe something they would like to achieve.
rugbyscsa: With the surplus of information available how can you determine what is best and applicable to you?
SdT: Only after understanding what every metric means and what you will achieve by looking at it continually, seeing how it changes and how it fits in it will make sense. I love data and am convinced that the more I dig into it it will tell me something that I don’t know. BUT, don’t get yourself stuck into it too deep…the art is in the application.
rugbyscsa: When you get young players fast-tracked through the junior system to the Super rugby team, what are the biggest gaps in conditioning between the youngster and senior pros?
SdT: Young players aren’t fit enough. They spend too much time on trying to just add muscle mass (which at times is not incorrect) but leave the movement specific focus and skill development behind.
rugbyscsa: Where do you stand on nature versus nurture? How much difference can training make?
SdT: Unfortunately when we receive players the nature vs nurture argument is at the back end of what nature has influenced and nurture can influence. However, as we know that nurture and nature can both have a very early influence in the intellectual and physical development of a child it makes for an interesting debate and probably with ongoing research more so the fact that nurture could have a larger role to play than what we currently and previously have seen.
We do see a vast difference between players within the same positions and to be honest there is no right or wrong. There are those that you could look at and think they are physical specimens and others who aren’t, but the real test is when you tie a skill to the physical ability. We have to work with what we have and always stay strong on the continuum between the physical and intellectual ability and capacity.
rugbyscsa: What has been the biggest innovation in training that you have seen during the course of your career and where is the biggest room for innovation in training athletes?
- Obvious technology makes it easier now and below are just some of the ones we use.
- Player monitoring in terms of qualitative and quantitative data. It is stored online and can be accessed anywhere in the world.
- GPS tracking has improved tremendously. We were the first franchise to invest in it on a permanent basis and ever since the Springboks started using it we loaned their units for our players to gauge their movement metrics. Now there are numerous companies who can supply you with such a service in the world.
- Powertools to measure velocities during movements in the weights area. We use GymAware at the Stormers and WP Rugby.
- Cardiovascular equipment, especially the stationary bicycles and rowing machines. Wattbike and Concept2 are fantastic tools.
- In terms of training itself, we are much more specific in what we want to achieve and have methods of identifying weaknesses through the use of technology. It allows us to intervene and communicate in time-saving ways.
- Players still have to be strong, powerful and carry sufficient lean body mass with accompanied flexibility, control and movement. All that has happened now is that we have tied fancy equipment to these sections to either assist in training or to monitor and intervene to create a physically improved athlete.
rugbyscsa: What are your current go-to resources for educating yourself?
SdT: To be honest I don’t have much time for reading but try and make more time available for it. My main source of information is through networking with the numerous contact in pro sport I have made all over the world. Currently, I have been on a two-week Personal Development visit to Ireland and Scotland comparing methods, data and business values. Conversation creates a dialogue of questions and answers and the ability to summarise a long 20-page article in 10min.
rugbyscsa: If you had to pick a rugby team out of a pool of elite;
- Body Builders
- Power Lifter
- Olympic lifters
- Cross fitter
With what type of athlete would you fill each position and why?
Powerlifting for the deadlift and squat actions but also the overhead movements of the Olympic lifters. However, the modern props are more inclined to tie a high work rate metric to their profile than a once off set-piece action, therefore they have to have the HIIT ability of Crossfit athletes too whilst performing the odd-shape and style movements of Strongman events.
Powerlifters, Strongman for the stamina and odd working demands and then also a high level of HIIT ability as for the Crossfit athletes. Are they your 4th Loosie or 3rd Prop?
This is an interesting one. Powerlifters for the set piece but with the combination of Strongman and Crossfit.
A Small initial involvement of Powerlifting but a strong relationship between Olympic Lifters and Crossfitters and a small top section of Strongman when the going gets tough and the grind starts.
Inside backs (9,10,12)
They have to have a strong make-up of Crossfit but with the addition of a sprinter when it matters. The 12 though is a bit different and has to fit in with the Loosies when the going gets tough.
Outside backs (11,13,14,15)
Obviously here the influence of the sprinters and Crossfit is influential, but in games when space closes down the ability of the Strongman athletes.
rugbyscsa: What would you do with the money if you win the lottery?
SdT: I won’t stop working but will buy a house close to the beach and open a surf/kitesurfing shop with a coffee shop next door. I will travel through Africa in a 4×4 and spend a lot of time kitesurfing the islands around the world. The ability to work for myself and create my own output would be the most attractive.