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Even if you possess just a passing knowledge of professional sports, you’ll be aware of the lengths that some athletes go to in order to gain an edge on their opposition. Whether that’s pro cyclists having custom-made pillows for their tour bus, elite-level footballers hiring sleep coaches for better slumber or, more simply, CrossFit athletes avoiding sharp knives pre-competition; there’s a myriad of ways athletes are banking on small changes that can translate to big results.
At a wider level, the fitness experiments going on behind closed doors at England Rugby’s base in Twickenham are no different from these examples. Ever since England coach Eddie Jones took the helm of the team after a tumultuous 2015 season, the 36-man squad has transformed into an (almost) unbeatable force tour. What lies behind the team’s ascension can not be found in the England Rugby weights room, however, nor can it be found in their diligent nutrition plans. Rather, it can be found in their biology.
Relatively recently, the behind-the-scenes fitness coaches at England Rugby have adopted a new approach to ensure that their athletes are performing at their best. It’s called Reflexive Performance Reset (RPR), and is a method that agitates and stimulates muscle tissue and warms up the athlete’s muscle groups. Prior to a match or a hard training session, the coaching staff use a combination of breath work and precise acupressure to treat imbalances in the players’ muscular and nervous systems. At either ends of the spectrum, the real-world carry-over of RPR can range from a simple motivation boost and psychological tool, all the way up to better reaction times, reduced injury risk and improved mind-to-muscle connection. (Continued below)
“It’s not just about the body, we need to warm-up the nervous system too,” explains Tom Tombleson, England Rugby’s strength and conditioning coordinator on the importance of warming up body and mind. “There’s a few tricks of the trade that we’ve got up our sleeve. [With RPR], we activate using pressure points in the body. Once those are primed, we can start to open up, activate and move into bigger ranges of motion. ” Tombleson equates RPR to “turning the lights and putting the heating on”, in a player’s body ahead of a pre-match warm-up. “It’s a bit voodoo, but that’s why the boys like it.”
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For Tombleson and Jon Clarke, England Rugby’s strength and conditioning coach, it’s all about focusing on the “neurological before the mechanical. Your nervous system controls everything,” Clarke says, before demoing the move on a willing participant. With the study subject on the floor, Clarke tests his strength in a position – face down, right leg bent towards his lower back – that’s not too dissimilar to a stress pose. Or, more appropriately, where some players end up after a particularly bad play on pitch. By asking the participant to “push against” his hand, Clarke can determine which muscles are being used and, more crucially, which ones are slacking off.
This is where RPR comes in: Clarke focuses on a few activation points, including the lower portion of the player’s rear, and provides light, circular acupressure for 30 seconds before doing the same underneath his jawline. “The body’s wrapped in clingfilm that surrounds the bones and body,” explains Tombleson while Clarke continues demonstrating. The ‘cling film’, to be more precise, is your body’s fascia – a thin casing of connective tissue that surrounds and holds every organ, bone and muscle in place – tissue. “It starts on the top of your head and goes all the way to your foot, and that needs to be opened up.”
“These pressure points are triggers to tell the nervous system that you can open up and establish an ‘internet connection’ to the bottom of your foot and tell your brain that you’re good to go.” At this point, the willing participant has improved his reaction time, strength and his range of motion (ROM) after three sets of RPR with Clarke. Once you elevate the method into the context of a weights room session or a high-intensity tournament match, the benefits of RPR are hard to ignore.
Put simply: if certain muscle groups aren’t pulling (and pushing) their weight, a career-ending injury could be around the corner. As Clarke explains, “we’re getting the nervous system to start firing”. Even with a few 30-second RPR sessions, the method has been found to “massively reduce” injury risk in the sport.
RPR isn’t the only part of England’s training that’s changed behind the scenes. Working with Red Bull, Eddie Jones’ squad recently incorporated the ‘stress test’ into their training. Comprised of a number of stressful challenges that are designed to help players cope with high-pressure scenarios in big games, the multi-stage challenge tests both their problem-solving skills and teamwork.
“Controlling what happens between your ears can make the difference between winning and losing. With the help of Red Bull, we wanted to create a scenario where the players had to work as a team to solve problems in order to win within a pressurized environment, Clarke explains. “This camp, in particular, includes a number of new faces and personalities, so including this within our camp program helps to bring the team together and creates an opportunity for individuals to understand how they will react on the big stage.”
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