Understanding contact in women’s sevens: Leveraging a novel data solutions pipeline to evaluate physical outcomes.

In 2019-2020, the Integrated Support Team (IST) for Women’s Rugby 7’s leveraged its I4G project to inform a training load model that used a combination of athlete questionnaire data as well as distance covered, and physical contact counts, measured by GPS/IMU and video data. It was previously considered that the variety of contacts experienced in sevens had different effects. For example, defensive work, including tackling, was thought to be a greater physical stressor for athletes due to the unpredictable nature of the demands whereby players would need to make a decision on tackle location and direction of force to ensure the attacking player was stopped or to create a turnover. A 2020-2021 I4G project was developed to partition out contact types by contacts incurred during offensive, defensive, and restarting periods of play (restarts include periods of play after a try and before possession is clearly determined). From these data parameters they were able to determine if there were any differences in the effect of types of contacts on athlete perceived load (RPE).
By organizing contact events into particular types and identifying the effects on athletes of the particular types of contact they were able to demonstrate two main findings. First it was found that defensive and offensive contact events were not statistically significantly different and resulted in similar performance outcomes. Second, they found that contacts occurring during restarts of play influenced player performance even though instances of these contact types occur less frequently than offensive and defensive contact events in match play.
The second finding, on the role of contact during restarts of play, was consistent with previous I4G research examining the effects of restarts events on match outcomes. Previous research found that the team who would gain possession of the ball in a restart had improved outcomes to win the match. Coupling these two streams of research, winning restarts and the influence of contact during a restart on performance, suggests that there needs to be a strong focus on restarts. This is especially true in preparing athletes physically for the contact they may occur in the process of trying to win possession of the ball. To that end, drills where athletes are encouraged to practice the types of aerial contacts experienced during restarts, with practice dummies and tackle shields, as well as live contact during intra-squad scrimmages have been implemented in the program.
The methodologies in the I4G project may be applied to other sports where GPS/IMU and video data are used in the training and competition environments. The novel organizational pipeline used in this project acted as a proof of concept for potential alignment of video and GPS/IMU data for other skills, such as ball handling outcomes in rugby. This type of pipeline may also be leveraged in other sports to organize unique skills and evaluate performance outcomes. It successfully demonstrated the use of coded video data may be used to direct the appropriate organization of larger GPS/IMU datasets for efficient data processing and analysis.
The project outcome could be further extended to understand player experiences in the development/NextGen levels and support appropriate skill development into the next quadrennial.

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