Expertise Practice Design

Comparing practice profiles between international and domestic rugby players

What separates an international player from a domestic player?

Martyn Rothwell and colleagues interviewed 8 international players and 8 domestic players from the British Rugby League with the aim of identifying differences in the type of practice that these players engaged in.

There were at least four key findings.

1. Scenario based practice

Whilst all players (international and domestic) engaged in small sided games, international players engaged more in scenario based practice. Scenario based practice is essentially an extension of a small sided game, whereby a specific scenario that is relevant to a match setting is applied to the game.

2. Negative developmental experiences

All players reported positive experiences from their days playing amateur rugby. A common theme was that a supportive environment was provided from family and friends. However, the domestic players also reported negative developmental experiences. These negative experiences were specific to the type practice that was being undertaken, with the players questioning the effectiveness of the practice. For instance, one player said that his coaches never placed him under pressure in training, while another player highlighted that a significant portion of training was dedicated to activities that were not rugby specific (e.g., light weights, speed work) and likely did not improve their ability to play rugby.

3. Dynamic learning environments

International players reported dynamic learning environments during their amateur and professional training. Dynamic learning environments refer to “frequently changing practice environments that required players to continuously co-adapt to task and environmental constraints.”

Additionally, within these learning environments, international players were often given the responsibility of designing  practice tasks (described as autonomous learning) and were provided opportunities to explore what works best for themselves (described as athlete-centered learning).

4. Early diversification

Early diversification refers to playing multiple sports during childhood. All players  engaged in a variety of sports and spoke positively about early diversification. Players specifically highlighted the benefits of playing unstructured sport during childhood.

Implications for coaches

There are 4 take home messages for coaches.

  1. When designing small-sided games, consider incorporating specific scenarios that are relevant to what players will experience in a match.
  2. Constantly evaluate the activities that players are engaging in and question whether it is improving them as a player.
  3. Create dynamic learning environments.
  4. Provide opportunities for early diversification and unstructured play during childhood.


Rothwell, M., Stone, J. A., Davids, K., & Wright, C. (2017). Development of expertise in elite and sub-elite British rugby league players: A comparison of practice experiences. European journal of sport science17(10), 1252-1260.


  1. HI Tim. Really enjoying your blog summaries. The study above is in Rugby League which is a different form of life from Rugby Union. Maybe the picture above s a bit misleading. of course it is the importance of the message that is the main point

    1. Thanks Mark. Yes I realised my error shortly after posting this article! So I changed the picture to a rugby ball as a result.. But as you say, the key message remains the same as it could be applied to any invasion sport.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: