Interview with Matt Barr - Complementary Training
Interview with Matt Barr

Interview with Matt Barr

When I saw Matt Barr’s keynote presentation on “Developing speed and power in contact field sport athletes” at ASCA Conference in Melbourne, Australia, I decided to interview Matt and take the opportunity to expand on the topic and pick his brain.


Mladen: Hi Matt and thanks for the opportunity to interview you. It is always a pleasure to pick brains from knowledgeable coaches like yourself. Can you please share some information for the readers who you are, what you do and what are your future plans?

Matt:  Thanks Mladen for the opportunity to contribute to your website.  I currently am the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Manitoba in Canada where I oversee the strength and conditioning of our varsity teams.  I am also just finishing a PhD at Edith Cowan University under the supervision of Jeremy Sheppard and Rob Newton where I examined speed training with international rugby players.  I spent several years before I moved to my current job working with Rugby Canada’s men’s national teams.  I enjoy the puzzle of trying to make athletes better and every new team and sport brings a new set of problems to solve.  I am hopeful that I will have a long career in sport and continue to get the opportunity to train hard working athletes who want to take their athletic career as far as they can.


Mladen: You have been working in both (American) football and rugby. What are the similarities and differences between the two in your experience? What about the differences and similarities in the cultures?

Matt:  Both sports are collision sports where speed and size are key physical performance indicators.  Football is a sport of specialists and rugby is more of a sport of generalists.  Each player on the football field has just a few key critical skills that they need to excel at so their training is focused on that.  Football also has its positional groupings where either speed (ie defensive backs) or size (ie offensive linemen) is critical.  Rugby players need to have wider skill sets so you don’t tend to have the same extremes in body sizes.  Props in rugby, for example, need to be big and strong for scrummaging but also need to run so they are usually smaller than football offensive or defensive linemen.  Rugby players run much more than football players and the game play is much more fatiguing so you have to spend a lot more time focusing on different forms of conditioning with rugby players.

The annual calendars of the sport also dramatically affect how you can physically prepare athletes from the two codes.  University football players in Canada usually have pre-season training camp beginning in mid-August, a competition season from September to November, winter off-season training from December to April, spring training camp during May and then summer off-season training from June to August.  During the off-season training periods the players only work with the S&C coach.  This gives you a massive opportunity to positively influence the physical development of your team’s players.

The Canadian national team rugby players I worked with had much busier competition schedules so it was much more difficult to train them.  Many of our players played for both the 7s and 15s national teams so would be involved in competitions throughout the year.  I could usually only plan for the next 6 weeks until the next major set of test matches or 7s tournaments.  The rugby players might also take contact in 40 weeks of the years where university football players might be involved in contact for only 18 weeks of the year so managing injuries and working around them is much bigger issue in international rugby.

Both sports have several different distinct cultural differences and a lot of it relates to how the coach is involved in games.  Football is almost military like with the relationships between all of the coaches and players.  A university team in Canada will usually carry over 70 players on the roster and have 15 positional coaches or coordinators in addition to S&C and medical staff.  This means the head coach is in charge of a very large amount of players and staff.  The intermittent nature of football also means that the head coach and the coordinators call every single play during the game.  The only way this works is if every individual respects authority and buys into the team system without question.  Football players address all members of the coaching as staff as “coach” and have military like respect of the “chain of command”.  The culture was different when I worked with the Canadian national rugby teams.  Rugby coaches aren’t able to communicate very easily with players on the field so rugby players need to be able to make decisions themselves on the field.  The culture, even with a younger age team like the under-20 national team, is based around trying to teach players make the right decision.  There is a lower power-distance relationship between the coaches and players because of this.  Rugby players address coaches by their first name or nickname.  The two sports have much more in common than any other two sports I have worked with though.


Mladen: Can you explain your “as much as possible, as much as necessary” principle and how it affects your training decisions/philosophy?

Matt:  It was a concept that I wrote down on a piece of paper and left it on my desk when writing training programs.  The idea was that every sport will have a lot of different actions and activities that you need to prepare for.  Some of these will be key performance indicators that will dictate success and others are just things the players to be fit enough to do.  The key is working out what the key performance indicators are and spending “as much time as possible” to train those abilities to improve those abilities “as much as possible.”  The goal with all other physical abilities was to get these “much as necessary” qualities to the necessary levels as soon as possible and then spend the minimal amount of time maintaining them.

For instance, when I was considering how I should train the outside backs who also played on the Canadian 7s team I based their training around this philosophy.  Scoring tries are obviously critical in 7s and tackle breaks are the key to that.  Mark Sayers and Keane Wheeler published some good research showing that tackle breaks in 15s are a product of having good change of direction skills, speed, leg drive in contact and aggressively using a fend.  I considered these then to be the key performance indicators and “as much as possible qualities”.  I set up the players’ training so we emphasized a lot of speed and change of direction work, a lot of lifting to make them as powerful as possible and heavy, and we spend a lot of time on wrestling mats working on fending and other contact skills.  After a year or two training like this all of the players became faster, had better footwork, could fend of both hands and were much heavier.  Rugby is quite fatiguing given the number of sprints, the number of contact situations and the amount of running players have to do.  I made the decision to try to make them only as aerobically fit “as necessary” but as make them fast and powerful “as possible”.   Training time was limited so we only did conditioning during rugby practices and did little to no extra running.  I try to approach every sport like this and invest in the areas that I think are the most important.


Mladen:  You have presented interesting classification of the exercises to general, special and specific. Can you please expand on those, especially taking into account training transfer concept and phases of athlete development you identified (basics, athletic development and player development)

Matt: This is an area that I spent considerable time thinking about.  I had been thinking about these ideas for years but after Anatoliy Bondarchuck began publishing his books on periodization and coaching, this clarified a lot for me.  These terms have been around for a long time and a lot of people apply the concepts in different ways but I didn’t really have a way of applying the framework from sport to sport so I defined them as:

General Exercises where an improvement in them does NOT correspond with an improvement in performance.
Special Exercises where an improvement in them corresponds with an improvement in performance.
Specific Exercises that are nearly identical to the sporting skill but with a slight increase or decrease in load.

I labelled them this way because I think the most important concept of exercise selection is the diminishing returns of the transfer of training effect with an increase in training background.  When I begin a strength and power program with any athlete I found that they made substantial improvements in their sprinting and jumping ability after their first 40-50 sessions.  As they were able to clean, snatch, and squat more, the faster they became and the higher they could jump.  After this initial period though, the improvements began to slow down in sprinting and jumping.  I would, for example, take a 95 kg rugby player and improve his power clean from 125 kg to 150 kg and see no change in jumping or sprinting ability.   The same would also be consistently true for squatting and other exercises.  I love coaching the Olympic lifts and squatting so this was a disappointing but an important lesson to learn.  There is a point where every exercise will no longer carry over to any other motor abilities.  This point is when an exercise shifts from being a special exercise to a general exercise.

When I work with a group of athletes, I write down all exercises that I think will help improve whatever key motor abilities are important for their sport.  For example, our men’s volleyball team at the U of M is young and didn’t have much of a strength training background so front squat and back squat are 1 and 2 on the list of special exercises.  In a year or two they will come off the special list and move on to the general list, power clean and power snatch might follow in a couple of years after that, and when players get to their 5th year with me the only special exercises left might be weighted squat jumps and drop jumps.

This doesn’t mean I stop training an exercise when it becomes “general” because we want to maintain that quality.  If it continues to get better, that’s great too but the point is to focus training on the special exercises first and foremost.  The one exception to this rule is contact sport athletes because I have found that if I continue to put a lot of mass (as much as 10kg or more) on players, they won’t get slower as long as their absolute leg strength keeps improving so their relative leg strength stays the same or improves.  I might not think squats and cleans will improve their sprinting speed anymore but I think it will help them put on muscle without getting slower.

The special exercises I think are often misunderstood and underutilized.  I started experimenting with assisted and resisted sprinting with some athletes I was training about 7 years ago and found it to be extremely effective.  A lot of coaches think it is gimmicky and they will usually say something such as “similar is not specific” but I don’t agree with that.  I was always really curious about it and continued to look for the application of this principle in other sports.  I found there is a considerable amount of research showing the effectiveness of throwing underweight and overweight balls to improve throwing performance.  There are also several excellent training studies showing the effectiveness of overspeed sprinting (Paradisis) and assisted jumping (Sheppard, Markovic and others).  This is one of the central ideas to Bondarchuck’s theory of training so I think there is much merit in the idea.  If I think there is an opportunity to effectively utilize this principle with athletes then I will do so.

The training background of the athletes I work with always determines what exercises I will pick to try and make them better (Basics, Athletic Development, Player Development).  Athletes with no training background (Basics) will get better from almost anything at first.  I could probably use a program that only utilizes machines and they would get better.  Everything is a special exercise on the first day of training.  The problem is that they wouldn’t be ready for the next level of training (Athletic Development) that would require power training or high eccentric load plyometrics.  That’s why I call it the “Basics” because the point is to become technically proficient enough for the next training stage (ie Olympic lifts, basic plyometrics).  The next stage (Athletic Development) is focused on maximizing the athleticism of the player.  For field sport athletes, this means maximizing speed, jumping ability and change of direction skills.  It essentially ends when it’s not possible to get anything else out of the athlete.  All of the exercises that were once “special” are now “general” and we have used specific exercises extensively.  Getting stronger isn’t going to make the player any better.  They are now in the “Player Development” stage where all we can do is arrange training to try to keep the players near their physical peak during the competitive season and keep them healthy.  The players still lift and they lift heavy, maybe even hit some small PBs but it’s about getting it done on the field now.


Mladen: What are your approaches in periodizing strength training and how is it integrated with the periodization of other components and the annual plan?  What are your thoughts/experiences  on concurrent training (mixed training interference)  and in-season training?

Matt: If possible, I will try to split up the phases where I focus on power and speed development from the phases where I need to focus on aerobic development.  There is some interesting research showing that concurrent aerobic and strength training negatively affects power but not maximal strength (Blais, MSSE, 2004 and Hakkinen, EJAP, 2003).  The implication of this is that it might be more effective to focus on strength and aerobic training for a phase and then focus on speed and power training in the next phase.  If I have the luxury of laying out training like this I will but sometimes I don’t so I just prioritize based on what need the athletes to work on.  One of the nice parts of working in American football is that the interference phenomenon isn’t something we need to worry about too much.  Rugby is much more difficult as all of those qualities are important.  If improving aerobic fitness was the goal of a training phase then I would try and improve maximal strength during that phase and any power improvements were bonus.


Mladen: What do you see as the next step in physical preparation in contact field sports? 

Matt: I think we have only scratched the surface with change of direction skills for football and rugby.  I think we know a fair amount about coaching linear sprinting technique because of the emphasis on the 40 yd dash in football testing and the influence of track and field training.  Coaching athletes to have effective change of direction technique is a definite area of opportunity.  Coming up with a systematic method of teaching key COD skills rather than just having athletes dance through ladders would likely give a coach an edge with their athletes.  Using combat training and wrestling drills to improve contact skills is something that is used fairly extensively in rugby union and rugby league.  I actually wasn’t aware of it before Craig White introduced it to me as it really isn’t used in American football.  Football is a collision sport and contact skills are highly important but because of rules limiting off season practice, players will go months without contact.  We have a really good combatives room at the U of M so we had our offensive linemen do weekly sessions this off season.  I think this an area where American football could learn from the rugby codes.


Mladen: Thank you Matt for sharing the insights and I wish you all the best in your career.

Matt: Thank Mladen.  I look forward to following your website in the future.

I am a physical preparation coach from Belgrade, Serbia, grew up in Pula, Croatia (which I consider my home town). I was involved in physical preparation of professional, amateur and recreational athletes of various ages in sports such as basketball, soccer, volleyball, martial arts and tennis. Read More »