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What makes a great sidestepper and how do they get away with it

DR JODI RICHARDSON

Sports Scientist

E

TRICKY TIGER: Benji Marshall has the fanciest footwork in the game.

42 RLW March 12

VASION of an opponent is one of the most important skills in rugby league and a well-executed sidestep is the sort of manoeuvre that can leave defenders scratching their heads. We watch in awe as the likes of Karmichael Hunt and Benji Marshall pull off these evasive moves, seemingly with ease. In fact, the sidestep can be considered almost a signature move for some players, building their reputations and demoralising the opposition. But how can such an apparently simple piece of footwork enable these players to dodge their opposition so easily? In rugby league, a game of strength, speed and skill it is the smaller, leaner and generally more athletic backs, especially wingers, that are most likely to successfully use this move. Sidesteps appear to be effective because the sidestepper is faster than their opponent, but there is a lot more to it than that. A great sidestep requires not only fast feet, but quick thinking too! Any player can learn how to perform the move but those who execute this skill to perfection know when to use it through reading the play, planning ahead and being fast! When performing a sidestep, players utilise physical qualities that contribute to agility such as strength, power, speed and thinking skills, but are also taking advantage of what’s known as the psychological refractory period in their opposition. The psychological refractory period in the brain is the reason that we all take time to respond to the second of two closely delivered manoeuvres by an opponent.

As the player in possession approaches the defender intending to sidestep, he has to read the field of play and make a decision as to which direction he wants to go around his opponent. Let’s say he wants to go around the defender to the right. To accomplish this, the sidestepper needs to fake a sharp move left before stepping around the defender in the opposite direction. As a defender, the ability to react to the first part of a sidestep, the change of direction of the attacking player when planting the outside left foot depends on reaction time which is then followed by a physical response. Reaction time is the time taken to mentally process the sideways movement of the approaching player, and then respond accordingly by attempting to block their move. It is too risky for the defender not to attempt to block the runner’s first change of direction as this could allow him easy passage through. But when the attacker makes his second move in the sidestep to the right, there is a delay in the defender’s ability to react to this change of direction. This is because his brain has to finish processing the first move before he can begin to process the second one. This processing all takes place in under half a second, but that can be long enough for the attacking player to have completely escaped him! To take full advantage of the psychological refractory period in your opponent, the use of the sidestep needs to be fast and unpredictable. It is not the sort of move to be used in every play by those who can do it well. The reason is that if the defender can use anticipation to predict a step in a certain player, he can better position himself and react more quickly to the series of moves. Also, if a player is able to create holes in the field by sidestepping successfully in either direction, like Benji Marshall, he

of these sidesteppers is their ability to deliberately deceive the defender about their intentions. Research shows that skilled rugby players have a significantly greater ability to detect deceptive movement by an opponent during a one-on-one tackle situation compared with novice rugby league players. The pattern of results suggests that skilled players are better able to detect and respond appropriately to “advance deceptive visual information”. This basically means that they are better at determining when an opponent is trying to trick them into thinking they are about to perform one move, when they are actually going to do quite the opposite. This ability is consistent with expert performance where anticipation skills are critical. So, to be a great sidestepper you need to perfect a range of skills, not the least of which are thinking skills. To improve the likelihood of sidestepping success, speed and reactive agility are essential. These skills can be sharpened through plenty of drills and match practice. As a defender though the psychological refractory period has not been shown to be eliminated with practice, it can be dramatically reduced by spending as much time defending talented sidesteppers and by learning how to read the body language of your opponent. ●

The sidestep can be considered almost a signature move for some players, building their reputations and demoralising the opposition

PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES

ARTFUL DODGERS

will be far more unpredictable, which will increase the reaction time of his opponent. So what can you do as a defender to improve your chances of blocking one of the great sidesteppers? You need to improve your reactive agility which is the ability to change the speed or direction of your whole body in response to an opponent. Reactive agility can be improved by performing training to enhance your ability to change direction at top speed as well as by improving your skill at making decisions quickly. Also, with practice, the time taken to respond to the second move after a fake can be dramatically reduced. However, this is more effective if players are repeatedly presented with exactly the same situation. It’s a bit different in competitive rugby league, though. Defenders never know when an opponent will try to sidestep around them and in what direction. To increase the chances of blocking a sidestepping opponent, a defender would benefit from plenty of practice against steppers who can evade a defender in both directions. The defender would also improve his ability to anticipate such a move by learning to read the body language of opposition sidesteppers to look for cues as to what they are planning to do. It pays to be cautious though, since part of the talent

BLINK AND YOU’LL MISS HIM: Karmichael Hunt launches into his trademark sidestep.

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