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Human Performance | May 6, 2016
Daniel Tobin, Leinster Rugby

Four years ago I was appointed Head of Fitness at Leinster Rugby. One of the key new tasks of that role from a structural point-of-view was to align the training philosophies at senior, academy (19-22 years old) and pre-academy level (18-20 years old) in the Province. Just over 70% of our current first team squad consists of players who have come through our pre-academy and academy structures- so getting the development process right for these young players is a key priority.

So, the job was to get 10 staff in the areas of strength and conditioning, rehabilitation and nutrition in the different playing levels at the club to sing from the same hymn sheet and work towards the same collective goal. The staff came from a variety of different backgrounds including athletics, Gaelic Football and weightlifting. The influences on the training philosophy of each individual member was varied. We had always had very strong staff in the strength and conditioning department, but we agreed after review to be more objective and scientific in our underlying programme rationale. We were aiming to be more joined-up from pre-academy level right through to senior level and to develop a logical, progressive pathway.

One of the biggest things to be most conscious of at the beginning of this process was getting the balance right between achieving a unified coaching philosophy, without the coaches feeling like they were losing the autonomy in their work. Luckily I had been in the shoes of some of those staff having worked as an academy S&C coach for four years, and I knew the potential barriers to buy-in from their end. Namely, there was a need for the process to be inclusive- every staff member had to feel like they were a part of the decisions that were made, and that in the end the final product was owned by everyone. Trust and respect had to be established before we could venture anywhere near devising strategies. I was already 6 years at the club at the time of the appointment so I had the luxury of a good working relationship with most staff already. However, going from being their peers to being the head of department was going to be the difficult challenge.

 

One of the biggest things to be most conscious of at the beginning of this process was getting the balance right between achieving a unified coaching philosophy, without the coaches feeling like they were losing the autonomy in their work.

 

After speaking to all the team members, the notion of a best practice approach based on sound scientific rationale was in theory something that everyone agreed was a logical way forward. We began a 6-month process of workshopping. We pulled everyone together for a couple of hours every second week to discuss a best practice policy in all areas of our operations. The goal was to move away from subjective, opinion-based programming based on the gut of the coach towards a more objective, best practice approach based on a critical review of our own data and the underpinning scientific research. We narrowed our exercise selection in the areas of strength and power and focused on the qualities we wanted to develop in our players rather than getting caught up in an array of exercises that all globally achieved the same thing. For example when it came to maximum strength we wanted to develop high levels of force through a large range of motion, in a safe and controlled way. That was the guiding principle of our practice rather than someone’s individual preference for a certain type of squat or deadlift exercise. Different members of the team were charged with leading an area of practice, presenting on the research evidence that was available, and on our own findings based on critical programme reviews. The excellent buy-in from all staff members drove the process on. At the end of it all, we put together an extensive performance manual detailing the rationale and the applied guidelines in all areas of practice. Importantly, it was our manual, and not a diktat. We also agreed, that the philosophy was fluid and always subject to review in response to new research or our own findings.

 

The goal was to move away from subjective, opinion-based programming based on the gut of the coach towards a more objective, best practice approach based on a critical review of our own data and the underpinning scientific research.

 

Around the same time we also met to discuss what it meant to be a high performance team. What did it look like if functioning extremely well? What type of attributes would the members of a highly functioning team have? Everyone threw their thoughts and suggestions at it, and in the end we narrowed it down to agree a few core principles of our team. We also agreed on a number of behaviours or actions that we wanted of each other as individuals within the team. This subsequently formed the template for individual staff reviews based on the qualities, attributes and behaviours we were expecting of each other. Every staff member, including me, went about setting individual goals in relevant areas- goals that were visible to everyone else in the group.

While we were aiming to become a more objective, scientifically driven high performance team, it was important that we began developing a strong research strand to our practice. We had just moved to a new base on campus of University College Dublin and a strong working relationship with the sports science department in the university had been developed. Areas in our philosophy that we felt evidence was lacking, or our rationale was weak, were targeted for future research. Optimal programming strategies in plyometric training and speed-strength methods were investigated with strong practical applications for our programming. We focused our GPS research on areas of load accumulation and relationships with injury. This research is progressing towards being more of a performance focus in the last 12 months. Importantly, the research projects were run by our own staff who had an insight into the real world problem we were facing. While acting as CPD for staff, it was directly influencing our practice. We have produced 14 pieces of academic research to date, including a number of publications. We have also conducted a number of academic reviews and in-house case studies that have acted to continually update and drive on our performance philosophy and practice.

This approach has stood us in good stead over the last number of seasons. Challenges do consistently exist however but the nature of them are different to those I was first presented with in the job. We have to be conscious now not to be too insular, and allow alternative voices or influences to be considered. Our philosophy is relatively stable, as a strong philosophy should be, but it must also remain somewhat fluid and adaptable. Updating the mission statement at the right time is also important to maintain the level of enthusiasm and excitement in the feeling of being involved in a special process. Reviewing our performance levels, where they have or have not progressed, and setting an exciting aspiration to take things to the next level, is something that is currently on our agenda.

 

Our philosophy is relatively stable, as a strong philosophy should be, but it must also remain somewhat fluid and adaptable.

 

What I have learned most in the last 4 years is how much strategies and projects are dependent on how well the high-performance team functions. Respect, trust and inclusiveness may seem soft sounding when discussing professional sport, but without that foundation, any project is destined to come unstuck. It is people who deliver programmes. Without their sense of ownership in the process, the spirit will not be in the delivery and no matter how good the strategy looks on paper, the project will never reach its potential. On the flip side, a strong team-ethic can deliver above and beyond aspirations due to the personal and collective performance of the high performance staff.

Daniel joined Leinster in 2006 and held the position of Academy Strength & Conditioning Coach for four years before being appointed in a similar role with the senior team. In 2012, Daniel was promoted to the role of Head of Fitness. He has a BSc in Sport Science and Health and completed an MSc by research in speed and power in rugby union players in UCD. He spent two years working as a strength and conditioning coach with the Dublin senior football team and also represented Ireland as a 400m sprinter before taking up a position with the province.

 

 

 

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