Strategies for Success in Strength and Conditioning

In your practice of strength and conditioning, what are the core principles of your philosophy when managing athletes?

One of the early principles I learnt to develop when managing athletes was to always have myself in good shape and look like I was fit and followed the principles and practices that I administrated to individuals and teams where I was involved. Even to this day I train daily, sometimes twice daily and often these are challenging sessions. Athletes like to know that their strength and conditioning coach understands what hard work is, and what difficult training sessions feel like.

I have also found that knowledge and a scientific background are important. These along with experience provide the practice and methodology of what I present to people. My initial academic background was solid but not brilliant. I did well as a P.E undergraduate after a shaky start and then graduated with all A’s with my master’s degree. I have lectured at over half a dozen universities and was made a Research Fellow at two universities in England. I have been fortunate both in Australia and overseas to be able to mix with and pick the brains of some of the leading academics in the world. Likewise, I have been fortunate enough to work in big sporting organisations that allowed me to tap into the expertise and services of our own A.I.S.

With regard to rehab and injury prevention, this has become an increasingly important role for strength and conditioning coaches. I have worked in some of the world’s foremost sports medicine authorities including physicians, specialists, physios, osteopaths and dietitians. You just can’t get this experience from the internet or a textbook. With regards to my actual philosophy I have avoided being steam- rolled into one particular philosophy and believe in almost every situation that there is more than one way to skin a cat. Too many strength and conditioning coaches stereotype themselves and follow one only philosophy or ideology. This often leads to an insular approach to both learning and presentation.

Finally, I like to be honest and straight forward with people. I have worked in some very challenging team environments where many egos and personalities existed and an honest straight up and down approach was necessary to avoid problems and to optimise performance. Along the same lines, a good strength and conditioning coach must be seen to be fair and equitable. I have seen too many who want to be the friends first, and strength and conditioning coach second and this leads to having and playing favourites and inconsistency in approach. I always follow to the letter the principles of training.

What have been the main changes in the approach to conditioning elite athletes during your career to date?

The biggest changes in the conditioning of elite athlete’s has come with new technology and equipment available, as well as the vast amount of scientific data now available to prove and to disprove certain practices.

I remember back in the early days when rowing A Grade with Collaroy SLSC. We trained once per week at City Tatts under the tutelage of the legendary George Daldry. For those unfamiliar with George, he was a fascinating character and at the time was (and still is) regarded as one of the leading fitness gurus in Australia. He looked after the Olympians, several Kangaroo Teams and many other elite sporting teams during the 70’s and 80’s from a background of pure hard work. There was very little, and after no science involved.

You see George was a P.O.W at Changi Prison at age 16. He lived a tough live and believed that all training sessions should be as tough as possible. I remember one session in summer where he had the air conditioner turned off and all the windows shut. The session went for two- and a-bit hours. I weighed before and after the session and lost a over 4 kilos, as we were not allowed to stop for fluid intake. It was a real flogging, arguably the toughest session I had ever done. Was the session tough and hard – YES but did it really make us fitter rowers, probably only marginally and certainly in hindsight the same benefit could probably have been achieved in a 30 to 40-minute session.

I saw George a few years ago before he died. Well into his 80’s, he was belting away at the heavy bag at Bondi Icebergs Gym in Sydney, still training hard and tough. From George I gained a valuable lesson and that very few fitness gains are ever achieved without hard work but understanding sports science can create valuable time gains.

Science and technology have certainly changed the landscape. I have worked professionally for over 30 years and have seen many significant changes. In the 90’s, I began using Telemetry at both The Broncos and The Wallabies, two of the most successful teams where I have been involved. In fact, in 1999 our World Cup winning year we were the only national side to use heart rate telemetry. We also used a ballistic measurement device (introduced at The Broncos in 1996 by Dan Baker) to measure definitive power. These two pieces of technology gave us a great advantage over other teams, and I believe were instrumental (along with a myriad of other factors) to our success. Now nearly all teams have bespoke sports scientists, downloading GPS data, HR files, speed and power information and much more.

Changes in recovery protocols, diet and nutrition have been the other area that have been massive. The Brisbane Broncos of the 1990’s was arguably the most successful NRL of the era winning 4 titles and demolishing opposition.  Recovery post game was a can of beer (Powers) and often a cigarette (over half the team smoked when I first got there in 1990). There were no post match or rest day pool recovery, no specific nutrition guidelines, no real active recovery sessions, hydration protocols or really anything. Compare this to the last professional team where I was involved in The Guinness Premiership as seen below.

At Leeds Carnegie Rugby (2009-2011) all players were DXA scanned for totally body composition analysis at the beginning, middle and post season. Lastly, The Principle of Individuality. We need to have a one size fits all approach. At Leeds, where I last worked, there were 39 individual resistance training programs, it was different for each and every player.

In your opinion, where do some young strength and conditioning professionals get it wrong?

1) As stated previously to many pigeonhole themselves: “My way or the highway”. I used to be a bit like that but have probably learnt more in the last 10 years that I have in the previous 30 years. You have to remain open and continue to learn and be prepared to be flexible in approach.

2) Let egos get in the way. There are enough egos in professional sport already, without adding any more. At Fulham, where the majority of players were really overpaid and under-worked, I have had to put up with more egos that cold water days. In the early days I let it get to me, even to the point of getting into a few physical challenges. I soon learnt that if I reduced my ego a bit or even eliminated it, things worked out better. Wayne Bennett NRL Coach once told me when I was having trouble with one player in particular who continually argued and contested what I wanted to do: “Nancy, if you continue to lower your standards and talk and argue with idiots you will start to behave like an idiot yourself”.

3) Valuable advice. Strength and conditioning input is only a part of the athlete / team the success. I know several well-known strength and conditioning coaches who believe this. Don’t get me wrong the strength and conditioning component is critical. But so is the coaching, medical support, management, the activity and attitude of the players themselves and many other factors. Just like there is no “I” in TEAM, the success in team sport is a real team effort. I have never been involved in success where the whole team was not effective. i.e. no weak links in the entire structure.

What important qualities should strength and conditioning professionals have in order to be successful in getting the performance outcomes with athletes?

Honesty and integrity should be the most important qualities for any position, whether it be sport or in general. One has to be honest in approach and practice and if you do not possess a high level of integrity in both attitude and knowledge, then athletes will quickly catch on. One thing I learnt very quickly is that you must treat everyone equally and definitely not play favourites with anybody.

That aside and like I mentioned before, a good strength and conditioning coach should be continually learning and listening. Back in the 90’s I was sent away to The States on a study trip with the Broncos. Just before I left, Wayne Bennett, The Coach at the time called me aside and gave me a bit of advice. He said: “Nancy, God gave us 2 eyes and 2 ears but only one mouth, when you go to learn, use them in about that ratio”.

One thing that annoys me about a growing number of strength and conditioning professionals is their reluctance to share. This might sound very socialist, but the majority of things I learnt in my career were not from university or a textbook but were from experience and learning from others. Strength and conditioning coaches often tend to believe that they are the only ones who do certain things and thus become extremely protective. I know one well-known strength and conditioning coach in the 90’s who printed his strength programs on desk coloured papered so they couldn’t be photocopied, and he made sure every program was handed back in before new programs were given out. Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating carte blanche to all intellectual property, just the opportunity of young strength and conditioning coached to learn from others.

Finally, I believe that to be good you have to be innovative, be a doer not a follower. Sure, copy aspects that have been successful elsewhere, but be creative enough yourself to develop your own stamp on things. This aspect is often worst in testing procedures. How often do you see a rugby or league team doing the Yo Yo test or Beep test when they could and should be doing tests that are totally specific to their sports? We had a Broncos conditioning test I developed, The ARU Fitness Test when I was with the Wallabies and The FOFFT (Fulham On Field Fitness Test) when I was at Fulham FC in the EPL. All tests were specific to their sports and I did not copy a test from another sport even though they may be past their use by date now, they gave myself and the coaches valuable feedback on game specific conditioning.

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