Flight Performance and Fitness

Strength Coaching a Professional Team

Authored By: Jared Collinson

When working with my clientele I assess their needs from a very broad level. I am looking into what sport they play, their training age, how well they move, and what the next step is to bring them to where they need to be.  In assessing this, I often fall back on the four stages of motor learning: 

Unconscious competence,which basically means they don’t know what they don’t know. 

Conscious incompetence, where they seem to know what they’re doing wrong but can’t quite figure out how to adjust. 

Conscious competenceis where they start to turn around and we can start hitting them with some more advanced training.  This is where they can take your coaching cues and really apply them as they are aware of what you want and can respond adequately.  

Lastly, we reach the mastery phase ofunconscious competencewhere execution is automatic.   

The relevance here is that being a strength coach for the last 10 years I was starting to think of myself as towards the last two steps of motor learning with my profession.  By accepting a job with the New England Free Jacks, I thought I was also served a large serving of humble pie. I realized I was no different than one of my athletes struggling to do a bodyweight squat on their first day at Flight Performance.

Going into this I felt pretty comfortable with where I was at and my knowledge base on up to date strength and conditioning. Having spent the last 12 years playing rugby and the last 6 writing programs for and training other rugby players I felt as though the step wouldn’t be too far outside of my wheelhouse.  I was fortunate enough to have great resources as well as an exhibition season with the Free Jacks to orient myself to the new environment.  I am not suggesting that I have all the answers, but I am confident that I am between conscious incompetence and conscious competence.  

One of the biggest elements I underestimated was how much of the team decisions fall on the role of S&C.  My input is required in areas I previously hadn’t been responsible for. I am a Performance Coach but at the professional level my job description fits better as a “stress manager”. Everything that a professional athlete does on a day to day basis is adding stress to the system. Not to mention, professional rugby is in its infancy, meaning that many of the resources of established pro sports are not yet available.  Once I realized I wasn’t just screaming at the guys to get an extra rep or push harder (not really my philosophy anyways)and more as a stress moderator, I was able to dive deeper into my role.  

How many hours of sleep are the guys getting? Did they eat anything before practice? After practice? Are they nursing an injury they don’t want to tell me about? Are they stressed about something outside of rugby? Are they not as in shape as they should be? If they’re not as in shape, can I ask them to do the same thing as the guy who is? Will this make them more susceptible to injury? How well are these new players accustomed to the weight room? Are these lifting sessions going to add unmanageable stress accompanied by on field sessions?  

One of the greatest lessons I have learned from managing employees and athletes is that expectations cannot be assumed. Providing people with extreme clarity of expectations puts the ball in their court to show up. The biggest thing for me has been systems.  How are they feeling on a given day? Fill out a daily wellness survey.  Show me that you are doing the workouts, fill out your sheets.  Put the GPS units in the box right after training, if I have to chase these down, you’ll clean something in the gym.

What I have already jumped into is simply day to day stress, as I found out quickly there are much more things a professional side has to deal with that can affect their performance.  Even five years ago something like flying across the country had no effect on me.  Now a days even though I am more conscious of health and wellbeing it wrecks me.  I get off the plane stiff in the hips, my neck is tweaked from sleeping a funky way, my ankles are swollen despite wearing compression, and I’m severely dehydrated even though I drank one of the massive smart waters.  Ok now go play an 80-minute match against the best in the country! I think not.  My point here is this plays a massive role in mapping out our training weeks due to game travel.  What modalities can I use to offset these effects?  How soon before/ after flying can I train the guys?  I plan to use ice baths as frequently as possible post-match, post flight, and post heavy training sessions.  There are a lot of people that do not believe in this method but I read a few great studies that Alex Ross passed on to me that have some pretty conclusive benefits.  One is using with the Chiefs of super rugby and a whole thesis paper written on the effects of CMI on countermovement jumps.  This paired with band distracted mobility work will help me keep the players from developing too much inflammation from the travel stresses. As mentioned above, in the first year of working with the free jacks I was lucky enough to have been given the connection with Alex Ross to pick his brain on the ins and outs.  I also was given the opportunity to go out and work with USA Rugby as most of the squad was in Fiji for the Pacific Nations Cup.  While I was there, I was able to work with the injured players left behind and help facilitate the beginning of the world rugby camp in Glendale, CO.  Both opportunities have yielded me quite a bit of experience that would have taken a few years to develop on my own.  That being said there is a reason why myself and Dylan wanted to get into the private sector of strength and conditioning. 

 Lack of job security being one point but the biggest thing we take pride in is our coaching abilities and the product we put out there every day.  Coaching our athletes to make them fundamentally strong and doing the movements with competence is the most important part for us. The “varsity” weight room approach makes this tough and often times most team strength and conditioning coaches have one assistant and a couple interns to help them coach the room.  The problem here is there can’t be enough time dedicated to attention of detail, there simply isn’t enough eyes.  

Like anything a strong foundation builds a stronger sturdier house.  Most athletes are crappy weightlifters and have terrible habits of slapping too much weight on the bar.  We get our athletes to put their ego aside and learn proper technique.  At the end of the day they are professional rugby players not professional weightlifters so I like to relate it to rugby skills.  If you are passing the ball incorrectly or striking the engage of the scrum in the wrong position would you continue to do it wrong? Or are you going to drill and drill the proper mechanics until you do it properly, I’ll ask them. It is the same thing in the weight room, lifting weights is technique and skill and frankly the load really does not matter that much if its compromising form.  

Once we get technical mastery we can dive into the more exciting protocols, dynamic effort, VBT, or percentage-based training.  This is where I want to make a big change in the field, assessing each player building a needs analysis and see where they are at from a movement competency perspective and get them to the end goal.  As much as I want the weight room to be a place where the guys can get after it, be a bit more primal, and enjoy their off-field time I want them to be eager to learn and do things right.

I haven’t really discussed much of actual application in this scatter of thoughts but there will be more to come on that. In all this has been and will continue to be a massive learning experience.  Standing still is something that has always bothered me so finding the next challenge to rise to will always be something I seek.  Until next time.

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