Whilst I was working for Northland, I had the pleasure of sitting down and having a conversation between myself, Tim Hurst (the Northland head S&C) and Mark Drury, who is the Head S&C for Canterbury Crusaders.
Tim and Mark are good friends, they used to work together at the Crusaders so Mark was basically up in Whangarei to have a bit of a catch up, and also to check up on one of his players, Jone Macilai.
Whilst Mark was about, we started just generally chatting shop about S&C whilst I was getting our GPS done for the day, and one part of the conversation that really stands out in my mind is something he said about S&C coaches in recent years:
- Are we too concerned with keeping people injury free?
- And does this fear of breaking players limit our ability to enhance their performance?
Mark has been in the game for a while, and, working at one of the most successful rugby teams in recent history, works with some of the best athletes that New Zealand has to offer. So when he spoke about this, I pretty much just stopped what I was doing and got involved in the conversation without distraction.
So his point was basically that not too long ago, the head coaches at professional rugby teams didn't necessarily have a great understand of S&C. They would sort of know that we can get the players to perform better than before, and that we could bring people back from injury etc but didn't necessarily have the greatest depth of knowledge of the whole subject.
He said back then he had almost a free reign and could do what he wanted with the players, to achieve the desired results. Injury prevention was a key factor, as were the more highly acclaimed physical attributes of strength, speed, power and conditioning. But as long as he was achieving his goals of having some of the best athletes in the Country, and some of the best rugby players ever to walk the face of this Earth, he was able to keep the majority healthy, and bring back guys from injury to pitch-ready - then his job was done. The head coach would be satisfied, leave him to it and see him in the next meeting.
But nowadays head coaches have a deeper understanding of what we can, and are trying to achieve. Now don't get me wrong, sometimes this still leads to a coach who will just leave you to do your business as long as he has a squad for match-day, but oftentimes this now means that coaches have an almost farfetched view of what they want from the physical development side.
Mark said he was sat in a pre-season meeting, where it came up that the head coach wanted there to be zero players out of action due to hamstring injury. He said "I know that we can work to prevent hamstring injuries so this year I expect no players to miss games due to this" ... (note: it probably wasn't those exact words but to that effect)
Now if I was sat in a meeting and this came up, I think I'd be a little stunned and confused. Anyway, Mark went on to fight his case and sort of explain how that is a little bit of an exaggerated target etc etc.
With this now being said it leads back to our original point - coaches are wiser to our ways, our goals, and effectively they are still in charge of what we try to achieve. After all, we are building up their players to play the type of game that they want them to play. If they want lighter but faster players, we can do that. If they want big, battering ram 2007 Springboks type game-plan, we can do that too (hopefully not).
But now they want to have no injuries. "Ok guys, so yeah this year I want my whole 36-man squad to be available for every single game of the season ... Go get it!"
If this is the case, where even after pleading your case to whoever else happens to be sat in that room the outcome is still the same, where does it leave us?
Cautious is probably the word I'd use. And this is what Mark explained also. He said that coaches now have such a high importance on keeping players healthy, that they wince at the sign of them doing anything particularly taxing. Heavy squats and max effort sprints give these guys the goosebumps at the thought of what could go wrong.
So does this then effect how we program? And how that program get's delivered to the athletes? Are we being too cautious? Does being cautious stop us from truly pushing these athletes to become more physically capable than they were before?
Before the coaches got involved we could push the boundaries a little - if we break one of our 7 back row players by trying to get them to the next level, it's probably ok in the long run because we've got 6 more to cover those 3 spots. Then during the re-hab process we can try to build that player up to higher than they were before, in the hope of stopping it from happening again.
Now we may be limited by coaches, which means that yes we can still make progress with players, but have to do so in a much different environment by looking at a longer-term approach. The fear of having a player inactive due to injury, seems to be out-weighing our desire to push the limits and see what these athletes are capable of.
Another interesting side note - freak incidents are still going to happen. So you could do all the pre-hab you want, but at some point it's pretty likely that someone might blow their knee-out, or get a concussion or whatever else. Sure we can minimise the likelihood for soft tissue injury, but freak accidents happen.
Make of this what you will, I just found that it was a very interesting conversation about how our profession is changing, and will continue to change. You never know, maybe at some point it will have gone full circle, but we'll have to wait and see.
So for now - where do you want to be? Pushing those limits to create the best athletes that you can, or limiting the potential for progress by the over-bearing threat of injury? Maybe the head coach will make that choice for you.
Thanks for reading,
BSc (Hons). ASCC.