Backs training like sprinters and forwards training like wrestlers
Tom McLaughlin head of strength and conditioning at Connacht reveals the gruelling preparation needed by rugby stars
Before the Lions Tests had kicked off, before a ball had been hit at Wimbledon or the British Open had teed off; Tom McLaughlin head of strength and conditioning at Connacht along with the rest of the province’s the management were welcoming players back for preseason. The majority of the squad returned to training on the 17th of June.
Strength and conditioning is an aspect of rugby training that we hear both coaches and players talk about in terms of performance and related to injury prevention. For those uninitiated to the nuances of professional rugby and armchair fans, what exactly is strength and conditioning?
McLaughlin, originally from Kent has been overseeing the Connacht strength and conditioning department since May 2011, explains, “Rugby or any sport requires you to prepare the players to compete and to prepare the physical qualities that are necessary for that sport. If you look at rugby, the players are required to have high levels of strength, of speed and high levels of what you would call conditioning.
“Conditioning is made up of two components: aerobically and anaerobically. So, that is the performance side of it from a physical perspective; strength, speed, power and conditioning.
“Then you have the injury prevention side. Quite often if your players are well conditioned, then you have prepared them to resist types of injuries but some injuries are unavoidable. Contact injuries you cannot really cater for but injuries that involve muscle strains you hope to avoid through careful planning.”
McLaughlin reflects upon “a saying from an American strength and conditioning coach many years ago” to help define his role, “the strength and conditioning coach’s job is to get the players as strong, as big, as fit and as fast as possible and then give them to the head coach and he teaches them how to play the game. That is very simplified but it actually does not detract too far from that.”
A week in the life of a strength and conditioning coach is varied and will involve overseeing gym and pool sessions, running, modified eight a side “conditioning games” of rugby and wrestling to name just some of the activities that help to build match fit bodies.
The coach explains that his is a rather “ broad and holistic” role that also encompasses looking after areas of player lifestyle such as nutrition and player education around these areas.
Connacht’s strength and conditioning department led by McLaughlin also consists of the senior strength and conditioning assistant Jim Molony, three interns and nutritionist Ed Tooley who is employed on a part time consultancy basis.
A current buzzword in professional rugby is “recovery”. This term conjures images of the dreaded ice baths and the fabulously fashionable compression tights.
However, as McLaughlin puts it a player’s best bet for recovery lies in practices that we all need for a successful work life whether or not we are lining out on the rugby pitch, “the two most important aspects of recovery are sleep and nutrition.
“You could be doing the latest fad but if you are not getting adequate sleep and you are not eating properly, you will not get the most from your training programme as they are the two only scientifically proven methods of recovery.”
Sports science is another area that McLaughlin demystifies, “Regarding sports science – you may have heard terms such as GPS and heart rate monitors being bandied about.
“GPS measures how far the players run, how quickly they run, how many impacts they take.
“At the end of the day if you are looking at sports science all it is giving us is information to make decisions upon. If you are involved at any level of coaching in professional sport it is almost the same as teaching, it is about how you communicate with the players, how you manage them and how you develop them because the numbers can mean nothing if you can’t communicate with people.”
Communication is an aspect of his job that McLaughlin emphasises, “It is a two way process in how I communicate with the players. But how I communicate with someone who is 33 and has played a lot of rugby and how communicate with someone who is 19 and unproven is very different.
“When a player comes in at 18 or 19, they do exactly as they are told. When a player is 33 and they have been in professional rugby for 10 years, then you allow them more room for freedom. So, they might say ‘can I do this exercise as I get more from it?’ You have to respect their opinion because they know their bodies best.”
As well as differenciating players by seniority, position will obviously decide how a player trains. McLaughlin uses an interesting analogy to express the difference in expectations regarding backs and forwards, “If you are looking at it in simple terms, and it would not be too far from the truth, you are looking for your backs to train like sprinters and your forwards to train like heavyweight freestyle wrestlers.
“The forwards have to be big and powerful but they also have a high level of work capacity. While your backs will be much more highly tuned, they need to be strong, powerful but obviously quick over the first ten, twenty metres but then they need to repeat that over the course of 80 minutes.”
When asked about the stresses of the job, the strength and conditioning coach is philosophical but also gives another insight into his job, “because a team wins or loses is not correlated directly to anything you do. There are so many variables within the game of rugby; you have got the players that are playing, you have got the weather, the pitch, the referee.
“My job is to get the players physically to a level where they can compete. I am not a rugby coach, so I do not teach them the game plan or the tactics. I do not select the team. I don’t sign the players, so there are a lot of variables that I don’t control.
“My job does have an impact upon a season but I would not judge my job on ‘will Connacht win a trophy next year?’
“I have lots of different variables to measure my season; is a player getting stronger? Is a player getting faster? Do we have most of our players available for the majority of games in the season? Those are the factors that I take into consideration, it doesn’t mean that I’m not unhappy when we lose, I am unhappy.
“Sometimes you do take it personally but you have to be level-headed about these things because at the end of the day you are there to help the players.”
It would seem that come the end of the coming season that “s and c” coaches such as McLaughlin and his colleagues across the provinces will be no doubt be heralded by the players and head coaches as being vital in their success should they have the strength to claim silverware.