Wednesday 20 September 2017

Embracing sports science on every step of his journey

Dr Liam Hennessy oversees Pádraig Harrington's fitness, writes Marie Crowe

Liam Hennessy: ‘Some golfers are heavier some are shorter but the speed that they generate is phenomenal.’ Photo: Gerry Mooney
Liam Hennessy: ‘Some golfers are heavier some are shorter but the speed that they generate is phenomenal.’ Photo: Gerry Mooney
Marie Crowe

Marie Crowe

A grand Slam, three Majors, an All-Ireland hurling title, an international athletics career, an academic career, a sports coaching college – these are just some of the achievements that come to mind when trying to sum up who exactly Dr Liam Hennessy is. But aside from accolades and achievements, he is a gentleman, and spending a day with him last week at the Irish Open shone the spotlight on that more than anything else.

When we met at Carton House last Thursday, the golf was well under way and Hennessy was in demand. He is Pádraig Harrington's fitness coach, looking after several elements of his performance including strength and conditioning and nutrition. He's been working with the golfer for over a decade and is one of his most trusted confidants. Over the years they have built up a world-class backroom team who keep him in check and leave nothing to chance.

Upon arrival at the Kildare hotel Hennessy is deep in conversation in the lobby with colleagues from Setanta College about how to improve physical education in primary schools.

The Tipperary man originally trained to be a PE teacher at Thomond College in Limerick before going down the sports performance route, and his passion for it is still evident. Everything about fitness, coaching and education fascinates him and he's more than happy to share his knowledge about how a professional golfer prepares for a big tournament.

That day, Harrington teed off at ten to one. He'd been up for approximately five hours at that stage and a whole lot of work had been done during that time. Like all of the top golfers in the world, he has a meticulously planned routine for competition day; it's been tried and tested and it very rarely changes.

It starts with 45 minutes of conditioning: this is centred on mobility and stability work; Harrington will do the routine himself, working on the key areas of his body that tend to be tight. He'll also get 500 millilitres of water on board.

A balanced breakfast follows, consisting of cereal, low fat milk, scrambled eggs, nuts, fruit, tea and toast and another 500 millilitres of water. While out on the course he'll stagger his snacks to ensure that his blood sugar level doesn't drop and that he's fuelled all the time. At holes one, three, six, nine, 12 and 15 he'll have his snacks – grains, nuts, bananas and water. It's all part of the plan.

His next stop is the physiotherapist. Harrington works with his own specific guys but there is a physio truck on site at Carton House that most of the players on Tour visit daily.

The tour truck is a huge blue machine; it's kitted out like a pop star's tour bus with televisions and couches along with the treatment tables, monitoring devices and gym equipment. It's state of the art.

When it parks up at the different tournaments it expands to create more space inside. There were two physios working last Thursday and one osteopath, but they have 10 staff full-time.

The golfers usually come to see them 90 minutes before they tee off. Galway man Daryl Coyne is one of the full-time staff in the unit; he's been working with the European Tour for over six years.

"When I started first it was very much a patch-up service for injuries," explains Coyne.

"But that's all changed now, we try to get lads to take care of themselves and their own bodies.

"They used to stretch before they went out to play a round but all the research shows that it's not the best thing to do for performance. So now we are trying to introduce a lot more movement-orientated warm-ups and a bit more strength and conditioning.

"Every player will have their own warm-up routine we like them to go through, the golf-specific movements that target each specific area in a golf-specific manner. We put them through that and then they are ready to go out and play," adds Coyne.

While Harrington gets his physio work done he gets another 500mls of water on board and then he'll hit the range.

Again he has a routine that he doesn't deviate from; he has a set time to spend there and a specific number of shots to take. The range at Carton is busy with golfers getting ready to tee off, and although many of them don't look like athletes, Hennessy explains why they are.

"The golfer comes in all shapes and sizes," says Hennessy. "Some are heavier, some are shorter, but the speed that they generate is phenomenal.

"If you are in a 1500m Olympic final all the runners look the same, but in golf it is different."

"People don't see the athlete within – golfers don't run so you can't see what they are capable of but when you get up close and see how far they launch that ball the athlete is more evident. There are more golfers around than hurlers and they come in all shapes in sizes, but very few can pitch up and swing the club at 160mph.

"They have built up terrific torque and speed in the segments of the body. For example at the top of the back-swing the pelvis moves first then the torso goes then the shoulders and then the arms. Each of these segments stops to create an accumulated acceleration. That is an athletic skill that you won't see."

Harrington will go through different shots like wedges and sands before heading to the putting green. Again he sticks to his tried and tested plan; he'll leave there for his first hole three or four minutes before he tees off.

After he finishes on the course he goes back to his physio for a once-over and then has a meal. However, his day's work isn't over yet. He will practise, work on what needs repairing and fine-tuning. If time allows it, he will have a nap and then he may hit the gym. At the start of every year all his tournaments are decided on and his strength and conditioning program is worked in around that, but it is tailored depending on his needs.

"Pádraig does a couple of strength units every week; he punched one out on Monday and will probably do another one this evening. He is very strong, he can clean (lift) more than many of the rugby players I've worked with over the years," explains Hennessy.

For almost 10 years Hennessy worked with the Irish Rugby Football Union as the director of fitness. Through his work with them he became a world leader in strength and conditioning, sport nutrition and injury rehab.

However, in 2009 he had to finish up because of illness, but he continued to consult with Harrington.

He has also worked as the chief exercise physiologist in the Cardiopulmonary Department at the Blackrock Clinic and, as well as being an international athlete himself, he was the chief exercise physiologist to the Irish Olympic team in Atlanta 1996.

Over the years Hennessy has seen sports science develop beyond anything he could have imagined but he's embraced it every step of the way, as has Harrington.

The three-time Major winner wears a monitoring device 24 hours a day; it tracks his heart rate, leaves nothing to chance. Every five to six weeks, Brian Moore of Orecco takes his bloods. This testing will reveal how healthy he is and also how he is responding to all the work that he is doing.

Harrington regularly wears a GPS, supplied by Alan Clarke of Statports, who works with many of the top teams in the world, including Manchester United and Liverpool. This will measure his rotation speed when he swings and it also monitors acceleration. He also does biomechanical analysis several times a year to check for imbalances in his body and also to validate the work he is doing.

Along with being a full-time coach with Harrington, Hennessy is the academic director of Setanta College. He is passionate about coaching, having trained several teams, including Tipperary to All-Ireland glory in 1991. His work in the college gives him the opportunity to share his skills and knowledge. He believes in the use of technologies, and one of his aims with the college is to educate the next generation of coaches on how athletes can benefit from these scientific advances.

He believes that Harrington will benefit from science too. He is 41 now and Hennessy's goal is to ensure he is still performing at the top level in 10 years' time.

"I hope that he is healthy enough, strong enough, mobile enough and fresh enough to be able to play with the commitment and energy that he has now," he says.

Throughout the day Hennessy was approached by sports people, from Mickey Harte to Paul McGinley and DJ Carey; each one stopped for a chat and he shared his expertise with all. He's already achieved an extraordinary amount in his career and one thing for sure is that he's not done yet.

Irish Independent

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