Thursday 23 May 2019

Taking it to the next level

Even the tiniest detail counts in the Irish Institute of Sport's service to its athletes, writes Marie Crowe

Linda Byrne on an anti-gravity treadmill in the Institute of Sport
Linda Byrne on an anti-gravity treadmill in the Institute of Sport

Pictures of some of Ireland's best-known athletes decorate the walls of the Irish Institute of Sport. The images of athletes like Darren O'Neill, Mark Rohan and Annalise Murphy were captured by Patrick Bolger and portray them working hard in training and competition.

The athletes are not pictured on podiums, they are not clutching medals or celebrating because the Institute doesn't claim ownership of those moments. That's not what it's about.

This is the team which works behind the scenes, enabling the athletes to reach their potential and ultimately produce a winning performance. These are the people who help make the marginal gains possible.

Take, for example, Irish boxing. Most people will be familiar with the coaches, Billy Walsh, Zaur Antia and Pete Taylor, but few will realise that the layer of support sitting under the frontline coaching system is seen by others as one of the most advanced in the world.

On average, a boxer in the Irish high-performance system takes approximately 0.16 of a second to step in, strike and step out again. At the Institute of Sport, they know how fast every individual boxer can execute their attack.

When this data was first being assembled, it emerged that Irish boxers were as quick as their opposition going in with a punch but were slower coming back out. The support staff moved to rectify this, changed the boxers' strength and conditioning, worked on plyometrics and significantly increased their speed so they could step in, strike and step back out of range quicker than before – ultimately avoiding hits and enhancing their defence.

They also discovered that the boxers were suffering from an unusually high number of shoulder injuries. So again they reacted. The strength and conditioning coaches, led by John Cleary, worked on stabilising the boxers' shoulders. They built up the muscles around the shoulder rather than building muscle around the biceps and triceps which reduced the number of shoulder injuries to almost zero.

These marginal gains come from very precise analysis conducted in the Institute of Sport on the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown. The Institute has state-of-the-art testing and monitoring facilities which ensure that each athlete is working and performing at optimum level. It provides top-level doctors, strength and conditioning coaches, performance analysts, physiotherapists, a psychologist, and a nutritionist all under one roof.

On a recent visit, the Institute's operation was in full flow. Ireland's brightest athletics star Brian Gregan was in the rehabilitation room with the physiotherapist getting his final check-up before he headed off to run at the European Indoors in Gothenburg.

Olympian Linda Byrne was in the physiology lab on an anti-gravity treadmill. She is part of the Irish team at the World Cross-Country Championships in Poland today and wanted to be at peak fitness. Modern pentathlete Arthur Lanigan O'Keeffe, fresh off the plane from competing in his first World Cup of the season in Palm Springs, also dropped by for a check-up.

"It's vital for me to have this facility," explained Lanigan O'Keeffe. "If you are training four or five times a day then you are going to get niggles and injuries. The cost of getting a top-class gym coach and weekly physio appointments would be astronomical. This system keeps me injury-free. I wouldn't be performing nearly as well without them."

Gregan feels the same – it's about injury prevention rather than cure. If he feels any niggles or strains he will go to the in-house physio for a check-up. The physio will in turn contact his athletics and strength and conditioning coaches to give a recommendation on his fitness and training.

Before the London games the staff at the Institute of Sport worked with marathon runner Mark Kenneally for six months. When he came to see them initially he was struggling to get through a full 26-mile race. A plan was put in place and they worked on his hydration strategy – learning to run with water in his stomach – his nutrition and his psychology around race planning.

"For Mark, the challenge was running slowly when the urge was to go fast," explained Phil Moore, director of performance services. "He broke the race down, he had a big segment at the start and the goal was to maintain a steady pace. Next there was a middle section of six or seven miles where he could move up through the field and then the last 10 kilometres was a race. So he had three events within the one race and for each of them he had a different psychological focus."

Last year 166 athletes used the services of the Institute, most of them split their sessions between Abbotstown and a base elsewhere for technical training. The staff at the Institute also split their time, working both on and off site, visiting training bases like the National Boxing Stadium and several universities as well as going on training camps with different teams.

There are no actual training facilities in Abbotstown which limits the services the Institute can provide. However, this is set to change; plans are now in place to develop a low-cost facility where athletes can train. It will be a large warehouse-type structure with a warm-up area, track for technical coaching, facilities for strength and conditioning coaches, physio rooms and plenty of space for athletes to work out in a comfortable environment. They have identified a spot on the Sports Campus for the structure and hope to get started on its development this year. This will put them on a par with other international Sports Institutes which combine training and multidisciplinary service support.

Along with the science and medicine of sport, the Institute also works with athletes on a more personal level, offering them the services of lifestyle coaches. The Institute has clear directions for what exactly their lifestyle coaches look after. They work with athletes in areas such as education and employment, building networks with colleges and employers so that when the time comes they can negotiate time off, extended holidays and deadlines. They also help the athlete build skills like time-management and organisation. Taking care of all the external factors can ultimately improve performance.

The Institute has come a long way since it first began operations in 2006. It was expected that they would find it difficult to get the athletes to leave the comfort of their own set-ups and it was believed that athletes wouldn't work within the system. It has taken time but the opposite has happened. Athletes come willingly and the Institute has managed to eradicate the perception that many athletes were difficult to work with. What they did unintentionally was build a team and a community, one created around excellence and performance.

Before the Institute came along, the individual sports and associations had been providing their own services. They had full control over their athletes. So in making the concept work the Institute had to build trust and be seen as a credible provider. It had to offer services which were as good, if not better, than what was already being used. This also meant convincing high-performance managers and coaches that this service would benefit their athletes.

And so, a certain amount of service providers like physios and strength and conditioning coaches who came through a qualification process were accredited. The Institute only allowed those selected few to work with the high-performance athletes.

Initially some smaller sports like badminton and modern pentathlon came on board and then slowly but surely the bigger players aligned themselves. Staff at the Institute are now servicing 18 different sports including athletics, swimming, boxing and hockey – all under the expert eye of Gary Keegan, the Institute's director.

Before and after the Olympic Games, many references were made by athletes and coaches about the benefits of the Institute of Sport. Indeed most of the Olympic and Paralympic athletes who competed in London were there at one stage or another.

When Darren O'Neill came back from the Olympics he admitted he was finding it tough to cope with the comedown from the Games but credited the Institute, and one of its programmes (Athlete Performance Transition), in helping him overcome the challenges he faced.

"After Athens and Beijing, we didn't have a programme for athletes, it was reactive stuff," explains Keegan. "We felt for London it was necessary to really prepare athletes going into the Games, we wanted to make them aware of the support available coming out of the Games so we put together the programme. The objective was to ensure that we got them transitioned in the healthiest way possible mentally, emotionally and physically."

They also developed a Pursuit of Excellence Programme for the high-performance coaches. In the run-up to the Games, 12 of the coaches were taken to the Garda training college in Templemore and put through problem-based learning tests.

It was an intense experience for the coaches; the centre was adapted to seem like an Olympic venue in London. Each coach was given an accreditation and actors were on site to engage in role play scenarios focused on things that could happen in London. The camp had taken 18 months to plan and was as close to the real thing as possible.

Billy Walsh has spoken about how this benefited him when dealing with difficult situations in London. The Institute looks at coaches as much as athletes to prepare them for the pressure of a major event.

On the wall in the performance analysis lab at the Institute's HQ are the different sports' plans for the Rio Olympic Games. A new cycle is just beginning for the athletes, their organisations and for the institute too.

It's early days for all involved but they are on the right road to get where they want to go. The top.


The Institute of Sport was established in 2006 under the leadership of executive chairman Seán Kelly.

• In early 2007, Rod McLoughlin and Phil Moore came on board and a year later Gary Keegan was appointed director.

• There are 20 staff members including administration.

• In 2012, the institute delivered support services to 18 sports and 160 athletes.

• At the London Olympics and Paralympics, 11 of the 14 institute service team had a direct role in supporting athletes at the Games.

• 231 athletes were supported through the Athlete Performance Transition programme.

• 53 athletes received dual career support in education in 17 partner third-level Universities and ITs.

• 69 athletes received dual career support with 22 partner employers.

• 160 blood profile tests were carried out for 65 athletes.

Irish Independent

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