Tuesday 21 November 2017

At the peak of his powers and hungry for more

Ashley Jones is still honing fitness craft, writes Marie Crowe

Marie Crowe

Marie Crowe

Ashley Jones'S CV lands on my desk; it's not your average two-page document filled with employment history, education and hobbies. Instead, it resembles a research paper, so detailed and full of information that you could learn a lot about strength and conditioning just from reading it.

It's a much-anticipated interview as Jones possesses a wealth of information on elite training, fitness and team preparation, having worked with the All Blacks, Wallabies and Canterbury Crusaders. But first things first, Jones wants to talk about Gaelic football.

"The GAA has some wonderful training techniques and ideas which I've borrowed myself to put into different programmes and plays," he says. "The ball-handling skills of the GAA players are fantastic; it's a round ball versus an oval ball but there are fantastic drills that you can develop which transfer really nicely to rugby and allow you create a better overall programme. I've used them with the All Blacks and the Crusaders and we have played Gaelic football as a recovery type of activity."

The fitness expert is fascinated by GAA players, the way they can control the ball so skilfully with their hands and feet. Their hand-eye co-ordination, their spatial awareness, the way they can time possession and how they look for options. They have mastered all the elements needed for team games."

Jones is currently based in Japan where he is head of strength and conditioning with Panasonic, a rugby team that competes in the country's top league. This week Philip McLaughlin of McSport brought him to Ireland to make a presentation on coaching to his counterparts from Ulster, Munster, Connacht and Ulster, along with the head of the IRFU's physical development programme David Clarke. He will also speak at the National Athletic Development Academy (NADA), where the Dublin footballers train and run a seminar at the new Dublin City University high performance centre, where he is overseeing the set-up.

Jones is very familiar with Ireland; he was here in 2005 while working with the All Blacks and believes we have some of the best strength and conditioning coaches in the world, including Fergus Connolly, who Robbie Deans approached at Christmas to train the Wallabies.

"Fergus is world class, I use him a lot for the scientific stuff. If I'm not 100 per cent sure of something, he will break down the science into a language that I can completely understand and then I can apply it to a coaching situation. People like him are so rare in the world of sport and fitness.

"You have the likes of Dr Liam Hennessy, who worked with the IRFU for years and had tremendous input from a physical perspective, and Mike McGurn, who I've heard speak. The human approach he has really gets players to work for him. He could work anywhere in the world and be a leader in his profession."

Jones is an expert in his field and after over 20 years in the industry he's one of the most sought after strength and conditioning coaches in the world. His professional career started out in the classroom – he was a mathematics and physical education teacher for five years in Australia before making the transition into full-time strength and conditioning. "When I finished school and started college I realised that I enjoyed the physical side of training. I was playing rugby at a good level in Australia but I ruptured my shoulder badly and I figured the only way to stay involved was to get involved in the physical training side.

"Back in those days the only way to do that was to become a physical education teacher. There are loads of ways to get in now. The lessons I learned back then in terms of communication and organisation still hold me in good stead."

In fact, the Australian believes that coaching is an extension of teaching and that the best coaches are the ones who can look at an exercise or a play, break it down into its components and find ways to teach the players to learn it.

So while Jones was teaching he regularly applied for S&C positions and finally one opened up in 1992 with a professional basketball team in Sydney. It was his big break. Over the 20 years that followed, his career has gone from strength to strength.

In the past he's worked with Deans and over the last few weeks has been keeping a close eye on the Lions tour. Like most spectators, he's noticed the high number of injuries sustained by the players and is worried about what the future holds for professional rugby.

"In my position we are attempting to make the individual players fitter, faster and stronger. As a result of this, the level of impact has increased over the last few years. The career expectancy of professional rugby players has decreased because the injuries sustained are more significant; the collisions are harder.

"It is similar to American football but we lag behind because we didn't embrace strength and conditioning until rugby became professional in 1996. Research shows that in the NFL professional players' careers have been shortened to about two years and I hope that doesn't happen in rugby."

For Jones, getting the right people in place behind the scenes is crucial to the success of a team. All the back-room personnel, including the strength and conditioning team and the support staff, need to be on the same page as the head coach and have the same philosophies. They must be prepared to ask questions of each other in an environment where no one feels threatened.

But the most valuable lesson that Jones has learned is to listen to the players, because they know their bodies best.

"I had eight years with some of the best players in the world like Richie McCaw and Dan Carter; the trust element is there and that's not given lightly by some players. By listening to those people you grow as a strength and conditioning coach."

Irish Independent

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