Sunday 19 November 2017

Lam's system-based coaching key to Connacht success

Pat Lam puts the Connacht players throught their paces in training. Photo: Sportsfile
Pat Lam puts the Connacht players throught their paces in training. Photo: Sportsfile Sportsdesk

If Pat Lam achieves everything he wants to at Connacht, then he won't be missed when he leaves. In a way, it's incredible that a man who had his hand across the most minute detail wants to instil a system which will function perfectly without him - or any other individual for that matter.

But that is what is at the centre of his 'system', on and off the field. He strives to develop a way of doing things which is not dependent on any particular individual.

I reckon in the three-and-a-half years since he arrived in Galway, between midweek press conferences, pre-match and post-match interviews - and other media gigs - I have interviewed him somewhere in the region of 250 times.

I can't recall one of those interviews where he didn't mention at least one of 'process', 'learnings', 'work-ons' or 'system'. Sometimes you'd get all four in the same sentence.

His method is actually very simple. You develop a style of play, you practise that at an intensity in training which is the same as in a competitive game, and you just keep repeating the process over and over until it becomes second nature and there is no difference in the tempo you are doing in training or a match.

"You get to the stage in a match where you pop a pass out without looking and you know Finlay Bealham or whoever is there where they should be," said lock Aly Muldowney. "You do it in training and, almost miraculously, he's there again. Equally, if you are meant to be somewhere in a move then you are there at the exact moment whether it's in training or a game. You just keep repeating over and over."

Lam puts a huge emphasis on players practising over and over with a ball, and insisted, shortly after arriving at the Sportsground, that all players get a ball and have it with them at all times, even bringing it to meetings.

"That wasn't a PR stunt," said Michael Swift, who retired the summer before the Pro12 win after 15 years at the Sportsground. "Everyone had to walk around with a ball and write a message on it. Pat is into his 'thinking outside the box', and just trying to find those one per cents.

"Pat said as a group of players we are not good enough to win the league or anything else playing a normal way. We didn't have a Sonny Bill Williams who can do something out of nothing. The collective is greater than the individual - and he had a huge point. It was all about the system and the process."

The system which Lam implemented mapped out what each player needed to do from the moment one game finished right up to the start of the next game the following weekend.

"You had a weekly review sheet where you set your goals for the week, and players would usually do that on Sunday. You'd have a review of your last game, you point out three good things and three bad things, how you think your week's prep went and then looking forward to the game, and pointing out things you want to go through with your coaches. That was every week. That alone would take about 90 minutes to properly put together. It was pretty much from 8am to 4pm every day at the Sportsground between training and meetings."

Connacht also introduced the Kitman Labs app in the past couple of years which helped monitor the physical condition of players and any changes which might be occurring.

"You had to sign in every day. The first thing in the morning you answer six or seven questions, things such as quality of sleep, how tired you are, your energy levels, soreness, that kind of stuff. You were rated out of 10 - if your score was particularly low or below the normal number you would be flagged, the physio and Pat would get a notification.

"That would be about 6.30am on the Monday morning. You would arrive every day and the first thing you had to do was go to the gym and do a series of tests. It would measure your reads, your flexibility, all kinds of data that they gather. Plus you would have to go into the toilet and produce a urine sample every day. If you are at a certain level of dehydration you are not allowed to train," added Swift.

Mondays have always been busy at the Sportsground during the season, and that intensified under the Lam regime.

A general meeting which would include the coaches, the medical team, marketing, media and various player groups would take place and set the agenda for the week. Tuesdays would generally be double sessions, with backs and forwards splitting for sessions, while one-on-one sessions also took place.

All training sessions are recorded from a variety of angles and positions, including the use of an elevated camera. There are no hiding places, least of all close to the game.

"The night before the captain's run you'd be given a sheet of the game and the maps that were going to be used. But it wouldn't be uncommon to ask a few guys to stand up and challenge them on questions. If they didn't know the answers then they would be in severe trouble. Sometimes they'd even be dropped, if you didn't know your answers," added Swift.

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