[Interview] How To Train Like A New Zealand All Black With Nic Gill (Head Strength Coach)

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When it comes to rugby, no team is more feared or respected than the New Zealand All Blacks. We speak to Nic Gill, who has been the team’s head strength and conditioning coach for the last eight years, about the kind of training it takes to be the very best and try to uncover the key elements that will help us live a pain-free athletic lifestyle.

What Are The Key Differences In Programming Between In-Season And Off-Season?

I suppose the only difference between in-season and off-season for rugby players is that in the off-season we don’t play a game on a Friday or a Saturday, and we don’t really have the same level of contact training, which obviously takes its toll on the body. Typically, it means that in the off-season, we can get more work in. The type of work tends to be not that different: high-intensity running, maximal load-lifting, power development, etc. The key difference is that the players are not involved in rugby as much, and therefore, can attack the gym and do more running. We tend to focus on far higher intensities.

We Know That In Rugby There Is A High Risk Of Injury Compared To Other Sports. Do You Have Any Go-To Exercises For Increasing Resilience To Injury?

The injury risk in rugby probably hasn’t increased over the years in terms of the incidence, but what we’re seeing now is increased severity of the injuries. We can probably chalk this up to the fact that the players are better conditioned, bigger, stronger, faster, leaner and just generally fitter, making the collisions more significant than they were 20 or 30 years ago. Now, a lot of injuries are collision-based: broken bones, snapped tendons, torn ligaments, fractures of all sorts, and, of course, concussions. The key things that most of us are trying to do on the physical preparation side of things is improve the strength and durability of the most frequently occurring incidents of injuries. That’s a little bit dependent on the player’s position, but also on the player himself and his history.

With A List As Significant As That, Where Do You Start?

First of all, we address any prior injuries and make sure that we are continuing to rehabilitate them and making sure those areas are no longer a risk going forward. Past injuries are a big dictator of what we focus on with each player. The second thing is the positional differences with the players and which injuries we see more of in what positions. Typically, it’s our midfielders and loose forwards who have a greater incidence of concussion and neck or shoulder injuries. They tend to bank the most hit by collisions in a game.

The success of the team over the last 100 years means that whoever puts on the all blacks jersey is expected to be at his best, Mentally and physically Click To Tweet

We do a lot of shoulder work for those guys. But really, we do a lot of shoulder work for everyone because the shoulder is such a vulnerable joint and it tends to be involved in nearly all collisions. Another area we focus on strengthening up is necks. This is to help with the symptoms or the severity of concussions. And then we work on soft tissue areas like the calf and the hamstring. Pushing athletes tend to have calf issues and we’re constantly trying to strengthen that area and keep the mobility through the ankle. Then obviously with our running athletes, the strength, range of motion, functionality of the hamstring and posterior chain are the big focus for our speedsters.

I Know That You Do A Fair Bit Of Crawling And Band Work With Your Players. Does That Fall Into The Kind Of Injury-Resilience Category?

Not really. Like anyone involved in conditioning or working with any sort of athlete or team sport, I am focused on the need of each player, because the needs within the group are so varied. It’s a matter of what’s going to have the biggest impact. Crawling is great because it works on mobility, stability and activation. There are many areas that crawling helps improve. So yes, we do a bit of crawling, but it’s not something that we have a really big focus on. Likewise with the band work. Bands have the ability to load in many different planes and in different ways. They provide resistance, assistance and a little bit of fun. Bands are just another tool we use, but I wouldn’t use them any more than dumbbells, bars, crawling or bodyweight.

In A Typical All Blacks’ Training Session, What Percentage Of Time Is Spent On Joint Mobility, Flexibility, And Ground-based Movement Work?

In a field-based session, we spend a little bit of time getting ready for what we need to do from an individual skill perspective as well as a team perspective. So that’s my first priority, to get them ready to do that. We can spend anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes getting ready, mainly increasing the body temperature, moving through some ranges of motion that they will be exposed to in the tasks that follow. And there is some thought being put into getting mobile, increasing the flexibility and creating a little bit of recovery from what we did the day prior.

Athleticism is about being able to express yourself in all sorts of ways, under all sorts of time constraintsClick To Tweet

If we’re talking about a gym session, then we spend considerably more time on mobility and working on the range of motion through key areas; likewise with ground-based movement work. That’s really the crawling side of things. But that’s just part of our preparation-to-train or preparation-to-perform window. It only takes up about 10 to 15% of our time.

Do Plyometrics Play A Part In Training? Are There Strength Prerequisites Before Utilizing Them?

We use plyometrics all the time. And I suppose the difference with plyometrics is that not everyone does the same ones. For example, we’ve got our seven-foot- tall players who need to be able to jump explosively with a small movement, and then we’ve got our speedsters who we want to try to improve things like the breadth of strength. Some of the players jump from varying heights, jump with weights, do horizontal jumps or bounding.

We use those sorts of plyometrics on a regular basis. There’s not really a strength prerequisite; it’s more of a progressive overload. We’ll start with the low-level plyometrics and gradually progress them over the international season, both in intensity and in volume. The key thing from our perspective is to start off low-level and gradually increase intensity and repetitions.

Are There Any Small Details That You Focus On Improving That Can Be Easily Overlooked?

That’s a really good question. I suppose what’s easy to overlook is exactly what you said: all the small things that start to drift over a season. It’s a matter of constantly re-evaluating what we’re doing with each player and not just putting a plan in place and then looking at it at the end of the
year to see if it was of value or if it made a difference. The needs of the athletes change weekly because the human body is such that it doesn’t stay the same. And in many instances, it doesn’t progress the way we all hope.

If Bulk Is Essential For Surviving In Modern Rugby And Athleticism Is Crucial For Winning, How Do You Achieve The Necessary Balance?

I wouldn’t say that bulk is essential. I think that’s a misconception, personally. Size and bulk are important. Just using basic physics principles, if two people are traveling at the same speed and they collide, the person with the biggest mass is going to have the most momentum, so they’re going to win the collision. That’s assuming all else is equal. The person with a lot of height might also win the collision even if they have less bulk. So yes, bulk is important, but technique and skill are more important.

In terms of surviving the game, a player can be big and have huge bulging muscles but not be very functional. You can have big but unstable shoulders. For me, it’s about having better function, better balance, stability, and strength in those areas and mobility in the areas where it’s really needed. Because again, you might be a huge bulky person carrying lots of weight, but if you cannot keep your hips low, then your center of gravity will be high and you will come out second best.

Athleticism is about being able to express yourself in all sorts of ways, under all sorts of time constraints. So, really, the balance requires not just being focused on size—we definitely aren’t—but being focused on function and being able to do your job.

How Do You Assess And Manage The Accumulated Fatigue Of An Elite Athlete Over The Course Of A Season?

This is a constant challenge. And I don’t really have a good answer for it at the moment. We monitor a lot of things around the wellbeing of a player, whether that’s the number of collisions, game time or how players are feeling. The hardest thing for us as the All Blacks team is the accumulation of travel and fatigue. It happens to us because we don’t sleep due to our travel schedule. We travel around the globe twice every year, and that’s a hell of an expectation to put on an athlete when every week you’re changing time zones and having disrupted sleep. At the moment, there’s nothing we can do about it. We can’t change the travel schedule or where we play. We just get on with it.

Since Being In This Role, Have You Changed Your Mind About Any Training Philosophies Or Concepts That You Used To Abide By?

Yeah, definitely. I think rugby—at least international rugby—is quite different from other team sports in that others probably have a longer season. Our season is quite short. I think we’re playing 16 games this year. And while we travel around the world a few times to do that, the thing that I have learned during my time in this role is that sometimes simple is better. When I started as a strength and conditioning coach eight-odd years ago, I was more focused on all of the cutting-edge technologies and techniques, probably at the expense of just getting the basics done really, really well. That has changed over the years as I’ve become more experienced.

What Do You Do For A Player’s Optimal Psychological Performance, Especially For Their Return To Peak Performance Post-Injury?

My role is quite simple in the All Blacks, and that is to provide a structure and a resource for the guys to do what they need to do. From a psychological perspective, the pressure on these young men to perform when they put on the All Black jersey is pretty high. The success of the team over the last 100 years means that whoever puts on the jersey is expected to be at his best, mentally and physically. Just having that black jersey waved in front of them is all that’s required for optimal performance. People might say that many jerseys have that much power, and there may well be. But I suppose the key thing for us is that the legacy of the All Blacks is a huge motivator, one that brings with it huge expectations from not only friends and family, but from the nation as a whole.

From my perspective, they don’t need me to give them a pep talk or try to help them psychologically. The environment and the legacy of the jersey do that. However, for the return to peak performance post-injury, every injured player has different mental barriers to overcome. Along with our physiotherapist, Peter Gallagher, we just try to make sure that the rehabilitation and the return to playing is lighthearted. There’s enough on the line for these young men. We try to bring a fun aspect to it and try to relax them a little. And when it comes to getting back in the game, well, not many players can return to peak performance after a decent layoff. It depends on how long they’ve been injured. Richie McCaw could play great having not played for 12 weeks, while other players need four or five games to be back to where they were. It depends on the duration of the timeout and on the player that we’re talking about.

In Terms Of Mental Focus, Intention And Goal Orientation, What Do You Ask Of Your Athletes During Training? Is It Different Than What You Ask Of Them While Competing?

We ask nothing of the players—other than to work their asses off and sacrifice everything for the performance on Saturday. And so there’s no periodization of mental focus. We have to win every week. It’s not an option to peak mentally only one week out of four. They have to be peaking every single time they play. And what I ask of the boys every time we train is no different. We need to be getting the most out of every season, every day, every week and every month because we need to win every Saturday. So in terms of what I ask or what’s expected, it’s this—work your butt off, sacrifice everything and be ready for Saturday.

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