After catching up with Lachlan Penfold at the Leaders in Performance Conference in NYC, I was pumped to see the Roosters win the NRL Premiership. Being a quiet and understated sort of guy it's hard to believe he was the High Performance Manager for the team, and a major contributor to their reversal in form.
When Grant asked me to write a short piece on some lessons I had learnt over my time in the game, I wasn’t too sure which ones to share. Every day is a learning experience, and even now things happen that both exhilarate and disappoint me. I guess when you work with human beings then nothing can be taken for granted. When I started it was going to be a one page piece with 3-4 points - but somewhere along the way something happened and it’s now turned into 4 articles. So here goes….
WORK FOR EXPERIENCE AND OPPORTUNITY
I had my first paying job (if you call $750 for the year paying!) while I was still doing my undergrad degree. I had the benefit of having done an Arts degree, worked for a year, and knew what I wanted to do. So when I started my Human Movements degree, my path was clear. I wanted to work with elite athletes and help make them physically better at their sport. Unfortunately for many of my classmates, they weren’t so sure. As the saying goes, “if you don’t know where you are going, how will you know when you get there”.
In my 2nd year of study I took a subject in which I had to develop a periodised strength & conditioning program for a sport. I chose baseball, primarily because the major S&C journal of the time, the American based NSCA Journal had plenty of baseball articles. So what I decided to do was adapt this knowledge to the requirements of the Australian baseball season which was run as a national competition called the Australian Baseball League (ABL), and had teams in Melbourne (2), Sydney (2), Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane and the Gold Coast. The Head Coach for the Brisbane team (called the Brisbane Bandits) was a man called Steve Gilmore. So I ‘cold called’ Steve, told him what I was trying to do, and he agreed to meet me and talk through the issues of the Australian season compared to the US Major and Minor League seasons. Steve was fantastic and provided me with wonderful insights in to his experiences in both the US and Australia, and where the differences were.
I guess I must have impressed Steve to some small degree, because he rang me later and asked if I would like to provide the Strength & Conditioning services for the Brisbane Bandits. I was wrapped - suddenly a chance to ‘ply my trade’ with a National profile team and some great speed / power athletes. I am, and always will be, massively indebted to Steve these 20 years later, for having the confidence and trust in me, and being the coach that started me on a great career path.
So now I had a job, what did I provide for my massive salary of $750? We had a squad of approximately 30 players, and we started our Pre-Season training in May. I gave them all:
- strength programs based on positional requirements that were updated every 4 weeks
- technical instruction on correct technique (but not constant supervision as players had to train at their own gyms all over Brisbane)
- speed, power and conditioning training at all field sessions - this was twice a week, with training sessions normally running for 2-3 hours, and I was there the whole time. Warm ups, speed / power work, warm downs, and then plenty of observing, learning, asking questions, and getting to know players and coaches.
The Pre-Comp and In-Season period started in August and really cranked up. We would have 3-4 training sessions per week, and once the season started it normally involved training 2-3 times a week plus games on either Thursday and Friday nights, or Saturday and Sundays. Normally one day had a 9 innings game, and the other day had 2 x 7 innings games. All up I would be spending about 15-18 hours a week with the Bandits, over the course of a 4 month season. The hours were mounting, and my per hour pay rate was diminishing.
What did I get out of this. Experience that was invaluable, and couldn't have been acquired in any other way. While baseball wasn’t a professional sport in the ilk of AFL or NRL, some of the players were exceptional speed/power athletes. I had the opportunity to develop speed and power training methods with these athletes, and see the results of these training methods. And as is often the case with athletes that can’t survive on the rewards from their sport alone, they were on the whole down to earth, humble and hard working men.
They gave me respect, which I appreciated, as I cared about making them better and they knew that what I gave them would help them improve. They gave me a ‘hard time’, as athletes will when they have a coach making them work, but it was always good natured and without malice. But it taught me how to think on my feet, know when to go back at them and when to ‘cop my medicine’, and how to deal with different personalities when trying to run a group session. If I gave the team clown too much latitude, I may lose the session; if I gave him a little space it would help the session have fun as well as work. I needed to find out how to get that balance. You only learn that by doing it.
It taught me to be creative, and independent. Too many people turn up and expect everything sourced and delivered for them. I went and bought my own training equipment (medicine balls, shot puts, cones and sticks, etc), made my own equipment (seatbelts for resisted speed work, etc). I didn’t wait for the organisation to provide for it, I got it myself. Hey I wanted my program to work - I needed things immediately, not in 3-4 weeks time after it got cleared in the budget and approved through the payroll. But mostly, it taught me how to organise a training session. I had upwards of 30 players, and only myself to run it. Sometimes the coach and I organised trainings in small groups, and I’d get 5-8 athletes at a time. Other times I’d have the whole 30 all at once. That’s when you get tested - setting up the session so everyone is active, but not doing the same activity; structuring the session so that a correct or optimal sequencing of work and rest still occurs.
Making sure you can see everyone, and they’re not all going at once, so that you can make sure technique is performed correctly. Being able to motivate, encourage, admonish, all at once. That’s the art of running a training session, everything functioning smoothly, players working hard and doing things correctly, no injuries, no standing around getting bored. You can’t learn that in a lecture theatre or a tutorial. You need to do it, mess it up, then come up with a better way. And keep doing that.
What about the pay - or in the words of Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.) from the movie Jerry Maguire, “show me the money!!” As I mentioned I got a grand total of $750 for the year. If I counted up my hours, I would have been lucky to get $1.25 an hour. It would have been flat out covering my petrol money. However, I also managed to negotiate in a return flight to the USA via the teams major sponsor QANTAS. I used that to send myself to the NSCA Conference.
While I thought I would learn a lot from the conference, and I was still at the stage of my career where I was taking copious notes in every lecture, there was a far greater advantage. I got to meet a man who has had a massive impact on my career - Vern Gambetta. Vern was presenting at the conference as well as helping MF Athletic at their booth. Already a very popular speaker and much sought after by attendees after his talks, there was always a line of people wherever Vern went waiting to talk with him. I realised that if I was ever going to get the chance to talk with Vern I needed the patience to out-wait my competition.
Eventually I got my time, and took Vern to lunch to keep the others away. For the next hour and a half plus I peppered him with questions, and to his great credit he answered everything I threw at him, and never a “secret method” came up that he wouldn’t discuss. How special did I feel, a young punk from Australia having an audience with a well respected American coach, and he was telling me everything. I had struck pay dirt!! Once again I had an experience that money couldn’t buy. I have maintained a great friendship with Vern over the past 20 years and he is still one of the people who I have massive respect for in this industry. I have visited him many times, and he the same with me over here. An innovator, a leader, someone who shares his knowledge - and a friend of mine because I took a chance on a job 20 years ago that barely covered my expenses.
I spent 5 years at the Bandits, was a major part of the team when they won the National Championship, encountered some great athletes and great people, met some wise and not so wise coaches both from Australia and the Minor League Baseball system, got to work with some players that eventually made it to the “Big Show” of Major League Baseball, and know that I had an impact on their careers. I learnt how NOT to negotiate a contract as my first few years displayed, and added a National program to my CV that helped me get other jobs. But most of all I developed experiences that money couldn’t buy, and met people that changed my career. And I still can’t believe that I got paid for it, even if it was only $750 a year. Probably the best $750 I ever got paid.
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