The University of Notre Dame (NOH-ter-DAYM) is located near South Bend, Indiana in the United States. Known as a hub for high performance sporting teams and great coaches, the University’s athletic teams are members of NCAA Division I and ACC Conference and are known collectively as the Fighting Irish. Very few schools have a greater history and tradition in collegiate sports than the Fighting Irish. In 26 men’s and women’s sports ND has accumulated 28 national championships and if your research their significant athletes the list is long!
We recently caught up with Aussie Strength and Conditioning Coach Matt Howley who holds a position in the Notre Dame Strength and Conditioning Department.
After completing my undergraduate degree and volunteering, then working in the field at the same time, it became apparent very quickly there are few jobs that:
1) provide you with the opportunity to work with quality athletes on a day to day basis and;
2) pay well enough to where you essentially only have to work one main job.
I then started investigating the options for heading abroad. I looked at Europe becuase the London Olympics were on the horizon and I knew people who had worked there. Ultimately, I’d always wanted to live in the US, being a big sports fan, so I investigated the options here.
I collected all the necessary information about the process and requirements then began sourcing and applying for internships. I applied at probably 20+ schools initially and was lucky enough to gain responses from about half with the first being from Notre Dame.
I was then fortunate enough to get a semester internship with Notre Dame from January to April 2011. As my internship was coming to a close, a position opened up and I was asked to apply for it and was successful.
A few years on I look back and definitely think how I was in the right place at the right time. Knowing the right people and some “Irish” luck didn’t hurt either!
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It’s really different to what some people would expect. Notre Dame has extremely high academic standards, so not only do we get very talented and gifted athletes but they are also very academic. They are driven to succeed in the classroom as well as on the field, court or water.
This can different to other major US universities. Academics are a clear number one here, and athletics are number two. At many other universities, academics and athletics are almost on par by way of expectations.
Everything we do must fit in around our student athlete’s academic schedule. Due to the tradition and history of Notre Dame there is a lot of pressure and spotlight that goes onto the school from a performance standpoint. But it’s things like this that make working at a prestigious place like Notre Dame challenging and exciting. Overall, we strive to help our student athletes be the best athletically and academically.
The facilities of a top level division one college are quite good. Generally each sport has there own stadium on campus for team sports requiring such venues, while all teams have first class training facilities whether that be at their stadium or generally within the athletics complexes.
We have boutique stadiums for Soccer, Lacrosse, Baseball and Softball that can cater for between 1,000 to 3,500 spectators at a given game. Ice hockey has one of the best college venues in the country with a capacity of approx. 5,000 spectators while our Basketball venue seats approx. 10,000 people. In addition to this we have an 82,500 seat football stadium and the capacity will be increased to close to 90,000 following renovations due for completion in 2017.
From a sports performance / strength and conditioning standpoint we have 3 weight rooms dedicated to the use of varsity sport athletes only. Each varies in size and equipment availability. In general each has 6-12 Olympic lifting platforms up to an additional 10 full cages as well as 10 bench presses. Each weight room is equipped with many other pieces of equipment and tools used for athletic development including 1-3 sets of dumbbells that range from 10lbs to 150lbs (approx. 4.5kg to 67.5kg).
In conjunction with this we have many pieces of technology we can use with our athletes. We are fortunate enough to have a Catapult GPS system which we can use with a variety of field based team sports as well as recently having Elite Form installed on all our Olympic lifting platforms in our football weight room with the plan to have this installed in our other two weight room in the very near future.
We are always looking to help our athletes improve and certain pieces of technology can assist us in achieving these goals with this being the case we are developing a more applied culture with technology and anything we see being advantageous we will look to add as we move forward.
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Being at a big university we get some of the top recruits who are very high quality athletes from across the US. The athletes here, like in Australia, are very driven to succeed.
The main difference I see is that the raw genetic potential of American athletes is greater than what we have back in Australia. In every aspect of strength, speed, power, aerobic and anaerobic qualities, what the “raw American athlete” has at their disposal from a genetic standpoint is generally superior on average than what we have in Australia.
I put this down to the difference in population between the countries as well as genetics certain populations possess naturally. From a work ethic, improvement, performance and buy in stand point its very much similar, they want to be successful and ultimately win.
There are athletes who work and want to get the most out of what they have, and there are those who don’t. I am lucky to work with a couple of teams, notably Men’s Soccer and Women’s Rowing, who possess all these qualities. Since I have been here we have had some good success, not only from an athlete development standpoint but also translating and assisting in improving these teams on field success.
The main challenge is all the NCAA restrictions that are placed on the coaches, athletes and other support staff. Depending on the time of year, teams / athletes are allotted a maximum amount of time where they can work with coaches and this changes depending on if they are in season, off season, or in pre-season.
The periodic breaks can also be a challenge. In between semesters its definitely hard to get continuity in the program when you work with athletes for 16 weeks then they are away for 4, then you complete anther 16 weeks semester, then they are away for 2-3 months over summer. During these breaks you can set training sessions but nothing can be mandatory. Some athletes train with a national team, some study abroad while others have limited access to facilities these all play a role in breaking the cycle.
So you have to manage this period of training and reintegrate everyone when they return. This can make programming difficult but it’s something everyone is forced to handle. We find a way to manage this and ensure our student athletes have the best chance to continually develop and perform.
The big thing Australians can learn from the system is how to be adaptable with your programming. Nothing over a 4-6 week cycle and maybe even week to week is certain to unfold as you’d ideally hope for.
Rarely does everything run according to plan. Inclement weather, academic conflicts, facility availability and re-scheduling due to an array of factors all impact the athletes condition and ability to train. At times there can be 100 athletes training in a space which most would see as being adequate for 50-60. Some in some instances you make do with what you have at your disposal.
You certainly learn the skills needed to adequately modify your training sessions at a moment’s notice while ensuring the athletes are still getting what they need out of each session.
Matt Howley is in his 3rd year at Notre Dame as an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach. He works with the Men’s Soccer, Women’s Rowing, and both Men’s and Women’s Golf teams.