Darren Roberts is a High Performance Manager who works with 'Action Sport' athletes. As my physical preparation journey is taking me towards BMXers, Skaters and MotoX, I am thrilled to do this Q&A. Hope you enjoy it too.
Hi Darren, welcome to the our Q&A. Firstly, can you tell us a bit about your education & experience.
Thanks for asking me to contribute, sharing ideas and experience is vital and I’m humbled to be asked to share.
As with the athletes I work with, it was a non traditional route.
I was in the RAF Regiment for 9 years serving on the para trained unit.
When I left the military I did a fitness training and sports therapy diploma as part of resettlement from military to civilian life. From there I arrived in the fitness world starting as a fitness instructor cleaning treadmills to a successful personal trainer working with the usual plethora of civilian clients.
I was fairly belligerent back then, I had lots of answers but not many questions - looking back now of course I cringe at my lack of knowledge - but it was all part of the journey.
As is the way with sport, a few opportunities came up with professional teams through a friend of the friend, and I embraced those opportunities.
No one told me you were supposed to have a sports science degree and a have worked your way up the intern ladder to work in sport, so I simply got on with it.
Working in sport was more or less the same environment as the military, same type of people, same banter and you wear a uniform (team kit) - I think I just fitted right in.
I developed a reputation for getting results with athletes, which lead to more opportunities and so on.
There was a lot of luck in being at the right place at the right time, but I still had to deliver.
I was splitting my time as a private PT, working in rugby and travelling to USA to see how they did things over there - this was the late 90's and early 2000.
During this time an opportunity came up to do some things with Red Bull UK.
Over time I was doing more and more with Red Bull UK and its athletes which ultimately lead to me establishing and running their High Performance Programme.
From there I was able to travel the world learning as much as I could from opinion leaders, and have been fortunate to present to some great people on athlete performance such as NASA.
I’ve worked with some amazing athletes, and still do, who challenge me and my team every day to do better.
I’m still learning now, and unlike when I first started where I felt I knew everything, now the only thing I ‘know’ is I know nothing.
That’s the last 17 years since I left the military in a nutshell!
How did you land up as a ‘High Performance Manager’?
I soon realised my main skill set was building teams, structures and creating the environments where athletes could flourish.
As an S&C I’m ‘ok’ I think, but there’s much better people than me, like John Noonan.
However I seem to have an eye for the strategic overarching things which cover all aspects of the athletes performance, including medical.
What goes on in a typical day of a HPM?
Just as with my military life, it’s periods of inactivity and mundane tasks punctuated with intense frenetic activity which can last an hour, a day or a month.
I’m at MotoX, BMX, DH MTB events - and my number is the number the athletes call no matter what day or time.
I never know what the next day or the next week will bring.
As an example I’ve been working solidly over the last five days to get an injured athlete back from Greece to UK, but they can’t fly due to nature of injuries so it’s a sea & land journey - and they are still en route!
What skills have you had to especially develop to thrive in your position?
Having an understanding of all the different best practice processes of each facet of an athletes performance support, then connecting the right people to the athlete.
It’s a cliche to say you need to have interpersonal skills and be a motivator, but it’s everyone from the surgeon specialist, radiologist, receptionist, governing body - if I want to call them at 8.30am on a Sunday morning I need to have an extremely good working and collaborative relationship.
I’m not a world class orthopaedic trauma surgeon, but I need to be able to hold a conversation with them and the athlete.
My clinical director calls me the ‘glue’ that holds everything together, I think that’s a bit flattering - but someone has to connect the dots for the athletes and each practitioner - that’s me.
Everyone I work with is either a professor, doctor, Phd or M.Sc..I have none of those qualifications but it hasn’t slowed, stopped or hindered me working with or managing them.
I’ve also had to massively expand my horizon on what ‘performance’ is and what human capabilities are - none of which I have found in a book.
Ultimately I surround myself with people who are way, way better than me at everything, whilst pushing them to break boundaries and challenge paradigms.
What advice would you offer to someone who wants to work in a similar position as you?
You need to have a clear understanding of each of the different worlds the people an athlete has in their lives, how that fits together and understand the athlete is at the centre of that world.
Everyone talks the ‘athlete centered’ delivery model, but having a meeting once a day about an athlete then everyone disappearing back into their silo’s to do their own thing is not athlete centered.
Also the close bonds and relationships with the athletes - some say familiarity breeds contempt, but I say familiarity breeds what you want it to.
The people I work with have real life and death consequences to what they do, and I’ve found that having as close a relationship as possible works best.
Can you tell us what type of athletes do you work with?
It’s the full mixed bag from 14 years old at the start of their journey to 40+ coming to the end of their career, male, female and all different shapes & sizes.
Most of them don’t have much of a training history or age, but that doesn’t matter.
I had the double (now triple) world snowboard champion in, and the movement police would have had field day.
But you have to be clear on what you’re trying to impact and why.
These athletes are world class in spite of certain things, not because of - embrace the chaos!
Have you worked with more ‘mainstream athletes’? What, if any, are some of the differences between many of the athletes most of us work with and those you mainly work with?
I’ve done a season with a premiership football team, did two seasons with a premiership rugby union team not so long ago which had a lot of international players - and still dip into the traditional mainstream sports now.
Action sports is all about breaking rules, innovation and changing the game.
Mainstream sports can be very prescriptive and restrictive, with zero job security stifling innovation from a performance perspective.
You’re either winning or losing at the weekend and that’s what you’re judged on, rightly or wrongly.
My learning is athletes are athletes, and people are people - it’s the environment and paradigm which drive the differences, a barbell doesn’t know who is deadlifting it and a trampoline doesn’t know who is jumping up and down on it.
What 4 things could all athletes include/exclude in their training that would improve their abilities?
- Environment - If they are the best at what they do in their current environment, go somewhere where they are not.
- Embrace The Chaos - Everything I do with them is built around self determination, decision making, unpredictability and anxiety. Because that’s what happens in competition.
- Be Strong - No matter who they are or what they are, I want them to be strong. Of course we can go on about movement competency, mobility, power and their ability to absorb force - and that’s all good and has it’s time with us. But in simple terms with the ones I work with, I just want them strong - so they’re robust. Everything else we figure out as we go along….
- Circus Training - this is a major problem with my athletes as challenging them is, well, challenging. My rule is if at any point in the session the athlete looks like they should be wearing a red nose while I throw a fish at them, we need to stop the session. Having said that, it gets a bit of a grey area when they are actually from a circus….erm…..
Any advice to athletes to cope with long term injuries/rehab?
It’s not rehab, it’s just another phase of training - and that’s how we position and deliver it.
‘Rehab’ is athlete code for everything they can’t do, including their sport, whilst working alone and watching everyone do the things they can’t do.
We use the group and team dynamic for them to all to work together regardless of injury - and if they are on their own its about training normally with some modifications.
We had a a Motorsport athlete who had broken his legs, arms, back, pelvis, collapsed lungs, failed liver and was just out of a coma.
We replaced his casts with removable casts and got him in the hydro pool with other athletes from other sports, some of who weren’t even injured.
The group dynamic was fostered and the banter flowing between them all. We focus on what the athlete can do, not what they can’t.
Your catch-phrase seems to be ‘herding cats’ (conjuring up an awesome image)… Tell us a bit about this?
Action sports athletes are world class at what they do because the do not do as they are told.
Managing them (I’m laughing to myself), if that’s what I can call it, is ‘interesting’ to say the least.
I’m trying to provide a system of support to help them whether that’s medical or performance, and most of the time for these athletes those two aspects are so intertwined they are often indistinguishable (another story).
I can’t tell you how many times an athlete has sent me a pic of a cast they’ve just cut off from an op they’ve had the day before with the message ‘like dat?!?’.
But you have to accept they operate to an entirely different map of the world.
I remember giving some athletes the following day off on a training camp in California with the advice of ‘we’ve had a big week so stay off your feet and rest up’.
By ‘stay off your feet and rest up’ they took that to mean party till 4am then bring a selection of local ladies back to the jacuzzi to continue the merriment.
Of course if they hadn’t have done that I would have been disappointed.
Like I said, embrace the chaos - and if you can, try and channel it in a vague direction… slightly….
If you had an opportunity to rewind time, and speak to your athletes when they were younger, what would you say?
Learn every facet and nuance of every tradition and rule - then break them.
Any advice to parents of young athletes?
Let them play.
They need to express themselves in as many ways, sports and activities as possible.
Hopes, dreams, happiness, sadness, belief, winning, losing - not hip mechanics and glute function.
Everyone is trying to manipulate physiological adaptations through a myriad of methodologies and modalities. All of which I get, I understand.
However it’s the emotional side of the athlete I’m interested in, them as a person.
I’ve said before that treating them as a series of data points and KPI’s to be manipulated will, in my view, limit their ‘performance’.
When commentating on a performance in a competition no one is talking about how effectively the athletes seem to have activated their TVA. It’s all about emotions, desires, hopes, treating athletes as people rather than things on spreadsheets and graphs.
I’m not talking about sports psychology, but the way we as conditioners and performance practitioners prepare athletes every day.
Are we really preparing them for a performance in front of a crowd during a competition or just making them really good in the gym?
Darren, thanks very much for your time and insight.
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