The 'Rugby Strength Coach', Keir Wenham-Flatt considers change
AT THIS point Keir Wenham-Flatt is into his flow. Until recently the athletic performance lead for American Football at The College of William & Mary in Virginia, USA, he still loves talking rugby. And after working in England, with the Pumas at a Rugby World Cup and in Japan with Toshiba Brave Lupus, he has seen some things.
We are talking about whether or not rethinking the traditional approach to strength & conditioning in rugby could spare a few more bodies.
Putting forth his own question, Wenham-Flatt says: “Is endless running, lifting weights, crushing yourself in the gym, as a stimulus, (ideal for) habituation to the stress of executing a technical, tactical game plan and maintaining high efficiency of skills on the rugby field? Of course not.
“If you look at Argentina, we lost 15 in a row in the Rugby Championship before we beat Australia in 2014. And it wasn’t because the strength programme got better. It was because the standard was there, and we had to rise up and we had to get used to that environment. That’s the biggest disconnect that you see, in the understanding of mental toughness and how it’s developed.”
Earlier the man who uses ‘Rugby Strength Coach’ as both a social media handle and for his website explains that he believes often coaches and conditioners can equate suffering through sessions as building grit.
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Considering training loads, he uses an analogy: “I say to the boys, ‘Right, how much does that phone cost?’ And they’ll say, ‘$500.’ ‘Okay. So if I was to sell you this phone, how much should you give me for it?
“They’d say ‘Well, no more than $500.’ Because that’s what it’s worth. So if you pay me $1,000 for it, are you smart or are you dumb? They’ll say, “I’m dumb!’
“Well, if it takes 15 minutes of contact training (to perfect technique) or two sets of back-breaking deadlifts to get strong, and we do 30 minutes, or we do ten sets, are we smart or are we dumb? Does it make me a tough guy if I double the price that I’m paying for a given adaptation?
“You see it in Japan more than anywhere. Japan is the comfort blanket for inept coaching. Because when you put a constraint on yourself and say ‘We must get this right in 15 minutes’ it’s actually harder to do. If you don’t give yourself a time then you can say, ‘We’ll get it on the next one, we’ll get it on the next one.’ And in Japan, if you lose, you always want to give yourself the out of saying, ‘But we worked so hard…’”
He holds up the Saracens model of training – of backing their athletes to be prepared and efficient enough to achieve the necessary in as little time as possible on the paddock – as a fine example. In Japan he saw the opposite. Giving another analogy, he pictures two high-flying salesmen: one who works 20 hours a week to make £1m of sales, with the other working 60 hours to make £1m of sales.
In the States, he says, the salesman doing it in 20 hours would be hailed as a genius for being three times as efficient. In Japan, he concludes, the 60-hour salesman gets the promotion because he worked harder.
If you are coaching your team, which do you want to be?
The below tweets are about Football, but as we see some unlucky athletes repeatedly pull up with injuries on rugby’s big stages, they are worth consideration.
And so we return to the reason for this conversation, and whether we slavishly adhere to certain norms with conditioning. He talks about how skills work should be at the forefront of thinking and considers the make-up of a week in S&C. If we are going to accept that elite rugby players will break down, we may need to look at what we prioritise.
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Candidly, Wenham-Flatt begins: “If I have a glaring mechanical inefficiency when I run, and I run 8,000m in a game, that is going to add up to an inappropriate mechanical load that I need to address.
“You can go to some Premiership teams and they’ll be like, ‘Right, we’re going to dedicate X amount of time to strength and power and size’ and then they’ve got guys that run like Phoebe from Friends.
“We are programmed to see big, strong powerful players playing Test rugby – and there is a barrier to entry at the very top level, of course – but (having the bulk) just buys you a ticket to the dance. If strength and size were the determining factors of success on the rugby field, the Rugby Championship may as well be the USA, Georgia, Tonga and Samoa. Because they could pick the biggest and strongest.
“But it just allows you to provide intensity to the execution of the technical and tactical game plan.”
He says he has had back-and-forths with well-known players, trying to convince them that doubling down on conditioning work or piling into yet another lean-mass building phase is not the answer – and he dearly hopes “the pendulum has swung so far in professional rugby but we’re just realising, ‘Hang on, this is not actually the name of the game’.”
Wenham-Flatt is hopeful. There are young stars he knows becoming senior players at big clubs now. Players who he believes were taught the right way, which can only help going forward. Approaches can evolve.
Ultimately what holds everything back, he says, is that gym gains are easy to track. It’s what makes a team efficient, a star elusive, a group more likely to click that can be intangible.
We all want the easy wins. Could rejigging your strength & conditioning focus offer that?
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