With a number of meetings lined up for the next couple of months, I thought a good place would be to start with a friend of mine who I have played with, worked with and been coached by over the years. Myles Stringer currently runs the Strength and Conditioning, and coaches rugby, for all pupils at St Benedict's School - historically one of London's strongest rugby establishments. He also assists with the S&C at Wasps, runs S&C for Old Priorian RFC in London 1 and works with private clients to help them reach their S&C goals and improve their speed. Our informal chat featured a number of discussion points as detailed below:
Are there any particular aspects of S&C and/or rugby that currently frustrate you?
Definitely the 'gym monkey' aspect that is prevalent within rugby. It is slowly changing, however there is a pressure on rugby players to be BIG. This filters down to young kids who feel that pressure too and make poor decisions as a result - starting the wrong type of training too young or doing the wrong things. It can wreak havoc on their bodies and lead to injuries that are both serious and unnecessary. I've already encountered two young players with potential spinal injuries this season alone and feel that some of their gym work in the past has contributed to these issues. Unfortunately, it has come from clubs, schools and academies in the past to put such a focus on pure size rather than movement, speed, power, skill, spatial awareness etc. It is starting to change which is good to see.
What is it like, therefore doing S&C in a school environment, there must be plenty of young athletes doing programmes they found on the internet?
Exactly, and kids are told different things every day whether by coaches, team mates, teachers or from their own research online into what the professionals do. A good example of this was the David Pocock regime that went round a couple of years ago. I've no issues with the programme as such, but clearly it isn't suitable for everyone, especially young athletes. Within schools and youth sports there isn't enough focus on movement and movement patterns - training in a more functional manner. A lot of things have changed which have impacted how kids learn within PE and sport and they don't have the same freedom to experiment and allow their muscles to develop in a natural way.
Has this been effected by an increased focus on performance and early specialisation?
I'd agree with that to an extent. Rugby academies are now taking on players at 12-13 years of age. No doubt many are doing good things with their young athletes, but it does encourage an early specialisation toward rugby which is inherently a late specialisation sport.
Do you think, therefore, that S&C within schools is important or does it just increase the pressure and time demands on teenagers?
I do think it is important. As I mentioned, so many young players feel that pressure to be as big as possible as quickly as possible so would be tempted to do potentially harmful programmes to attain it. With qualified S&C professionals in schools it can mean they are being guided in a way that is far better for their long-term development. Functional movement patterns among young athletes are not good enough and every individual has different needs. Whether it is right or wrong, sport in general is becoming increasingly professional at younger ages. Young players therefore need to be conditioned appropriately so that they can improve with it and avoid injury. At St Benedict's we've seen huge success with the netball players who had previously done limited work in the gym - not only did their performance improve, but we went a whole season with no injuries which I see as a great achievement.
How do you see your role in terms of trying to get teenagers to buy in and attend S&C sessions given the other commitments they have, the changes they are going through physically and as people etc...?
Make no mistake, they are school kids first and foremost, not athletes. As with anything, some are more motivated to take part than others and they are teenagers at the end of the day. S&C is an extra which they may not have done before. What really frustrates me is the use of fitness as a punishment within coaching - it ruins the mindset towards fitness and makes them associate press ups, for example, with negative emotions. This is something that needs to change so that kids associate health and fitness with positive experiences.
Have any particular coaches been an inspiration to you or impacted you in a way that probably affects the way you coach and see coaching?
The obvious one is Margot Wells. I used to train with her as a client and she was also someone who saw the potential coach within me before I did. Training and working with her at Wellfast had a big impact in terms of coaching speed and the mechanics of running. I follow a lot of the work of Joe DeFranco too. What I like about Margot and Joe DeFranco is that, whilst they do work with elite athletes, they'll coach anyone and help you to reach whatever the goal is that you have. Having been a student and member of staff at St Benedict's I've also really liked the way that both Jesse Coulson (now Director of Sport at Harrow) and Richard Finch (now Director of Sport at Harrow Hong Kong) coach, particularly their ideas about, and approach towards, fitness and 7s rugby.
Are there any elements that you feel are prevalent within how you coach S&C and/or Rugby?
Certainly I always think training should mimic the game itself, or push towards situations that are harder than will be present within competition. I'm a big fan of Kaizen method of continuous improvement and try to stress the importance of improving every session, never look to stay at the same point.
I strongly believe in establishing a culture/identity within a club/team and I'm aware that this is something that has been brought in formally at St Benedict's by the new Director of Rugby, James Coles. What did he introduce, is it working and how important do you feel culture/identity is?
James has introduced the school's Philosophy of Rugby which is based upon work rate, courage and energy. It flows throughout all age groups and all players would be able to tell you these three tenants. It is working well, the kids are certainly buying in and I think we'll start to see the benefits in the coming years. It gives them something to buy into and be a part of which is great. I was lucky to recently be at a talk by James Kerr, the author of 'Legacy' about the All Blacks and it detailed the importance they place on establishing a culture and a structure to stay within. The focus is on the players staying together, showing respect, clearing up their own mess and staying humble.