18 February, 2016

A Week with the Elite

A Week with the Elite

Paul with two of the coaches of the elite: David Joyce and Mick Byers

Last week I was privileged enough to spend a week with the Athletic Performance Unit at Greater Western Sydney Giants. The Giants are the youngest team (2016 is their fifth season) in the Australian Football League.

The purpose of my visit was one of personal development. I visited the club in 2011 when it was in its infancy and was impressed with the approach they were taking to build a new club, creating a team culture and managing player welfare when the majority of their players were straight out of school.

Five years on and I couldn’t have been more impressed with the progress the coaching team have made in creating an environment that feels like a close knit family, with staff that were open with their knowledge, experiences and time.

Growing up, we dream of being like our sporting heroes and even when we have grown up, we watch on with admiration and respect. But not many people have an understanding of what goes on behind the scenes to get athletes on the field week to week in season. Many would believe that elite athletes are pampered and lead a charmed life. My week long experience showed me that this couldn’t be further from the truth.

The workload is unrelenting, the hours are long and the risk of injury, potentially ending a career in an instant, is real. So this is a bit of a summary of a day in the week with the elite.

A Week with the EliteA relentless workload is required to be elite. Photo Credit: GWS Giants

The Schedule

0445 – Rise and shine: Life in elite sport begins early, especially for the coaching staff and more so if you live in Sydney. A commute to work is a bit different in the big city compared to regional Australia!

0515 – Out the door and onto the bike, train and then bike again to the Giants home in Sydney Olympic Park, the Learning Life Centre.

0600 – Arrive in the office and begin the preparation for the day. Coaches begin to roll in, finalise preparations for the day of training and organising equipment.

0630 – Athletic Performance Unit meeting: All the physiotherapists, strength and conditioning (S&C) coaches and the Senior Assistant Coach meet to discuss the injury and wellness state of all 44 players and what individual modifications need to be made for training.

0700 – Players start to arrive. The players conduct their morning screening with the physiotherapists and record their wellness and movement scores into Smartabase. A number of players receive treatment and strapping. Plenty of jovial ribbing going on like you would expect in any family full of brothers!

Players check in with the nutritionist with some conducting a hydration test (pee in a cup), nutritional supplements are taken and weigh ins conducted.

0830 – The first training for the day starts. Warm up is run by the S&C coaches and then the Head Coach and his assistants take over. The players on rehab are put through their paces by the Rehabilitation Physiotherapist and S&C coach.

Plenty of drinks breaks with fruit on offer to keep the athletes fuelled. It is a exhausting session in the Sydney sun, as the players know that spots in the senior side are up for grabs so close to the start of the season.

1100 – End of the first training for the day. Protein shakes, water, food and rest are the priority for the next couple of hours. The onsite café takes care of the lunch needs for the athletes and staff alike. Another simple, yet effective was to build the family environment within the club.

Players use this time to catch up with coaches and the player welfare staff as well. Many are studying at University or Tafe to ensure they have a career post their athlete careers, so are juggling a student life as well.

1300 – Afternoon rotations begin. Players are split into three groups, rotating through a gym strength session, a wrestling session and a robustness session, each lasting around 45 minutes.

The gym strength sessions are supervised by the S&C coaches, with each player on an individual program based on their needs. The younger players focus on getting functional and basic lifting movements correct and have to ‘earn the right’ to progress to more complex lifting patterns. The more senior athletes are managed around their injuries and limitations that the years of playing have put on them!

The wrestling session is another punishing, intense session. One on one contests, ball possession, fast decision-making and reactive instincts are the name of the game.

A Week with the EliteA bit of friendly banter in training! Photo Credit: GWS Giants

Robustness is a bit calmer. This is a chance for the athletes to look after their bodies with some pressure point release, foam rolling and Pilates. Treatment from the physiotherapists and massage therapists are also on offer.

1600 – The players are spent. Hydration and food intake are priority as is getting back home to families.

The next two hours for coaches though are spent debriefing the day, finalising prep for the coming days and catching up on everything else that has dropped into their inbox over the last six hours!

1800 – Back on the bike and train for me, to do it all again tomorrow!

A Week with the Elite'Earn the Right' to lift is a key part of the S&C Program. Photo Credit: GWS Giants

In the pre-season, the players train three full days like described above and two half days. This changes once the season commences.

One day a week like this would break the majority of the population, let alone having this as your fulltime job. For first year players it is a baptism of fire and for players that are into their fifth or more season, it demonstrates pure athleticism and staying power.

What I learnt

The experience with the Giants gave me not only a further insight into what it takes to build an elite athlete and a successful club, but also some of the simple strategies that can be implemented at amateur clubs. Whilst professional sport has a wealth of coaches, medical staff and support staff alongside amazing gyms and facilities, none of this matters if the simple things aren’t done savagely well. The same principle applies to amateur clubs – the simple things must be implemented to build success, and these can be done on low resource budgets!

The focus that I saw at the Giants, was building a solid foundation of the simple things over the last five years. This enables a player centred daily training environment to be delivered where staff and players know the standards and are seeking to learn their path in the club. This is reflected in the name of the Giants training base - the Learning Life Centre. It is not a pampered environment, it is one where the athletes have to work hard for their pay and the opportunity to entertain us, the sport consumer.

An amazing experience that taught me a lot and more that I will share with you over time. 

Surround yourself with good people

This was the advice Brett Hand, Head of Development, gave me when asked what his top tip for amateur clubs wanting success was. Well, the Giants certainly have great people on board for the 2016 season!

Thanks to the GWS Giants Athletic Performance Unit for hosting me for the week, in particular, David Joyce - Head of Athletic Performance and Mick Byers - Athletic Performance Specialist. Also thanks to Head Coach, Leon Cameron and the entire coaching staff and players for welcoming me into their family.

© 2019 Paul Mead