Interview with Tom Hooper, Strength and Conditioning Coach

Rugby Blindside spoke with Tom Hooper a Strength and Conditioning coach working on the South coast. He gave us his thoughts on best practices for players staying healthy and match-ready in these unusual times with no competitive matches.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got involved in rugby?

I’ve been fortunate enough that my family got me into rugby from an early age with my local club Hove RFC for which I coach currently. I have played both locally and overseas up until 4 years ago and I’ve been coaching for nearly 10 years now.

What is your current role?

I am currently an Academy Strength & Conditioning coach at Cardinal Newman School in Brighton and Hove. I also run a programme for Rugby players from the ages of 13-18 years of age as part of Newman Trailfinders Academy for which I thoroughly enjoy.

What is your coaching philosophy/coaching fundamentals?

My current philosophy is to educate and equip individuals with knowledge and comprehensive principles to reach their optimal levels of performance for rugby. I believe the basics are never to be neglected and you should consistently have them incorporated as part of your annual programme as a non-negotiable.

Youth athletes especially need educating on the rationales behind exercises that have been prescribed for them. Creating habits is so valuable for players as they grow up, there’s no better way than to have them educated at a young age so they can adapt quickly as they carry on their learning pathway.

We are in strange times with many players facing a lack of game time. How are you currently managing players’ conditioning levels?

A lot of my training principles are based around being accountable and taking ownership. I have been fortunate that managing player expectations has been quite easy. I put a plan in place from the beginning of the season to account for any unforeseen circumstances that may occur.

Having a framework and outlining specific work ons as part of the players’ individual development plans has been key to managing workloads effectively. Supporting these with weekly coaching calls with them has been great, setting them individual tasks and giving them time to reflect on how the week has gone has been a great tool for me.

I always like to make everything engaging, team focused and fun for anything goal specific to be achieved.

Many clubs at the grassroots level don’t have the benefit of having a dedicated strength and conditioning coach. What’s your advice to these clubs to help manage players levels?

Planning and being structured about your players development is very important. Their well-being should be a 1st port of call for any coach, by educating not dictating you’ll see results from the start. Build a consistent framework with a long-, medium- and short-term strategy behind it that follows the S.M.A.R.T principles your life will be a lot easier.

So following this;

S – Specific

Are your goals specific and do you have the right measures in place that are aligned to fit for your players?

M – Measurable

It comes down to the planning methods you use to track your progress. This is normally across Short, Medium, and Long Term parameters as mentioned above.

A – Achievable

Can it be done? Of course, anything is attainable if you want it badly enough.

R – Realistic

Is it something you can realistically say is going to associate with your specific demands for the sport that you are training for. Are the training methods in place relevant to the players?

T – Time

Over how long you see yourself completing these goals is important but do not let time be an issue. The goalposts can change as long as you’re aware of this.

Finally, be unique and don’t follow the crowd with what another club may be doing. If It’s not engaging, 9 times out of 10 players have seen it all so I advise you spend time devising a detailed schedule how you see fit and work from that but have space for changes.

What challenges do you think clubs will face with the return to rugby programme?

I think a lot of clubs experience challenges daily even in the general climate. More so now as we are restricted, clubs will be finding it tougher. By not having a plan in place they will see a vast number of players drop off due to the lack of engagement through tough times. Lack of exercise during the tough times might expose muscular imbalances in players. Not having conditioned players will significantly reduce their ability to carry out general tasks on command.

Injuries are sadly part of the game. What methods do you have to try and help prevent injuries/help players recover after an injury?

Injury prevention is a big thing for me as I work with youth athletes. Their bodies need to become accustomed to heavier workloads. During a growth phase their bodies are likely, if not monitored correctly, to become more susceptible to injuries.

I encourage the players to focus on the areas they can control not the ones out of their control. Educating them on key principles of mobility, health and using mental preparation exercises they can be accustomed to both sides of the coin and are able to maintain high levels of performance.

Managing player expectations is very important both when healthy and injured. We run mobility assessments periodically to see how players are developing and use a pre-developed framework to support this area of focus. By addressing the weaknesses straight away we can implement the correct strategy to reduce the risk of injury.

And finally, what are your goals as a strength and conditioning coach?

To continually keep educating and equipping young rugby players with the correct exercise principles to stay fit, healthy and game ready all the time so they can prolong their playing careers.