Gareth Cauldwell fires the questions at Enniskillen man Ryan Whitley, S&C Coach at the Brisbane Broncos, on his journey so far

GC: Ryan what first got you interested in Strength and Conditioning?
RW: I’ve always found the concept of increasing ones physical abilities interesting. It’s somewhat an obvious statement, but what athlete, no matter their chosen discipline, doesn’t want to increase their capacity to improve? 
I realised at the time of taking my A levels in 2002 that strength training methodology was becoming wide spread. 
The thing is it was so poorly understood in UK and Ireland at the time that no one was able to advise on potential career paths. Only the University of Edinburgh and a few other select institutions had post graduate degrees in the specialised field of Strength and Conditioning. With enthusiasm and drive that quickly became my end goal.

GC: How did you go about becoming a Strength and Conditioning coach?
RW: I immersed myself in as much sports science, exercise physiology and strength training methodology as possible. If I’m honest, everything else took a back seat, I knew what my goal was and I was determined to achieve it. I decided that I would begin increasing my technical expertise in the gym. I videoed my Olympic lifts, squats, deadlifts and honed them until I was happy with my technical proficiency. I completed my undergraduate degree in Sports and Exercise, closely followed by a postgraduate in Strength and Conditioning.
This was such a busy time, I compare it to groundhog day - study in the morning, lift in the gym, internship at the Scottish Institute of Sport/Edinburgh Rugby, study in the afternoon, swimming lessons to make bread, sleep, repeat. 
The last ticket was my United Kingdom Strength and Conditioning Accreditation. I truly derived more satisfaction from attaining that accreditation than I did from any of my previous studies.

GC: What sports were you interested in when you were younger?
RW: Anyone that knows me from the town will know that I swam competitively with the Enniskillen Lakelanders. This earned me the unfortunate nickname of ‘Fish’ from the boys I played football with. You never forget where you come from and this reference is only unique to when I return home. 
I was also fortunate enough to play football with Ballinamallard United Football Club and played at the old Milk Cup for Fermanagh.
Honestly, some of the talent produced in this County is outstanding. I’ve always thought it a shame that the ability to improve physical performance isn’t always available to some of these capable athletes. 

GC: I remember you working with Enniskillen Gaels when Dom Corrigan was manager. In general, is it important to get out and get that practical experience?
RW: Practical experience is the cornerstone to becoming a successful coach. I am thankful to a long list of names in the local area for providing me a platform to increase my expertise. Over two separate six month periods before my postgraduate degree and before leaving for Harvard University I was privileged to work with many of Fermanagh’s top coaching talent.
Dom Corrigan has been there, done it and seen it all. His professionalism and passion for Gaelic football is infectious and his accomplishments speaks volumes for the game in Fermanagh.
Whitey Anderson and John Quinn were pivotal in bringing me back to Ballinamallard United FC. Together their work in developing local talent and giving them the platform to play at the highest level in Northern Ireland is praiseworthy.
Steven McCluskey and Rory O’Donnell were forward thinking in bringing me in to work with Fermanagh minors and senior hurling. Perhaps, looking back this was a harder transition to make having never played the game, but the beauty is that improvements made in physical performance are universal. 
The one thing that links all these top coaches is their drive and enthusiasm to improve on field performance. Technical, tactical and physical elements all amount to either success or failure.

GC: You went on to work with Sport Institute Northern Ireland (SINI). How did you get involved in that?
RW: Following a successful period working at Harvard University in Boston I had an opportunity to apply for a role at Sport Institute Northern Ireland. My idea was I wanted to work with the best practitioners in my profession. These are the people I need to spend time with and learn from. It just so happened that the group I worked with there were so far ahead of their time, we pushed and challenged each other every day.
That same group have went on to be extremely successful within head roles at British Athletics, British Swimming, British Cycling, International Rugby and Aussie rules football.

GC: At SINI you got work with the likes of Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan among others. How was that?
RW: Irish Boxing doesn’t get anywhere near enough coverage on this little island of ours. This is the most successful sport at European Championships, World Championships and Olympic level. It’s a testament to the boxers and the coaches that work with them to the success they have attained. Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan are well known for their exploits in the amateur ranks but these guys have a work ethic that is hard to match in any sport. I was privileged and honoured to work with them. Their daily training schedules where immense, so much time, effort and discipline went into their success.

GC: From there you moved on to Cardiff Blues as their Head of S&C for four years. Strength and Conditioning seems to be such a big part of rugby, how did you adapt to it?
RW: Rugby and Strength and Conditioning are made for one another. A massive component is in the preparation of your players for game day. If you get this badly wrong then the outcome will always be negative. There is a lot of research now that looks at monitoring training loads, how much we run, how fast we run, how many accelerations, how many decelerations. The reality is that the human body is volatile organism. So many confounding variables play into how that body responds to training, rest and recovery. 
Too much training load is a bad thing for one athlete, but another athlete may require that increased training load to be ready and prepared to play. These mechanisms lead to how fast someone runs, how hard they tackle, the ability to repeat and the mechanisms that may lead to injury. The job in season becomes management, the better you get at this the more successful you will be. You need to be creative, you need to be reactive, you need to adapt to the schedule and what you may encounter in terms of worst case scenarios. This is the exciting part of working in professional sport. It’s not for everyone.

GC: How did you enjoy your time at Cardiff?
RW: I look back fondly at my time in Cardiff, in truth it defined who I would become as a Coach and my ethos as an individual. The measure of success for me isn’t in the numbers, what someone can squat, how fast they run and how fit they are. It’s about developing professional athletes to sustain a long career, watch them grow and develop as strong willed individuals and watch them climb the professional ladder into International arenas. 
You have great shining examples for young players in the environment you work in. I would tell them watch Sam Warburton or Gethin Jenkins, these individuals set the professional standards. My preferred method is developing lasting relationships, increasing trust and buy in. An athlete that trusts and knows you have their best interests at heart will always work so much harder for you.

GC: It was then on to Australia and the Brisbane Broncos in the NRL. Rugby League is obviously huge in Australia and the Broncos are a massive club but was it a hard decision to move to the other side of the world or was it too good an opportunity to turn down?
RW: I looked at it like this. If you truly believe you are good at your profession, then go challenge yourself. Prove to yourself you can move to a different country, with a diverse culture, a different outlook and new environment. If you can accept that challenge and come out the other end, then maybe you’re alright at what you do.
However, in saying all that it brings to mind the paradox, the more we think we know about something, the less we know about it.

GC: In terms of your job, is there much difference in the two rugby codes in preparing the players?
RW: So much in terms of developing strength qualities remains a constant. It’s a collision sport, therefore you have to be big, strong, powerful and fast. 
The Rugby League player is more homogeneous as a group therefore the trainable qualities are closer matched than in Rugby Union. It’s all relative but think of a prop who weighs 130kg versus the scrum half who weighs 82kg in union. In Rugby League the lightest adjustable may be 90kg versus the heaviest prop at 118kg. Different competitive demands are placed on the player. Rugby League is played in a 10m channel this means more collisions, tackles, accelerations and change of directions. Rugby Union has greater demands in terms set piece (scrums and lineout) and contact area (the ruck). You train players to suit the demands of the game. All this is reflected in the programming and what each individual needs to be game ready.

GC: Working with a big club such as the Brisbane Broncos in elite level sport must bring with it a degree of pressure. I would imagine for the S&C team it is about having each player in peak condition to perform.
RW: The pressure from the media is intense. In my career I’ve never seen such constant scrutiny of coaching staff, players personal lives and speculation surrounding future comings and goings. It’s comparable to the English Premier League. You need to remember that NRL is the biggest sport in Australia, it’s tribal, a religion to the working classes and the supporters that follow it.  Home games see a gate on average of around 40,000 supporters, not a Rugby club in any code of the game see such fervent support.
The objective of our physical performance department in any given week is to ensure peak physical performance. Our job is to control the controllables and deal with whatever information we derive from the training week. No Rugby League player will ever play at 100 per cent, it’s just the nature of the beast. 

GC: You have also had the chance to work with the legendary Wayne Bennett. How have you found that?
RW: Wayne Bennett for those who are unaware is a legend of the Brisbane Broncos. I’d best describe him as the Alex Ferguson of Rugby League. An inspirational character who values culture, self awareness and developing the person first. 
He is widely regarded as one of the sport’s greatest ever coaches and holds the record for most grand final wins (7). He’s been with the Broncos for 24 years in two separate spells accumulating 800 plus games in Rugby League.
Working with such an influential and respected figure is one of many reasons I made the move. The man doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

GC: What are your hopes for your time with the Broncos?
RW: I went with the intention to prove to myself that I was capable of integrating into a new culture. I’ve developed a lot of self awareness and confidence out of my achievements. The process in which they approached me for the role was professional and the interview procedure was rigorous. That doesn’t matter so much when it’s done, it’s more about the impact I could have on the people I work with and the ability to the job. Have conviction in your abilities and labours.

GC: S&C would appear to be a field that is fiercely competitive and is ever evolving, is it a case that as a coach of always looking to evolve with it or get left behind?
RW: My motto has always been do the basics, but do them better than everyone else. That gets you in the door, the rest comes from creativity and innovation. The laws of physical adaptation state that a new stimulus must be applied to derive progressive outcomes. Essentially this means we need to constantly look for new methods (scientific and theoretical) to increase those metrics associated with physical performance. However, we never lose sight of what our basic principles and philosophies are. I’m fortunate to have worked with some of the best S&C practitioners in world sport, you learn from everyone you meet, no matter the experience you evolve.

GC: What advice would you give any young lads in Fermanagh who aspire to get involved in this field of work?
RW: Thousands of students in the UK and Ireland graduate each year with a degree in Sports and Exercise Science. Where do they expect to end up in an industry that is so saturated? The obsession to work in professional sport is undeniable, you live and work in a positively charged environment that is ever changing.
The reality is without a postgraduate degree in Strength and Conditioning or Sports Science it is going to be difficult to get through the sifting criteria for these jobs. You’ll find that essential criteria will list UKSCA accreditation and at least two years experience for entry level jobs. Where do you get this experience if you don’t have access to these professional environments? Internships are mostly unpaid and require sacrifice, you may even be so unlucky to intern with an organisation that don’t even make it worthwhile and don’t invest in you.
In saying that, it is possible. My advice is to get out there and coach, coach anyone and everyone, make mistakes, learn from them. Refine your methods and your philosophies, don’t settle or become comfortable in what you’re doing. Send emails to practitioners with a good reputation, if they don’t reply, send them again until you get an answer. If you don’t get an answer, so what, email someone else and tell them you’re enthusiastic and willing to learn. It’s hard to deny anyone that shows passion and an openness to develop.
Read texts by world renowned authors, submerge yourself in scientific literature, lift weights and be systematic in how you would coach them.
 Coach yourself, video yourself, video who you’re coaching, analyse and dissect what you see. How can you improve it?.
If you can, get that undergraduate degree, move on to your postgraduate degree. Do all that but still find time to coach, find that internship or a mentor, find work in amateur or semi professional team. They want your expertise so be confident in your conviction. If you can’t go to University get your UKSCA accreditation, do the modules, take the test.
Live that groundhog day life.