This is the 11th instalment of a series of interviews with industry leaders in fields such as Strength & Conditioning, Coaching, Physical Therapy, Sports Psychology, Nutrition & Physical Education.
In this interview we hear from the UK born, now based in Tokyo, the new Strength & Conditioning Coach for Toshiba in the Japan Rugby League, also known in the industry as the ‘Rubgy Strength Coach’, Keir Wenham-Flatt.
I came to know of Keir through the wonderful world of the little blue bird, Twitter. Although I’m not a rugby aficionado, he instantly drew my interest due to his willingness to challenge the norms in the industry and basically call a ‘spade a spade’. Kier’s global resume in physical preparation is extensive and matched by few and his online following is gaining steam daily. If you follow his blog closely, he is happy to discuss the various training methods and principles specific to rugby (and all sports), but he is also advancing the industry by giving back to the young (and old) and aspiring coaches through his ongoing honest advice about what it takes to ‘make it’ in the field, amongst a range of other issues too.
Without having met Keir before, he clearly ‘talks the talk, and walks the walk’. He has put in the time in the industry, worked his way from the bottom to the top and got plenty of skin in the game. Keir’s network of colleagues are some of the biggest names in the industry and so when the RugbyStrengthCoach speaks, tweets or posts… You should listen!
Enjoy the interview!
Since you have bounced around the globe quite a bit, can you share with the readers a little bit of your background?
I’m a UK born and bred strength and conditioning coach currently plying my trade in the Japanese top league with Toshiba Brave Lupus. Prior to that, I was lead strength and conditioning coach with Los Pumas Argentina from 2013 to the end of 2015.
I’ve also had stints with Sydney Roosters in the NRL (though I try not ot remember it!) and London Wasps, Rotherham Titans and London Scottish in the top two leagues in England.
I’ve got a couple of degrees in strength and conditioning and sport science (that I use about 10% of!), I’ve done some consulting for Premiership soccer and rugby clubs and various other organisations. I also run rugbystrengthcoach.com, which is my answer to what I think is wrong with the current state of strength and conditioning in our sport.
Strength & Conditioning and Sport Science seems to be just as popular in the UK as it is in Australia; how did you find yourself gravitating towards the world of Physical Preparation?
Because I was an extremely untalented but enthusiastic rugby player. I would have loved to played professionally, but that was never in my future. When it became obvious that was not on the cards, I decided to transition to strength and conditioning because I liked to train and I’ve always been engaged and entertained by the science of training.
How would you describe yourself in regards to Strength & Conditioning, Physical Preparation, Sport Science, Rehabilitation, Analytics? Do you cover all bases or just gravitate to one area?
I think you go through stages in your career. To break into the field you must be a generalist, because no one is going to hire you if you have glaring gaps in your skillset. So to that extent, I can get by in pretty much every area.
Once you start to establish though, you tend to specialise in one or two areas for a few reasons. First, because everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and interests which will shape the direction they move in. Secondly, it will usually fulfil a need within their club e.g. due to a spike in injuries where rehab is concerned, or a lack of information being provided to coaches if monitoring is concerned. And lastly (if you’re smart) I think it is just a rule of business that experts in something get paid better.
However, once you start to get toward leading a department, I think you have to return to being a generalist because that is your job; to integrate the various departments and specialists working within them. To evaluate them and develop the system you need to have a passing understanding of what everyone is doing. Likewise if you suddenly lose a member of staff, you need to be able to quickly fill that gap, and being oblivious will not help.
Although you are still quite young in age, you have a wealth of industry experience; can you give some insight to various mentors who have been influential towards you throughout your Physical Preparation career to date and how they have shaped your principles and philosophies?
Ian Taplin, my first boss at Wasps was a huge influence on me for various reasons. He gave me a lot of freedom to try new things and get actual coaching experience that not many interns get, as they are too busy putting kit away and doing piss tests. He was a big role model on how to deal with people within a pro club (there are a lot of egos in pro rugby and he is not one of them). Lastly, he made me realise that getting a rugby player strong is like falling out of a boat and hitting water. Real performance is developed outside of the gym.
Other people who have been hugely influential on my thinking (and I would recommend people check them out) are:
- James Smith of Global Sport Concepts
- Dave Tate and everyone at Elite FTS
- Yuri and Natalia Verkhoshansky
- Vladimir Issurin
- Louie Simmons
- Charlie Francis
- Val Nasedkin and Omegawave
- Joel Jamieson
- Dave Tenney
- Mike Boyle
- Mladen Jovanovic
- Jay DeMayo
- Buddy Morris
- David Joyce
- Yosef Johnson
- Mike Guadando
- Joe Defranco
- Dan Howells
- Mark McGlaughlin
- Landon Evans
- Cal Dietz
- Steve Magness
- The list goes on!
Before we move to your current role in Japan, most people in the industry would know (and are jealous of:), that prior to this, you were the Head of Physical Preparation for Los Pumas Argentina, who made it to the Semi-Finals of the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Can you detail how you ended up in Argentina, working in one of the most sought after High Performance positions in Rugby?
Purely by accident. I had done the EXOS performance mentorships and done a little work for them in China but I was a free agent at the time. I had just finished with English rugby and moved to Sydney with my then girlfriend.
I was in conversation with a friend of mine who was doing the Pumas at the time for EXOS, helping him out with some programming details, then he had a family emergency. I was the name he put forward as a temporary replacement, and two days later I was in Buenos Aires.
Obviously luck has played a key part in a lot of my career but I can tell you that I would 100% not have been in that position if 1) I didn’t have an online presence through my blog (no blog, no EXOS) 2) I didn’t make an effort to reach out to and stay in touch with my tutors on the EXOS mentorships 3) I wasn’t ready to drop everything and move across the world when the opportunity presented itself (and it cost me heavily r.e. that girlfriend in Sydney).
When you took over the Los Pumas, can you describe the state of Strength & Conditioning in Argentina?
Embarrassing- sloppy technique, poor load selection, no respect for rest periods, poor understanding of the science underpinning of what we were doing, no system to 90% of the programme. Whilst we had a lot of passion and enthusiasm and talent, that is not good enough to make an impact in international rugby. This was evidenced by our performances. Every now and then we could grind out a win, or push a team for 60 minutes, but then die. I like to think in our final season together that was not the case.
Can you detail a rough S&C timeline of how you took a team who historically had underperformed at previous World Cups, and helped them to almost progress to the 2015 RWC final against New Zealand?
We addressed all of the stuff above:
- Technique before load in everything. I don’t care about load if it looks like shit.
- The highest possible accuracy in load and intensity in everything we do, especially where maximal outputs of speed, strength and power are concerned.
- Stick to the science. If the science says you need 3-4 minutes for CNS recovery between sprints, it takes 3-4 minutes no matter how pushed you are for time.
- Justify every single aspect of the programme. If you can’t tell me exactly why something is going to help us to win the world cup, it doesn’t go in the programme.
We also had some philosophical changes and moved away from the traditional rugby strength and conditioning idea of equating suffering with effectiveness. We adopted a lot more a high-low model, we utilised a lot more specialisation with regard to playing position, and we made efforts to integrate that with every area of the rugby programme (no point having a low day in the gym if the guys are getting flogged on the pitch).
Then outside the immediate environment of the Pumas, we developed a 4 phase system of training that was used at all levels of the system, in all 5 regional performance centres. This means that wherever you were in the national rugby system, no matter who was coaching you, no matter what team you represented, there was a lot of consistency in the programme. That saved us a lot of time and effort in integrating players or coaches whenever there was a change. Likewise, it allowed us to identify flaws and develop the system as a team of coaches a lot faster, because there was 25 of us working in a very similar fashion, not one or two.
While preparing the Los Pumas, did you subscribe to a particular periodization/programming model or philosophy to get them ready for the Union season?
If you are in a team sport I think it is more or less a given that you will adopt a Charlie Francis style model of vertical integration. There are that many balls to juggle, and there is so little time throughout the year without games that your hand is forced. The trick is being able to dedicate enough volume and intensity to given abilities to get them to continue to progress, because if you just chuck the kitchen sink at the boys they will either soon burn out or not train with enough of a focussed stimulus.
To that end we identified key abilities we would target at each phase throughout the year, and we also drew up a chart for what we considered would be a developmental load versus a retention load (in terms of volume, intensity and frequency) for all of the abilities we were training. If it was a target ability for a given block, it got a developmental load. If it wasn’t, it got a retention load and nothing more. You can’t ride 20 saddles with one ass, so you have to be selective.
At that level, where you are dealing with National pride, how much pressure is put on you from the coaching staff to ensure all the players are displaying all the desirable physical attributes at the right time?
The pressure comes from yourself not the coaching staff, and rightly so. Nobody cares if your boys peak one week out of 8, or they look great in training but play like shit. You have to make sure that guys are as fresh as possible, as consistently as possible during competition. For that reason, I’m actually not a fan of the “X set a PB in the squat the week of the biggest game of the season” stories or videos that a lot of coaches like to applaud- the focus should be on expression of physical ability on the pitch, not just creating unnecessary fatigue in the gym. Critics may argue it gives players confidence, but so does playing well and winning!
What was the fallout or come-down like after getting agonisingly close to the final; yet still not achieving the goal?
The fall out was that we paid a very high price physically and mentally in not reaching the final and the wheels properly fell off in the final week of the competition. We lacked the mental focus to hold on for one more week, perhaps because we expended so much effort to get that far.
I believe one of the things that sets apart the top three nations from the rest is how much they are able to keep in the tank and still win at the knock out stages. You cannot have the game of your life three or four weeks in a row. It just doesn’t happen. We had the game of our lives against Ireland (and we needed to), but unfortunately either side of a peak lies a trough! You could argue the same happened to Ireland against us- they had a huge game against France in the final group game, but then struggled to get it together for the QF.
You have recently moved to Tokyo, Japan to work with the Toshiba Rugby Team, in the Japan Rugby League. Can you explain how you ended up in Tokyo and what the new role entails?
As a contractor for EXOS, when the UAR’s relationship with EXOS ended, mine did too and I was out of the job. Obviously that was very disappointing for me because of the friendships I formed over three seasons, how much potential they have as a rugby nation and how much more there is still to do. But such is life.
Towards the tail end of last year, I was contacted by an agency offering to represent me as a coach. When the UAR contract with EXOS fell through, the agency stepped up and put me forward for a number of jobs in the Japanese league. I interviewed with Toshiba, they liked what they heard and here I am.
Can you describe the transition you have experienced moving to a culture which I imagine is quite different to that of one in Europe or South America?
I’ve coached in 5 different countries now, and there are always differences between them, but the fundamentals don’t change. Rugby players always want to work hard and do well, they love doing chest and arm work, they equate suffering with effectiveness, and they like to come to work in a place where they feel valued and important, and where they can have fun.
With that said there are some small differences that set Japan apart from the rest, mostly in communication style. In a month of training I have yet to be asked a question by a player at the end of a demo or explanation. Either they are S&C experts or they don’t like to speak up!
Similarly, the mantra of “praise in public, criticise in private” is a big one, which I like. People know when they have fucked up- you don’t need to draw attention to it, because it serves no one IMHO.
Lastly, there is a big culture of teamwork and respect, more so than European or Australian rugby. Perhaps this is because the boys are mostly amateurs with day jobs, or the Japanese culture, but there are no egos and there is no hesitation to sacrifice one’s own interests for those of the team.
Can you discuss any commonalities to the style or type of S&C which you have seen delivered in Japan, compared to what you have experienced elsewhere?
Mostly the stuff I disagree with rugby S&C the world over- improper training of maximal outputs, especially speed and power, excessive emphasis on glycolytic energy pathway development, poor adherence to a high-low model of training, poor integration between on-field and off-field activity.
Those are the big things we are working on right now: maximising the quality of everything we do, keeping the highs HIGH and the lows LOW, adopting an aerobic-alactic model of conditioning for 90% of the year, and creating harmony between all departments to ensure we do not pull the players in a several physiological directions at once. There is only one programme, not many.
From a Physical Preparation or High Performance point of view, what excites you about working in a new environment in Japan?
They have a huge population, lots of resources, massive enthusiasm and a fairly short season, which means you aren’t running players into the ground 10 months of the year like France. That means you actually get a decent amount of time to make them better.
I also think that they will progress to a model whereby players are only eligible if they are contracted to the Sunwolves (National squad, similar to Jaguares), which can only mean good things for the performance of the national squad. When you have that degree of control and access to your players (like NZ effectively have) it makes it a LOT easier.
Most industry professionals know you as the RugbyStrengthCoach; can you discuss what initially made you want to start such an innovative website with features such as Online Coaching and various Webinars and Podcasts?
Poverty. Pure and simple. When I was interning fulltime for a year for free, I used to make cash on the side writing programmes for rugby players and just general population people too (at about 10% of what I charge now ha ha). As my experience grew within the sport, more and more players came to me, so I could be more and more selective in only working with rugby guys. Eventually I set up the rugby strength coach website in late 2013.
Initially this was targeted to players only, but after around a year I decided to switch mostly to coach education and development. Honestly, I find it a lot more engaging intellectually, there is a bigger market and appetite for that kind of information, and also it is my way to try and make a positive contribution to the profession. I am quite critical of some aspects of professional strength and conditioning and it would be hypocritical to do so and not try to offer an alternative. So I try to do that.
What have you found to be the most bang for buck type of ‘Strength’ or ‘Conditioning’ work for the athletes you are now or have previously worked with?
To be a truly elite player, the gym is not the deciding factor. I could tell you some stories about top international players in the gym that would make you raise an eyebrow about just how weak they were. You can find impressively strong players at every level of the game. I could go out now and find you 20 players in the UK academy system benching 180 or squatting 200+, but the vast majority of them will never get capped.
The real stuff that sets elite players apart is their technical and tactical development as rugby players. However, if we are talking purely physical development, the stuff that sets people apart is speed and power (ignoring the front row here- those three guys DO need to be strong). Whilst strength is useful to develop these qualities in the first couple of years of heavy training, after that you have to train in a more specific manner.
To that end, learn how to sprint and learn how to wrestle. If you can master these skills, enhanced technical ability will increase your power output anyway, but the training itself (if done correctly) will provide a highly specific stimulus, and you’ll also decrease your energy expenditure at a given level of output, increasing the sustainability of high intensity efforts. If you have sprinting and wrestling covered, you are well prepared for almost every high intensity effort on the pitch.
What advice would you give to young and aspiring Physical Preparation coaches?
Decide if you really want this. The competition is at such a level now that wages have been driven down to insultingly low levels, and unless you get lucky, you will be waiting YEARS to get a decent opportunity. So don’t get into this field because you think it is glamorous, or it is well paid, or you’ll waste several years of your life disappointing yourself.
If I haven’t put you off, and you still want in, next step is to realise the value of relationships. People want to work with people they know, like and trust- their friends. If you’re a great coach but a dick who doesn’t know how to work with people, I hope you like being unemployed.
Better relationships will not only open you up to job opportunities, it will help you to get the best out of your athletes and fellow members of staff, because you catch more flies with sugar than you do with shit!
Lastly, the strength of your relationships will expose you to more people who are willing to share their knowledge, skills and experience with you and make you a better coach.
Personally, I spent the first two years of my career thinking that if I was just good enough I would rise to the top. Then I read Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi and it changed my life. It is far better to be the guy or girl with the relationships and the network than the guy or girl with the technical ability. Even better is to be the guy with it all.
Just before we finish up I know you are a big social media guy BUT what are your favourite/current industry blogs/books to read, or recommend others to read?
Steve Magness, James Smith, Mladen Jovanovic, Martin Bingisser, Joel Jamieson, Central Virginia Sports Performance (run by my friend Jay DeMayo) and Shawn Myszka amongst others all run great blogs.
Podcast-wise I like to listen to Mark Watts at Elite FTS (though he has since moved on), Rob Pacey, CVASPS, Well Travelled Wellness by Jake Schuster and Ultimate Athlete Concepts. My favourite non training podcast is The Tim Ferriss Experiment because I think as a field we can learn a lot from other fields like big business.
You have recently posted various humorous tweets about interactions you have had in Japan; can you list your Top 5 funniest moments since arriving in Tokyo? (my favourite was the short hair cut).
- Not being able to sit on a toilet that ISN’T one of those electrically warmed, arse washing robots.
- They really do all use the peace sign when they have their photograph taken.
- I still get asked for my ID every time I enter the company facility even though I’m the only English white person with tattoos and rugby kit in a company of 10,000 people. Apparently we white people all look alike 😉
- As you mentioned, my Japanese needs work. Went to get my hair cut and pantomimed may way through “Short on the sides, long on top please” and I left with a zero all over.
- Funny foreign story but Argentinian. My mate dropped me off outside the hotel to get showered and changed before we went to lunch. I rushed upstairs, got ready, then rushed down again. When I got outside the hotel, he had moved his car a little but I quickly got in, only to look up and see that I had gotten into the wrong car. The owner thought he was being car jacked, shit himself and literally fell out of the drivers side into the middle of the road (remember, Buenos Aires is a city where it is less hassle to shoot first before you jack the car). I got out of the car apologising profusely, with this guy shouting at me in Spanish. My mate watched it all from his car (exactly the same make, model and colour) and found it hilarious.
Thanks to Keir for contributing to the College Strength & Conditioning Blog. I wish him all the best with his new role with Toshiba Rugby. Follow Kier at all the social media platforms below!
iTunes: Rugby Strength Coach Podcast