Connacht enjoying fresh perspective with new performance skills coach

‘Athletes can either talk themselves into something or talk themselves out of something.

Andy Friend watches over squad training in Galway.
Andy Friend watches over squad training in Galway.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

CONNACHT HEAD COACH Andy Friend speaks about his backroom team’s job as a three-pronged approach to guiding a group of athletes towards the peak of their powers.

The Body. The Craft. The Mind.

The first pillar focuses on the physical conditioning and everything that, quite literally in some cases, feeds into that. Craft refers to the skill of playing the game of rugby itself, the point at which the body is to be directed.

The Mind, as in all walks of life, is a far less tangible element and often more difficult to improve and strengthen. In search of a few marginal gains, Friend’s extensive rolodex led him to call on Jack Birtwhistle this year.

“He’s a fella who worked for a mate of mine in Australia,” says Friend in typically low-key tones.

Now he calls Birtwhistle his colleague and Performance Skills coach.
I rang him out of the blue. An hour and a half later we’d had a really enlightened chat about performance skills, mental skills and how athletes can either talk themselves into something or talk themselves out of something.”

Sports psychology has taken a formal place at the top level of Irish rugby for well over a decade and, in Connacht, Aidan O’Flynn has been heading up the promotion of mindset in the senior and academy squads. The independent body Rugby Players Ireland also work closely with the professional squads to drive initiatives in mental health and wellbeing.

Birtwhistle’s name comes up when prop Paddy McAllister touched on the mental approach in this unique season during yesterday’s virtual press conference. Speaking separately, McAllister and Friend inadvertently offer up the same example of one tweak the new coach has made in the squad’s thinking. 

paddy-mcallister Paddy McAllister at Connacht training. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“I always struggled, even if it’s a bus journey, travelling to a game on the same day,” says McAllister.

And these days, Covid prevention protocols mean that one-day treks to and from games are commonplace. There are no more routine overnight stays in Wales or Scotland to keep players from being in transit in the hours before kick-off.

Birtwhistle simply reshaped the perspective on the pros rather than the cons of the journey.

“If we were to travel to Rodney Parade,” Friend says of a travel plan that was scrapped due to last week’s postponement, “we’d have left about 9.30 in the morning and get home about midnight. 

“That can actually play on people’s minds. But the way Jack put it to the group was, ‘what are the positives?”

The group-think offered up the benefits of players sleeping in their own beds, seeing their loved ones or just eating their own breakfast at their own kitchen tables.

“Something as simple as that,” Friend adds, “if you leave it in silence, you start to think ‘we can’t do this.’ We trick ourselves.”

The refreshed approach worked a treat for Connacht in their impressive win away to Edinburgh last month. Two postponements since that result mean opportunities to test it out again have been thin on the ground. McAllister is keen to give it another go.

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“I really bought into that, made myself plan for that day of travel. It worked massively for me personally.

“It will be interesting to see the next day, if I implement the same programme for my day, will it work as well, will I feel as fresh?”

This weekend Connacht will have all the comforts of home, Sportsground included, when they face the Scarlets on Saturday.

Friend will have to wait to see if any players will be released back to him after Ireland meet Wales on Friday.

Kieran Marmion was not in the Ireland 23 named yesterday and his return west would be timely as scrum-half Caolin Blade is out of Saturday’s tie with a hamstring issue sustained in a competitive training ground hit-out during their run without a fixture.

If Marmion remains with Dave Heffernan, Quinn Roux and Finlay Bealham in Ireland camp then Stephen Kerins will step in to partner Jack Carty.

About the author:

Sean Farrell

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