Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership

Become A Member
Dublin: 0°C Thursday 6 May 2021

Here's how Connacht are making the best of training from home

The province’s head of athletic performance, David Howarth, explains the new norm.

AS IT BECAME increasingly clear last month that everyone was going to have to work from home, Connacht got busy figuring out which players needed what equipment.

Questionnaires were distributed and players filled them out on a ‘Have – Need – Want’ basis.

What equipment they already had at home, what they felt they needed as a bare minimum to train, and what they ideally wanted on top of that.

David Howarth, the province’s head of athletic performance, and his team then got stuck in on a manic Friday as they distributed every single bit of the equipment from the province’s gym at the Sportsground.

a-view-of-the-gym-session Connacht's gym, pictured last December here, currently lies empty and bare. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“Hyperaware” of hygiene protocols, Howarth and co. disinfected each item, Connacht’s players came into the gym one at a time with all the doors and windows open, staying well clear of the S&C staff, collected their various barbells, weighted plates, dumbbells, kettlebells, and bands, then headed home.

For the bigger equipment, kit man Martin Joyce was called in, with the inside of his van completely disinfected before he ferried Watt bikes, rowing machines, and more out to players’ houses.

Howarth jokes that he was emotional watching Connacht’s “glorious house of gains” being dismantled but each player is now happily training away as the province settles into the new norm.

“The boys have set up their home gyms and we were specific about it – if there are three guys living in a house together, those programmes line up so they can work out together,” explains Howarth, an Australian who joined the province from NBA side Oklahoma City Thunder in 2017.

“Other guys are on their own so we maybe prioritised a little bit more equipment for them.

“Then you’ve got the Finlay Bealhams of the world, who has been developing an amazing home gym. There’s an Instagram page called Garage Gym Reviews and I reckon he should aspire to what he puts out.”

Some players have added to their gyms by buying in new equipment, including out-half Jack Carty sourcing an Assault AirBike for himself and house-mate Jonny Murphy.

Howarth explains that Connacht have individualised players’ programmes and are taking avail of the chance to do four to five days of solid athletic training at a time of the year when they would usually be tapering down S&C sessions on Thursdays and Fridays in order to allow players to be fresh for games.

With senior strength and conditioning coach Johnny O’Connor leading the programming, Connacht’s players are working on their own athletic strengths and weaknesses, whether slanted more towards lifting weights or fitness and conditioning.

“Johnny has done a fantastic job of this, he’s the guy who is really getting into the detail and digging into what these guys need to work on,” says Howarth.

david-howarth Connacht's head of athletic performance, David Howarth. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“Whereas generally at this time, it might be a little bit more generic and you’re looking to cut down on time in the gym to maximise the time on the field, we’ve been able to flip that.

“Let’s take Finlay Bealham with that really cool set-up as an example. He’s working through an [ankle] injury rehab right now but he’s also got an opportunity to add some really good lean mass, to add a little more upstairs, he can really go after that.

“He can do an extra top-up, go in there a second time in the day and do this 15-minute quick-hitter that he may not get in the Sportsground during the season depending on what he’s able to do.

“Then you have someone like John Porch, whose weapon is his dynamic speed and power. We’re able to work on his single leg work now, really exploding out of the ground and doing dynamic movements, so he’s got that programmed in.”

Howarth and his team – which also includes Barry O’Brien – need to keep track of who is doing what and he’s extremely thankful for the quality of technology in that regard.

Connacht are using WhatsApp, FaceTime, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams to keep in touch with players. Howarth says the IRFU have also sourced a “really cool tool” called Push, which allows Connacht and the other provinces to distribute programmes along with video clips to show players each exercise on the app. The players can then log their data as they go through sessions.

On top of that, Connacht are continuing with their regular routine of players logging ‘wellness’ markers - how they’re feeling, any soreness, weight, sleep, etc. – twice a week into another app so the province’s staff know if any individuals need support.

Howarth stresses that the feedback side of things is not a Big Brother focus, more about being able to coach players.

“Everyone’s finding their feet and I think it’s really easy right now to over-communicate and start pestering people. We’re cognisant of giving the players space to go and do their work but checking-in and coaching them where it’s appropriate and needed.”

Meanwhile, injured players’ rehab programmes continue in a similar manner, with video footage to guide them through the process. Another new tool, the Telehab app, has been useful.

matt-healy-and-niyi-adeolokun Niyi Adeolokun and Matt Healy in the Connacht gym last summer. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Everything Connacht do in the coming weeks is aimed towards having them ready to return to collective training on 18 May, the target date for all of Irish rugby. They’re very aware that could change, but it gives them a goal for now.

Once they’re back at their training facilities together, it’s been agreed that all Pro14 teams will have a six-week run in period before any games, allowing them to build up their contact work and, hopefully, avoid injuries.

Howarth is honest in saying that six weeks is not ideal but “it’s probably enough to be able to train up to the point where we are able to perform at a reasonably high level.”

He’s confident that Connacht’s players will return in good condition if it is to be 18 May.

“In the last two years, we have taken slightly longer [summer] breaks than the other teams in Ireland and the Pro14,” says Howarth.

Be part
of the team

Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership.

Become a Member

“We’ve done that because we feel able to trust the guys to do their work. We give them the GPS units and ask them to log the programmes. That means that the stuff we’re asking them to do now isn’t completely new, it’s more familiar.

“I have supreme confidence that when the guys do come back into the environment, they will be ready to go.”

Meanwhile, Connacht’s rugby staff are working with the players to keep them engaged in their ‘craft’ of playing the game – even if that is impossible in a physical sense at present.

As an example, Howarth explains that he is working with defence coach Peter Wilkins to ensure players will be physically ready to go back into tackling, while Wilkins and performance analyst Simon Kavanagh are producing videos for the players to keeping them thinking about the game.

The players also have rugby balls to work on their passing or at least be handling a ball. Kickers have been figuring out ways to work on their technique – Carty has been kicking into a net in his back garden.

Connacht’s personal development coach, Aidan O’Flynn, is working with the players on mindfulness and awareness training, while Rugby Players Ireland’s Deirdre Lyons is also contributing to that mental side of things.

The westerners are working hard to stay connected as a playing group and organisation on Zoom and WhatsApp, with head coach Andy Friend even organising virtual dinner parties.

Howarth and the athletic development team will be outlining weekly physical challenges for everyone to take part in, with O’Connor setting a high standard by doing his in a shirt, tie and jacket last week.

Howarth led a webinar today on scheduling, something that is a challenge for everyone right now, as Connacht strive to maintain the sense of community they’ve worked hard to create under Friend.

Howarth explains that when he joined Connacht, the athletic performance team picked out three major themes to hold themselves accountable to – environment, collaboration and innovation.

With the new environment of home gyms in place, collaboration having moved online, and innovation absolutely necessary, those themes have never been more relevant.

Howarth stresses that Connacht are “not delusional” about how worrying a time this is in Ireland and underlines that they will play their part by staying at home, but he says the province are taking a positive mindset.

“You could sit on your hands and think, ‘When is this going to pass?’ and let the anxiety build up and turn into fear.

“Or you can say ‘We’ve got all of this time, all of this opportunity, let’s come out of this better.’”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

Read next:


This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel