Irish Abroad

'It's going to be tough, so this has to be the players' bit of escape'

Bristol Bears’ head of athletic performance, Kevin Geary, explains how the club is training remotely.

TOMORROW, PREMIERSHIP SIDE Bristol Bears begin their second week of what Pat Lam’s team are terming ‘active rest’ away from the club’s training base.

In short, all players and staff are working from home. That means Bristol’s head of athletic performance, Irishman Kevin Geary, has been flat out organising, planning, distributing equipment, and keeping in touch with players.

Not being able to train together is now a major challenge for professional rugby clubs around the world, but Geary – who previously worked with Munster and Ulster – explains that Bristol have tackled it with an optimistic mindset.

“We’re trying to be as positive as possible and making sure that training is one of the good parts of the guys’ days,” explains Geary, who joined Bristol last summer. “If you’re sat at home reading Twitter non-stop, watching the news, there’s very little upside.

harlequins-v-bristol-bears-200919 Bristol Bears' head of athletic performance, Kevin Geary. Patrick Khachfe Patrick Khachfe

“It’s about getting out, getting moving, getting some endorphins going and taking a break. It might be trickier if there are more restrictions but we’ve started off well. We’re all staying in contact and keeping everyone optimistic, that’s Pat’s philosophy.”

Bristol dismantled their gym at Cribbs Causeway earlier this week, sending training equipment – Wattbikes, rowing machines, dumbbells, barbells, resistance bands, and more – to players’ homes for use in the coming weeks.

Geary and his six-strong athletic performance team have had to order in new equipment to cater for everyone but the players have already started training remotely with individualised programmes.

The Premiership has been suspended until 14 April but everyone is aware that could be extended. For now, Bears are getting on with things and players will train on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays within structured programmes.

Each day starts with every Bears player contacting the club’s medical staff online or over the phone before 8.30am to let them know how they and everyone else in their homes are feeling.

“The player’s health is our number one priority,” says Geary.

Training follows on from that interaction, with workloads adapted or stopped for players who are feeling symptoms. Otherwise, they can plough on with their programmes, though Geary stresses that Bristol are cognisant of not pushing them to much or limiting their regular diets at this time.

“Training really hard will drop your immune system and so will dropping carbohydrate intake, so we’re keeping the latter close to normal and not training like it’s pre-season.”

As things stand, players can leave their homes for running sessions – alone or in groups of two or three, distanced 10 metres apart – and skill work is included. Geary has been working closely with Lam’s coaching staff to cater for that.

“Everyone has a rugby ball each,” explains Geary, who has also worked with Ireland A and the Wolfhounds. “They’re not allowed to pass to each other but they have a ball in their hands and have individual skills work given to them by the coaches.

exeter-chiefs-v-bristol-bears-gallagher-premiership-sandy-park Pat Lam is Bristol's director of rugby. Simon Galloway Simon Galloway

“The kickers can still kick at the moment. And then guys doing running sessions would have built-in skill work, maybe kicking the ball above themselves to work on their high-ball catches.

“Forwards, for example, will do scrummaging positions in between runs, keeping those good habits and getting that loading in their feet by pushing against a fench or something solid.

“Others might do lineout jumps, so lads won’t come back into team training without having jumped, having been in a scrummaging positions, or caught a high ball for weeks. That’s where it would bite us.”

Each player has their own GPS unit so Geary and his team will have clear data on how much work they’ve done whenever Bristol return to collective training, allowing the S&C team to adapt their gradual return to playing.

Through this period, Bristol will run video conferences and keep in touch via their WhatsApp groups, while there are plans for quizzes and other fun activities to keep everyone connected.

At a time when pay cuts are a reality in rugby as much as in other walks of life, helping players to take care of their mental health is vital.

Bristol have planned for the possibility of a total lockdown where players have to train completely indoors. With many living in apartments without gardens, that will be a challenge but Geary has it covered.

The reality is that players will be without any form of contact work for weeks and that will be one of the trickiest challenge if clubs are hoping to get back playing in the coming months.

The current situation presents a unique challenge for Geary. It’s not something he could have foreseen when moving to Bristol from Ulster last summer, exactly 10 years to the day that he had shifted to the northern province from his native Munster.

A Cobh man, Geary grew up as a Munster fan, travelling to games with his father, Munster Branch referee Joe, and his brother, Seán, who now works in Munster’s communications department.

kevin-geary Geary pictured in 2011 with the Ireland Wolfhounds. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

While studying Recreation and Leisure at CIT, he joined the Munster set-up on a six-week work placement before Declan Kidney invited him to stay on working under Aidan O’Connell and learning from the likes of Paudie Roche. The late, much-loved Paul Darbyshire subsequently handed Geary a full-time position.

Geary shifted to Ulster in 2009 – prompting Munster’s players to nickname him ‘Judas’ – initially working with the academy, and he credits the influence of athletic performance specialists Phil Morrow – who brought him into Ireland camps too – and then Jonny Davis – “I couldn’t quantify how much I learned from him” – in furthering his development.

Along the way, former IRFU director of fitness Liam Hennessy was “my biggest mentor and biggest help,” explains Geary.

Armed with the bank of knowledge gained at Munster, Ulster, and from colleagues, Geary felt that he was ready to look for an opportunity to step up as the head of an athletic performance programme and Bristol was a perfect fit, even if leaving Ulster after a decade was tough.

“The thing is that I had been with Ulster for that whole squad’s first caps right along the way,” says Geary. “The only ones I hadn’t been in Ulster for their first caps were Rory Best and Darren Cave; I’d been there for everyone else’s entire careers.”

Geary’s philosophy is in line with what Lam is trying to do with Bristol’s style of play. As things stand, the Bears sit third in the Premiership and anyone who has watched them will surely have been impressed with their high-tempo, expansive approach. Connacht fans won’t be surprised, naturally.

It was illuminating to hear Lam praising Geary’s work with Bristol after one of their recent comeback victories against Exeter and Northampton, both of which underlined their fitness.

“Pat gives me the license to do what I think is the right thing,” says Geary.

“I wouldn’t be that Vern Cotter 1000kg-pack type of trainer. It’s all running rugby here and the Bears play differently to other Prem teams; outlasting teams and running the legs off teams is a focus here. You obviously want players powerful and strong but Pat has the type of rugby he wants to play.”

The presence of fellow Irish coaches was useful in Geary settling in. Defence specialist John Muldoon is “a very natural coach” who also excels at working with players returning from injury, while another ex-Connacht man, attack coach Conor McPhillips “sees absolutely everything on the pitch.”

northampton-saints-v-bristol-bears-gallagher-premiership-franklins-gardens John Muldoon is set to become forwards coach ahead of next season. PA PA

Geary is excited to get started in Bristol’s impressive new training facility next season, with a covered pitch alongside the gym allowing the S&C team to have an even more integrated approach in their “rugby first” programming.

Away from the day job, Geary’s wife and two young kids have settled into life into the UK, with the presence of former Ulster academy physio Rory Murray – now Bristol’s head of medical services – and his family in the same town being very helpful.

As such, Geary had no hesitation when Lam asked him to extend his initial two-year contract all the way through until 2023, aligning with the director of rugby’s own deal.

Geary is excited about what lies ahead for the ambitious Bristol, who will welcome the likes of Semi Radradra, Kyle Sinckler and Ben Earl to the club this summer, but his focus is shorter-term right now.

Players are training remotely and Geary is as busy as anyone ensuring the programme continues to run smoothly in the coming weeks.

“We know what’s going on around the world, everyone’s seeing the clips and trying to get their head around it,” says Geary of Bristol’s approach.

“We’ve explained to the players that the schedule and the structure of their day can break that up for them, even if there is any lockdown.

“The players have been positive and hopefully this can help. It’s going to be tough, so this has to be their bit of escape really.”

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