From the NFL Combine to Irish rugby: Winkelman may be IRFU's smartest hire

The union’s Director of Athletic Performance and Science told us about the work he’s doing behind the scenes.

NICK WINKELMAN IS more accustomed to lines of scrimmage than scrums, but the American may yet prove to be the smartest hire David Nucifora has made for the IRFU.

Winkelman has been part of Irish rugby since April of last year, when he joined under the title ‘Head of Athletic Performance and Science’.

In basic terms, Winkelman’s job is to oversee the delivery and development of strength and conditioning [S&C] and sports science across all the national and provincial teams in Ireland.

nick-winkelman Source: IRFU

Joe Schmidt’s Ireland, Ulster, Munster, Connacht, Leinster, Ireland U20s, Ireland 7s, Ireland Women – all of those teams and others have their own specific S&C staff, but Winkelman is at the top of this particular tree.

While he has sharpened his sword in the trenches as a coach himself – and continues to do some direct coaching here – the main thrust of Winkelman’s job is to lead the strategic side of things. A big picture position.

“I get to be the person behind the people in this role,” explains Winkelman during a fascinating hour-long conversation near the IRFU’s headquarters on Lansdowne Road.

There have been changes to the athletic performance side of the IRFU in Winkelman’s opening 11 months here, with more to come, and his background means he has fitted in snuggly.

He had no rugby experience whatsoever – he has enjoyed learning about the tactical and technical side of the sport – but Winkelman’s history in the world of athletic performance made him ideally suited to joining the IRFU.

An American football player in his youth, Winkelman discovered a love for S&C during his high school years and moved on to study Exercise and Sports Science at Oregon State University, combining his studies with a job as a personal trainer.

“My Dad gave me the very valuable advice that you should try to work alongside your degree,” says Winkelman. “It was like a practical lab to pressure test everything I was learning in school.”

Winkelman was fortunate to have Guido Van Ryssegem – a man with 14 years of experience in professional baseball – as a mentor at Oregon State, and the Belgian native remains an influence on him to this day.

Van Ryssegem informed the then 19-year-old Winkelman about an intriguing new company called Athlete’s Performance – now EXOS – which Mark Verstegen had launched to provide clients from a wide range of backgrounds with every single athletic service one could possibly imagine.

“A private sanctuary of wraparound services for players – where they could come in their off-season, whatever the sport, and we could provide those services under one roof,” is how Winkelman explains it.

“Unless you were playing with a pro team or were in the Olympics, but even a pro team didn’t have the whole multi-disciplinary thing nailed, so Mark was forward thinking enough to do it when it didn’t exist.”

Winkelman pinned a Athlete’s Performance pamphlet to his “mental dashboard” and made working for them a primary goal in his life, securing an internship in 2006 and then a full-time job in the final month of that intern position.

Source: EXOS/YouTube

Over the following decade, Winkelman became one of the key figures in what became EXOS, now perhaps the biggest high-performance company in the world.

“Our season was every sport’s off-season, so in those 10 years, I worked with every sport you could think of, military included – which gave me some of the most valuable experiences.”

Winkelman’s title with EXOS was ‘Director of Training Systems and Education,’ and one of his primary duties was to work with American footballers during their off-season from the NFL and those preparing for the NFL Combine.

EXOS has become the prime destination for young stars looking for an edge, with last year seeing the company prepare 120 players for the Combine – a third of everyone invited.

Working out of a facility in Phoenix, Arizona, Winkelman dealt with many of the best athletic specimens in the States.

“These guys, physically and from a sport perspective, were the cream of the crop. We talk about that ceiling effect, in terms of how much you can actually improve their performance, because these guys were physically at the top of their game.

“You talk to any of the 32 NFL teams – they won’t want to draft someone that they need to get stronger or need to get faster. They want them to come in with all of these physical qualities, with the technical and tactical ability to do it.”

The words of IRFU performance director Nucifora come to mind here, with the Australian having previously stressed the need for young Irish players to come through the system ready to play senior rugby at an earlier stage.

Clearly, Winkelman’s experience with preparing players for the NFL – oftentimes he only had four to six weeks to make a difference – will be valuable in Ireland.

“Ideally, we’re delivering on the doorstep – from academy to senior rugby – a player that’s fit for purpose athletically to play that style of rugby for that given province,” says Winkelman of his role with the IRFU.

“A lot of what we’re looking at is examining how we can better develop our players at the sub-academy and academy level.”

The former EXOS man is particularly well known for his expertise in developing the areas of speed, agility and movement skill. Again, his work in American football is hugely relevant.

David Nucifora Nucifora has been the IRFU's performance director since 2014. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“The NFL Combine is, fundamentally, the biggest interview of your life. It presented a unique challenge, because if you attack that from the standpoint of trying to make the athletes bigger or stronger, they’re already pretty close to that,” says Winkelman.

“What we quickly realised is that the way you make significant improvements in tangible outcome metrics of speed and strength, was around movement and movement quality.

“If you look at the heartbeat of EXOS, what we probably did and they still do differently than any other private entity, and even professional sports organisations for that matter, is the premium they place on movement quality and movement skill development.

“They talk about developing speed and agility the same way a rugby coach would talk about developing passing and kicking, they really take it to that level of granularity.”

Winkelman has a Ph.D. in Motor Learning and Sprinting, undertaken through the Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions and completed last year.

His deep knowledge of how to increase the movement quality of athletes is a major element of what made him an attractive hire for the IRFU, and he has been working hands-on with the women’s sevens squad on their speed and agility.

Winkelman has naturally been studying the athletic make-up of Irish rugby players in great depth, as well as the structures around their physical development, and it’s in this area of speed, agility and movement skill development that he and the coaches working underneath him have identified the biggest opportunity for growth.

“There’s this historical reference point – which I had heard long before coming here – that in the Northern Hemisphere, within this sport, there might be an emphasis on strength and size,” says Winkelman.

“The reason I was aware of that is that we had that exact same conversation in American football.

“When we look at Irish rugby, I would say our ability to get size on guys, and our focus on making players fit for purpose around strength and power, is good. We’re well equipped in that space.

“Genetically, you’re always going to be limited by how much size and strength you can put on, so within our current capacities, I think we have really good coaches on the ground that understand that space.

“The area that we probably see the greatest opportunity for – and I want to be clear that it’s an opportunity and not necessarily a weakness – is around how are we transferring our strength and required size to the game itself, especially the specific facets of the game and the specific facets of the position.

Simon Zebo Irish rugby has some seriously quick athletes already. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“That brings us to this area of power development, how quickly we can impart force on an opponent or on the ground to move our body, and how that fits into the larger context of speed, agility and movement skill development.

“Where I have spent the vast majority of my time teaching, educating and sharing ideas here has been around speed, agility and power.

“If we look at a lot of the coach education that we’re going to bring in and have already been bringing in over the last year, it will be heavily based on linear speed, agility, reactive agility and decision-making.”

Winkelman is quick to stress that one size certainly does not fit all, however, and says that this “general work-on” doesn’t necessarily apply to every player in Irish rugby.

“Take an academy player who is a little bit light, they might need to put on a little bit of size and strength, just to tolerate the game. It might not have anything to do with their performance on the pitch, it might be a safety play.

“Someone else might already be at a good body size, squatting 1.8 times their bodyweight.

“If we have three units of S&C time in a week, for example, we may decide that their lateral movement could improve a little bit, their initial burst and the ability to break a line. Well, let’s put a unit of that time into speed.”

Specificity in terms of position is important too – a prop obviously needs less exposure to 40-metre sprint work than a back, and Winkelman is capable of going into the most minute detail in these areas.

He is also pushing all the coaches under his remit to work closely with their rugby staff to ensure that they continue to focus on areas of S&C that really make a difference in rugby.

“It’s important that our athletic performance coaches are really tight together with our rugby coaches to look at game film, look at where agility and movement quality might be breaking down, and strategically integrate those types of movement skills into our warm-ups, or potentially into a top-up session for someone that really needs it.”

The science arm of Winkelman’s role has been made far easier because of the IRFU’s early adoption of STATSports GPS and monitoring tools such as the Profiler system provided to them by Kitman Labs.

“I was incredibly encouraged that so much of that hard work had been done in terms of profiling the game, technically, tactically and physiologically, and bringing that to bear within the practice side of things,” says Winkelman.

Ireland players' GPS units lined up Ireland's GPS units, provided by STATSports. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“Also, the work the likes of Des Ryan and Liam Hennessy did years ago, and that sharing of information, that precedent was already here.”

Irish rugby has been compiling reams of physical data for years now, and Winkelman is keen to improve how they “mine it and interrogate it” over the coming seasons.

“The sports science side, I like to think of it as the feedback loop of the title,” says Winkelman.

“We need to be collecting the right kind of data that is reflective of how our players are navigating the training process and then use that information to feed back into the training process, whether to make a change to what we do strategically and/or how we guide the player through that.”

Winkelman was also in charge of the education branch of EXOS’ – working with thousands of coaches around the world in person and through their online programmes – and he is now tasked with coaching the coaches under him in Ireland too.

“Back in 2009 with EXOS, I saw that year after year our improvements were fairly static,” recalls Winkelman when we move the discussion into the science of coaching.

“I realised that we didn’t need better facilities, and they weren’t going to give us any more time – in fact we were getting less time with the players as the years went on.

“We had the best equipment, we were supporting the athletes with a multi-disciplinary team, so I asked the logical question – ‘What can we, as coaches, do to actually get better? What about me as a variable?’

“With the IRFU, a lot of our heads of athletic performance around the country have voiced that they want to continue to get better at supporting their staff on the ground and a big area of that is not just what we coach but how we coach.

“How do we instruct, how’s my body posture, my tone, the learning type of the athlete, how do these variables in the richness of humanity, how do we use those to get the most out of the athlete?

“We would love to move towards what the rugby side is actually doing, where we can video coaches – arm them with resources to analyse themselves coaching.

“It might be as simple as asking, ‘How many comments are positive? How many comments are negative? How often do you ask a question versus just telling the athlete?

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“If a coach says, ‘Hey, I really want to work on empowering my players and bringing about autonomy in my sessions.’ Well, it’s simple enough for us to video a couple of sessions and see if they are dictating, giving a lot of answers, or are involving players.”

Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/YouTube

Winkelman’s knowledge in this sphere of coach education is deep and riveting. For those interested in the art of coaching, listening to him discuss topics like internal/external cueing and the value of providing feedback 33% of the time is hugely worthwhile.

And while his direct area of concern is athletic performance and sports science, there is no reason why the IRFU cannot draw on Winkelman’s knowledge of coaching coaches beyond those spheres.

The American’s desk at the union’s offices places him alongside Matt Wilkie, the IRFU’s new Head of Coach Education, and their conversations have been energetic.

“Matt and I are having wonderful chats and I’ve been fortunate enough to sit in on rugby meetings and, when appropriate, provide some insight from my background in skill acquisition, which can be applied in kicking and passing as much as it can be in Olympic lifting and sprinting,” says the American.

While pointing out that he wouldn’t touch on tactical or technical elements of rugby with “a 10-foot pole,” Winkelman agrees that reflective practice is also important to every coach, no matter what their particular are of focus is.

“If a coach understands how to reflect at the end of a session on what went well, what they want to exploit moving forward, what didn’t go so well at a team level and an individual level and then arm them even with the vocabulary, that’s great.

“If a coach doesn’t know things like internal/external cueing, instruction versus feedback, a constraint-led approach, player-centred versus coach-centred… if they don’t have the terminology, then they don’t know how to reflect on the session and say they’re going to change A to B.

“Education gives them an internal narrative, so they understand the anatomy of coaching. Now when they reflect, they can say they’re going to ask more questions, position their cues more positively or next time design a session that allows for this versus this.

“That’s equally beneficial for a rugby coach as it is for an S&C coach, or even for a physio after a session.”

As with so many of the plans being rolled out under Nucifora’s watch, Winkelman’s job has a heavy focus on improving the quality of young players emerging into the professional Irish game.

“As exciting as it is to be there for the November series and go into camp for the Six Nations, the vast majority of my time is spent looking at the systems for support for our academies and sub-academies,” says Winkelman.

He is working alongside National Talent S&C Coach Martin Kennedy to ensure young players from the ages of 15 upwards are being tested and physically trained in a manner that will produce the most fit-for-purpose and injury-free athletes at senior level.

In terms of rolling out the wide-ranging strategies, Winkelman and the IRFU have been developing a digital hub for the athletic performance community in Irish rugby, an add-on to the large seminars and conferences they will be running six times a year.

“We can have coaches upload videos of their players sprinting, their agility, everything and from academy on up, and then we can jump on the phone after a batch of videos and have a conversation around what are the work-ons with this specific player,” explains Winkelman.

“So the face-to-face education of coaches is supported with something that is digitally based, whereby all the videos from the events go there, people can bring up questions and collaborate, put research, silo information.

“A hub where people can drive their own continuous improvement, because when you do reviews with the coaches they all have different areas they want to get better at. The resources are there, so if they have 10 minutes or an hour, they can go there and find the information they need.”

Winkelman’s sheer enthusiasm for his work couldn’t be clearer or more infectious, and anyone who follows him on Twitter or Facebook will be aware of how active he is through those channels too.

Book recommendations are a regular part of his social media output, although Winkelman explains that another of his mentors, Joe Gomes, head S&C coach with the Oakland Raiders, helped him to be more calculated in his reading.

“For me, it’s been about evaluating my current job, what is needed in my remit, where the gap in my knowledge is, where the gap is in the organisation, and that’s where I focus my energy and time.

“I think that allows you to be strategic and ensure you have a place to apply what you’re reading. I make daily time for it.”

Winkelman is also a prolific presenter at international S&C events and while there are obviously areas of his work with the IRFU that will be kept in-house, he is keen to continue sharing his knowledge with the community, keen to inspire learning.

Winkelman’s wife, two kids and dog joined him in making the move to Ireland last year, and when he’s not spending time with them, his “switch off” is DJing.

He operates under the moniker Movere, mainly playing electro house, progressive house, and future house. Winkelman hasn’t imposed his playlists on players in the gym yet, but laughs and says he’s happy to share that too.

Clearly, Winkelman is man with great energy and the impression is that he was an intelligent hire by Nucifora.

Hungry to continue learning himself and motivated to help those under his remit along their own development journeys, the athletic performance and science side of Irish rugby appears to be in safe hands.

“I’m not going to sit here and pretend we’re perfect,” says Winkelman, “but what we’re encouraging is the conversation, the education.”

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