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Dublin: 10 °C Wednesday 20 February, 2019

How the 2013 Irish Amateur Open champion wound up as fitness coach with the Laois footballers

A meeting with Padraig Harrington’s trainer Dr Liam Hennessy led talented golfer Robbie Cannon into the fitness industry.

IT WASN’T QUITE love at first sight for Robbie Cannon and the game of golf.

Robbie Cannon Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

He was more into soccer and Gaelic football as a youngster, but grew up near Balbriggan Golf Club. Sooner or later, they were going to cross paths.

In their early teens, Cannon and his friends would sneak onto the Balbriggan course and search the rough for miscued golf balls, long abandoned by their owners. They’d gather up a pile of balls and head for the clubhouse where they would sell them to members.

Eventually, that got old and they started chipping around on the greens. By the age of 14, Cannon was a full member of the Balbriggan club. He had a natural talent for the game. Before long he was hooked.

Cannon’s handicap dropped from 30 to 9 in his first year as a member and 12 months later that figure went down to 2. Within three years, Cannon was playing off scratch.

His rise continued. When he was 21, Cannon made the Leinster youths interprovincial team, where he was narrowly defeated after Ulster’s Graeme McDowell birdied his last two holes to claim victory.

Cannon’s gym work during his early 20s focused on “beach body muscles,” and to his frustration his game regressed over the next few years.

Eventually, he started working with Dublin-based golf coach John Kelly, who performed a physical assessment on him. The results came back and showed up a number of issues with Cannon’s glutes and back mobility.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he told the 18 Strong podcast in 2015. “I left the first lesson with him absolutely distraught because I thought I was doing so much good stuff and thought I was fit and strong, but he said I wasn’t. That was mind-boggling to me.”

Robbie Cannon Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Kelly introduced Cannon to Dr Liam Hennessy in 2008, who has been Padraig Harrington’s trainer for the past two decades. Through working with Kelly and Dr Hennessy on his body, Cannon saw his golf game take a major leap forward.

“I was always going to the gym but I was doing the wrong stuff,” Cannon tells The42.

“Once I got a proper assessment and found out what I needed to be working on, that seemed to transform my golf game. I was a good player but then once I started training properly it seemed to be the final piece of the jigsaw.

“The first proper winter training I did, I went and won the South of Ireland (Open Championship) and got on the Irish team for the first time.”

It was at this point where he started thinking of moving careers. Cannon’s day-job was in environmental science, and it didn’t allow him to play as much golf as he’d have liked.

He started working in the fitness industry and the decision ultimately helped him win the Irish Amateur Open title in 2013.

“It was definitely a game changer for me,” he continues. “As a result, I went back to college part-time – that was about 10 years ago. The whole thinking was I wanted to help younger guys coming up and educate them and try to prevent the mistakes that I made in my training.

Robbie Cannon Cannon with the Irish Amateur Open cup in 2013 Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“I’ve always enjoyed the coaching end of it. I had an Environmental Business degree, I was selling environmental chemicals and machines. I was making a lot more money doing it but I wasn’t enjoying it.

“I started off with a diploma, then I did a Bachelor’s degree and I graduated with my Masters in Strength and Conditioning last year as well.”

Cannon set-up his own fitness company called Cannon Performance, and coaches several elite Irish golfers including Shane Lowry and Paul Dunne. He also works with the Golfing Union of Ireland and the Irish Ladies Golf Union.

He dipped his toes in the GAA for the first time with the Fingal hurling team a few years ago, before the call came from new Laois boss John Sugrue at the end of 2017.

“John just gave me a call and asked me if I’d be interested. I said I would but I wanted to meet up first to see if we could actually gel. I’ve done a little bit in GAA before.

“I’ve had offers to work with teams before and met up with managers but didn’t feel it was the right fit. When I met John, he’s a great guy, very intelligent, very passionate and I just felt like it was the right gig and it’s been brilliant.”

Cannon oversees the weights programme as well as their fitness work on the field.

“I think sometimes people made strength and conditioning more complicated than it actually is,” he says.

John Sugrue Laois manager John Sugrue Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“I’m trying to individualise each player. A lot of people will agree, the best teams in the country the last few years are the leanest, quickest teams. Five or six years ago, maybe a bit longer than that, there was a big emphasis on bulking up but definitely the last few years the learner teams seem to be having the most success.

“That’s basically my philosophy, we’re trying to get these guys lean and quicker. There is a big emphasis on the gym and getting them more powerful but we’re definitely not focusing on building bulk that’s for sure.

“I know from my own experience, people go on about mental toughness a lot – ‘Oh, they’re not mentally tough.’ Especially teams who might not win tight games, teams who get beaten in the last five or ten minutes. But I personally think that mental toughness is down to preparation. I knew if I prepared properly that mentally I was going to be strong because I knew that I’d put in the work.

“There’s been occasions where I’ve got to the closing stages of the tournament and I know I haven’t really put in as much work as I had when I won tournaments. That little bit of doubt comes into your mind then. I believe that you’re either prepared or you’re not. Doubt comes from that lack of preparation. If you can put all the preparation in and you’ve got the recovery and rest, you’re going to feel pretty mentally strong.

“I know what the guys are doing in my set-up, I don’t know about other counties, but we’re trying to get these guys as prepared as they can for them to go out and express themselves and play their football.”

Cannon holds several strength and conditioning coaches involved in GAA set-ups in extremely high esteem.

“There’s a lot of smart people in strength and conditioning in the GAA. There are not many smarter strength and conditioning coaches than the likes of Martin Kennedy, who was with Dublin and he’s with the IRFU now.

Barry Solan and manager Stephen Rochford Mayo's Strength and Conditioning coach Barry Solan and manager Stephen Rochford Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“You’ve got Johnny Coughlan with Meath he’s a very smart guy, Barry Solan with Mayo who’s directed their programme for the last few years and then you’ve Brian Cullen (with Dublin). There’s a lot of smart people in strength and conditioning in GAA.”

He was interested to hear one GAA pundit comment recently that the Dublin footballers don’t begin training until “mid-April.”

“Until then, they cycle, swim, do pilates etc in their own time,” Joe Brolly wrote in his Sunday Independent column.

“Training involves only two collective pitch sessions a week. On top of that they do pilates and yoga etc and have S&C programs. As a result, they are fresh, enjoy their football and critically, have the time to work on their skills. This is apparent from the way they play.”

Cannon says it’s not quite that simple.

“I don’t really buy that. I know for a fact Dublin guys don’t sit on their asses for three months. I know for a fact that, I’d say all of them are doing their own fitness work. I know three or four guys personally and I’ve seen them do sessions in the greater Dublin area myself.

“They’re working on their bodies, they’re definitely not turning up a couple of weeks ago out of shape. You saw that against Kildare. They’re obviously not training collectively but they’re doing their own thing. They’re a professional outfit pretty much and they’re very disciplined.

Paul Flynn arrives Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“They’ve definitely been working, the same with Mayo, Kerry and Tyrone. Just because they’re not working collectively doesn’t mean they’re not doing it individually.

“They can’t afford to because there’s so much competition for places, that if they turn out and their body fat is way up or they’re not in shape, they might not get another look-in. I think that’s the great thing about having competition for places.

“That’s the great thing we have in Laois a little bit this year, we’ve brought in a few young guys and the lads know if they’re not putting in the work there’s somebody there to step in.

“That’s what so many great teams over the years in all sports, you look at the competition for places when Manchester United were at their best, Kilkenny as well in the hurling. That just drives teams.”

While Cannon Performance and his Master’s studies took up much of his time last year, he’s hoping to make it onto the golf course more often in 2018.

“I’m planning to play a good bit this year again. I didn’t play a whole lot last year especially because I’d a lot of research and write-ups to do so I didn’t get to play as much as I normally would. But I’m going to play as much as I can this year.”

Laois players warm up before the game Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

And on the GAA front, Cannon is confident he can help instil the right values in Laois as they case promotion from Division 4. With two wins in the bank from their opening two league games, it’s been a bright start to the season for the O’Moore County.

“It’s a results business so you don’t know where you’re going to be in a year. Passion, pride, commitment – these are all prerequisites in elite sport but they’re not the deciding factors in the results are what’s important.

“They need to have composure, decision making, execution. These are the things that decide results for the team. So far from what I can see with the guys there’s a huge passion, pride and commitment to Laois GAA so we’re helping them with their fitness, composure, decision making, execution, skills on the field. If we can get all that right we should be okay by the end of the season.”

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Kevin O'Brien

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