Apr 7, 2016Global Exchange
When the Australian National Rugby Team asked to train at the University of Notre Dame for two weeks last September, the Fighting Irish Sports Performance staff jumped at the opportunity to host.
This article first ran in the April 2016 issue of Training and Conditioning.
In April 2015, Matt Howley, the Director of Sports Science at the University of Notre Dame, received an unexpected email. The general manager of the Australian National Rugby Team-the Wallabies-wanted to know if the Notre Dame Sports Performance department could host his squad for two weeks in September. The Wallabies would be in Chicago for a tune-up match against Team USA prior to the Rugby World Cup, and they needed a place to hold their final training camp before heading to England for the tournament.
Needless to say, the request came as quite the surprise to everyone on our staff. Nevertheless, we were intrigued by it. In the hustle and bustle of running our programs and keeping our athletes healthy, we often forget that our profession is global. Teams from all over the world are constantly finding new ways to maximize athlete performance, and this would provide a valuable opportunity to learn from one of the best.
However, we knew that hosting 31 athletes and a dozen coaches and staffers would require more than simply rolling out the welcome mat. To ensure the visit went off without a hitch, we would need to collaborate with many departments on campus and accommodate the squad’s lodging, training, and sports medicine needs.
The final decision rested with our Sports Performance Committee, which consists of members of the strength and conditioning, sports medicine, sports science, nutrition, and mental conditioning staffs. Matt brought the request to our weekly meeting for discussion.
Ultimately, the chance to interact with an elite national program was too tantalizing to pass up, and we accepted the hosting responsibility under two conditions. First, that it would not negatively impact our Notre Dame athletes or staff. Second, we wanted to collaborate with the Wallabies’ sports performance team regarding their training methods and cutting-edge use of sports science. The Aussies agreed to our terms, and we officially set the wheels in motion for what turned out to be an incredibly eye-opening experience.
Our first task as hosts was figuring out what the Wallabies needed from us and what we could realistically provide. Lodging was simple enough, as the team booked rooms at our on-campus hotel.
From the Sports Performance department, the Wallabies requested access to a weightroom, a sports medicine area, plunge tanks and a swimming pool for recovery, and a locker room from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily. The Compton Family Ice Arena, which houses our ice hockey team and is stocked with a weightroom, athletic training room, and plunge tanks, was available during those hours, so we offered it to the Wallabies. We also reserved a few lanes for them at the Rolfs Aquatic Center so they could use the pool for recovery.
The request for a locker room was much more challenging to meet. Although we have multiple locker rooms in various buildings, none would be vacant for the Wallabies’ entire two-week stay. Plus, they were scattered around campus, far from where the team would be practicing and training.
In early June, Simon Roberts, the Director of Operations for the Wallabies, flew to South Bend to see our facilities firsthand, and his visit helped us hammer out some solutions. Simon decided that a true locker room was not needed since the hotel could accommodate the team’s meeting spaces. In addition, he contracted a local bus company to shuttle the players to and from the various sites they’d be utilizing.
An even bigger obstacle was finding a suitable practice field. We originally offered the Wallabies our club rugby team’s synthetic field. However, they were adamant about needing a natural grass surface, as that’s what the World Cup is played on. Of our grass options, only the soccer and football fields were big enough to fit a full rugby pitch. But because these sports are in full swing in September, our coaches did not want the Wallabies putting extra stress on their turfs.
Out of ideas, we opened our search campus-wide. The only plots of grass large enough were the recreation fields. Getting permission to use these required collaborating with our Recreational Sports department. Although we assured them that the Wallabies would not interfere with intramural or club sports using the fields, the key to getting them on board was emphasizing the school-wide prestige that would come with hosting the rugby team. We explained that all of Notre Dame would benefit, not just the athletics department, which made them more agreeable to our request.
Once we got the okay to use the recreation fields, we were faced with another hurdle-their poor condition. All summer they would be battered by youth sports camps, so our grounds crew would have less than five weeks to get them up to snuff before the Wallabies arrived-with no guarantees about the end result.
We collaborated with Simon during his visit to find a solution. Our grounds crew agreed to work as hard as they could to repair the fields once the summer camps ended, and the Wallabies agreed to cover any additional cost. We also worked with Recreational Sports to rope the fields off from regular student use while they were being prepared for the Wallabies.
After all the basic agreements had been verbalized, it was time to sign a contract. Since we were working with Recreational Sports, we had to involve general counsel as well as our legal representative for athletics. Between the insurance and liability waivers, agreeing to the schedules and use of each facility, and having all the necessary administrators sign the paperwork, the contract proved more challenging than expected. However, once we crossed our t’s and dotted our i’s, we were officially ready to host.
STAY FOR A VISIT
The Wallabies arrived in South Bend on Sunday, August 30. They traveled with a full support staff of three strength coaches, two physiotherapists-what athletic trainers are called outside the U.S.-a team physician, an equipment manager, a director of operations, and a general manager.
Despite our best efforts, the Wallabies’ first impression of the practice fields was a bit disappointing. They weren’t in the condition the squad had hoped for, so the grounds crew spent the next 48 hours working on them, and they were eventually deemed suitable. Not surprising to us, the Wallabies were impressed with the condition of our synthetic rugby field and used it multiple times during their stay.
A typical day in South Bend for the Aussies started with a team breakfast in the hotel around 8 a.m. While the players fueled up, the team physician and physiotherapists sat at a computer in the breakfast room and read through the daily wellness questionnaires, which every athlete filled out when he woke up.
The questionnaires covered the duration and quality of players’ sleep, upper- and lower-body soreness, level of recovery, mood, stress level, and injuries. If any athlete’s answers differed from his normal response, the sports medicine staff would meet with him to discern if further action was required. For example, reporting increased lower-body soreness could be a sign of normal wear and tear, an injury, or overtraining. Possible solutions might include extra treatments for an injury or a modified workout to help with recovery.
Team meetings followed breakfast, and then the players went to the practice fields or weightroom for their morning training, switching locations in the afternoon. Weightroom lifts were individualized based on each player’s position and needs, and the team incorporated GPS devices during all on-field work. Players ended the day with recovery sessions in either the plunge tanks or pool.
After four days in South Bend, the Wallabies headed to Chicago for the friendly against Team USA. The timing could not have worked out better, as we had a home football game that same weekend. If the Aussies had stayed on campus, the hotel would have been unavailable to them, and the activities surrounding the game would have made it difficult to train. The squad came back on Sunday afternoon and spent one more week on campus before departing for the World Cup, where they finished second to New Zealand.
The best part about the Wallabies’ visit-and one of the reasons we agreed to host them-was the chance to learn about their advanced use of sports science. Fortunately, they were very open to sharing their ideas. Our sports medicine and strength staffs were welcome to observe any of their workouts, and I witnessed all the weightroom sessions, as they took place in my facility.
In addition, several members of their sports performance team made themselves available to talk shop. For instance, the Wallabies’ team physician had lunch with three of our team physicians and initiated a great dialogue. Our physicians were particularly impressed with the Wallabies’ daily wellness questionnaires, and both parties compared their respective concussion management protocols. On the research side, the Aussies are currently studying whether the supplementation of a certain peptide that raises glucose levels in the blood and brain can be a beneficial early treatment for concussion, which piqued our physicians’ interest.
Our strength staff also had some great conversations with Haydn Masters, the Wallabies’ Head of Physical Performance. They discussed numerous topics, including recovery methods, planning periodizations, utilizing GPS and other player tracking data, and creating training programs based on the needs of individual athletes. A take-home message for our staff was to not overdo strength training. Haydn reiterated the importance of prioritizing each athlete’s needs and addressing the most important ones. Spreading programs too thin would rarely produce the desired results.
I was fortunate enough to sit down with the Wallabies’ head physiotherapist, Keiran Cleary, to get a look at the team’s electronic injury management system and see the types of information they are collecting and tracking. The players self-report their rate of perceived exertion for every training session, which is integrated into the management system along with data from their daily wellness questionnaires in order to track trends and rates of injury occurrence.
One of the most impressive elements of the injury management system was how many players it tracked. Not only does it monitor the 31 members of the national team, but it also includes five professional teams, five 18-and-under teams, and five 15-and-under teams. This creates a long-term database on each player that the sports medicine staff can utilize as the athlete moves up in the organization.
I was also amazed by the Wallabies’ success in reducing injuries. The players engage in 30 to 40 minutes of soft-tissue mobilization, stretching, and muscle activation every day. As a result, the team has only had one or two soft-tissue injuries in a year and a half. Plus, each athlete undergoes a daily heart rate variability test so the physiotherapists can get out in front of any impending illnesses or injuries.
Our Sports Performance staff agreed that the most impressive part of collaborating with the Wallabies was seeing how advanced they are in utilizing player tracking. We collect the same data, but they are way ahead of us in how they interpret and use it to make training decisions. For instance, they shifted a few practices from high-intensity, physical sessions to low-intensity, noncontact work because the load numbers from the GPS data were too high. Practice was even canceled once for this reason, and the team lifted and had a recovery session in the pool instead.
However, the learning went both ways. Their staff was blown away by our level of commitment to our athletes-from the quality of our facilities to the size of each sport’s support staff. The Wallabies are the biggest team in Australia, so they were amazed that our facilities rivaled theirs and that many other U.S. colleges operated on a similar level.
The Wallabies were also impressed by the integrative approach we take to sports medicine, incorporating dry needling, massage, chiropractic, and laser treatments. They really enjoyed the compression leg wraps we use and immediately started looking for a dealer in Europe so they could have them during the World Cup.
Going forward, we’d like to find a way to adopt some of the Wallabies’ strategies for player tracking. One issue that could stand in our way is a lack of manpower. Although we already have a Director of Sports Science, the extra work required to collect and analyze data is much more than a one-man job and goes above and beyond what most of our athletic trainers and strength coaches have time for.
That being said, we’re being proactive about finding solutions. We have added a Director of Performance Science position, and we are cultivating a new student club on campus that will study sports analytics. Our hope is that the students can gain real-world experience on the topic and supply us with the labor needed for data collection and analysis.
All in all, hosting the Wallabies was a great experience. Despite the bumps in the road during the planning phase, nothing can replace the chance to learn from an elite team right on our campus. Seeing the Wallabies operate at such a high level energized our staff to keep advancing our training methods, injury prevention techniques, and management practices. We hope to continue to channel this energy and utilize our new connections from down under to offer the best sports performance and sports medicine practices to our athletes.