Interview with Keir Wenham-Flatt AKA The Rugby Strength Coach

Keir Wenham-Flatt is better known to most as The Rugby Strength Coach and is an accomplished strength and conditioning coach boasting teams such as Argentina Rugby, Sydney Roosters and London Wasps on his CV. Keir recently graciously took time out of his busy schedule to answer some of my questions.

Ed Slattery: Keir thanks a lot for participating in this interview. You are the first coach to take part in this new interview blog, so hopefully someday that might be considered an honour! To start, could you give us an insight into yourself, your background, how you got into strength and conditioning and some of your past positions?

Keir Wenham-Flatt: The reason I’m a strength and conditioning coach is that I’m a geek and a failed athlete. I’m from Northampton in the UK but these days I am based in Sydney. Half the year I am here, the other half of the year I work with Los Pumas Argentina where I work with the performance director to prepare the Pumas and also work on the development of the national strength and conditioning structure that feeds into the Pumas. I also work on my website www.rugbystrengthcoach.com where the goal is to educate players and coaches on how to physically prepare for rugby, and hopefully combat some of the garbage practices that go on in our sport! Some of my previous positions include head of strength and conditioning for Sydney Roosters in the NRL, head of academy strength and conditioning for London Wasps in the English Premiership, head of strength and conditioning for Rotherham Titans and assistant strength and conditioning at London Scottish within the English Championship.

ES: You have travelled a lot in your career so far, has working in different countries and continents brought you new and varying perspectives on strength and conditioning practices? If so what are some of these perspectives?

KWF: In some regards very much so, in others less so. I have been lucky enough to coach athletes on 4 different continents and every level from test matches on down and one thing is true no matter what: the guys love to train arms and chest, so some things never change! However there are certainly some cultural differences I’ve encountered both between the codes and between different parts of the world. The Chinese for example take the view that anything can be solved with more work, and that injury and suffering is just part of the deal- perhaps you can get away with that when your talent pool is 1.3 billion people. In South America things are a little more relaxed as you can imagine. The teams are far tighter and less ego driven but I suspect that is more to do with the economics of the game in that part of the world. Regardless it is an extremely easy culture to be a part of. In Europe and Australia the S&C culture is obviously a lot more professional and established but I think that hinders us sometimes as people are so entrenched in their ways and believe there is only one way to do things. If you take a different route it can sometimes lose you a job or interview, even if your numbers and track record might be better… With respect to the above my belief is that coaches should be judged primarily on results rather than philosophy or methodology. If your numbers are better than mine, I’m going to pay a lot of attention to what you are doing (whatever that is) and probably steal some of it. If they’re not, you don’t get my attention!

ES: Can you give us an insight into your coaching practices? What is your starting point on beginning with a new athlete/coach? E.g. functional screening, fitness testing etc.

KWF: Some basic questions I think every coach has to ask at the outset is:

  • What is the current state of the athlete?
  • What is the desired state of the athlete?
  • What are the key limiting factors standing between the current state and the desired state of the athlete?
  • What are the greatest return on investment activities (cost:benefit analysis included) we can utilize to close that gap?

At its most simplistic I think that is what the training process is. Obviously your fitness testing and screening will be used in stage 1 of that process. What tools you use will depend on your knowledge, staff, resources, time etc. Personally I am not too big on testing as I think it wastes training time and it doesn’t give you a huge amount of information you don’t necessarily already have (or can get through training data). However with that said I think the FMS is a good start for almost any athlete as injury prevention is the number 1 goal of any programme. Some guys are just so naturally good you just need to keep them on the field and stay out of their way. An FMS is a good way to flag up any potential issues which might keep that from happening, and also give you clues about what you should and shouldn’t be doing in the gym. For example if I have a world class player and he scores a 1 with pain on the shoulder mobility screen, I’m not about to have him start doing behind the neck jerks or snatches.

ES: What is your preferred method of periodization (if any) and can you give a brief example of the various goals/points of focus your training will have throughout different periods of the year?

KWF: Because the demands of rugby are so broad I think it is smart to focus on a periodisation scheme which keeps a thread of all abilities in the programme year round. However I am not advocating a kitchen sink approach where everything gets trained with the same intensity and volume throughout. That is doomed to fail and produce injured athletes in my opinion (see Crossfit for details). Instead I think it is better to steal from Charlie Francis (vertical integration) approach of keeping all elements in the programme but fluctuating the intensity and volume of each ability based on where you are in the year. The focus of each stage lays the foundation for the development of more intense or sport specific fitness components in later stages. People vary in their opinion of what should be targeted and when but my belief is this (working backwards):

  • You have to train in a highly specific manner to reach elite status in your sport, so you need a block of training where EVERYTHING is about what’s happening on the pitch and you learn to maximally express what you have developed in previous blocks of training.
  • In order to do this you must maximise your development in a limited number of highly sport or position specific fitness components and movements. For example if you’re a winger, speed matters. If you’re a prop we are talking about maximal strength.
  • To build these specific abilities requires the a foundation of maximal development of general abilities like max strength and general power.
  • Training maximal strength and power is extremely stressful to the CNS and can be risky in terms of injury so before we do that we have to earn the right be preparing the body to handle these loads with even more general, lower intensity and higher volume training.

In a nutshell: prepare the body for maximal loading → utilise maximal loading → utilise position specific loading → maximally express everything you’ve developed in the most sport specific manner possible (playing the sport).

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Charlie Francis

ES: You have stated previously that the eastern European coaches such as Verkoshansky influence much of your work. What coaches would you say have been most influential on you from both literature and personal experience?

KWF: James Smith: he has shown at the elite level in multiple sports (American football, rugby, T&F, military special forces) that he is a training genius in my opinion. Charlie Francis: the best sprint coach who ever lived. If you’re a coach in a running based sport and you don’t know his name you are (in my opinion) doing you and your athletes a disservice. Natalia Verkhoshansky: if you can properly read and understand her materials, it will soon dawn on you that gym strength is ultimately useless without application. Her stuff is link from gym to field that will fully allow your athletes to realise their potential in a game context. Joel Jamieson: he turned my view of energy systems training on its head 3 years ago and it has changed the way I coached. Again another coach doing it at the top level of UFC. Val Nasedkin: I saw this guy speak in 2012 and I literally went home and re-wrote my MSc dissertation his presentation was that good. He blew my mind and made my ashamed to call myself a professional coach! Robert Sapolsky: his book on the human stress response forms the basis of almost every decision I make these days as a coach. If you don’t know and understand the stress response, you don’t know training.

ES: In power development the Olympic lifts are often cited as being the key movements for explosive development in athletes however not all athletes are able to perform these with ease. What is your opinion on the Olympic lifts for power development and what is your preference for developing power with your athletes?

KWF: I think there is a huge selection bias involved in people’s appraisal of the Olympic lifts- often I think elite lifters Olympic lift because they are so fast and powerful rather than the other way around. Correlation does not imply causation. If they were so perfect for developing speed and power we should see the best weightlifting nations dominating the short sprints in the track and field word, which we don’t. Whilst power output is high during the Olympic lifts and they can increase explosive strength and power, to me they are not specific enough for developing true on-field power if we adhere to professor Verkhoshanky’s criteria of dynamic correspondence. If you read some of JB Morin’s materials we are seeing more and more of late that vertical power does not necessarily translate to sprinting power. You can build power using Olympic lifts but if you don’t build on that foundation with more specific work it won’t necessarily make you faster. So for me the lifts are general in nature, which means we can swap them in our out with other exercises. Personally I choose to swap them out for exercises which have a far shorter learning curve and don’t beat up the shoulders or wrists so much, but share some of the useful characteristics of the Olympic lifts. We use a lot of jump squats, trap bar jumps, push presses, bench throws, med ball throw variations and jumps and plyos. Less so we use dynamic effort lower body lifts as these have inherent deceleration within the lift which we are trying to avoid.

ES: Your website Rugby Strength Coach has deservedly gained a lot of popularity in recent times and become a fantastic resource for players and coaches alike. From your experience dealing with rugby players from around the world what are i) the most common mistakes amateur players make in their training and ii) the most important aspects these players need to address to set a good foundation in their training?

KWF: i) Equating suffering with effectiveness. In the average rugby player’s mind if something hurts, it must be working. If one set is good, two must be twice as good. The idea of a sub maximal yet productive set in the gym or session of conditioning is utterly foreign to the average player. ii) Justify every single aspect of your session, rather than rely on doing things because “that’s the way that things are done”:

  • What do I hope to get out of this session?
  • What are the physiological and technical environments that will trigger these adaptations?
  • What do I need to do in my session to achieve this?
  • What is the bare minimum of intensity and volume that will allow me to get the maximum of these adaptations out of this session?

I think very few players or coaches out there can justify every single aspect of what they are doing, but if you can it is likely that your programme contains little to no excess, which can mean only good things.

ES: I had the pleasure of attending your workshop in Belfast recently, helping coaches to give themselves the best possible chance of success in this industry and I can honestly say I have taken a lot of your advice on board and found it extremely beneficial. What quick pieces of advice would give to aspiring coaches who are still completing or recently finished their studies?

KWF: 1) Never give up- a lot of people give up when they hit the first hurdle, sometimes even before that. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and if you keep showing up eventually somebody will give you a job, even if you’re shit! 2) Everyone applying for the job has a degree. A degree is normal, nobody hires normal. In order to distinguish yourself from the crowd and get the job you need real world, practical experience in a team environment with numbers to back up how good you are. If you’re smart you will use university as a channel to get that experience. 3) All things being equal, people will hire their friends. All things not being equal, people will still hire their friends. There are a lot of bad coaches out there stealing a living because they have friends in high places. Work just as hard on your relationships, your network and your position within the profession if you want to stand a chance against these people when it comes to interview time.

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Myself and some fellow coaches from college with Keir at his recent seminar in Belfast

ES: What are three books you would advise any coach to read (strength and conditioning related or not)?

KWF: 1) How to win friends and influence people by Dale Carnegie: skill and knowledge are cheap and easy to buy. Handling people and being well liked and respected is way harder to do. 2) Mastery by Robert Greene: success leaves clues and this guy studied the success of some of the great masters in all fields through the ages. A very interesting read with a lot you can learn from. 3) Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell: disputes the myth of the self made man and tells you why some people succeed when others fail.

ES: Finally Keir, for coaches who want to learn more where can they find more information about your work and what exciting products are you currently offering?

KWF: My website is www.rugbystrengthcoach.com. Rather than me just sell people something I would just encourage them to head over to the site, check it out and see if they like the information on offer. If they like that I have a free 15 day crash course in rugby strength and conditioning that they can register for.

ES: Thanks a lot for taking part in this today Keir, best of luck in everything and looking forward to working with you again.

KWF: Thanks!

Find more information on Keir’s work by visiting Rugby Strength Coach online
Website: http://www.rugbystrengthcoach.com
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/rugbystrengthcoach
Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/rugby_str_coach

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