Interview with Ciaran Keogh

Ciaran Keogh is an experienced strength and conditioning coach based in Meath, Dublin and Thurles, Ireland. Ciaran currently works with Paralympic Swimmers as well as being a lecturer in Strength and Conditioning in Limerick Institute of Technology (Tipperary) and Setanta College. Ciaran recently took time out to sit down and catch up over Skype.

ES: Ciaran, thanks for agreeing take part in this interview. 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?

CK: I always had an interest in sport growing up and would have been on youth development squads in athletics at 15/16 but maybe wouldn’t have been good enough to progress to a high level. I didn’t have any real interests outside of sports and so looked into studying sport in college and I started by doing Health, Fitness and Leisure Studies in Tralee Institute of Technology. I hadn’t really considered what to do after I finished but started by going into personal training and being a fitness instructor. In college I had two friends (both named JP Leahy) who introduced me to Olympic weightlifting and more strength and conditioning orientated work. After a while of being a fitness instructor I became bored and quickly realised it was the same stuff being churned out. I was always reading into the background of physical training for athletics and Muay Thai (which I stated during college) and so came across an advertisement for a workshop in the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland in Jordanstown. It was a small workshop introducing strength and conditioning run by Phil Morland, Dave Lasini and Johnny Davis and after being introduced to so many concepts that I wasn’t familiar with I realised this was definitely what I wanted to do. So with that I started volunteering to anyone I could really, helping people in the gym and local soccer and GAA teams trying to get as much experience as I could. Looking back on it now some of the stuff I did was very bad! It’s good to look back sometimes as it shows how far you’ve come! In 2007 I did the UKSCA accreditation and then began to look at the strength and conditioning jobs being advertised and devised a list of things required by employers and formed a checklist to tick off including CSCS, a Masters and more experience. Luckily I had been working in the National Aquatic Centre and over a cup of coffee with Paralympic athlete Dave Malone I was telling him of my plans and he asked if I would train him, as he had never done any structured S&C or dry land work. I trained Dave for Beijing in 2008 and after that I was asked to take on another athlete. I did this free of charge but luckily this athlete became national champion and got a scholarship to the states which was his goal. After that I was asked to meet with the committee and soon began working with the rest of the squad. One of the younger guys that came in was a Paralympic athlete who went on to win two world bronze medals and things rolled on from there. In between then I still volunteered to everything I could such as Monkstown Boxing Club and other athletes from various sports that would come into the aquatic centre such as triathletes and some pro cyclists. Now at the moment I am lecturing full time in LIT Tipperary/Setanta College and working with some of the Paralympic athletes on an individual basis as well as the development squad with some of the younger athletes.

ES: What are some of the common mistakes swimmers seem to make with their approach to training and what advice would you give them?

CK: I would have made a lot of the common errors myself at the start. I remember finding programs that were done by “certified” coaches in the states and some of it was just glorified circuits. Commonly swimmers would have used the gym session as another endurance workout doing a lot of circuit work with low loads, high reps and a lot of core work, sit ups etc. After a while of looking at this I quickly realised it was not the way to go. You really have to look at your gym sessions to compliment the work you do in the pool, fixing muscle imbalances etc. The gym is really the place for developing the strength that you can carry over to the pool. You would certainly see guys given bodybuilder type programs or programs that are too advanced with exercises such as cleans and other complicated exercises when they don’t have the basic areas covered first. The other big area is you often see swimmers given movements that are trying to replicate swimming movements using the cables or lying over a bench but these are really just doing the same thing they are doing in the pool rather than developing a balanced strength or power program. Also they don’t take into account what they are doing in the pool at the time. Like any sport you have to integrate your training into what is being done in the sport session. Now my philosophy would be that you are trying to look after the athlete to a certain extent, minimize injury risks, get them stronger initially and then transfer across to the sport specific work. There is a need for sport specific work but we often try to match it too specifically by replicating the action with weight, which we should know is not the case.

Screen Shot 2015-08-25 at 13.15.14

ES: I think a nice point you made there is that the gym should complement your sport, in other words you can use the gym to work on areas that your sports training may miss out on…

 CK: Yes I think that’s part of it; you will never eliminate all those imbalances, that’s part of human nature. I have realised that when I started writing programs they were far too long and had too much content, then I stripped everything back but started to include lots of corrective work but again stripped that back. Sometimes we try to complicate things too much or try to make things look cool or fancy when we just need to focus on the basics. I have a bit of an unwritten rule where I try to avoid prescribing more than 5 exercises in a program, that will include 2 or 3 main focus exercises along with some assistance work. It is very hard for younger coaches not too have too much in their programmes because there are so many influences and types of programs out there, you have to do your strength work, power work, corrective work, rolling etc., there are so many different things young coaches feel they have to include.

From being involved lecturing and correcting programs it is common to see people try to include everything in the session and they mean well but you have to focus on one or two priorities until they get to a decent enough level and then move on to the next goal rather than trying to cover everything at once

ES: I think speaking from experience and having learned different methods in college and through various roles I’ve had and coaches I’ve worked with it is hard in college to take in everything without thinking you have to apply it all…

CK: Ya and I think you want to give students a broad range, you don’t want them going out not aware of a particular method or approach but certainly this year I’ll be looking at it trying to get people to recognise know how to put in the right amount of the right thing at the right time. Its easy to plan a warm up to address everybody’s corrective issues based on a screen but realistically if I was to plan a warm up that was going to correct all my issues from a screen my warm up would take about 40 minutes. If I had to foam roll everything that’s tight for me and prehab, rehab and activation and stretching the session would be gone! And realistically you don’t have that, you have maybe 45 minutes or an hour for the entire session so you have to strip it down and think what is really required. Also if they are athletes of a decent standard they have to do their homework too, the emphasis of mobility work should be their own. You have to work within your constraints, (although I hate the phrase) you have to look to what’s going to give you the biggest bang for you buck and include exercises that will look after 3 or 4 multiple things and if they are doing it properly and you are coaching it properly then it should help alleviate things over time. But that’s all experience and we all have to go through the horrendous and embarrassing programs before we learn that there is different ways of doing it. Something I wish I had done more of and something that is on my list to do now is to go and look at somebody else coaching and see how they do it and talk more with different coaches doing different things. Similarly I always find it good to have someone view your session, as they will most likely come up with a question as to why you do things a certain way and that’s helps your coaching process too.

ES: As a lecturer you get to see students make lots of mistakes including my class for four years! So what advice would you give to students or aspiring coaches?

CK: It’s tough one, it’s only in the last couple of years I’ve thought about it. You certainly have to get your qualifications and I don’t want to devalue them but when you qualify you are only one of a hundred or so qualifying each year in Ireland and the UK. If you want to work in the UK you should certainly look at the UKSCA. Getting the qualifications is just ticking the box per se. If you have the qualification we’d like to presume you have a decent standard of qualification so you’ve understood what you’ve learned. But really you have to get experience, you have to throw yourself out there and get as much work as you possibly can. That doesn’t have to be with Munster Rugby or Leinster or the FAI, it can be with your local club, your athletics club, your squash club, it doesn’t really matter, you just have to get out there and look at people and coach them. You have to coach them with a view to analyse and reflect on what you have done. That’s something I would have missed out on when I started coaching, I just did the program and thought “that seems to be working” or “the numbers are improving” whereas now I have always have a notebook with me to record what went well or what didn’t or to note if a problem popped up or a certain exercise can be coached better.

I think there are so many people coming out of college now with qualifications you have to be a good package. Everyone is looking for someone that can literally come in and do a job straight away and the only way to do that is by getting hands on experience. As well as volunteering, students should also use the hours in the gym to coach, anot just pump the guns but coach one another. See who’s a good coach and then figure out what makes them a good coach. How do they stand? How do they communicate? Learn as much as you can that way. There are so many S&C coaches out there, it takes a lot of hard work and perseverance but from doing interviews I will say someone who has experience, regardless if all they have coached is 14 year olds in the local gym for the last year, will stand out above someone who has no coaching experience. Students also can’t expect to be paid for everything they do, if it involves working 2 or 3 hours a week for free then you just have to tough it out and know it will stand to you over time. Sometimes people are not aware of the quality and amount of work experience that people out there have so you really have to practice your craft and coach people as much as you can.

ES: You have a unique background in working a lot with Paralympic athletes, could you talk through some of the misconceptions that exist around training Paralympic athletes and the work involved? 

CK: The perception has certainly changed a lot since I began working with Paralympic athletes in 2005/06. Maybe before it wasn’t respected as much, it wouldn’t have been seen as on par as able bodies games, people maybe viewed it as a token event. I think Channel 4 highlighted the skills and qualities of the athletes taking part and the work they do and really they are no different from any other athletes. The two main athletes I work with, James Scully and Ellen Keane, are funded athletes, podium carded athletes with the Irish sports council. They are full time and their next years income is largely based on how they perform so they have all the stresses and worries that any athlete has regarding funding and having to perform well. They know that if they drop out of that world-class bracket they may have their funding cut. They are full time athletes and people are slowly beginning to realise the level of work and training that goes into them. There had been past circumstances of people ringing up Paralympics Ireland saying “Oh I’m legally blind, I’d love to go to the Paralympic games!!” which is just as ludicrous as someone ringing Athletics Ireland saying “I’ve been running for the last six weeks, any chance you’d send me over to Beijing for the 100m World Championships?!” The perception has certainly changed thankfully and there is greater recognition and appreciation for the sport itself.

Ellen Keane
Ellen Keane
James Sculy
James Scully

ES: There are a number of challenges you might face working with Paralympic athletes such as grip strength due to amputation (both above and below the elbow) or due to complications with their particular diagnosis (e.g. muscle tone in CP athletes). How do you alter training programmes to work around this issue?

CK: I was lucky at the start in that my first athlete was a double leg amputee backstroke swimmer who was able to do leg press with his prosthetics and could do hamstring curls on the Swiss ball etc. so he was able to a lot of different exercise. When I began working with athletes with grip strength issues or who lacked any flexion at the knee or elbow it was a bit daunting as you are very limited. I remember at the beginning, with an athlete who had a fused elbow and only a thumb and finger on one hand and big grip issues on the other, spending 2 or 3 sessions literally just going through lots of different exercises. I would look at the sport and the muscle groups we wanted to train and try to adapt the conventional exercises for them. Initially we would have used a wrist support and carabiner attached to the pulley machine and use therabands wrapped around the arms. We use lots of isometrics with me applying the resistance to the athlete. Working with Paralympic athletes was daunting at the start, but at this stage I have a large memory bank of exercises to use. Nowadays there are lots of aids and technologies we can use to improve grip strength. Ellen is a single arm amputee but with her prosthetic arm we can do pull ups, bent over rows, deadlifts and anything we want to do.

ES: Using isometrics, it can be hard to measure improvement, do you use time or feel, how do you gauge it over time?

CK: It is difficult. There should be a better way, maybe a pressure gauge or strain gauge but usually it is by feel. Certainly if I am working within the 3 rep range I am going to make it tougher for the athlete than the 8 or 10 rep range. Usually as they develop and get stronger you will feel the extra force they will generate. It is a little bit vague and maybe not ideal but it is just based on your opinion of how much force you are applying and perception of their effort.

ES: Studies have shown that strength training can have positive improvements in the motor activity of athlete with Cerebral Palsy (CP), in your experience have you found positive results in this area?

CK: Ya, you’d see it with a lot of things. If we are getting them stronger and maintaining and improving the flexibility, depending on the severity of the CP, we’d really notice it in the athletes posture both standing and working. Their gait cycle often looks much more subtle and fluid too. It can be a controversial issue with one athlete who had been playing for the Irish Soccer team being assessed after improvements and being told his CP wasn’t severe enough for him to be able to play anymore which is a conundrum that may become a more common issue in Paralympic sport. We do see peoples posture and gait cycle improve and they become more efficient, which is obviously good for you in the sport setting but better for the individual if they can complete their day to day activities that bit easier. And hopefully, just like anyone, they will keep that up after they finish competing and keep a high standard of health.

ES: Can you give an insight into your method of power development in Paralympic athletes who may be limited in strength and/or movement for techniques such as Olympic lifts or plyometrics? Have you some ‘go to’ tools or is it really athlete dependent?

CK: it would be athlete dependent but in terms of go to methods, if they can jump and land there is a whole host of plyos we can do. If there is grip issues or lower limb issues it is a little trickier for the lower body but I will always try and get someone to jump explosively as they can or do something dynamically. We may go with lower load work focusing on really accelerating through the movement. The biggest ‘go to’ thing for me is with the medicine balls. We can do so much with the medicine balls regardless if there are grip issues etc. particularly for the upper body power, which is so important for the swimmers. If they can jump and land then I’m going to get them to do some basic plyos as quick as we can. I’m going to get them to jump as explosively as we can in different situations whether its a CMJ, Squat Jump, Squat Jump from sitting on a box etc. so we have lots of different levels we can incorporate at the end of a warm up. But certainly the medicine balls would be the number one tool and are maybe underrated, as we don’t see much emphasis on them. Everyone is talking about velocity based training and Olympic lifts and high pulls etc. which are all great but we can get a lot of good work done with the medicine balls, lots of explosive work that tends to be fairly manageable for a lot of the athletes.

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

CK: I have moved away from recommending S&C books as we all probably read the same S&C books, we all read Zatsiorsky, Verkhoshansky, Mike Stone or the recent book by David Joyce. There are so many out there. The number one book I would get everyone to read is called “How To Get From Where You Are to Where You Want To Be; The 25 Principles of Success” by Jack Canfield. I think it is the best book I’ve ever read. It is really simple, straightforward, basic stuff but formalizes things and puts them in a system for you. The main lesson I took from this, you probably heard me say it in a lecture before, is ‘we are all responsible for where we are, we are really in charge of our own situations’ and if you begin to live by that principle it focuses your mind more and helps you realise what steps you need to take. Mindset by Carol Dweck is another book along a similar line, on having an open and positive attitude, which sounds simple but is something we maybe don’t put into practice enough. A third one is any book on skill acquisition to read how people learn and how we can best guide people into learning things and facilitate learning.

ES: What coaches would you say have been most influential on you from both literature and personal experience?

CK: The literature one is hard to answer because there is so many. All the Mike Stone or Greg Haff stuff or all the big strength and power researchers such as Bosco, Komi and Schmidtbleicher. There is probably too many to mention but certainly Mike McGuigan, Warren Young or Jeremy Sheppard, I would have read a lot of their stuff and certainly McGuigan and Sheppard’s work is always very interesting, I’m always interested in the jumps and force profiles so they are always good but there are so many to name just one is very difficult! From personal experience, it is an obvious answer but Dr. Liam Hennessy. I first met him in 2007 and I was blown away by everything, his knowledge, his personality, how passionate he was, the time he had for everyone and the knowledge he had was amazing and I knew I had to get more information from him. Even now, from working with Liam over the years he is still a major influence and I never cease to be amazed with the amount of knowledge he has on various topics. The other one which has another big Setanta link, but is not biased, is Des Ryan. I went to one of the first workshops with Setanta and we were talking about the squat and I volunteered to demonstrate thinking my squat was awesome and I was going to get loads of praise and in a really polite way he tore me to shreds!! “You have some lateral lean, weight shift, left heel is lifting, knee is buckling in, you probably have Glute Med problems, you have some excessive forward lean etc. etc.” I left realising there was a whole world of things I wasn’t familiar with and had to learn. Those guys have really helped to form what I think about S&C and coaching so they are the two.

Dr. Liam Hennessy
Dr. Liam Hennessy
Des Ryan
Des Ryan

ES: Finally Ciaran, having had the pleasure of having you as a lecturer I know you are well read and keep up to date with the current trends in the industry! What advice would you give to coaches who struggle to balance between coaching and finding adequate CPD/study time?

CK: First of all, you are never going to get to all the things you want to and you have to accept that! Its funny, I was at the UKSCA conference a few weeks ago and coming home through the airport I spotted one of the guys who is high up in the UKSCA in the coffee shop and he was doing somebodies program. It made me chuckle because this is the side no one gets to see, he’s just finished a conference and he’s at the airport waiting to go home and he is trying to get this done, probably having to have it done for the Monday morning. It seems to be non-stop at times! You need a bit of a plan for CPD, that’s hard to do but if we don’t make a plan there is probably zero chance of it happening but at least if we make a plan there is a 25% of actually sitting down to read something. I would try to put away a couple of hours each week, even to skim over things and to keep up to date. If you can talk to other coaches that’s good too, it always helps. As you probably realise yourself now too, your going to have to make sacrifices to put money away for some of these events because they seem to be getting more and more expensive all the time, so you have to pick and choose what you are going to go for and try to put your pennies away to try and get to them. They are really important to go to, to keep up to date and you will meet lots of coaches at these events as well. Another thing I was thinking of for people still in college that may not have a lot of money is to take turns going to conferences and share notes, share a dropbox folder and share articles or get 5/6 people together and all put in a few quid to join a journal between ye and have access to all the back issues. So you have to plan and you have to make choices, Keeping up to date with CPD is hard, but you have to allocate a little bit of time for it. It accumulates and makes it all worthwhile in time.

The other thing is you have to remember you are a human being as well. Coffee will only keep you going for so long. We spend so much time speaking to our athletes about nutrition, sleep, recovery and all this stuff so we have to make sure we are trying to do that as well and that’s not always easy. There will be weeks where that’s not going to happen but you have to try and intervene every now and then and make sure there is something aside from S&C that you can go and do. We are all really good as S&C coaches to make time to go the gym but we have to make sure there is time for yourself, your own head, your own mental health so it always good to have an interest completely away from S&C so you can decompress from the whole thing and you can chill out for a while.

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ES: Thanks for taking time out to do this interview Ciaran, it was extremely enjoyable. Best of luck with everything.

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