By Gerard Mulreaney (@gerardmulreaney)
Strength and Conditioning is fast becoming a vital tool for football clubs the world over, as they look to take advantage over their rivals for glory. For clubs in the League of Ireland, it has taken a while for them to fully embrace the concept.
Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk were probably to the forefront of Strength and Conditioning in Ireland, especially during their Europa League runs in 2011 and 2016.
Whilst doing some research for this piece I came across an article in the Irish Independent where Graham Byrne, who at the time was Strength and Conditioning coach with Dundalk, was quoted as saying, “there have been plenty of full-time footballers in Ireland, but no professional footballers.” That was in 2016, there have been lots of changes since then as clubs are now fully aware of the benefits of Strength and Conditioning as they look to keep pace with modern football practices.
Graham Norton, is the Strength and Conditioning Coach at Premier Division side Bohemians, and I caught up with him ahead of the SSE Airtricity League kick-off to talk about his career and in particular his role at Bohemians.
Graham has just recently taken up the role with the Bohemians first-team this season following a stint with the clubs U19’s. He takes it up from here, “I was working in a private coaching facility with a Strength and Conditioning coach/physio called Cian McCaffrey, who at the time was working with the Bohs U19’s. I offered to help him with group gym sessions and doing some other work with the teams. Cian then went on to become the first team Strength and Conditioning coach and I became the U19’s S&C coach for the 2018 season. Towards the end of the season he was then offered a job at English Championship side West Brom, which he took, so I stepped in with the first team until the end of the season, and I was then kept on in that role for the coming 2019 season.”
So how and why decide to get into Strength and Conditioning? Norton said, “Straight out of school I started a degree with the goal of becoming a P.E Teacher. However, about half way through my first year I realised I was more interested in the personal training/strength and conditioning side of the course as opposed to the teaching side, so I left the course and did a personal training certification and began working in the fitness industry.”
“During this time I was working for someone who was involved with the Strength and Conditioning at St Patricks Athletic. I began helping out with team S&C sessions as well as one to one conditioning sessions in pre season, which I really enjoyed, and it is from here that I decided to start a Bachelors degree in strength and conditioning.”
“I’m currently in the final few months of a 4 and half year BSc in Strength and Conditioning with Setanta College. Its not easy working full time, while studying at the same time, but this has allowed me to have 5+ years experience coaching already, which is invaluable as it’s not just the academic knowledge that is important, but how to practically apply that in a team setting.”
While Bohemians are effectively a part-time team, they train nearly as much as the likes of Dundalk and Cork City, most of their players also have jobs, making it difficult to get the necessary rest full-time professionals do. So what does Graham bring to Bohemians and their players. “My role involves providing strength training and conditioning programs for the lads to complement their pitch sessions as well as coaching team gym sessions. At pitch sessions I would do prehab work with the lads, as well take the warm up and any extra conditioning/speed work that needed to be done.”
“On match days I would take the warm up and again, work with any lads who are coming back from injury or need extra conditioning work. I would also help with the load management of the squad, in terms of trying to make sure we are working the lads hard enough to help them improve, but also being careful to not to do too much and cause injuries. We also have a sports scientist, who looks after our GPS, which is a huge help for us and the management are clued in to the load management side of things so this side of things is really a team effort.”
“I’m fortunate that my predecessor with the first team, Cian, had laid down a lot of the ground work in terms of introducing proper Strength and Conditioning within the team, so it was an easy transition for me. I also very lucky in that we have a great coaching staff who are all very forward thinking and open to my ideas as an S&C coach, and they would listen to any input I have to make.”
Former Irish Rugby International Johnny O’Connor is also a graduate of the same Setanta College that Graham attended, and his life after rugby career had seen him take Strength and Conditioning roles at Arsenal, Galway United and now Connacht Rugby. For Norton, he ended up going down the football route but said, “It’s not necessarily something I predicted – going down that route – but something I always wanted to get into as I played football all my life, and so naturally have an interest in improving athletic performance specific to football.”
Bohemians will kick-off their 2019 SSE Airtricity League Premier Division campaign with a game against newly promoted Finn Harps on Friday night at Dalymount Park. That will be followed by four games in 11 days. It’s a tough start for Keith Long’s men but Norton says that the lads are ready for the challenge, “Strength and Conditioning wise, It’s been a tough pre-season for the lads. They have been working extremely hard, but we are lucky that we have quite a young squad, as well as lads who do look after themselves, so we are shaping up nicely for what we know is going to be a tough season.”
“In terms of exercises, I try to design a program that will build stronger and more robust athletes, to help them cope with the demands of what is a long and tough season. There is a lot of single leg work, trying to be as specific to the sport as possible, and the programs and group sessions would be a mix of strength training and plyometric work to try and make the lads stronger and more explosive on the pitch, where it matters.”
Do all the players and coaches buy into what you want to do? Norton said, “In my experience there is great buy in from the players and coaches a the club. Bearing in mind that we train in the evening, after a lot of lads would’ve been in work all day before pitch sessions, it is not easy for them to fit in their gym sessions but they all make a good effort to get them done. From the coaches point of view, both Keith Long and Trevor Crolly certainly buy into the importance of Strength and Conditioning and allow me plenty of time to get what I need done.”
Throughout a long football season players get injuries and that’s when Graham’s role becomes even more important, “Working with injured players is a big part of my role at the club. When the physio hands the players over to work with us, it is up to us to get the athlete match fit again through strength and conditioning work that will help them meet their return to play criteria. It can be challenging both for myself and the player as it is a frustrating time for them as they just want to be back on the pitch as soon as possible, but its up to us to educate them on why they might need more work before joining back into full sessions with the team or playing matches.”
As in any walk of life, hard work and dedication brings its rewards, and Graham has recently launched a new business. I asked him to tell me about it, “Yeah I have just launched a new business venture, New Era Coaching, with my business partner and fellow Strength and Conditioning coach Alan Stewart. We provide both online and in person training and nutrition coaching to both athletes and people who just want to get fit in general. The fitness industry is something we are both passionate about, as well as Strength and Conditioning.”
He also recently spoke to some Leaving Cert PE students about fuelling performance in football and Graham is hoping to do more of it as he feels it’s important, “Talking to young students is something I definitely enjoy and want to do more of, as it is something I had a huge interest in growing up but never really had access to as much information as I would’ve liked to. Yes, I enjoy sharing what I now know with younger adults who are interested in the subject.”
And would he recommend to young people to get involved in Strength and Conditioning, “I certainly would recommend young people to get involved in S&C if they have an interest in sports and athletic performance as it is a very rewarding job once they are willing to put in the work, when it comes to both learning and coaching.”
Pictures courtesy of Graham Norton