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The Modern High Performance Manager with Mick Hughes and Phil Coles

6 Jan 2019
Mick Hughes
In the latest of “Mick talks to…”, I sat down with Sports Physio and High Performance Manager Phil Coles and asked him questions on what it is like to work in elite sport. For those that don’t know, Phil has worked with some of the biggest sporting organisations in the world including Liverpool FC, San Antonio Spurs, Newcastle Knights and now the Australian Socceroos.

With such a wealth of experience under his belt, I wanted to find out what a High Performance Manager does, the finer points of strengthening and conditioning within elite team environments and how it differs between different sporting codes, and the challenges of managing elite players and their personalities. I hope you all learn a lot from our chat, because as always, I certainly did!

Mick: So for those that don’t know your background, you're a sports physio, but you've been recently working as a high performance manager. My experience with physios is that we're a bit protective of players, whereas high performance managers and strength & conditioning staff are a little bit more aggressive with getting the best out of players. How do you find that balance, wearing two different hats? 

Phil: I feel like the role of a high performance manager is to give every athlete their best opportunity to do well, which ultimately gives the team the best opportunity to do well. So for me that's finding a balance between pushing athletes hard physically and mentally, but making sure that you're doing that in a positive and safe way, that's going to keep them available and keep them playing at their best both now and in the future.

I think moving from a physio to high performance manager type role, wasn't so much changing my philosophy in managing athletes, but the change was moving to a managerial role where it's more about overseeing a department which includes strengthening, conditioning coaches, sport's scientists, nutritionists, physios, doctors etc and making sure that they're all working together in a coordinated way, rather than focusing on treating players. As a high performance manager my job is to make sure that all the medical and performance staff’s skill sets are combining in an integrated way to achieve the best outcome for the player, and the best outcome for the player is for them to be injury free and playing at their best.

I feel like that the philosophy (or perception) that physios are there to protect people, and strengthening and conditioning coaches are there to push them, is wrong. I think it's wrong in a sense of it's not good for athletes. Physio’s being over protective and stopping players training or playing when they can, and should be training or playing, is not doing them any favours. At the same time, S&C coaches or anyone else for that matter, pushing players in a way that's reckless and making them train in a way that's going to aggravate problems or cause long term issues, is going to ultimately decrease their performance and decrease their health, so that is not the right way to go either.

So, that kind of philosophical divergence, I think, we need to avoid it from both sides. And as a high performance manager, my job is to make sure that everyone understands that their role is to get the players on the field in the best possible condition you can have them, and to give them their best opportunity to do well.

So yeah, moving to being a high performance manager was different role to my previous physio roles , but I think it's a role that physios are very capable of doing, it's just moving to a management role and utilizing the skills of everyone and integrating those to achieve great outcomes for the athletes.

Mick: So moving on, and reflecting on your time in both the NRL and the NBA. Typically guys in the NRL have got a pretty healthy love affair for the gym. And traditionally NBA players, not so. Is there a changing landscape from what you've seen with in regards to strength and conditioning in the NBA for the players to be able to cope with an 82 game season?

Phil: Certainly in the NRL, lifting is part of the culture. The players have done it for years and it's an expected component of the game that everyone does. In the NBA it's much more individual. There's a lot of NBA players, and a lot of NBA S&C coaches who are really dedicated to it, and have been for many years. At the same time there's been NBA players who've been able to drift along without the exposure to it, and through natural ability and through talent, have survived.

So, with the NRL it's locked in, everyone does it. However, in the NBA it’s variable but I do think it is changing, and it's becoming slowly part of their culture; especially over the last 10 to 15 years, and that’s probably accelerated in the last 5 years. But it is still an individual component that certain NBA players won't necessarily put the time or focus into when they probably should. But I think those individuals are getting less and less.

Mick: So knowing that the in-season NBA scheduling is pretty tough, with to 3-5x games a week. What would a typical week look for you in regards to for example team trainings/strength and conditioning?

Phil: There's not really ever a typical week to be fair, because every week is different. I think you average 4 games a week over the season, but there will be weeks where you have 3 and sometimes we ‘d have 5 games. But they're fairly rare.

The Spurs, where I was with Coach Pop, we were probably renowned for being fairly conservative in training loads. So he didn’t run a lot of full team sessions through the heart of the season, unless we had a day that was a stand alone G+2 and G-2 simultaneously. What you do run every game day though, is a shoot around. Which is essentially a very light training session in the morning of the game (equivalent of a captain's run).

In terms of strength work, at the end of my first season there, when we did an audit of what we'd done during the year to see what we could improve on, the thing that probably stood out the most to me was, just the lack of exposure to regular lifting. We were trying to lift in a more team-based approach, because that's typically how they had done it, and how the coach liked it to be done. But at the end of the season with our stats, I was able to go to him and say, “look we just didn't get enough exposure to strength and conditioning work for some of these players”.

So from that we broke away from that mould of doing our S&C work as a team, and moved towards doing our S&C in a more individual basis. In the NBA, we only have a roster of 15, and we had a staff, in my department alone, of 8-10. So, you do have the ability to run more individual processes that you couldn't necessarily do at an AFL, or an NRL team.

So what we did from the 2nd-4th years, was a much more individual-based S&C programming. We had a target of having everyone lift at least twice a week and we were fairly successful, although not always, in getting that done, depending on which players, and how many minutes they were playing in games.

To achieve this target of two lifts per week, we utilized all different approaches. We had guys lifting pre-game, guy lifting post game, guys lifting the morning after games, and the morning before games. All depending on how many minutes they were expected to play in different games, what their historical recovery had been, and what our upcoming month of scheduling looked like.

Mick: Awesome insight, so I guess that leads into my next question about about resting players and the infamous “resting policy” in the NBA. What's your experiences of strategically resting NBA players throughout a season?

Phil: Yeah, look, it's a hot topic of debate. Obviously in the NBA, the Spurs were a big part of that debate for a few reasons. One, you could probably say that Coach Pop was a pioneer of load management in the USA.

If you’re working in the NRL or AFL it is typically about managing weekly training session loads to prepare for the one game per week. In the NBA however, weekly load management can be difficult as you have such variance of games per week, and because game day is 90% of the workload players are under, managing weekly loads primarily involves managing game day loads.

What Coach Pop did, well before any of us were at the club, was to say “I'm going to rest players at certain times because I feel that's going to keep them fresher towards the end of the season”. And he did that through his intuition and his experience, and he did it pretty successfully.

When we came in, and my role essentially was to talk to him about that each week and make some recommendations of what our rotations would be from a physical sense, and obviously he would then take that under advisement and make the decisions from a holistic sense, including technical / tactical considerations, and everything else. Funnily enough, more often than not, I was recommending to him that we play players more minutes, because his approach was sometimes more conservative than what I felt we needed to be, so sometimes we actually were pushing the other way.

In terms of the powers-that-be at the NBA, they knew of the Spur's history of resting players. And they had fined the Spur's in the past for doing that without enough notice to the league. Their argument being that people pay money for tickets to see certain players, and they weren't being informed. And then, while I was there, there was actually a big game between ourselves and Golden State. Golden State were on a back to back, where they'd come from somewhere up in the north Minnesota or Milwaukee, and it was a long trip for them, where they'd played the night before.

So they arrived in San Antonio at five in the morning, in what was a big nationally televised game between the two best teams in the league – and they sat their entire starting team! So we responded by essentially sitting our starting team too. And it was after that game that the NBA tried to ban “resting” of players.

Now the NBA can never stop you leaving a player out from an injury perspective. What they could do is stop you from listing a player as being left out for reasons of “rest”. So all it did, really, was if you want to leave a player out, you have to detail a reason as to why that player's been left out. Through the course of an 82 game season, every player has some reason you could potentially list as them being needing to sit out a game.

Mick: So I’ve seen some of the top level players in the NBA have got their own private fitness staff and S&C coaches on top of the club’s S&C staff. So if you've got a player with two different S&C's, how do you manage some of the potential mixed messages that may arise between the different staff?

Phil: It is an issue, and it's something I've been on both sides of. In past roles, and even with what I do now with the Socceroos where I'm consulting with our players who are at other clubs; some of our players might ask for advice on their S&C or rehab programs, and so to be fair I am that external person right now to an extent.

When I arrived at the Spurs, of our original 15 man squad, I think about 9 were working with external staff, though most of those staff were working with the players in the off-season only. As per the collective bargaining agreement with the players, the clubs aren't supposed to program them anything in the off-season, so that's where that came from. The players went and got their own private staff to work with them during that period, and then most of those private staff tried to maintain some contact, some influence, I guess on players throughout the season and that seems to be increasing as a trend.

When I came in, that was something we wanted to address, and I guess I used my experience from having being on the both sides, and considered what I thought had and hadn't worked best from a club perspective to best manage it. So we tried to be open, and say to players, “look if you've got staff you're using, then I want to meet them, I want to sit down with them, I want to understand their philosophies. I want to understand what they're trying to program. And I want them to understand what we're trying to do. I want to try to work with them as much as we can, but we will set certain boundaries as to how that work can happen”.

Once we established those relationships then what we could do was put certain limitations on what access they could have, as in, they would never work with our player during a season without one of our staff members being present, they would never come into the facility and work with a player while other players were working out, and even in the off season all programs they wanted to implement were shared and agreed with us. What then happened over time is actually most private staff felt that they really didn’t need to be involved through the season because of the good relationship with the club staff and eventually lot of the players essentially thought, “well you know, we probably don't need that external input anymore if it's being better managed from within the club”. By the time I'd finished, we were down to only 3 players who still used external consultants, even in the off season, and so overall that was a great success for us, although there can always be individuals who are difficult, and we certainly weren’t perfect.

Mick: Very good. So sometimes evidence-based practice, especially in the elite world looks very different to how it would look in a typical clinic. For example, in a 30min consult for a patient with Achilles tendinopathy, I wouldn't dry needle or therapeutic ultrasound, however I would prioritise my time towards pain education and progressive loading. However in the elite world I know you try to throw everything at them including the kitchen sink. How does that evidence-based practice fly in the elite world?

Phil: I think you have to go back to the definition of “evidence based practice”. And that's using research, using your clinical experience, and using the patient values and beliefs. Evidence based practice involves all three aspects. So, I would certainly never say, whether it's in an elite sporting environment or a private practice, you should only be using things that are 100% research proven. Because you can't dismiss clinical experience, and patient values and beliefs, they are actually a key part of evidence based practice. At the same time, I strongly believe in using research supported work where you can, and you can't allow beliefs, either through your own or patient experience to dictate what gets done if they are clearly incorrect, in terms of what we know from a research base. As with everything it’s a balance!

Mick: So you're now back working with the Socceroos. How difficult is it to manage the playing list when you've got so many different players playing all over the world?

Phil: Yeah mate that's obviously our biggest challenge now. We've got players playing in all different leagues. The leagues run at different times, they run at different schedules. They play different intensities, they train at different intensities. We try to deal with that by having relationships with those players and clubs, and try to moderate things where we can to get them somewhere near the level we want them; but understanding that the clubs have control over the players in those times that they're not with us. And then there’s the challenge of working with players individually when they come into camp, and understanding we can't run a team session at exactly the same intensity for every player, because players are coming in at different levels.

Ultimately, the big challenge for us however is that we can't lower the bar. We can't lower the bar of intensity of our training to the level that's going to suit the person coming in from the lowest intensity. We have to keep the bar high in terms of how hard we want to push players and how much we can get done in our limited time with them, while understanding that everyone is coming in at a different level. We have to get them to that level we need to them be at, as quickly as possible.

Mick: In an era of sports science, where numbers tend to dominate decision-making regarding team selection and/or how much a player should play per match – do you think some sports/clubs have gone too far with the “numbers”, and not enough athletes are being asked “do you think you can play?” or “how much do you think you have in you tonight?”

Phil: Great question. The data on its own should never make a decision. Every decision should be based on a discussion between the player and the staff. I’m a huge believer in the benefits of practical, reliable and valid data collection, but that data is there to help guide your experience and intuition, not to make decisions for you!

Mick: In regards to recovery, recently I was lucky enough to work with a group of highly professional female athletes who didn't go out partying and drinking after their games. Knowing that this can be part of the culture in male sports and how it can negatively impact on training and performance; how do you deal with that or is that part of the sporting culture from years gone by? Are athletes better now at sleep hygiene and resisting alcohol, or do you still think it's part of the culture?

Phil: I think in general athletes are getting better. It's always individual though. In rugby league, I think you can fairly say it's more part of the culture than what it is in the NBA for instance. With the NBA schedule, where you're planning back to back games and five games in a week, it just doesn't lend itself to players going out drinking. And certainly in my experience with the Spurs, it really didn't happen at all.

In sports where you've got one game a week, and a historical culture where they would go out drinking, it is something that you have to deal with, but I think individually it varies. And I think as a whole it's improving.

Mick: Now you've worked at some of the biggest sporting clubs in the world. If you could pick any sport in the world, either something you've already worked in, or currently working in, what's your dream job? 

Phil: Ah mate, that's a hard question. I've honestly loved all the jobs that I've had. I grew up watching and loving football, and obviously the chance to work with the Socceroos, is a huge honour. It's a great job. I actually also grew up a Liverpool fan, so I never thought I would get the chance to go and work at Liverpool, let alone to take a leadership role there.

I actually played rugby league most of my life, and I'm from near Newcastle, so the chance to come back and work with the Newcastle Knights (NRL) was a great opportunity, and something that I would have dreamed about when I was younger. Fantastic club and people.

I can't say I was a passionate basketball fan, but I did have a desire to go to the U.S. and so, to get the chance to go there and work with a hugely successful franchise and some legends of the game, both on and off the court, was awesome. Certainly my perspective and love for the sport grew and now of course I’m a massive fan!

So mate, what's my dream job now moving forward? I would love at some stage to go and work in the AFL. I think the culture of sporting performance in AFL is second to none, but I’d also always look at any NRL and football opportunities, especially back here in Newy!. Honestly but, I love what I'm doing now, and any job where I can find a balance between having time with the family, and working with people that I enjoy working with, yeah, they're the two key points for me.

Mick: Last one Phil; Can you give any pieces of advice or words of wisdom to any of your readers out there, especially any students or new grads who are looking to get into the sports as a physio, S&C coach, sports scientist or high performance manager?

Phil:No real words of wisdom mate, maybe just some ramblings. Obviously work hard and be open to learn, because there's always someone or something out there that can offer you a new learning experience or perspective. At the same time however, also learn to back your judgment and your skills. I think there's no single right way to do anything. So back your own judgment, be confident, and as long as you're open to listen and to learn, hopefully you get the breaks.

Mick: Yep. Good stuff mate. That's all my questions done and dusted mate, so thanks very much for your time Phil. I appreciate it a lot! 


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