David Howarth - "We are confident that we are coming back better than when we left"

30 June 2020

David Howarth -
David Howarth made a career change from green-keeper to Strength and Conditioning coach back in 2005 when the importance of Strength and Conditioning had really started to take off in Australia. He now finds himself living along the rough coast of the West of Ireland with his wife and two kids, the perfect setting to fuel his hobby of surfing when he gets a day away from his busy life.


David is not only leading Connacht Rugby’s Athletic performance, but he is also striving to make a greater long-term impact in the world of sports science through his PhD research. David along with the IRFU and the other provinces are pushing the boundaries in Athletic Performance to build players a long-term successful career and build a legacy of success in Irish Rugby.


The Australian born coach arrived at Connacht Rugby in 2017 from the NBA team Oklahoma City Thunder. Working alongside Johnny O’Connor and Barry O’Brien, they have created a purposeful, energetic atmosphere inside the walls of the Connacht Rugby performance center. Their drive to succeed along with their innovative and creative nature meant that they were able to keep players focused without physical contact and proper facilities during the lock-down period.


As our players return to training this week, they will be unfamiliar with the somewhat changed surroundings that they left 3 months ago. The High-Performance Center has changed dramatically as Connacht Rugby prepare the Sportsground for a new safer training environment post-COVID.


David and his team are up for the challenge as they strive to keep engagement and motivation high when the players return.


Firstly, David how are you? You have two kids, you are working full time in quarantine, and in the middle of a PhD how you have coped with everything?


Quarantine has been good so far, we managed to get my parents back to Australia before the lock-down period started which was a lucky escape! I have been managing fine, the PhD has benefited the most and has gotten the biggest kick, which is good and bad: you settle into a rhythm with research where you start analyzing your data and writing your papers and everything gets into a nice flow.


But one thing no one tells you about doing a PhD, or any type of Postgraduate research, is that essentially you spend most of your time getting criticized. Every time I submit another version of the paper that I have been working on I will get a lot of criticism back from my supervisors. As they are based in Australia, we meet during the night-time here. They often come to these meetings equipped with a lot of ‘feedback’ which often means you must redo a lot of the work- it gets emotional!


How have you created a balance between working from home, homeschooling two kids, and doing a PhD?


My wife keeps on saying to me that balance is a verb, so it is an action: you must try to find a time where you can do a bit of everything. She reminds me to work hard and play hard. When you have time off you need to go and enjoy it, so I will go for a bike ride with the kids and get to the beach to go for a surf. It has been the busiest but also the most productive 3 months I have had in a long time in terms of reaching personal goals and time with my kids.


I have gotten to know them, and they have got to know who I am. Ashamedly I have not been able to spend much time with them over the past eight years. My eldest is eight years old, she’s learning new things about me and I am learning new things about her. It has been great from that perspective.


Can you tell us about what the PhD is about and how it will inform your role at Connacht Rugby?


My PhD title is "Quantifying neuromuscular status of elite rugby union players: measurement characteristics and moderating factors". Essentially, we are examining counter-movement jumps of rugby players on force plates over a season (across the 18/19 season) where we collected jumps twice a week during their normal monitoring. This is a research area that I have been thinking about for a long time and is something that we also use to adjust players' training and help them manage their fatigue and drive their adaptation.


We are analyzing the data to see how consistent those variables are, then how sensitive they are to then see what they relate to in terms of perceptual fatigue for a player. We want to see how they feel and how they measure going through a season and to finally relate that back to their performance both on-field and physically. We have key markers that we are tying that back to not least of which is coach opinion on how they played.


As you go down all these research routes, sports science has a bit of a reputation for trying to draw too long of a bow to say that this measure will tell you whether a guy is going to be able to play well or not well. What we want to know is what are the moderating factors to these measurements and how do they fit into that fatigue cycle. It has been great to be able to collaborate on this with some other practitioners and work on related areas of research, like how we measure things, understanding fatigue to a deeper level and quantifying ‘performance’. It is exciting to think that there will be some contributions in this space in the next year from Connacht Rugby.


You played a bit of rugby yourself back in the day, how did you make that transition into the Athletic performance world?


When I finished school, I was very enthusiastic about my rugby ability, even though I didn’t have a lot of it! I said to my dad “I want to be a professional rugby player” and his reply was “Really? you should get a job!”. Before I started in Strength and Conditioning, I worked as a green-keeper on a golf course for eight years. When I finished my greenkeeping apprenticeship, I moved to the USA in 2002 and lived in Naples, Florida for 18 months. I worked on a golf course in Naples while playing rugby with a local team. I had an opportunity to go to Miami University and train with their football team.


While training with the college team, I met a Strength and Conditioning Coach who bought me in and I ended up loving it. I loved the energy of it and the music in the weight room with the guys going mental! When I came back to Australia, I returned to playing rugby in Canberra, I noticed how big of a gap there was in training. The science in Australia was cutting edge, but the types of training that they were doing in the States was way beyond what we were doing.


I did spend another 3 years attempting to be a professional rugby player and a green-keeper but eventually, I realized I wanted to be involved in sports differently. By that stage, I had broken everything in my body and wasn’t getting paid much for it, so I pulled the pin and started as a fitness coach with Eastern Suburbs Rugby for a year. I then moved to Sydney as I had a good contact up there with the Waratah’s and started attending the University of Western Sydney. While studying for my degree I started working with the Waratah’s and Australian Rugby Union and it took off from there.


It was a successful career change, I would love to say it was my own motivation, but it coincided with the time my wife and I reconnected after meeting each other in Florida. She came to visit me in Sydney, and I realised as soon as she walked into the airport that I probably wasn’t going to be seeing any other woman after that! She has been a massive driver in my career in terms of giving me space and plenty of motivation. She is doing her Masters in Adult Learning and Education now at NUIG. The irony is, she pushed me through my adult learning and education and now I can return the favour.


You mentioned how you noticed a significant difference between Australia and the USA after returning from the USA, can you tell me about the changes that you have seen since you came back?


It is worth mentioning that Australia was really advanced in Sports Science at the time. We were world leaders in Sports Science and the education system is brilliant. I am doing my PhD with some of the best Sports Scientists I have ever come across at the University of Technology in Sydney.


What I had not experienced then was the way that the Americans applied their Strength and Conditioning specifically, the importance of an S & C coach in a program, and the amount of energy that they injected into it. In Australia at that time, it was just the beginning. There was a group of guys there who started the Australian Strength and Conditioning Association in the mid 1990's and they were driving it hard.  They were some of the greatest guys I have come across and was lucky enough to be mentored by one of them. That was the turning point for S & C in Australia.


Rugby League probably bought into it much earlier than Rugby Union, it was a professional sport earlier and they had been driving the physical and physiological capacity of their players to be able to play more games at a higher intensity, create a better spectacle and that is where the physical comes in. The more that the product is out there then the more the people can engage with it and the more money it can make. S & C coaches, in their own way, are big drivers of how professional and sustainable the game can be at that level.


When I returned from the States to Australia in 2003, I had noticed that more people were pushing in that area. Working with those people pushing S & C from that period until 2012, I was amazed to see the difference in the people that were doing it, the energy around it, the focus that was on being a practitioner and not just being a scientist. The most important thing was, how are you engaging with the athletes and how are you helping them find the next 4 or 5 years of their career and being able to perform at that level.


In 2012 I moved over to California to work for a company called Sparta Performance Science for 2 years. From there I was headhunted by the Oklahoma City Thunder as their Athletic Performance Coordinator, leading the S&C and Nutrition for those guys. This meant I was out of rugby for five years but still tried to keep contacts and dipping in and out while I was working in the NBA. The difference I saw in S & C in rugby after being away from it for five years was amazing.


When I joined Connacht Rugby in 2017, it was exciting to see the energy Nick Winkleman (Head of Athletic Performance and Science in the IRFU) was bringing to rugby in Ireland. I know that there has been an evolution in terms of how we take this up to the next level. Nick has been purposeful in getting guys from around the world with a variety of experience to drive it.


Then you have a guy like Jason Cowman (Head of S & C for the Irish rugby team) who is that breed of S & C Coach involved in understanding the science, driving the environment and helping the players to not just win games but to push their careers and set in a legacy of success in Ireland. I am under no illusions that I am some sort of ‘answer’, but I hope that I am contributing to something much longer than my tenure at Connacht Rugby and Irish Rugby. That’s why we are here and that’s why we do this. Of course, we want to win in the short term, but long term we want to create and ingrain success.


It’s funny, you mentioned the importance of engaging with players in S & C and now you find yourself the last 3 months in quarantine. How have you managed to keep up that level of intense training and keep the players engaged?


There have been several different ways we have done this. The guys I work with, Johnny O’Connor and Barry O’Brien, have been phenomenal in this exact space. Early on, we asked ourselves “How we are going to keep engagement high and how do we implement this successfully”. We set up little things like a Friday challenge for the players every week. Johnny took week one and ruined it for us because it was amazing! Suddenly, here’s Johnny with all these special effects, standing there in his orange underwear doing an isometric hold lunge and setting a challenge for all the guys.


It was a great way to start off, and to try and follow that up as the weeks went by was hard. It became this ever-rising scale of creativity and ingenuity. Barry rose to that challenge too; he came up with some hilarious ones and then there was me who did some terrible ones, I have no creativity compared to those guys. That was one way of keeping up that engagement and that environment.


Coming in here in 2017 we had just brought Johnny on as the Senior S & C coach, and we agreed that no matter what every day we want to set the tone. We both had the same mindset on that. We are likely to be one of the first faces that the players see when they come in. If we are walking around quiet with our heads down, how are they going to be for the rest of the day? If we are fired up, excited, and focused on what’s coming then the players will follow our lead.


We wanted to lead in that way and wanted to lead with objective data, with a positive attitude and by doing new things the best way we could. We wanted to have 3 main things that we would always create. Number one was a great environment; number 2 was innovating and push to the edge by taking our ideas and turning them into action; and, thirdly to collaborate with people. During these Covid-19 times that hasn’t changed, in terms of innovation, we have used different portals for pushing out programs.


Johnny has been using an online portal to send out our programs on an application that we use. We have also had so much innovation around our running programs during the lock-down.  Barry had to put together an incredible amount of work in case somebody didn’t have access to an area they could run within their 2 km. Some players were running on a piece of grass outside their house and trying to do change of direction work.


So, Barry came up with a bunch of drills for these guys and those who didn’t feel comfortable leaving their house and came up with ways for them to utilize the space in their living room or backyard. The innovation alone that came out of that was incredible. We collaborated with the coaches and the medical team to try and get that cross-pollination of what it is we want to come back as whenever this is all over, which is thankfully this week.


When we do get back to training, we are confident that we have not only kept the course and stayed fit, but we are confident that we are coming back better than when we had left. The guys have done enough training and explored enough different things to come back with new skill sets, new ideas, and new ways to perform. That all comes back to the environmental things like the videos, chats, the facetimes, to the innovation of how we train and what we are training with.


We sent out equipment to all the player's houses just before lock-down and tried to get them exactly what they needed. Johnny set them out their programs of what they needed to work on. We worked with all the coaches to find a way to ensure that the players had an ongoing focus on what they needed to be when they come back in and what it is we aspire to be. We worked hard to find a way.


What are the challenges of starting a Pre-season campaign having been away from a higher performance environment for such a long time? 


This comes back to the environment that we created from the beginning up until now. The guys know why they train, why it’s important to train and why it’s important not to rush back in. We need to have that graded ramp up return into playing games. All the provinces and IRFU are working together to implement best practice models for what a return to training would look like. This will hold us in good stead. We agreed that we needed at least six weeks of ramp-up into playing games, they have given us eight. In terms of preparing ourselves to play games again, when we go back to playing again in the Aviva on the 22nd August, it’s going to be a culmination of a long period of intense and focused training.


It’s not over and above what I would normally be wary of coming back into training. We are going to have a few injuries, you will always have a few. It will happen if we are training hard. We are going to do everything we can to mitigate that risk, that is going to come in the form of all the testing that we do through weeks one and two so we can understand where the guys are fitness-wise. Of course, they are going to be doing CMJ’s (Counter Movement Jumps) to understand neuromuscular status, and also testing strength and speed measures. Everything will be packed into those first couple of weeks so we have a good baseline of where they are and if there are any red flags we will be all over it very quickly.


How will the new operational measures and social distancing in The Sportsground affect training?


It’s going to be tough . . . it will be such a departure from what we are used to. The training and that environment that I talked about before, a lot of that energy comes from that interpersonal closeness. It will be interesting to see how the guys cope, it’s a little bit different when you are under a heavy weight and you have someone there in your ear. They might be saying something nice or not so nice, but either way it’s going to motivate you to drive through.


When you are pushing on the bench and look up and see someone screaming over you, that gives you that extra motivation. Some of that is going to be missing, which goes back to our innovation. How are we going to create that environment? We have talked about that as a group, I think it’s going to be interesting. We will have to create energy, urgency, and focus in our training sessions. That is going to boil down to our coaches and our ability to communicate with the players and understand where they are. It’s going to be a challenge, but it will be exciting and fun.


The gym is now sectioned up into little pods, and you can only work at one station at a time. There is at least 3 meters between you and the next guy in a taped off area, it’s very clinical and strange. If you are a regular gym-goer you will usually go to the gym, put on your headphones and hit the treadmill or bench, whatever it is. That’s quite normal, whereas when you are with a rugby team and you are used to bouncing off your mates around you it’s going to be different for players.


How will this Pre-Season training be laid out?


We are waiting to hear about our Champions Cup spot next year which is out of our hands and we can’t get into the finals of last year’s PRO14. What is in our hands is our preparation and what we can focus on is what’s coming on October 3rd. Those next two games are not throwaway games, we are not looking at them as preseason games. They are important and are particularly important for players who want to push their national team selection ambitions. They need to be able to put out their best performance in those two matches. The most important thing for us right now is to continue to get better over these next 8 weeks.


We have broken it up into testing and installation for 2 weeks, 2 weeks of specific preparation where we start to develop player skills on the rugby field and develop our way through the amount of load players will have to tolerate throughout the season, Then we go into competition preparation, we push the boundaries there and explore where we can grow and get better. It’s a more intense period. And finally, the pre-competition phase, really driving into those two games in August. After that we are all eyes on the ‘20/21' season and really performing there.


Lastly, Dave, Friendy requested that everyone had to come back from quarantine with a new skill on or off the field. What would you say you improved on when you were in quarantine?


This is a nerdy one - there is an open-source stats package called R. I have been focused on learning how to use R for my stats in my PhD, learning to code and create data visualizations, dashboards and apps . . . that’s been one of my major focuses.


Personally, one of the biggest things for me was mental skills. One thing I invested a lot of time into was understanding the research around, but also building a practice of, mindfulness and meditation to bring me into the present. There is a tremendous amount of research on it and its direct benefits with better health and performance.

Mental skills are essentially based around your ability to be aware – aware of your environment, feelings, and the actions that you and others are taking in the moment and shaping what happens next. It's an area of focus for us as a club too, developing our mental skills as staff, coaches and players. So, I have been trying to build my awareness and clarity around these things too.