TASS Practitioner Focus: An insight into strength and conditioning

Dr Lucinda Howland (third from left) with a group of TASS athletes (Credit: CCCU)

TASS practitioners are key to supporting our performance athletes on and off the field. In the latest in a series of features highlighting their pivotal roles, we talk to Canterbury-based strength and conditioning specialist Lucinda Howland.

TASS: Please describe your current role – where are you based and what does the role entail?

Lucinda Howland: I have recently been employed as a full-time lecturer in Strength, Conditioning and Performance in the section of Sport and Exercise Science at Canterbury Christ Church University. In this role I fulfil teaching, research and consultancy work. I am responsible for the design, delivery and assessment of modules in Strength and Conditioning to our undergraduate students and I also teach on undergraduate Physiology modules and postgraduate Advanced Laboratory Techniques modules. When I am not in the classroom, I spend a significant proportion of my time managing and delivering projects and applied sport science work to a range of athletes who compete at local level all the way through to Olympic standard. I am proud that part of my role includes being the TASS Delivery Site Lead. I manage a range of practitioners including nutritionists, physiotherapists, sports psychologists, strength and conditioning coaches and lifestyle practitioners. As a UKSCA accredited coach I spend the majority of my time (when I am on the ground) training, testing and monitoring/supporting athletes which I love! I am also a qualified lifestyle practitioner and UKAD Educator – these are extremely important roles in my line of work as being able to provide wider education and support to athletes is pivotal to their overall and individual development.

TASS: Strength and conditioning is seen as a key contributor to athlete development – why is it so important?

LH: The term athlete development is a very broad term but strength and conditioning can develop an athlete physically, mentally, socially and, I think, with a well-crafted environment can even develop life skills. S&C teaches athletes how to learn and develop specific movement patterns that have dynamic correspondence to their sport. It also shows them how to succeed in areas beyond their field of play and sometimes outside their comfort zone.

This develops the athlete holistically, increasing the chances of them becoming physically balanced and active lifelong learners.

TASS: Is S&C still a growth area and how does the practice continue to evolve?

LH: Strength and Conditioning is evolving. Children and adults alike can benefit hugely from scientifically informed strength and conditioning protocols, regardless of their current sporting abilities or level of performance. The practice of S&C is becoming more commonplace – clubs and athletes at grassroots and lower levels want to incorporate it. But there is an increasing reliance on data – we must remember the human being in front of us so we do not become data driven. The discipline of S&C has seen huge growth since its launch in 2004 (as reported by UKSCA) and interest in this area from those who work outside high performance sport will continue to grow. I am looking forward to the developments of the recent partnership between the Chartered Institute for the Management of Sport and Physical Activity (CIMSPA) and the UKSCA. I think it is good that the accreditations are being reviewed in order to progress the area and provide clear pathways for those that use S&C in very different contexts.

TASS: Do talented athletes understand the true benefits of S&C or are there still myths to be exploded and lessons to be learnt?

LH: Young talented athletes, such as those involved in TASS, understand that strength and conditioning training has the potential to benefit their performance and most of them are incredibly accepting of their training programmes. They carry no preconceptions of what strength and conditioning should be. It is often the scepticism of adults that requires the strength and conditioning coach to explain the necessity for their chosen movements. Unfortunately, some adults have been incorrectly informed by old-fashioned or scientifically ill-informed evidence regarding the negative influences of strength-based training in the younger populations. Strength training is perfectly safe and extremely beneficial, as long as it is administered under the direct supervision of a trained strength and conditioning coach or exercise professional. Young talented athletes generally enjoy playing with the equipment and learning the movements. However, some do need to be watched at little more closely as the necessity to progress the weight or increase the difficulty of the movement is often at the forefront of their minds! I see this in the fantastic young men who are part of the Saracens Academy where I have coached for the last four years. They have a fantastic work ethic and dedication as young athletes and most do incredibly well to balance their sport and studies. An important point to remember is that technique and consistency are cornerstones of good strength and conditioning training – only when these factors are achieved can you add the intensity.

TASS: As a former TASS athlete how did you benefit from S&C support?

LH: Being a TASS athlete carried an element of prestige, it benefited me immensely as a young athlete, at the time TASS athletes were provided with free gym memberships at local leisure centres and I had monthly access to S&C coaching at an institution which provided high performance sports provision. I had to travel but the distance travelling to receive S&C support was far less intense than my travelling demands for rugby. I also received remote programming prescribed by a trained strength and conditioning specialist. I even received some sessions at my school at times during the year when I was extremely busy!

I was never the most naturally powerful player on the pitch and these sessions enabled me to begin my journey to develop a more explosive presence on the rugby field.

TASS: What prompted you to focus on S&C rather than choose a different specialism and can you describe your career progression?

LH: In all honesty I think the S&C route ended up coming to me. I entered some Olympic weightlifting competitions for fun whilst studying for my undergraduate degree and was employed as a personal trainer in our university gym. I undertook S&C for purely selfish reasons – to become a better athlete in rugby. I realised that the combination of resistance training (constantly experimenting with methods and techniques), track training and incorporation of recovery/prehab methods made an effective training strategy to supplement my sport of rugby. At the time females taking part in structured S&C programming and lifting heavy weights was far from commonplace in our gym. With my exposure to an elite training environment with England Rugby, and the fact that I was studying for an undergraduate degree in PE and Sport Science, I continued to experiment with my own programming for fun. I continued to work on this for years whilst I completed my PhD in Sport and Exercise Science and I ended up with a good client base of athletes and all of a sudden I was working not so much as a sport scientist in the laboratories but rather as a strength and conditioning coach. I have attended and presented at conferences around the world but I still want to progress this area. I always try to develop as a practitioner and desperately try to expand my knowledge through CPD and networking whenever I can – I think continued learning and reflection from the coach is essential for influencing an athlete’s outcomes. I have never looked back and now identify as an S&C coach. I spent years developing and refining my understanding, knowledge, practical competencies skills and coaching to become a UKSCA accredited coach and I will never stop. I have trained Olympic sprinters and hurdlers, international football players, international level hockey players, lacrosse sailors, archers, modern pentathlon and water polo players, England age group golfers, Kent Cricketers and Saracens Academy rugby players to name a few.

I am exceptionally proud to be a female coach in a male dominated environment.

TASS: What do you enjoy most about your role as a TASS practitioner?

LH: Passing on my expert knowledge of strength and conditioning to my young athletes and giving them the self-belief to engage in activities that I, as a young athlete, never fully embraced. I take an element of pride in an athlete’s achievements in their sport (however large or small these achievements are – sometimes I see a win as something as simple as an athlete remembering to bring their pot of nuts and a snack to eat for after an S&C session!). I feel privileged to watch them grow into responsible, dedicated young adults and role models for the next generation coming through.

TASS: Does TASS still have an important role to play in supporting the next generation of elite English athletes?

LH: Yes. Young people are not fully in control of their own destinies, their parents have often make enormous sacrifices for their children, however they have other responsibilities and agendas that they must follow, young people have academic responsibilities that will have an effect on the rest of their lives. Their peer groups and other social factors also have an influence on the decisions of young people but TASS makes life easier for its athletes by providing an overarching structure through the services delivered from TASS delivery sites. The lifestyle practitioners and psychologists are there to help with even the most trivial matters and there to signpost an athlete to make informed choices about aspects of their education, sport and general demands in life. Young athletes can often get lost in the system and drop-out due to the competing pressures within their life. Through the Delivery Sites’ expert support and service delivery a plan can be put in place to make those demands on that athletes a little easier. On a much broader note, I think how practice and policy is addressed in the years to come surrounding the welfare and wellbeing of elite young English athletes will be of paramount importance in ensuring a culture of successful elite sport is developed and sustainable – with the athlete’s interest at the centre of this approach.

TASS: You also run the TASS Potential Project for local schools at Canterbury Christ Church University – can you explain what that role entails?

LH: I have also run the TASS PP for the past three years in Kent schools. We love it! It is such a fantastic opportunity to reach a wider range of talented young athletes who are often on the fringes of being recognised as talented on their pathway. We have worked with a further 120 young athletes as part of this project, with the vast majority representing their sport from regional to national level – so the standard of athlete even on this type of project is exceptional. To show impact, many of these young athletes have now moved into university scholarships, one is a full TASS award athlete and others have taken their competition to the next level. The students, teachers and school staff get so much from it. We aim to visit the schools to deliver all the workshops on their site. Students receive workshops from our specialist staff in psychology, lifestyle, S&C sessions, nutrition, sport science testing, and anti-doping. I manage a great team of young sport scientists and ask them to create workshops about particular themes that I know will have meaningful impact. We provide support across the academic year and plan this around their key deadlines. Recent workshops include ‘Ready Steady Bake’, ‘Athlete winter wellness’, ‘S&C – FUNdamentals’, and ‘Sport Psychology – Grit and Resilience’.

TASS: Are you optimistic that the next generation of elite athletes is in safe hands?

LH: I am optimistic that as long as TASS continues to employ highly skilled, dedicated and responsible practitioners, it will continue to develop outstanding athletes and young people.