This is the third of a series of interviews with industry leaders in fields such as Strength & Conditioning, Coaching, Physical Therapy, Sports Psychology, Nutrition & Physical Education.
This is Part 1 of a 2 Part interview.
This week we hear from one of the leading local Strength & Conditioning coaches in Adelaide, South Australia (although he’s a Queenslander), Ben Brugman. I have known Ben for around 12 months, initially running into him at a local cafe; recognising him from his Twitter profile (sounds pretty creepy:). Ben is currently in a very unique situation where he is working across two mainstream semi-professional and professional sports, which are played in opposite seasons. Ben is a very astute young strength & conditioning coach, who has worked across a number of high profile sports which gives him a wealth of knowledge to use in his current position. One thing that clicked with me when chatting with Ben was that he was happy to stick to his realm of expertise and stuck to the basic fundamental principles of training and preparing athletes and didn’t get caught up with talking about the icing, just because it was the flavour of the month on the internet.
Enjoy the interview!
Can you share with the readers a little bit of your background (education, sports, previous/current role)?
I finished my undergrad degree at the University of Queensland in 2010 and scored a job with a company in Brisbane called Acceleration who I completed my major internship with, early in that same year. Working there gave me a lot of opportunities to work with athletes at all sorts of levels and in all sorts of sports. My standard line is that in that time I worked with everything from 10 year old figure skaters to 30 year old Olympic Bobsledders, Premier Grade Rugby Union players and everything in between. From there I got the chance to go out on my own and make the move down here to Adelaide in 2013 to work with the 36ers in the NBL and after about 18 months in that job the opportunity to take on another role at Woodville-West Torrens Eagles who play in the SANFL came up. For the last 6 months I’ve been juggling the two roles and absolutely loving it.
You currently have High Performances roles across two different mainstream sports (AFL & Basketball), can you detail how you ended up in these role(s) and what the role(s) entail?
I fell into Basketball via my job at Acceleration. They have a really strong relationship with Basketball via athletes, coaches and organisations, especially in Queensland. The head coach that I work under here, Joey Wright has previously coached 2 other NBL teams where he worked with S&C coaches from Acceleration. When he got the job here it was a matter of who was next in line and who was willing to make the move. Obviously I was the lucky guy and I’ve been enjoying Adelaide’s horrible weather ever since.
Primarily I take care of the physical management of our players in terms of strength, power, injury prevention and rehabilitation. I am able to individualise a lot because of the small squad numbers in Basketball that give me the luxury of a really good coach to athlete ratio. This doesn’t mean that everybody’s programs look radically different but I’m pretty confident if I handed you two separate programs you could pick which one goes with the 211cm, 100kg 32 year old with shit knees, a grumbly back and constant shoulder complaints and which one goes with the 185cm, 86kg 22 year old freak of an athlete.
The main squad of 10 will rarely see much energy system conditioning outside of the “off-season” general prep and the first 8 weeks or so of pre-season. This is obviously not the ideal scenario for an S&C coach but due to the way the overall program is run with our “import” players joining the program a month late around September and the need to quickly integrate them into our game style and allow the players time to form on-court “chemistry” prior to the season starting in October, our focus shifts very much toward the tactical and technical side around this point. We do have a few young “development” players and usually the 9th and 10th guys on our playing roster will see limited game time so unfortunately for them they get to spend some extra time with me for cross training of some description and/or extra strength work.
My role at Eagles was more conventional in terms of the hiring process in that I simply saw it advertised, applied, interviewed and got hired. I was lucky to have a really understanding coach in Joey at 36ers who was happy for me to take on this role on top of my role there. Working in SANFL footy is very different for a number of reasons; the squad is roughly quadruple the size, the athletes are only semi-professional (although I would argue that in some instances they are more “professional” than many fulltime athletes) and obviously the needs of the athletes to be able to play the game at a high level are very different.
Again, my primary responsibility here is to ensure the physical management of the players. The way this is achieved in the AFL environment however is very different with the size of the group and the nature of the game. For strength and power work the players are separated into 3 groups based upon relative strength levels and players with specific issues will have built-in individualisations that usually only need to involve a 10 second conversation between myself and the athlete to adjust, confirm, progress, regress etc. Energy system conditioning obviously has a much greater role in football and inherently I get to work with the entire squad right through pre-season and at certain times when it is appropriate during the in-season period.
What have you found to be the major similarities and differences between the culture towards S&C in both sports?
At the end of the day you’re always dealing with people first, not athletes. Some people will like to know every detail of what’s going on in their training while others are happy to smash it out without ever asking about the why, what and how as you put it in front of them. Some people don’t require a great deal of external motivation while others need to be poked and prodded along. I’ve learnt that no matter the sport or the team you are going to have all sorts of people to deal with on a personal level and you need a few tools in your belt that you can go to in order to achieve the desired result.
When we look at differences between the two I will start with a precursor that these statements are absolute generalisations but I firmly believe that if you put 10 NBL basketballers next to an averaged out group of 10 SANFL footy players these would hold true.
A major difference between the two sports comes down to pure weight of numbers. The top 7-8 players in any NBL team are fairly well assured of playing good minutes every weekend while the remaining 2-3 players will pick up the left overs and development players are unlikely to see anything but junk time in a big win or loss (Average NBL squad = 10 contracted players + 2-5 development (younger than 23 and unpaid) players. It will take a fair bit for players to move dramatically in the pecking order for playing minutes.
Footy on the other hand has a squad of 40-50 and competition for places in teams is immense. I’ve found that quite often players in a footy set-up will take a greater deal of ownership of their own physical preparation and performance in order to give themselves the best chance of playing at the highest level. Part of this is also to do with the higher physical demand of the game. It is much easier to be a less skilled but more physically gifted player in footy at a high level whereas there has been a number of basketballers who have made solid careers out of shuffling up and down the court like old men but being able to shoot, dribble and pass much better than their competitors. Both cultures present their own unique challenges. Working in both sports and seeing this contrast has taught me that athletes won’t always do what they are supposed to do just because it is the right thing; you need to make people accountable for their actions whether by your own actions or in consultation with the coaching staff and leaders of the group.
What are the key differences from a S&C standpoint, with trying to develop and prepare basketball athletes compared with AFL athletes?
From a physical standpoint the best of each sport are differentiated from lower level players by very different characteristics. Footballers need to be able to consistently reproduce high intensity efforts across the length of a game while pure explosive power separates the best from the rest in basketball. Basketballers will complete a huge number of short, high intensity accelerations and decelerations with changes of direction on top of jumping, creating and taking contact in screens and executing the skills of the game on top of all that. Meanwhile, AFL involves a far greater volume of running, especially at high speeds and a relatively smaller change of direction and agility demand. Inherently, if we’re talking blank canvases these are the physical elements I look at developing. The best way to develop these capacities is different from athlete to athlete, movement quality, relative strength, energy system utilisation and power are considered (in that order) and emphasised to differing extents in each athlete.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this interview…
Follow Ben on Twitter: @benbrug