Coaching Interview #9 – Tom Debenedictis (Part 1)

This is the ninth instalment of a series of interviews with industry leaders in fields such as Strength & Conditioning, Coaching, Physical Therapy, Sports Psychology, Nutrition & Physical Education.

This week we get to hear from fellow South Aussie, originally from the UK but now Adelaide based, Level 2 ASCA Strength & Conditioning Coach, Tom Debenedictis. Late last year I spent a few weekends with Tom while we were completing the practical components of the Level 2 Accreditation process. It was obvious from the first group discussion that Tom is an intellectual and academic, plus has a strong sense of the fundamental pillars of S&C and Athletic Development. It was evident Tom had many of the ideal characteristics of a great coach; he offers an opinion; he listens to other’s opinions; learns from as many people as possible and knows his stuff!

Tom is a proactive, driven individual looking to make an impact and difference in the world of Physical Preparation. Like many of the more astute developing Strength & Conditioning coaches, Tom has developed a strong network of experienced coaches to mentor him through the rise and falls of the profession. Although I’ve only known him a short time it is great to discuss, bounce ideas and talk shop with someone of Tom’s calibre (regardless if we don’t work in the same sport) and with the work he is currently doing with SAFC, he is definitely further enhancing the local Physical Preparation industry. Enjoy this very in-depth interview!

Tom Deb

Can you share with the readers a little bit of your background?

Growing up I was very heavily involved in sport and living in England this meant a lot of my time was spent playing football (or Soccer depending on where you’re from). University was always something I was interested in but the idea of spending another three years at a desk really didn’t appeal to me, and so I decided to look into the Sport and Exercise Science degree at the University of Bedfordshire. After graduating, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to move to Adelaide with my family in 2011, and after contacting every professional and semi-professional club in South Australia looking for a volunteer or a work experience position and receiving numerous responses along the line of “sorry but you don’t have enough experience” I finally had a reply from South Adelaide Football Club asking if I’d like to come in for an interview as a spot had just opened up. I ended up landing the role of Junior Physical Performance Manager which was an eye opener but definitely helped me develop the basic skills required to manage a large team and deliver an effective strength and conditioning program at the same time. After a year working with the juniors, the opportunity came up to take over as the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach with the senior program in what was a turbulent year for the club. After a change in coaching staff I had the opportunity to step into the Senior Physical Performance Manager role in which I’ve now been lucky enough to hold since the 2014 season.

On top of the S&C role, education has always been important to me and so in 2014, I decided that I wanted to go back to University and take my education further. I eventually found myself at an open day at the University of South Australia where I was lucky enough to be introduced to my now PhD supervisor, Dr Dominic Thewlis. After a bit of back and forward, Dominic informed me that he had been approached by the Defence Science and Technology Group, the research arm of the Australian Defence Force, regarding a project that would look at the effects of military land transit on the physical performance of infantry personal and that they wanted a PhD student with a background in human performance. I started the PhD in March of 2014 and from there I haven’t looked back really.

What drew you to the world of Strength & Conditioning and Physical Preparation?

I’ve always been an active person and the idea of having a career that meant I had to sit at a desk all day long really didn’t appeal to me and so initially I played with the idea of being a PE teacher. During my time at University I worked with Dr Iain Fletcher who was both my biomechanics lecturer and honours supervisor, and had worked and consulted for a number of teams and committees including the UK Olympic committee and introduced me to the idea of being a strength coach. After some volunteer work at the local rugby club and helping some friends out I’d decided that I really wanted to chase a career in the strength and conditioning world and so went from there.

Who are some of your major past & present influences/mentors in the S&C field?

To begin with Dr Iain Fletcher was probably a large influence of mine. He had a strong emphasis on the basic lifts and building strength to ensure that athletes had a sufficient base, and this is something that I firmly believe in myself to this day. Dr Ian McKeown is currently a big influence of mine and I’ve been lucky enough to share a coffee or two with him. The work he has done around athletic ability and movement competency is something that I find really interesting and feel is an area that is often overlooked. There are a number of other coaches such as Nick Polous, and Dr Darren Burgess that have been good enough to respond to emails and take the occasional phone call but past this I’ve always felt that it’s good to develop your own coaching philosophy which is something that I’m still trying to do.

Most readers will know how advanced the AFL system is in regards to S&C and Sport Science, but can you explain what these aspects ‘look like’ at the SANFL (semi-professional) level?

I’m very fortunate at South Adelaide in that the club purchased a number of GPS units along with the live feedback which we use extensively; the same year I started as the Senior Physical Performance Manager. The ability to use GPS has helped me greatly in terms of programming and monitoring training loads and influences our rotations come game day. Recently, I’ve purchased one of the Push Bands and have been using this as a way of providing the players with feedback during their weight sessions and allows me to track player progression without the need for 1RM tests. We also employ a wellness and RPE system whereby every player will provide a number of wellness scores before a session and then provide an RPE following the session allowing us to identify players that may have an increased risk of injury and monitor individual training loads. My aim is to make our program as similar to an AFL program as possible partially so that the players feel like they are part of something special and so that if a player gets recruited it takes him no time at all to adapt to the club’s system.

From a Strength & Conditioning perspective, what are some of the limitations to working in a semi-professional setting?

The biggest limitation I’ve found is the lack of time. We only have around 9 contact hours with the players each week during the pre-season and how you use these 9 hours becomes so important to the success or failure of the coming season. While the game day demands have increased year to year so do the pre-season demands, however, unlike the professional level where the players can recover between training sessions the majority of our players are working 8 hour a day jobs as landscapers, plumbers, electricians, and other labour intensive jobs meaning that they rarely get the recovery that we’d ideally like them to get between sessions. On top of an increase in the training loads and fitting in your strength work, agility, plyometric, and injury prevention programs, the coaches obviously need to introduce the new game plan and structures and develop the players’ skills. Add all of these aspects up, and something that AFL clubs would get 30-40 hours a week to work on, we have to find a way to do the same in 9 hours. As well as a lack of time, often man power is an issue at a club where we have a current list of 70 players. We often have 20-30 players in the gym at one time with just the assistant strength coach and myself watching 10-15 athletes each.

Developing a culture of Strength & Conditioning is one area which I think is always a challenge for coaches in the Semi-Pro setting. How do you go about developing this culture at SAFC?

There’s the strength coach proverb that goes along the lines of; it doesn’t matter how good your program is unless you have buy-in from the players. I was very fortunate that when I took over the senior program, the majority of the senior players at the club where sick of being the laughing stock of the competition and they wanted to change that and quickly, and so they bought into my program fairly quickly albeit with some hesitation. A good example is during the first month of the pre-season I had just introduced a very leg orientated weights program, and as there hadn’t been one previously in place the players instantly complained of DOMS and not being able to walk, let alone run which had the senior coach instantly worried. However, I presented the scientific research to back up why we were doing the weights program and the players sucked it up and got on with it. As well as the scientific evidence, I spent the time talking to the players as individuals on their level explaining to them how certain aspects of the program would help them as an individual and eventually the team. I think a combination of this and having a completely transparent program whereby I didn’t hide the training loads or when we would run time trials and the players quickly bought into it. It also helped when the season begun that the players quickly felt that we were noticeably fitter than some of our opponents and once they realised that there was some method to my madness I’ve had complete trust and buy-in ever since. It also helps that I let them do the occasional beach weight session just to keep them happy!

Can you explain the importance of developing positive relationships with the sport coach and other support staff? How crucial is this relationship as a Strength & Conditioning coach?

Without the backing from the coaching staff I don’t think that any strength and conditioning coach would last very long. The current senior coach at South Adelaide, Brad Gotch, has been fantastic for my development and to work with. Having come from Port Adelaide and working with Darren Burgess he understood how important the strength and conditioning program was to the success of the team and instantly gave me full responsibility for the planning and structure of the pre-season. The players see how much trust he puts in me with the program which makes my job of getting new players to buy-in to the program extremely easy. In terms of the support staff, I’ve been very fortunate in that the club have allowed me to recruit individuals of my choosing for the fitness team when the opportunity presented itself. This means that I have complete trust in the team around me to do the job they’re there to do; as I quickly realised I was only one man and therefore couldn’t do everything. I’ve worked with a number of great line coaches and fitness staff at the club which makes my job incredibly less stressful and means I can provide a better overall program.

Expanding on the previous question; how do you as the S&C coach integrate the team and individual strength & conditioning sessions with the tactical and technical demands of the sport coach?

Working with Brad these last three years has made my job very easy if I’m honest. Coming from an AFL background Brad understood the importance of a structured strength program and so from the get-go he was happy to integrate a specific strength training night. Like I said previously, at the semi-professional level, time is our most valuable asset, however we often lack it. I would love to spend more time with the players working on their agility, plyometric, running technique, strength training, mobility, and the list could go on. This said, I’ve always felt that the only way to improve at a sport/event is to practice that sport/event, and so I sacrifice time spent performing drills that every S&C coach will tell you are paramount for injury prevention and athlete development and instead let the players practice their skills. There are however ways in which I make this work for me; rather than sticking to set structured running such as MAS or sprints, I try to maximise the amount of time that our players spend with a ball in their hands by integrating my conditioning and agility drills with some of Brad’s skill drills. I think that as an S&C coach you can easily fall into the trap of thinking you know what is best for the players, but at the same time we have a role to play within the club, and so working with the coach rather than against the coach will result in a much better environment and outcome for all involved.

Stay Tuned for Part 2 next week.

In the meantime, you can contact Tom below:

Twitter: @tommyd_90

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