Interview with Dan Baker
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Interview with Dan Baker

I am more than happy to present you email interview with Dan Baker, strength and conditioning coach for the Brisbane Broncos and also a published researcher with practical and in “the trenches” insights.

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For all of you guys who are working in team sports this is one of the best and most insightful interviews I have seen in recent years, if not the best.  It certainly cleared up a lot of confusion in my head regarding some things that bothered me recently. Dan is officially my role model of physical preparation coach in team sports.

I want to thank coach Dan for taking his time and energy to answer my questions with such a clarity and extensiveness along with providing tremendous training insights you cannot find in any book, especially not in pro team sports. Hopefully, there would be more opportunities for Dan to share his insights and knowledge.

Well, here it is. No pictures and very dense with info. Enjoy!

Mladen: Dan, I am more than glad you decided to do an interview for my blog. I have been following your work and I must admit that you have done excellent work complementing theory and practice, coaching and publishing research. You are kind of a role model for team sport strength and conditioning coach. Can you please introduce yourself to the readers, your background and what you do currently?

Dan: Thank you for the asking me.  I am a strength & conditioning coach for the Brisbane Broncos Rugby League team that compete in the National Rugby League (NRL) professional competition in Australia and New Zealand.  I have been in that job since October 1995 and it is a great job.   Before that I worked with many other sports including rugby union (a different game), soccer, track & field, diving, field hockey and powerlifting to name a few, all part-time work, doing a few hours a day with different sports.  I used to compete in powerlifting, I got 3rd in Australia twice in my division but stopped competing in 1997 and in reality I  was fairly average as a lifter.   I have a PhD in Sport Science from Edith Cowan University.  I am President of the Australian Strength & Conditioning Association (ASCA), which is a not-for-profit organization that is recognized by our Federal government with educating and qualifying S & C coaches.  I did my Bachelor degree in the early 1980’s, my masters degree in the early 1990’s and Phd in the early 2000’s.  You always have to improve, aggressively, or you get left behind.  I love my job and I love where I live, opposite the beach, where I surf.

Mladen: How do you manage to do both coaching and research? How is that possible and is that kind of a scientific approach mandatory for the strength and conditioning coach?

Dan: Coaching and research, they are easy to do together.  But that approach is not mandatory, but I would highly recommend it.  Pressure is on from governments to do “health research”, so I was not going to get government funding anyway for research.  I only want to study what interests me, not do research just to get a PhD.  Rob Newton, who was my phD supervisor, I have known him since I was an Under-graduate in 1983.  He feels the same that most US-based research is on college kids and cannot be safely extrapolated to other populations.  So what was of interest was what are the adaptations in elite professional or semi-professional athletes related to various strength training manipulations.   And what is research?  Analyzing data that you have collected and doing interventions to determine what works.  That is what I do anyway.  So the only hard part is the writing of the journal articles that must pass peer-review.  That is the only hard part, as most reviewers are university based, they have no idea of applied sports situations.  Actually they are so bad that the ASCA started its own journal to help facilitate actual sports research, not studies done on obesity or heart disease or college athletes or physical education students etc.

 I want my team to win, I want to know what works best.  We have a strictly enforced salary cap in the NRL, so we cannot use the soccer model of buying better players, we must make better players to gain an advantage.  So to do research and find out what works, it is what I felt must be done to gain some small advantage.  And I keep doing it as other teams copy our methods or buy our players or other strength & conditioning coaches etc.  Hell they even changed the rules of the game to stop the Broncos power game (true)!  So researching how to make my team better is what I do all the time, I just don’t publish it as much anymore.  But everything I do is applied.  Because sport is so important in Australia, many teams have someone with a Phd or Masters working in S & C.  So I am not unique, I was just the first to do it.

But first and foremost I am a S & C coach, not a researcher or lecturer.

Mladen: One of my major problems is finding a planning solution for team sports and sport games, whose season is drastically different from individual sports in one major aspect: preparatory period is 2-4 times shorter compared to in-season in sport games and there are regular prolonged competitions over the in-season period (1-2 games per week). Given the fact that you don’t have enough time to address all the aspects of physical preparedness in-season (due recovery needs and need to be fresh for the games), what is important during the in-season from physical preparation standpoint?

Dan: Yes Mladen, you are exactly right, that is the biggest problem, trying to maintain it all during the in-season, yet be “fresh” for the games.  Our competition is 26 weeks plus finals (4-wks) and then our best players finish the season with international games for 6-8 weeks and in rugby league these games are not “friendlies”. 

My approach is to have athletes in peak shape once the in-season starts.  So a good prep. Period sets up the success for in-season.  From there I believe in aggressive maintenance, I am still trying to improve or force adaptations, but with less volume, not intensity.  I try to maintain our strength and power and our running endurance at all times.  I program every set, rep and weight the player lifts, so they do not choose what they lift.  I tell  them exactly what they have to do, so they cannot go backwards in strength or power.  We use GPS to monitor their running loads during team training and we use each individuals MAS (max aerobic speed) or V-Vo2 max. for our conditioning.  So we tell them what to do and we strictly monitor everything.  I give them no choices.  Injured players do even more conditioning, we see it as an opportunity to improve and train them harder, if they can’t run, then it is rowing, boxing, cycling wrestling as well as their lifting.

Maintaining strength, power, body mass and energy system endurance (anaerobic and aerobic) are what we focus on.  We realize that some speed can be lost in some players due to the volume of running occurring in training and games, but we will get that back when games revert back to 1/wk and we taper training as we move into the finals.

Mladen: Currently, there is a huge interest in the Block Training System (Conjugate-sequence system) where training load aimed at improving certain aspect of performance (aerobic capacity, aerobic power, speed, power, strength, glycolytic capacity, power) is concentrated and sequenced in form of blocks. This is in contrast of more traditional complex-parallel solution where all aspects of performance are addressed concurrently. Given the fact that most Block Training Solutions comes from either endurance sports or strength-power sports with clearly defined season and peaking dates, how can (or should) one utilize such an approach in sport games with clearly differently organized competition season and needs? What is your approach?

Dan: First off, we don’t believe that physical capacities cannot be trained at the same time.  Where does this come from, the idea for example that you cannot train for strength/power and aerobic power or capacity at the same time?  From studies on US college kids, who have never done it in their lives?  The USA has no pro sport where these things need to be addressed, they are all power sports with time-outs etc, so there has not been the impetus to really try to train these things together or to study how it can be done.  MMA is going to change that mindset in the USA because strenght/power and aerobic conditioning are vital, so they need to be trained all the time, not just in blocks for 2-3 weeks.  But in Australia, we train everything, all the time, we just manage the overall training volumes and are careful in the daily and weekly sequencing of  training.  That is the important thing, the daily and weekly sequencing, that way you can train all capacities, almost all the time.

But in saying that, our approach is mixed, same as the sport.  We use the first three weeks of Prep. Period to get athletes into shape (ie. No power training, just sets of 10’s on the basic strength exercises etc. no sports skills, no speed work, just 100% MAS and >120% MAS running).  This gives us the base so that they can train hard and specifically and after that first three weeks, training is always fairly hard.  So we don’t exactly call it Block or Conjugate etc. but it probably could be described as a cross between parallel and block ( I call it Wave).  We put things into block of 2-3 weeks, and these things need to be done before we progress into another block.  So blocks with certain emphasis precede other blocks, but we work everything almost all the time. For example, we do 100% MAS and 120-130% MAS runnig in a straight line before we start performing more sport specific patterns (with changes of direction).  So develop aerobic fitness in basic straight line running drills precedes drills of the same speed with changes of direction and after that, more sport specific drills. So there is sequencing and building up, but it is still all aerobic and anaerobic training, all the time.  Same for our strength power work, we have sequencing, but aside from the first three weeks of general preparation (and a 3-week block mid-year during in-season where we do no power exercises to rest the neural and adrenal system), it is still max strength and power being trained, all year around.

So for us, It is the sequencing of daily, within-week variation , weekly and blocks that is important, rather than the theory of it.  I love all those theoretical graphs with lines illustrating volume and intensity – but what do they mean, how is that line graph calculated etc.  Theoretical stuff only, what do I a do in real life?  And yes the peaking sports are different to season & game sports.

Mladen: Regarding endurance development for team sports – it is shown that the athletes from endurance sports spent around 80% of their training volume performing low-intensity training and around 20% performing high intensity training (polarized training). Currently there is a huge emphasis on HIT (high intensity training) like tabatas, shuttles, glycolytic power/capacity intervals over the low intensity training. What is your take on this? Do you utilize HIT or a combination and why? Is the fear of doing certain volume of low-intensity training of destroying ones speed and power sound?

We only emphasize high-intensity in conditioning. The only players who perform continuous training of low-intensity are those who have just had surgery, they do 1-2 sessions of this training 7-10 days after surgery, but after that it is always high intensity intervals.   The team tactical training will take care of the volume of training.  Because we have GPS  monitors measuring players movements, we see that the coaches tactical sessions are not of high intensity, so it is our job to train the high intensity aspects of conditioning.  That may be why we do not get interference between conditioning and strength/power, we do not perform “garbage” volume based training.  Our conditioning for energy system fitness (aerobic and anaerobic) is very important to us.  Rugby league is such a great team sport for strength & conditioning, it requires strength, power speed and endurance, it is always this great challenge to ensure the running and grappling fitness.  For example, American football does not really require running endurance, but RL does, players run about 6-8 km a game, less than the 11-13 km of soccer and Australian Rules footballers, but it is very hard with lots of collisions.  Just google NRL, big hits and you will see.  But these big hits and collisions are performed under a background of fatigue.  So we try to “attrition” our opponents, wear them down with better strength, power, fitness, speed etc. 

We monitor the players power each week (during jump squats), we have seen over many years of data, that power is suppressed by a few % when running volume is high, but we just use this as part of the periodization process.  We do not determine the game schedule, so if our power is down a few %, it may be beyond our control, due to game scheduling and travel.  But we know to unload and get that power back we need reduced training volume (not intensity)  for 9 days.  We have plenty of data, so we know exactly what we have to do for each situation RE; how much power levels are reduced according to game schedule/travel and running volumes.  It is about the processes we must put into place, for example, if my power is down a few %, but I am playing a weak opponent this week, why would I bother to unload, when I may prefer to do that the following week if I was to play a much tougher opponent? 

So we try to emphasize high-intensity training as much as possible, but accept that the game will induce fatigue that suppresses power and speed.  How and when we unload the running volume (which may be the tactical training of the sports coach) to restore power and freshness is based upon the game schedule and who our opponents are.

Mladen: Small sided-games or more traditional conditioning? And what do you do in both? And how do you individualize the training load?

Dan: We use both, but small sided games do not develop fitness well, they just translate your fitness into the specific of the game.  So we will do traditional conditioning to develop fitness.  Even when we use small sided games, we will do traditional conditioning in tandem.  So for example, 8-minutes of 120% MAS running done as 15:15 seconds of work:rest, alternated with 6min, small sided games.  And the small-sided games have running targets that must be met, so if a player does not attain the running load during the game, he gets extra running penalties at the completion of training.  We would alternate bouts of traditional conditioning with small sided games, back & forth, all the time, including in-season.  This improves skill and fitness, because why are mistakes made in games?  Fatigue impairs skill execution and decision making, so we use the traditional conditioning to induce fatigue, and then the small sided games to see how that fatigue manifests itself in a sport specific situation of a game.

As for individualizing loads, it is not difficult, we have exact running loads for conditioning, so we know what the load will be and we use the GPS for skills and tactical training.  We also use the GPS to determine the intensity of the collisions (the G-forces of the impacts are measured by an accelerometer) as creatine kinase levels and muscle damage are related to the number of big collisions .  This research is recently reported in JSCR, one of my friends who is also a PhD and S & C coach for an opposing NRL team did this research.

Mladen: What is your point of RSA – Repeat Sprint Ability and how do you develop this? 

Dan: It is very important for us.  We do it with collisions and wrestling thrown in as well.  So we have some drills where it is just repeat sprints to develop the capacity and others that are sport specific where, after a number of sprints they hit each other hard a few times or wrestle for 30-seconds.  We have different distances and rest intervals etc.

Mladen: In team sports with long season, injury prevention and recovery from games/training sessions in of paramount importance. What is your approach in these? Do you use certain monitoring tool and recovery methods?

Dan: For recovery, we do recovery modalities each day.  Our club has a sauna, spa, cold plunge pool.  Players must use them each day of training after each session, these things are compulsory.  We also program in stretching and massage each week, also compulsory.  After training, all training, a protein drink is also compulsory. After games, we use ice baths to reduce collision related soft tissue damage.  Our main monitoring tool is hydration levels because evidence is that most soft-tissue injuries in our sport and in rugby union are hydration related.  A dehydrated muscle has less strength and is therefore more likely to be injured.  So preventing largely preventable injuries like calf or hamstring strains is related to keeping these large men hydrated (large surface area means more sweating).  Right now the only injuries my club have are broken bones from big collisions.  We have used other monitoring tools in the past, but we aim to keep it simple now.  We talk to each player and monitor their hydration and flexibility levels each week to see how their bodies are coping, as well their strength and power, I keep detailed records.  Because we control the load so well, we know that it is up to the player to ensure his recovery from these known loads.  We do as much as we can for them, but it is also their obligation when they leave training to do things that also ensure recovery (proper sleep, home nutrition, hydration levels,  extra preventative exercises)

Mladen: How do you evaluate physical preparedness? What battery of tests are you using and when? Do you prefer laboratory or field tests and why?

Dan: We have never used a lab in our lives!  Always field tests, why would any athlete use a lab?  In this day and age, with the technology available to us, we take the “lab” devices to the athletes, but we use them each week.  Applied sport science is so easy these days, portable force plates, linear transducers, GPS monitors, timing gates for speed.  Labs are 20th century.

 For speed, 40 m sprint (we garner the velocity between 30 and 40 for max velocity from that as well), 5-min shuttle run to determine the MAS, 1RM bench press, full squat and chinup for strength, 1RM power clean for whole body power, jump squat with 100 kg for lower body power and bench press throw/press with 60 kg for upper body power – this is measured with the GymAware linear transducer.  From some of my published research, all these tests correlate quite highly with being selected into the NRL team, rather than the second division team or Under 20 yrs team.  Can any university lab researcher show me a test that has a better correlation with selection than my research with these basic tests has shown?

But while these are tests, we have all sorts of bench marks. Testing is training, training is testing.  Every set or drill has a goal or score to be attained.

Mladen: How important is strength training for teams sport athletes and how do you address it? Do you utilize Olympic lifts, compound movements or isolated machine work? How do you prescribe training load (weight, reps, sets)?

Dan: It depends upon the sport, how important strength is.  For rugby league and union, strength & power are super important.  As stated above, the correlation between strength and power levels and selection into Pro, second division or youth leagues is quite high (r = > .61 to 71).  So if it has been shown to be important, you must address it.

I like the compound exercises.  We may have the only facility in the world with no leg press, leg extension or leg curl machines.

We do many exercises, including power clean from hang and split jerks, but not snatches.  We do bench press, full squats, chins, all sorts of presses, rows, pulldowns ,lunges, stepups , Romanian style deadlifts but not deadlifts off the floor. We do power exercises like plyos, jump squats, bench throws. 

 Why no snatches ? – they undertrain pulling power in comparison to the clean in lower skilled athletes.  It is an utter lie that snatches must be done for power, who is pushing that line?  Typically ex-weightlifters looking for work.  Deadlifts are just too hard to recover from in athletes who have to run etc.  So while I deadlift myself each week (as does my wife), I just can’t give that great exercise to athletes who are getting punished with collisions, running and other lifting exercises, it is just too hard to recover from.

So our  resistance training with the NRL players is like a mixture of powerlifting and olympic weightliting but with the omission of snatches and deadlifts.  With younger players, there is no cleans but they work on the teaching progressions of pulling exercises that lead up to the clean.  Younger teenage athletes perform the basics and bodyweight exercises.  I have clear training progression for power exercises, based upon training age and technical proficiency.

For ascribing loads, I use % 1RM where applicable and RM’s etc for other times, like if I am using bands or chains or just load (like 100 kg jump squats).  So it depends upon which exercise or exercises variation and what load is appropriate to that week and that individual.  I determine the exact load that every athlete must lift, so I work it all out, it is not very hard,  I  keep records of what everyone lifts and I follow my intensity cycles.  I plan my intensity cycles out very precisely, I have preparation period cycles and in-season cycles and for those periods, I have cycles for max strength exercises, power exercises and hypertrophy exercises.  The reps, sets, resistances all vary, but I have a plan for each category, and I follow my planned out cycles.  It is too detailed to go through in this inteview and basically I am not allowed by my club to provide too many details of our training.

Mladen: Given the fact that most traditional training knowledge comes from individual sports mentioned earlier, what are your sources of information that one can refer to when being in a position of strength and conditioning coach in sport (team) games?

Dan: I take something from everywhere, powerlifitng, weightlifting, strongman, wrestling/MMA, the conditioning is largely from the French researchers and soccer and Australian Rules football, speed from track, agility from many US sports.  Mixed sports must have mixed influences.  What I never copy is what others in my sport are doing.  I don’t care what they are doing, I only care about what I should be doing and who in world sport is doing it better and therefore how am I going to implement or modify worlds “best practise” into my sport.   If you came to our conditioning, you would see similar running conditioning to soccer, but then you would see some wrestling drills as well.

Mladen: For a strength and conditioning coach in team sports, how important is the head coach and healthy communication between the two? How important is team culture for a strength coach to fulfill his goals and how can he affect it? What about motivation of the players to train hard?

Dan: It is vital.  My team have three S & C coaches, each with specific roles and assistant roles.  My main role is develop strength & power, assist with conditioning with the team or take the injured players for conditioning.  So first off, we  S & C coaches need to work together.  The head of Performance (which is not me) deals more with the head sports coach.  But we all communicate, work together, for the good of the team.

Motivation is based upon goal setting and reinforcement.  That is it.  So every set, every drill has a goal that must be achieved.  If it is achieved, that reinforces the training process.  So the ongoing process of setting goals, achieving them, setting new goals etc. builds motivation.  In rugby league, because of the brutal nature of the sport, everyone loves lifting big weights.  It is more difficult with the aerobic conditioning, but every drill has designated intensities, they must be met.  The player has no choice but to attain the designated distance for that time interval, if he does not, then he will receive penalty intervals at the end of training.  So do the intensity or do extras!

I am 46 years old  and I still train heavy, I like to set an example, I can still full squat 180 kg x 5 and deadlift 215 x 6 reps at 90 kg bodyweight.  I can still out squat every current player!  But they can all out bench press me.  My players see me training by myself during my lunch break, they love it, because they know I am pushing myself as hard as I push them!  So the team culture, who is setting it, me  and the other S & C staff or the players?  We all set it, we all feed off each others efforts.

I am often asked why don’t I go to another team for more money or go to the USA or UK etc.  I love the hard training culture of my team and in reality, I may be too hardcore for other teams, sports or countries.  We are truly hardcore at my club, it is not for the faint of heart when we train.  Could I given free reign to train other athletes like that?  I am told that many athletes would not like to train like I train my team or would put up with my hardcore attitude.  So the culture of my team to train very hard suits me and allows me to fulfill my goals.  At another team, with a less than hardcore attitude, I may not be as successful and it would be very frustrating.

Mladen: Thank you for this great insights coach Dan. I am really glad you shared all of these with our readers. Hopefully, I will have more opportunities to pick your brain. Thank you one more time and good luck in your coaching.

 

Dan: Thank you.  And to your readers can I say” The only place where success comes before work, is in the dictionary”, so train hard and study hard.

 For those interested in more info by Dan, I have just found this older interview with him done by Vern Gambetta for EliteTrack.

I am a physical preparation coach from Belgrade, Serbia, grow up in Pula, Croatia (which I consider my home town). I was involved in physical preparation of professional, amateur and recreational athletes of various ages in sports such as basketball, soccer, volleyball, martial arts and tennis. Read More »
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