Pre-season is happening right now at your NRL club. We spoke to ex-Brisbane Broncos, St George Illawarra Dragons and current Newcastle Knights’ strength and conditioning coach Jeremy Hickmans on the fittest players he has trained.
A cursory glance at your club’s website will show pictures of tired players, strained poses and lots of running. Why the long faces and what are they going through?
Jeremy Hickmans filled in the blanks for me. He knows a thing or two about training rugby league players. In a career spanning 10 years, he has trained Darren Lockyer at the Broncos, worked with Wayne Bennett at St George Dragons and now the Newcastle Knights.
Pre-season raining for rugby league is broken down into three phases – before Christmas, after Christmas and trials. Right now, the Knights (and probably other teams) are focusing on developing their base fitness so they can work off a foundation. Anaerobic fitness and individual targets within drills become key points of focus.
After Christmas, training moves into developing the team’s base of fitness and then the trials period, which players use largely as another fitness session. Within all these drills, the onus will be to work on individual needs.
Surely the mental side of training needs to be strong given the intensity they are going through at the moment?
“Definitely,” he said. “We work on general fitness but mental toughness is a huge part of our job as trainers. The best players stand out in this area too. Darren Lockyer – a very good athlete, but he is also mentally very strong. Kurt Gidley too – he can go a bit extra and push through. It is what separates those to the top bracket.”
During the rigours of training, particularly the hard slog before Christmas, the leaders come out of the woodwork. The fitter ones often translate into leadership material too.
“Jeremy Smith is the best example of a player who isn’t necessarily the fittest player in the entire group but works with everyone really well to be a strong leader. Mick Weyman too – he had the ability to work with guys who are tired.”
When defining fitness too, you can have different types depending on the role they play – whether a forward or a back. So who are the fittest players you have trained?
“(Ex-Queensland and Kangaroo forwards) Tonie Carroll and Brad Thorn would be two of the best within strength and power. At the Dragons, Ben Creigh is a great all-round athlete and Darius Boyd has excellent all-round fitness. He isn’t necessarily the strongest, nor the quickest, nor the fittest – but is good across all areas.”
Despite best intentions of great training programs, injuries are part of a contact sport like rugby league. What is his take on why players suffer so many injuries?
“There isn’t a blanket answer here. The best way to explain would be to break injuries into two types – avoidable and unavoidable. Avoidable would include soft tissue injuries such as ACL or medial problems, indicating structural deficiencies. You can spend time reducing the chance of this. Unavoidable would be within contact, such as being hit in a tackle from the side or twisting the wrong way.”
The game is getting quicker and more intense – Jeremy ensures his players train to combat this. It is worth noting there is a difference between training footy players and track athletes – and tailoring training as such, whether elite or your club player.
Finally, what about a superhuman effort or feat of sheer surprise? Jeremy mentions a story about Kiwis winger Jason Nightingale.
During the traditional 40-metre sprint testing at the Dragons, Nightingale had to swerve out of the way of a group of staff crossing his path whilst in the middle of his test. He completed his run – and managed the fastest ever recorded time.
“He is surprisingly strong and agile. He might look ugly when he runs, but he is certainly a great athlete.”
Now we know why he has that great sidestep. Jeremy doesn’t take the credit though; his long career working with the elite level is probably enough reward.
To learn more about Jeremy Hickmans and his professional Rugby League training program, visit Pro Training Programs.
And then there were six. With the Titans and Knights left pondering what could have been, four sides head into the do-or-die semi-finals weekend with a spot in the prelims on the line. The two beaten sides will have only Mad Monday to look forward to.