Being James Downey: A Day in the Life of a Pro Rugby Player
Sitting down for a coffee with Munster Centre James Downey, I’m keen to find out about how a pro rugby player spends his day.
The first thing I learn is that every day is different. Mondays are often focused on recovering tired bodies following a weekend game, while Tuesdays and Wednesdays tend to involve tough physical workouts. Later on in the week, the workload is then reduced as the emphasis is placed on rest and recovery in advance of the next game. As Tuesdays are generally the toughest days, James chooses to talk me through this one.
— Warren Bradley (@WJBNutrition) August 9, 2013
His morning alarm goes off at about 6:30 and after a quick cup of coffee he jumps into the car. The squad isn’t due to assemble in Limerick until just after nine, but James lives 60 miles away in Cork. Which may seem strange, but that’s actually not at all unusual for Munster players.
During the amateur era, the province drew its players from the big clubs in both Cork and Limerick. Once the game went professional, the province decided to try to accommodate both the Cork and Limerick based players by alternating their training sessions between the two cities. Occasionally they train separately in Cork and Limerick, but there’s a limit to how much they can achieve without the whole squad present.
But today the session is in Limerick so it’s an early start for James and his Cork based teammates. Next stop is Dennis Hurley’s house, followed by a quick spin to where Ivan Dineen lives. Rotas are drawn up to help the players share the driving burden, and if they’re lucky enough to grab the back seat they may even get a bit of a sleep.
As the players arrive at the training camp at the University of Limerick, each of them has to do the “Check in”. This involves answering a bunch of questions on iPads about their physical state and how they’re feeling:
Basic stuff really… like keying in my weight and stretching performance, how I feel, how I slept and flagging any sore body parts, injuries or stiffness. They also look for other stuff like symptoms such as a headache, colds, flu or just tiredness.”
This helps make sure that the players are not pushing themselves too hard. If they have a tweak, they’ll get it checked out. And if they’re not feeling A1, they will probably still train but if they’re working too hard they may be pulled out to help keep them fresh for the next game.
“We wear a GPS even in training, which tracks what we’re doing. So if we’re doing too much in a training session before a game, and you’ve flagged yourself as being tired at check-in… you’ll sometimes get a tap on the shoulder and get taken out of training to rest up a bit.”
After the check in, the players can then pick up a protein shake which is prepared for each of them. Some players might then head straight to the cafeteria to have something like poached eggs for breakfast. Others might grab something from the “Grab and Go” station – this could be a sandwich, or a breakfast burrito or one of a multitude of other options… the Munster nutrition team plan the menu carefully to ensure a bit of variety.
And then the work begins. But if you were expecting the lads to head straight out onto the pitch, you’d be wrong:
“We usually start off with some video sessions, starting with a group review of the previous game….. We talk about what went wrong and what went right and what we need to focus on this week. And then we split into backs and forwards. The forwards might then practice some lineouts while the backs will go across into a meeting room and analyse the plays we’re going to use against the next opposition based on the way they play.”
I find this approach to be very interesting. Building a better rugby team isn’t about spending endless hours on the training pitch. It’s about being smart, and reflecting on what works and what doesn’t. And it reminds me of the Deming Cycle “Plan / Do / Check / Act” (this was made famous by Toyota and their Lean manufacturing methodologies). Anyway, Tuesday mornings involve a lot of reviewing and planning:
“We’ll then get together again and go through our game plan and this week’s new plays that we’re going to do. We’ll then do some team organisation work indoors – it’s all about making sure that every player knows his role.”
Bear in mind that the team for the next match has not been named at this point, and yet they make sure that they bring the entire squad up to speed on the lessons learned from the previous game as well as the plays that they’re planning for the next game. And only then do they have a quick break for lunch.
“I might have just a small snack, as it wouldn’t have been so long since breakfast. Something small… I don’t like to eat too much before a session, just enough to keep me going.”
Then it’s time to actually get out there onto the field:
“We warm up together and then split into backs and forwards. We’ll do some of the back plays that we’re going to use at the weekend while the forwards work on their stuff. We then come back together and do some attack and defence. We then split again. We might then do decision making drills. We then come back together and do breakdown technique and tackle technique”.
Then the team is announced, and the first 15 will put on bibs and run some moves against the rest… before swapping around:
“We might then do some fitness games before finishing with an attack block of 10 plays, and then we’re done. All in all, we’d be on the field for about 90 minutes”.
They actually spend a lot less time on the pitch than I would have imagined. But in fairness there’s not a moment wasted out there. There’s a lot to be learned from this sort of intensity and focus:
“Sessions are short and sharp. We do something for five or six minutes, bang… move onto the next thing. 5 or 6 minutes. Bang. Good or bad…. we just move on. Dropped balls, doesn’t matter. Park it and we’ll come back to it…. so you’re not dwelling on it.”
The other thing I noticed from watching a training session is how much communication is taking place. Players are constantly shouting instructions and offering options. And there’s a seemingly endless stream of encouragement and positive feedback.
Once the session is over, the players will then go back to the iPads and do their “Check Out” where they key in how hard they found the session on a scale of 1 to 10, how they’re feeling, whether they’ve picked up any knocks, strains or other injuries. Recovery starts straight away:
“After a session, we like to have protein shakes and eat something straight away. We then go to the swimming pool and ice baths. After that we’ll then go and grab some food, often at a local café or restaurant before driving back to Cork” .
But the day isn’t done. James has been studying for a Degree in Business Management at Cork Institute of Technology, and so has lectures from 6pm to 10pm. It’s a tough stint, but then again a great opportunity for players to set themselves up for their post-rugby career, whenever that happens. He’ll then typically have a quick snack before calling it a day.
“At the moment my evening snack is Wyldsson’s stuff, which is great… keeps me away from the chocolate!”
Good to hear it! So that’s a typical Tuesday in the life of a Munster player. A big thanks to James for doing this interview.
— James Downey (@jamesdowney23) January 31, 2014
PS: Reflecting on this interview, I can’t help but think about the qualities that someone like James could bring to Business Management having been involved in elite sports squads for 10 years now.
I mean, how many managers in business actually sit down with their employees and review what works and doesn’t work? And how many managers talk their whole team through their strategy for the next quarter… to make sure that everyone knows exactly what the goals are, and what their roles are?
And what about man management – how many managers have a good sense of how their team are feeling… and so distribute the workload accordingly? Do managers actually have a sense of who in their team might be carrying injuries, not just physical… but emotional burdens? And which employees are working too hard and so are in danger of burning out?
And what about nutrition? Are those vending machines full of bars and cans of coke really what people should be snacking on? How many employees are either hyper or lethargic depending on where they are on a “sugar rollercoaster”? Maybe the company should provide snacks, just like Munster… (Wyldsson does actually supply some tech firms with healthy snacks).
And what can we learn from the focus and intensity that Munster bring to their work on the training pitch? Should every business have a 90 minute period during the day when the entire organisation is getting stuff done… no coffee breaks, phone calls, no facebook, no BBC Sport… just 100% focus.
And as for constant communication and positive reinforcement – I’m not sure if there are many businesses that actually do this well.