When we think of the impact that Irish people are making in sport in general, we generally only think of what happens on the field. Perhaps sports fans don't fully appreciate the vital work that Irish coaches are making behind the scenes, especially in British sport. Visit some of the top football and rugby clubs in the UK and you'll hear a lot of Irish accents in the weightroom and academies.
Des Ryan knows this better than anyone. Ryan is from Galway. He is head of sport medicine and athletic development at Arsenal academy and has been working with the club since 2013. He worked with Connacht and the IRFU before joining Arsenal. Ryan will back be in Dublin this weekend to take part in a coaching seminar at Linkedin's head offices, and we used the opportunity to consider the growing number of Irish people in key roles in UK sport.
When Ryan left Ireland to take a role at the Arsenal, it was impossible to imagine the impact that Irish coaches would make over in the UK. There's now a strong Irish influence at Arsenal - Barry Solan and Paudie Roche are just two Irish people working in S&C at the club with Jerry Flannery, Johnny O'Connor and Cairbre Ó Cairealláin among the Arsenal alumni. It's in English rugby where Irish coaches are having the greatest impact. Ryan is magnanimous about the contribution that Irish coaches are making behind the scenes in the Premiership.
'If I look out there, I think Ireland is underappreciated in the world of sports science and strength and conditioning.'
You got Philip Morrow, head of performance at Saracens. You’ve got Kevin Geary, head of strength and conditioning at Bristol. You’ve got PJ Wilson, head of strength and conditioning at Bath Rugby. You’ve got Alan Ryan, used to be head of performance in Bath Rugby, now head of performance in Toulouse. You’ve got Dan Tobin, head performance at Gloucester. You’ve got Tom Turner who works with him at Gloucester as well. There’s all the good people at the provinces as well. Everyone has been mentored by Liam Hennessy. Then you’ve got the old guard in Ireland. You’ve got Dave Fagan at Leinster, Aidan O’Connell working at Munster and Jason Cowman at the IRFU.
It's a very long list. Ryan is incredibly complementary of the role Liam Hennessy, founder of Setanta College, has played in moulding the current batch of Irish coaches.
At Arsenal, Ryan is doing fascinating work. Specialisiation or branching out is one of the debates that flummoxes many parents of athletic children. What's fascinating is that the Arsenal academy under Ryan's leadership encourages its youngest players to be fluent in many sports, on top of football.
'With football, we're a high-skilled sport and we're early-emphasis but we have a position statement for multi-sports, and we encourage it. As the players get older, they play less and less sports. And when they turn 18, we ask them to focus on soccer. But even at U16, we even encourage other sports.'
'Because we do a lot of football, we've got a lot of multisport running at the same time. We've got the equipment for every sport you can imagine. Gaelic football, Aussie rules, badminton, cricket. Even netball, which isn't for the male athlete. It's all to give the players that physical literacy and the movement skills.
'From U9s to U12s, we have Movement Mondays. We have Play Day Wednesdays. And we have FUNdamental Fridays. We give the benefits of playing many sports. On the days they're not with us, we encourage them to play other games. As well as the most important thing: playing with their friends. Creating their own games, solving their own problems with their buddies.
We have a huge time for play.
One book to recommend:
We asked Des to recommend one book that affected his philosophy to coaching. He said the following-
One good practical book for me any club, school or coach is The Warm-up: Maximize Performance and Improve Long-term Athletic Development by Ian Jeffreys.
'He goes through many activities, and how we can improve athletic development, speed and endurance. Anyone who is interested in coaching will enjoy that.'
Des Ryan will be in Dublin this Sunday to speak about techniques utilised at the Arsenal academy that coaches with fewer resources might be able to use. He'll be speaking as part of the Coaching Symposium at Linkedin's head offices in Dublin on Sunday August 11. Tickets are available here.