‘Hard work works.’ Dan Baker – Olympic S & C coaches interviewed Episode 28

In the world of strength & conditioning Dan Baker needs no introduction. With 3+ decades in strength & conditioning (S & C), 20+ years’ experience in professional sports, founder and president of the Australian Strength & Conditioning Association (ASCA), Dan has contributed to the profession of strength & conditioning like very few others.

In this interview he shares insights, he hasn’t shared before, amongst those, on how he got into strength & conditioning, the lessons he learned over 3+ decades in strength & conditioning, his ambition to establish strength & conditioning as a recognized profession.

Furthermore we discuss

Christian:  Today it’s my honor to be joined by somebody who doesn’t need an introduction if you are Working in the world of strength and conditioning, Dan Baker.

In short, 20 plus years of experience in professional rugby, president of the ASCA (Australian Strength and Conditioning Association, a Ph.D. in Sports Science. Dan has worked with the Brisbane Broncos for 19 years, worked across different Olympic Sports and is now educating strength & conditioning coaches worldwide.

Personally, I’ve seen Dan, the first time at the UKSCA conference in 2010, and I really enjoyed it. What I’ve always liked about Dan is, that he is a practitioner. So without further ado, welcome Dan.

Dan: Thank you, man. Thanks, Christian.

How he got into strength & conditioning

Christian:  Dan, how did you get into strength and conditioning?

Dan: That’s what I wanted to do. I come from a fairly sporty family, not a very high level. My father played a bunch of sport along with my three brothers and three sisters. We all did sports, but just recreationally. My oldest brother, he was a good semi-professional footballer and decent level boxer.

That’s what I wanted to do.

So we are all very sporty, but I was a little bit fat when I was a child. So when I got to about 14 or 15 years, I started training really hard to lose weight. I’d go with my brother to the boxing gym. When it wasn’t football season, I just started doing lots of running and lifting weights.

Because I was a little fat, I wanted to get better at sport and so I suppose I just developed interest from there, finding ways to get better and better and better and so that started when I was about 14 1/2 years of age. When I finished school, I was really into it by then. I was a fat top sportsperson.

I ran in the school cross country team. This would have been unthinkable, say three years beforehand. I was in the school cross country team, but I was also a front-row forward in rugby, which is two different ability. Front row in rugby is about strength and size. Cross country is about aerobic fitness. This was in 1980, the early ’80s.

I was doing aerobic fitness when no one was and lifting weights when no one was. This gave me several advantages at the school level. But it was my interest, so I started Sports Science in the early ’80s and then I tried to be a strength conditioning coach in Australia in the ’80s and it just wasn’t’ happening. It didn’t exist.

We didn’t have a professional sport. We had semi-professional sports, who didn’t believe in it, so it wasn’t until the early 90’s that I started working as a strength conditioning coach. I tried in the late ’80s and I couldn’t. I didn’t want to get back into personal training, so I worked in construction for a while. Then I saw an ad for doing a Master’s degree and as soon as I started doing my Master’s degree, it opened up for me again. That was good, in the early ’90s.

I didn’t want to get back into personal training, so I worked in construction for a while.

Christian:  Is it fair to say that you were one of the first S&C coaches in Australia?

Dan: Yes. There were a few employed at the Training Institute of Sport. These included Kelvin Giles, Lynn Jones, Harry Wardle and I think Jeff Dames. That was four and a fifth one, Ian King, he wasn’t at the Institute of Sport. So it was probably five people who could make a living out of it full time. I was just part-time and then it builds up from this point.

So by the mid-’90s, it was probably 10, 15 or 20 people, who could make a living full-time out of it. So yes, I was in the first group or probably in the second group to make a full-time living out of it. So, I was part-time and then full-time. That was my aspiration.

His darkest moment

Christian:  In your life as an S&C coach what was your darkest moment?

Dan: Ah, that’s really easy. One of the former rugby players from our team, not the Brisbane Broncos, another team I worked with, claimed he hurt his back squatting. He tried to sue me for one and a half million dollars. The case didn’t go to court, but I had liability insurance with a company which the Australian Government Sport’s Commission told us to all take out.

One of the former rugby players from our team tried to sue me for one and a half million dollars.

This company went bankrupt, and all of a sudden, I had no insurance coverage for a lawyer to help me fight this case. I was in the wilderness and I couldn’t afford a lawyer to help me. Anyway, the Australian Government bought out all the people, because they told the people to take out this insurance and the company went broke.

So we ended up getting a lawyer from the Government Rescue Fund, and it was proven to be false a true story. Some athletes can’t get a contract and they went looking for the other payday. I don’t know if it’s happened here in Europe, but if you think about the mid-1990s, a lot of people in Australia were following the American example of “let’s sue and get some easy money.”

In the mid-1990s, a lot of people in Australia were following the American example of “let’s sue and get some easy money.”

They’d fall off a chair in a bar; “it’s the bar’s fault, I fell off the chair” or “I slip on the pavement, let’s sue the city council because the pavement was not good.” So there was a lot of that going on and I think it permeated people’s minds. It was proven not to be true, I did not hurt his back. He sustained that back injury that he had at high school.

I believe he was seeing a number of different physiotherapists and hid it from other physical therapists, how bad it was. He was searching for renewal with his contract and it didn’t happen, so he went looking for another payday. I believe I was a victim.

I believe that’s what the situation was. I had to go back, it was more than 20 years ago, but if my memory serves me correctly, but I didn’t get sued. He tried to sue me, but it was a very dark moment when I had no legal representation and the club that I worked for didn’t want to have anything to do with it. They thought, “You’re using Baker, not the club.”

It wasn’t until the Rescue lawyer came in and said to the club, “No, Baker is your employee. He’s suing you, this player’s suing you the club and Baker.” And then the club said, “Oh, oh, we can pitch in and help.” So that was pretty bad. That club, I wouldn’t p… in their ear, if their brain was on fire. That’s how I feel about them.

Christian:  What did you learn from that moment? How has it shaped your life after that?

Dan: There are some people that are very good people and some people will throw you under a bus or don’t care about you. That’s why I said, that club, I wouldn’t p… in their ear, if their brain was on fire. Now, I might have to rethink that because one of my friends is now coaching them and it’s 20 years ago. It’s different people. But at least, the last 18 years, I’ve felt that about that club, although I am not going to name them. I’m also pretty careful in dealing with the players. I like people to be honest.

I like people to be honest. I myself am honest, I’m going to push you hard. I’m going to train you hard. Just be honest.

I myself am honest, I’m going to push you hard. I’m going to train you hard. Just be honest. Don’t lie and scheme and try and use me to get other ways. So, I lost a lot of faith in some people from that situation. It was a dark situation for me.

Christian:  Did you take anything from that, in terms of covering your backside after that?

Dan: Yes, always have liability insurance. But it was no problem. I always did everything correctly. We always warm up and everyone wears a belt.  You are given your load, not some mythical load that someone else, like some other countries are lifting.

He was a 107 kg man squatting 120 kg. How is that hard? In like week nine of training? That’s not an overload. A 60 kg girl squats 120, at least the strong ones. We always do everything methodically in the strictest liability sense. So I always do that anyhow, and I wasn’t really worried, but you need a lawyer to help you in these situations. Even if you have done nothing wrong, you still need a lawyer to navigate that legal minefield, which I couldn’t afford at that time.

His best moment

Christian: What was your best moment?

Dan: When I was at the Brisbane Broncos, we won four premierships. That was pretty good, that’s the best moments. The last one was pretty sweet, in 2006. That was the fourth because we won in ’97, ’98, 2000, and we thought that the golden era would never end and you’d be winning finals every year or two.

We won in ’97, ’98, 2000, and we thought that the golden era would never end and you’d be winning finals every year or two. Then we didn’t win for 5 or 6 years and we won again in 2006.

Then we didn’t win for five or six years and we won again in 2006. We didn’t win again by the time I left in 2013. They still haven’t won. So I suppose 2006 was the sweetest one, in a way.

His advice to a younger Dan Baker

Christian:  If you could travel back in time, 10, 15 or maybe 20 years, what advice would you give your younger self, a younger Dan Baker?

Dan: Don’t do circuits. When I was younger, there was no internet or any books on how to train. I started training at the boxing gym and all they did was circuits. I thought that’s how you lifted weights, so I did circuit every day for four years, with no progress. The same circuit every day, no progressive overload, from about age 14 to about 17 years.

When I was younger, there was no internet or any books on how to train. I started training at the boxing gym and all they did was circuits, so I did circuit every day for four years, with no progress.

I did virtually the same circuit every day and then someone gave us a programme on German volume training. The training was in 20 sets of 10 reps, you start at 20 sets of 10 reps, and you build up to 50 sets of 10 reps. So I did that as well.

So going back to your question, I would just take my young body and just do proper training and I know what to do, that would be fantastic. Having wasted three or four years doing high rep circuit training.

His advice to young and aspiring S & C coaches

Christian:  With all the knowledge you have now, what advice would you give young aspiring S&C coaches?

Dan: Get practical experience. Go with a mentor and get practical experience. I will give you an example. I draw on my University powerlifting club because there was a couple of guys who had really ranked high in the world, as number two and number three or number two and four, something like that.

Go with a mentor and get practical experience.

And I watched this guy train and I started going to training when he trained. I was lifting different weights, just to watch him train and see what he does. Sooner or later, there would be no one in the gym and he’d look around and say, “Can you come over and spot me?” So I’d be like, “Sure.” Stuff like that or, “Can you come over and pull my lifting strap over my shoulder?” “Sure, sure,” and just suck up their knowledge and then after a while, they started relying on you and he would say, “What time are you training tomorrow because I need someone to spot me?” I’d say, “I’ll be there when you want me.”

If you find someone in your area who is a high-level lifter or a good track and field coach, just get around where they are and watch how they coach. Watch how they train, suck up their knowledge. Do this while you are at university or the first year out when you got time. Because what you gain there is not the only experience for yourself. You are gaining maybe 10, 15, 20 years of their experience that seeps into your DNA.

If you find someone in your area who is a high-level lifter or a good track and field coach, just get around where they are and watch how they coach. Watch how they train, suck up their knowledge. They start telling you stuff or you watch their stuff, stuff that’s not in books.

They start telling you stuff or you watch their stuff, stuff that’s not in books. If it’s some champion athletes or champion coaches in your area, make use of that resource. That was really helpful for me to do that. It wasn’t just one guy, two or three and I’d just suck up their information. I’d be doing my own lifting and then they’d help you. So you are getting coached by guys, number two and number three in the world. So thank you, that didn’t cost me any money.

Why Dan never took on a position as a performance manager

Christian: There is a question, I have out of personal interest, if you look at the life cycle of an S&C coach or career paths, very often it’s S & C coach, then you become a head of S&C and you either go into lecturing or performance manager.

Dan: Exactly.

Christian:  You have never taken on the role of a performance manager. Were there no opportunities or was it something that didn’t want to do?

Dan: I don’t want to do that. The management stuff I do is with the ASCA is enough, I don’t want to do more management. I like coaching, so right now I am not coaching athletes. I am coaching coaches, but I am still coaching. Too much management stuff bores the s… out of me. I want to be a coach. I didn’t go to university to be a manager, I want to be a Strength Conditioning Coach.

I like coaching, I didn’t go to university to be a manager, I want to be a Strength Conditioning Coach.

I do a lot of management stuff with the ASCA, I don’t want to do it again.

But, you are right. It seems to be about a 15 years cycle after being a fulltime Strength Conditioning Coach, that you get to a point, where maybe your late 30s or early 40s, somewhere around there, you have to go do one or the other. I knew that was happening.

That is one of the reasons I did my Ph.D., because I knew I didn’t really want to do management. I thought I got to be a Lecturer, sometime in the future. So you got to  have your backup plan ready, so in case you say, “Hmm, I can’t coach now or I don’t feel like coaching anymore” In my case, I always feel like coaching, but it’s a pretty hard lifestyle in the high-performance world, with all the travel and long days.

And if you got a wife or kids, it sort of grates on you a lot, so at a certain point of the high performance, you think, “boy, this is a hard lifestyle for the amount of money that we get. I’d be better off staying more put.”

It seems to be about a 15 years cycle after being a fulltime Strength Conditioning Coach, that you get to a point, where you think, “boy, this is a hard lifestyle for the amount of money that we get. I’d be better off staying more put.”

I don’t stay put now, but at least my wife stays with me a lot. So for most people, you do have that choice, you got to be a Lecturer or an educator of some sort or go into high-performance management, 100% or change professions or sport. You can do what you want, but definitely, those are the two choices. There are not too many 50-year-olds still on the gym floor or running around the track. There are some, but you are going to need to make those choices.

You can keep doing it, and a good system for many S & C coaches is, how you just come back from high performance into mid-high performance or high school. And a lot of the top coaches in Australia are doing that now. Some of the big private high schools with lots of money are hiring really good coaches, who’d been at high-performance and don’t want to travel anymore, don’t want to be in management, don’t want to lecture or have a Ph.D. to lecture. They go and work at the high schools now.

We have a couple of guys doing that, and it’s fantastic for them. These big private high school said, “These guys work in high-performance for 20 years, with this and this team. He’s gone to such and such games, he’d be our strength conditioning coach, and the kids love it. So that’s the third option now for us. Going into the big private schools as a strength conditioning coach. Now we got three options I suppose.

Christian:  Okay, interesting. For example, if you look at the lecturer option, you think it’s because the lifestyle is a little bit quieter or is it also some kind of giving back?

Dan: It’s a giving back thing as well. I was very lucky in Australia and this is why I do a lot of giving back. When I went to university, we didn’t have to pay for a university in Australia. It was free. People have to pay now, not the full amount they pay, but about 20% of the cost. It’s not like America, where they pay the full cost, plus whatever… In Australia, you pay about 20% of the cost of a university. I don’t know what they pay. Maybe 10 or 12,000 a year.

When I went to university, I was very lucky, we didn’t have to pay for the university, this is why I do a lot of giving back.

When I went it was free, so I give back because I got a lot of education for free. I also like educating, it’s good. For me, I ‘m still coaching. Like what we do now during the ASCA level 2 course, today I was coaching Max Velocity, they were coaching Cleans, Snatches, Jerks, Power Jerks, and the main lifts and then yesterday out at the track and coaching Max Aerobic Speed, with the other coaches.

I still coach like 3-4 hours, but I coach coaches, it’s the same as coaching athletes, I’m still coaching.

Dan’s coaching philosophy

Christian:  As an S&C coach, what is your coaching philosophy?

Dan: Do what works! I always get what’s your philosophy. I do what works. What does the evidence say? The evidence might be scientific or it might be practical evidence. If I speak to you, and you say to me, Bulgarian Split Squats work well for my cyclists, that’s evidence to me. Because you coach a high-level cyclist, and I’m not, so I would use that as evidence.

Do what works and don’t be beholden to a philosophy. Why lock yourself into a cult belief that there is the only one way to some Nirvana.

So if I work with Track Cycling, I would talk to you or Scott Pollock from England or somebody who coaches cyclist. That’s evidence if you work in high performance. So do what works and don’t be beholden to a philosophy. I see that a lot in America where people say, “Ah, I’m a heavyweights guy, or I’m a functional guy, or I’m a one-legged guy.” Maybe one-legged and two-legged stuff works. Maybe functional exercises are good in the warmup and maybe heavy strength training works well too. Why lock yourself into a cult belief that there is the only one way to some Nirvana. Or one way to, some pathway to high performance is via one track. If we get to the top of the mountain different tracks can lead there.

There is more than one road that leads to Amsterdam or Berlin, you still get to be the center of town. Don’t lock yourself into a philosophy. What we do know is that hard work works. There are different ways of working hard, but hard work works, so do what works and work hard. That’s my philosophy.

What we do know is that hard work works. So do what works and work hard. That’s my philosophy.

His core values

Christian:  What are your core values as a coach?

Dan: Hard work and just be honest with the hard work. Don’t try and give me bs story about how hard you work and all, and that you have an injury and therefore can’t work hard. I’ll reduce the training volume, when we need to and up the intensity, when we need to and vice-versa, but work hard on the basics, don’t find excuses to do bs.

Hard work and just be honest with the hard work.

Get in there and try hard, work hard. There’s a lot of these sayings that may sound pithy in a way. One of my things, I read once is this good quote that I like is, “The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary.”–

Christian:  Vince Lombardi

Dan: Is it?

Christian:  Long ago, I had a business card and I had it on the business card.

Dan: I didn’t know it was from Vince. There you go. I’ve learned something today, mate. So I like that one, that’s one of my favorite quotes. I’ve got plenty of other quotes, but that’s one of my favorites. People say he is successful, he won the lottery. No, he is not successful, he is lucky. When you win the lottery, that’s not a success. You did not work for that, that’s luck. Success is something that you work for.

Christian: I align with that.

Dan: Thank you for that alignment.

Christian: Just because I had it on that business card for some time, I really like it.

His motivation to raise the standard of strength & conditioning 

Christian: A few days ago we spoke, and you said your intrinsic motivation is to raise the standard of strength and conditioning in the world, and you’re going to do that through the ASCA?

Dan: Yes, I am trying.

Christian: Outline why is that your intrinsic motivation?

Dan: Some sports administrators and coaches don’t see strength conditioning as a profession. Physical therapy is, chiropractic is, medicine is, nursing is, why is strength conditioning not? We contribute to the performance of an athlete, therefore it’s a profession.

Some sports administrators and coaches don’t see strength conditioning as a profession. We contribute to the performance of an athlete, therefore it’s a profession.

I have a professional degree, as do most strength conditioning coaches. We have degrees, we just don’t learn out of the back of a cornflakes packet.

Christian: We went to university.

Dan: We went to university. We have certifications, it’s a profession. So when you have sports administrators and team owners or CEOs of professional teams and sports and now they start realizing that it is a profession.

Or better, they do realize that in Australia, because of thanks to some very good work by some of the ASCA and by the Australian Sports Commission, showing some leadership in the world in this area.

It’s being very good for us, it’s the start of a very good era for us, the last 6 to 9 months, someone has to lead the way. And if it’s not being shown by others, in other countries, so ASCA will try and lead the way. If someone can go past us, all power to them in improving the profession. I’ll use a  quote from Ray Bone, Navy Seal, US Navy Seal number 1, “Leadership can be summed up in two words: follow me.”

“Leadership can be summed up in two words: follow me.”

So follow us and we’ll show leadership in the area. If someone wants to go past us and improve what we are doing, please do, but in the meantime, I’ll be a leader. When I say I, the ASCA, the plural ‘I’ will be the leader. Follow us and we’ll raise the standard for everyone because when the tide comes in, all boats float higher. So hopefully we can do that and it’s starting to happen now.

I think a lot of people don’t like seeing a small country like Australia lead the way in this area and the world is saying, “But if Australia can do it, so can we.” So, that’s good. There are other people with more resources and money than us. Hopefully, we can lead the way and others will take over. Or at least follow and we can have equal professions. So as an example, if you are a doctor and come to Australia, you have to go through the administrations and make sure you are in-tuned with the regulations and stuff there, but you’re still a doctor.

Consequently, if I’m a strength conditioning coach in Australia at the same level, you can be a strength conditioning coach in the Netherlands or England or the US or Canada or China or India, any of these countries. So, let’s have a profession, where we can have a good level at a certain level. We will recognize persons’ qualification and their abilities.

Christian: If we look at doctor or profession that is very well established, where are we in that process?

Dan: We are a very young profession and we’re at the beginning. In Australia, we have what we call RPL, Recognize Prior Learning. So we have an arrangement, where if someone from another country with a certification comes and wants to work in Australia, we will give them an RPL to a certain level. They will also have to do certain things. A little bit of an exam and sign some papers and document their stuff.

That doesn’t happen currently in a lot of other countries, so we’ll lead in the way in that again. If they don’t want to do it, they say, “No we can’t do it.” We have discussions with other nations, and they don’t want to do it, fine, again “Follow me, I’ll lead the way”. When I say I, I’m talking about my board and me, we will lead the way. We have a certain RPL or Recognized Prior Learning equivalency for certain people. If they have a certain qualification or country or certain years’ experience, we’ll assign them a certain level in our ASCA system.

“Follow me, I’ll lead the way”. We have a Recognized Prior Learning equivalency for certain people. If they have a certain qualification or country or certain years’ experience, we’ll assign them a certain level in our ASCA system.

So for example, we’re doing an ASCA Level 2 course nowhere in the Netherlands. We have people from the Netherlands, from Ireland and France and they were given an equivalency of ASCA Level 1 already, based on their work experience and their degree. So they could go straight to ASCA Level 2. So we recognize their prior achievements in learning and in work experience. You already got Level 1 now you’re going straight to Level 2. That’s an example of it.

The person that has impacted him most

Christian: What person has impacted you most as a coach and why?

Dan: My former head coach of the Brisbane Broncos, Wayne Bennett. He is a very influential coach to a lot of people because he has been our head coach since 1987 at the National League Level. He is still going there, so what’s that there, thirty-two years? He even coached my brother in the 1970s in the under nineteen team and the under eighteen team, so he’s been around a very long time. He is 70 years of age now, so he’s a pretty influential coach. Nothing to do with strength conditioning, but in main management or person management. How do you deal with situations? How do you try to get the best out of players, things like that?

I think he’s been very influential to a lot of people. He won coach of the year in Australia once or twice for team sports. So, pretty influential coach, overall coaching, not strength conditioning. There are tons of strength conditioning coaches that influence me, so I can’t of one that doesn’t. Basically, almost anyone working in high-performance, if they say something, I take it on board. You work in a high-performance field for more than one year. To stay in your job you’ve just got to know something, so I listen. Overall coaches, I don’t want to mention one. Almost anyone that does high-performance influences me.

If you kept your job for more than one or two years, you must learn something that I can learn off, because you have had different experiences, etc.  So I’ll learn off anyone in high-performance.

How to manage expectations

Christian: So as an S&C coach you have your idea of how things have to run, right, more or less, and sometimes athletes have different ideas. So what do you do if the ideas differ?

Dan: Yeah, that was the problem for me twenty-something years ago, when I’ve got this work hard work ethic and you got some prima donna type athletes, who don’t know how to work hard.

And I did have problems with some athletes and if I think back on how to handle it differently, I can say in hindsight. But some people had to say to me, “But if you handled it differently, you wouldn’t be where you are, so maybe I wouldn’t have been as effective, because my nature is a certain way. We need to talk about the expectations and the athletes’ accountability and one of the things I liked about my former rugby league team, the Brisbane Broncos, was accountability was huge and I like that.

The athletes were accountable and the staff was accountable. The head coach would give you free reigns to do your job. If you f- up, you’re getting the sack. Fine. I don’t want to f- up and then I don’t want athletes to f- up. So I outlined the performance level the athlete must meet. Don’t meet it, it’s going to be two people’s fault; your fault and my fault, because I don’t write a good enough programme.

I used to keep stats on how many guys made their goals, and their strength goals and 93% of guys achieve their goals, so I said to the guy, “There’s a 93% chance that if you don’t make your goal that I’ve set, which is a realistic goal, but challenging, 93% that it’s not my fault. So if you don’t make your goal, whose f… fault is it? It’s going to be yours.

I keep my stats on how many guys made their goals, and 93% of guys achieve their goals. So there’s a 93% chance that if you don’t make your goal, that it’s not my fault.

So I just want guys to be accountable. I’ll give you the best program, the best program I can do in the situation, with the resources and time I have to help you achieve your goals. You put in the hard effort and we make sure you achieve the outcome. But if we don’t achieve the outcome, someone’s to blame.

If there’s no injuries or no life trauma or something, you don’t work hard enough, or I didn’t write a good enough program or I didn’t coach you well enough, so in 7% of the time it’s my fault and I’ll put my hand up. But some of those times, it’s going to be your fault. Own the f… fault, so let’s try and make those athletes own that.

There’s a great strength conditioning coach at Stanford called Shannon Turley, Stanford University. He talks about a player’s mindset of technician, professional, semi-professional athletes and cancer. Technician sees the performance as them and they seek out a coach to do extra training on how they’ll improve. The professional just do what they are told; the semi-professional does what they like doing and they don’t like doing what they’re not good at and cancer doesn’t want to do anything and tells them of people we shouldn’t be doing this.

So you’re aware of where those athletes are in that spectrum. We do try and change cancer to semi-professionals and semi-professional to professional and professional to technicians. As long as we know their mindset is in that continuum, technician, cancer, we know what they are and sometimes you can’t cure cancer, you’ve just got to get rid of it, cut it out.

Christian: Interesting.

How to deal with decisions you don’t agree with

Christian: If we think about the high-performance team, there are many members on the support staff and very often, everyone wears his own hat in support staff. So the S&C coach has a certain idea and other members have another idea. If there are clashes within that team, how do you make your point heard? That’s the number one question, and number two, if a decision is taken that is not yours or you don’t agree, what do you do?

Dan: Yeah, that’s a great question, Christian, and it happens all the time in a big team. Physio or doctor says, “The athlete can’t do this.” You, as an S & C coach, say, “They can do it. We can fix this up.” And we saw that a few years ago. A lot of physios and doctors wanted a reduced load in the players and then you got more injuries and we’ve seen that maintaining high loads is protective of injuries.

We’ve seen that maintaining high loads is protective of injuries.

Thankfully, that debate is already been settled by statistics. Nothing like science to settle a debate, but I’ve been in plenty of situation where I didn’t agree with some of the training we were doing. So then you have two choices. Do you shut up and do it, or voice your opinion? And I’ve been there. I’ve said to the coach once, “This is not going to work. Watch what you’re doing and then I said, “I’ll do it, but it’s not going to work.”

After the season, the coach said, “You were right. We won’t do it next year. We change and we’ll get rid of that system.” Now, if it really offends you, you can always resign. So how much money do you owe?” Do you have a home loan? Can you just walk out of that job and straight into another one? Do you hold your ground? I am not saying you should hold your ground sometimes you don’t agree with stuff, but you’ve got a life, family, home loans to pay, car loans to pay.

You just got to pay your bills, but you got to say, “I don’t agree with it. I want to put in to on record, I don’t agree with it. But if the groups made a decision and we’re going to do it, the group goes forward, but I just let me say, I don’t agree with it, but I’ll work with it now. But if it doesn’t work, can we please try my way the next time and for this reason. Let’s keep data on this and see if it works.

The thing is to use the scientific method. Does it work? No? But voice your opinion. But the high-performance team is a collaborative team so we got to collaborate and agree sometimes. Even if we don’t agree with it, we have to agree to put forward to the athletes. We don’t want to be cancer, so in the case and say to the athlete “Coach wants me to do this training, but I don’t agree with it.”

The high-performance team is a collaborative team, so we got to collaborate and agree sometimes. Even if we don’t agree with it, we have to agree to put forward to the athletes.

We can’t be cancerous like that. So we got to “Okay boys we are doing this,” or “Girls we are doing this.” You might not agree with it, but you just have to do it sometimes. It’s a really hard thing. It happens all the time in high performance. We know that every single assistance coach wants to be a head coach.

Every single assistance coach seeks a little bit of extra work with the athletes, where their hat is. So if you go to the defensive coach, you’ll seek a little bit of extra work with him. Also, we got extra loans that is taking me for extra sessions. Happens all the time. So we just try and regulate that.

Christian:  And there’s a specific example I would like to dig in. When I saw you the first time 2010 to 2011 at the UKSCA annual conference, you presented the scores of your team across seasons, and I remember at one time there was a dip. And in that presentation, you said the coach wanted you to focus more on strength endurance, rather than maximum strength development. Was that some kind of this situation?

Dan: That’s what I was just talking about, I said back then “Coach, I don’t agree with this” and in the end, it didn’t really work out for us. The next year we went back to the strength and power way of training and won the competition. So we probably could have won the year before, if we had stayed on strength training and power training emphasis. So that was a whole year where we made a deal like that. Eight minutes of strength work or 15 minutes of strength work, seven minutes of squatting, seven minutes of bench pressing and always selecting those strength endurance circuits, it’s like, “F…, we are dead!”

Christian: Did the coach change or was it the same coach?

Dan: No, the same coach, but some of the conditioning staff were changed then, and it was their idea more to do strength endurance. Some of the strength conditioning staff sort of got outvoted like two to one, so it changed around, and the head coach went with their philosophy that they needed more strength endurance.

The three strength conditioning staff, two or one of them went that way, I didn’t. So the coach changed them at the end of the year and said, “You’re right, it didn’t work for us. We go back to speed and strength and power next year, as far as our gym work and that’s going. So that happens.

A typical day in the life of the strength & conditioning coach Dan Baker

Christian: How does a typical training day as an S&C coach at a professional rugby club look like?

Dan: My day, the preseasons, the preparation period is a lot longer days, so if I go through the last few years when I worked, I would get up at about 4 am in the morning, just have some coffee, have a shower. Well, I live 100 kilometers from the club, so I drive and it’d take me about an hour and a half to drive there. So I would get there by 6 o’ clock. The players are on the field at 6:30, and you get like half an hour preparation time and doing stuff like stretching the guys, setting cones, stuff like that.

I would get up at about 4 am in the morning, drive about 1,5 hours to the club, and the players are on the field at 6:30 am.

It’s pretty hot where I live, so we have to do the high-intensity endurance stuff first in the morning because if you go any later, they get sunburnt or dehydrated or something. It will be 30o by 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning, so we try and finish by 8:00.

Then we do some recovery stuff, then the players would eat, and about 11:00 am would be lifting in the air-conditioned gym there, so they’ve had three hours recovery.

We have one group start at 11:00, one at about 11:45 and one at 12:30. They are on an hour rotation, but the group that comes down at 11:45, they warm up in another room and with another strength conditioning staff for like 10 minutes, so 11:55 they come in the gym with me.

So most of these guys end up finishing by 1:30 pm, they have lunch, do some recovery stuff, the strength conditioning staff then do some other stuff and we might have some younger athletes or second division athletes, so probably finish like 4 o’ clock in the afternoon, then I’d drive home, be home by 5:30 pm or 6:00 pm. I would fall asleep straight away for about 20 minutes and then my wife would wake me up and we have dinner and watch TV for an hour and then go to bed and do it all over again.

In-season, it’s a little bit different, because you got games and you’re doing half the amount of training. It’s a lot easier in season. So it just depends on if the team’s playing away or at home, how many guys are injured, and so forth. But you have different days. You might have your first division guys training in the gym Monday and Wednesday. The second division could be Tuesday and Thursday and you could have injured guys on different days as well, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, that’s your gym sessions. Then you got your MAS (maximum aerobic speed) conditioning session and speed sessions.

So it’s a lot more varied in the season because we could play on a Thursday, on a Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Even occasionally, Monday night, but normally Friday, Saturday or Sundays and change each week.

The second division guys would play on either a Saturday or Sunday.  So they’re on a different rotation from the first division guys. Lot more variation in season and shorter days generally.

How to design a training program

Christian: How do you design a training programme? Just take us through the thought process.

Dan: Well, after about one year, I realized, the easiest way to do it was cut and paste last year’s program in. This year I started cutting and pasting last year’s programme in for those athletes and then look at my notes and say, “What have I learned in the last year to improve this program?” Now, sometimes last year’s programme was maybe a six weeks block and this year you got seven weeks training block or we got five weeks, so we decide which week to eliminate, first off.

The easiest way to do it was cut and paste last year’s program.

So I’ve got last year as a six-week block, now I’ve got a seven-week block. I got to add a week or if it’s a five, I got to take one off.

Okay, now, what worked well, I check my notes, I check my data. I think this combination of exercises didn’t work well or I saw a different way of doing it at a conference where I talked to a coach and he has this idea. Then I’ll change the program, but I come down with a template.

When I designed this program last year, this is the best program, I could have designed with the level of knowledge I had. So I put that in and then I say, “Now how has my level of knowledge changed?” So if it is the same six or eight-week blocks, I don’t have to change any of the weeks, unless I want to.

When I designed this program last year, is this the best program, I could have designed with the level of knowledge I had. And then I say, “How has my level of knowledge changed?”

So say it’s an eight-week block, what have I learned? What could make this eight-week block better than it was last year, which should have been the peak of my knowledge? Otherwise, what was I doing? What did I learn? And that’s how I change it.

It might only be subtle changes or I might say, “No, I need to change the last three weeks of that eight-week block. It just didn’t work out for me. So, I just do that, cut and paste. Now, obviously, you’ve got to come up with the first programme, so that’s a bit harder. I just think of my fundamental movements or what I am going to do. So I work on my weeks and what sort of sets and repetitions and at what intensities I want my main movements and my second movements.

I do that for strength and power exercises and so forth, and any other things I need to put in. So the first programme is obviously the hardest. Like I said, then I cut, paste and look at it and check my notes. So the second, third year, it’s an easier process.

It is a reflective review of your own program and what have I learned in that last year to make this program for this stage of the season where is the general prep, specific prep, in-season, and so on.

How do I make it better than I did it last year? So it’s a more reflective review then. The first time is a lot harder. It takes a lot more time because you’re creating it from scratch.

Is strength & conditioning an art or a science

Christian: One thing that sparked my interest, you’re a man of science, you have a Ph.D. As coaches, we are kind of artists, so how do you see the profession of strength and conditioning? Is it science or is it art?

Dan: Yeah, It’s both. But even art is science. Everything comes down to science in the end. We might just not be able to explain the science right now, so we call it art. People say the art of communicating, but it’s science. It’s psychology and sociology that explain all of those things.

Everything comes down to science in the end. We might just not be able to explain the science right now, so we call it art.

I think Coach Bartholomew does a good job of explaining that. You call it an art, but it’s science. There’s data behind how we interact and all that stuff. So it is science, predominantly science. Probably there is an art to it that we might know the science of and that’s why we call it art of the person management, of developing group culture or individual culture or individual accountability, things like that.

So basically, it is the interaction of what we might call at this stage because we don’t all the science. It is an art in how we put things together. I think in a few more years or decades, it will be a lot more easily explained, the science of what we do. Right now, that’s a good program. I can’t explain exactly why, but it’s getting the result.

You look at programs in the 1950s or Bill Starr in the 1960s, five sets of five. You probably couldn’t understand the science of it. Now we can. Pretty good program works on a number of levels at this stage, we got different reasons, there is enough volume, and there is enough neural activation, and so forth.

You look at programs in the 1950s or Bill Starr in the 1960s, five sets of five. You probably couldn’t understand the science of it. Now we can.

Back then, it was just seen as an art of programming. We can work it out now, so it remains a science, but I do see the art of it. But as Brett says, “There’s science behind the art.” If you look at psychology, even other studies, it explains the art, that we might not be able to explain.

Dan’s interview nomination

Christian: Do you want to nominate someone to be interviewed?

Dan: I think a really good guy to interview in Australia is one of my former colleague who works at my club, called Andrew Crawl. He’s good because he’s worked in pro sports at my club and another club. He went up to the top competition, worked in the Olympic sport at the Queensland Academy of Sport.

He worked taekwondo, swimming, triathlon and all that, but what makes him good to be interviewed, he has a background as a triathlete. He’s done the Hawaiian Ironman, so he’s like slim triathlete type body shape, but he’s a strength conditioning coach.

And as we talked about, most strength conditioning coaches have a strength background, he’s the exact opposite body type, how we perceive. He’s this lean, aerobic machine, but he’s pretty good in the gym as well. He used to teach snatch technique, squat, everything. It’s perfect. He is an ASCA Level 3 coach. I think he is really good because he’s just different. His background comes from triathlon, but he’s worked in team sports. He’s really odd, because he is an Australian who doesn’t drink.

You might think, an Australian that doesn’t drink? What the hell’s going on there? I think he’s got this weird background. It’s totally different to the traditional strength & conditioning coach, which is always a former weightlifter or powerlifter, track and field athlete or someone from the power sport, like volleyball or rugby or something like that.

He has been working as a strength conditioning coach for the Australian triathlon team and then gets recruited into professional rugby. It’s just an interesting journey, interesting character. He’s not well known around the world. He’s too busy working as a strength conditioning coach. He’s a pretty interesting guy and obviously very intelligent. We worked together for a long time. So there’s a lot of interesting guys out there.

Christian: So before I let you off the hook, the person you just mentioned, how is he received by rugby players?

Dan: Oh they love him, because like he worked with me, so when he joined my club, someone recommended him. I worked with him in a second division team where the feeder team comes from my team of second division players. He was the strength conditioning coach for that feeder team and I had to go work with him in the afternoon.

Our second division players joined his team, so they would go and join him and they said, “This guy is a pretty good coach. We should get him in and work with our team, the real team, not the feeder team.” His job then was to come in and work in our pathway players from fifteen to nineteen.

Some of these guys, he went on a journey with them, so he started coaching them at fifteen. Three or four years later, some of the 19 or 20, they are in the professional first division team, not playing for us, but in the training squad. So he joins them in that pathway, he’s taken them over and so he’s training these guys from 15 or 16 and they love him. He’s taken them on a journey.

So he’s been there so long and been so successful and he’s got a big vibrant personality. You know he’s in the room. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t need a drink. He’s not one of these quiet retiring guys, sipping on a lemonade. He’ll be shouting and having fun. You might think he’s drunk. He’s got a big personality and the guys love him.

It’s a big personality and he’s a successful coach and he can get those players 100% and he’s got lots of skills. He is really good with injured players and rehabbing them and stuff like that. Looking after them, so great coach. We got a lot of great coaches in Australia. That’s one of our Level 3 coaches.

Another guy is Andrew Lallum who I coach when he was a lifter. He is a Level 3 coach and he was a powerlifter. He’s also now an assistant high jump and long jump coach. He’s like my height at 5″9″ or something. But he worked with the high jumpers and long jumpers as a strength conditioning coach, that the actual jumping coach said, “You’ve got to help me out on the track here, sometimes.”

He did so much work with the official jumping coach that he’s like the jumping coach right-hand man now as a jumping coach. I don’t think Andrew could jump over that f… coffee table. He represented Australia in powerlifting, but he could not make it in high jump. But a coach’s eye, if you know what you are looking for and has been trained at what to look for.

So he’d be good too because as an experienced strength conditioning coach, he worked in pro sports and in the academy and in the Olympic Sports now for 10 or 15 years.  These high jumpers are doing step up with 180 kilograms. I don’t know how to do a step up with like 60 kg, and I surely don’t know how to do it with 180 kg.

So he’s an interesting character too, He does drink though. I’ve known these two guys for a long time and I know Andrew for 25 years, so I used to coach him when he was a teenager, 18 or 19 so he’s a really good coach too. They’re both ASCA Level 3 coaches, master coaches. Top coaches, so either one of those would be pretty good. Both worked in pro sports, both worked in Olympic Sports, so either one is pretty good. Those would be two people that I know of. There’s a lot of good coaches that Australia people know of.

Christian: We have two, that’s good.

Where can you find Dan Baker

Christian: Where can people find you?

Dan: I’m all over the place. I do a lot of travel with education. I came into the Netherlands this week. Next week I’ll be in China. The week after that, I’ll be in Singapore. The week after that, I am in India, then I’m in Indonesia, then I’m in India again, then I’m in China, then I’m in Indonesia, then I’m in the Philippines, then I might be in France.

So I’m all over the place, so it’d be hard to find me. I have a website called Dan Baker Strength so you can go there and see some stuff. There are some free resources on there like, papers, videos on doing shit, doing stuff, but I’m all over the place.

Dan Baker’s social profiles

Instagram

Facebook

LinkedIn

Christian: It’s also worth noting that you do clinics worldwide, so people request those through your website.

Dan: Yes, if they want to do a workshop, I do workshops on using velocity-based training, resistance training, how to use bands and chains, maximum aerobic speed, long term planning of strength and power, periodization, what sets and reps work best for 15-year-olds, 18-year-olds, 20-year-olds, advanced athletes of different sports. We go through all that. So if they want to do a workshop or courses, like that with me, they can.

If they want to do an ASCA certification course, they should contact the ASCA, not me. ASCA does all that stuff. I just turn up and lecture. So it’s two different things. If you want a Dan Baker workshop, contact me. If you want ASCA certification, contact ASCA. I’m only the unpaid President. We have administrative staff who do administration stuff. Thank you very much mate, it was great.

Dan: Thank you. Thank you for the great questions.

Christian: Thank you for your time.

Dan: No worries

Christian: We are at the end of the day too here at the ASCA Level 2 and Dan has agreed to that interview too after a full day of lecturing.

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