‘If you are there for your athlete in the good times, as well as in the bad times, that builds trust and appreciation, because they know, that you will be there for the long haul.’ – Dr. Gill Myburgh Olympic S & C Coaches interviewed Episode 50

Dr. Gill Myburgh, left her home country to follow her dream to be part of the Olympic movement an train an Olympic squad. Fast forward 10 years, Gill holds a PhD in sports sciences, trained top 10 WTA tennis players, is the strength & conditioning coach for the British Federation’s Cup team, and has consulted to various sports organization, including the English Football Association.

In this interview Gill shares her journey into strength & conditioning, the unique challenges the sport of tennis brings for a strength & conditioning coach, her PhD and the practical implications of understanding growth and maturation, and how to choose the right strategies for the different maturation statuses.

Furthermore, we discuss

Part 2 of the interview with Dr. Gill Myburgh

Christian: Today I’m joined by Dr. Gill Myburgh. Gill is Strength and Conditioning Coach for the British Lawn Tennis Association and S & C Coach for the British Federation’s Cup team. She is currently working with Johanna Konta, whose highest WTA world-ranking is number 4. She has previously worked with Heather Watson, whose highest WTA world-ranking was also number 4, and has previously consulted to the English Football Association.

Gill has recently completed a PhD, where she examined growth and maturation in elite youth tennis players, she’s an Executive Member of the National Strength and Conditioning Associations LTAD [long term athlete development] Special Interest Group.

Welcome, Gill.

Gill: Thank you.

How she got into Strength & Conditioning 

Christian: Gill, what brought you into strength and conditioning?

Gill: I suppose like many people I was a failed sportsman. I grew up playing a number of sports such as football, cricket and hockey. I had aspirations of going on and playing on the international stage. For many reasons, I think, mostly because I just wasn’t good enough, I ended up pursuing a course in Human Movement Science while I was at the University of Pretoria [South Africa].

Actually, through that process, I learned to really enjoy the off court preparation of athletes. Fundamentally, through that journey, I decided to pursue a honours degree in what we call Bio-kinetics. This was looking at movement through exercise. The other component was working with elite sportsmen.

I ended up pursuing a course in Human Movement Science, and through that process, I learned to really enjoy the off court preparation of athletes.

I ended up at the High-Performance Centre in South Africa, where I learned my trade for three years. That’s how I started on this journey that then brought me over to the UK where I’ve been ever since.

Christian: What brought you to the UK?

Gill: Starting out in South Africa, I had worked with a number of our youth national squads, and the Olympics are such a big thing, and it was such a big dream of mine to be a part of that movement. So, I came over here with the idea in my head that I would work with an Olympic squad.

The Olympics are such a big thing, and it was such a big dream of mine to be a part of that movement. So, I came over here with the idea in my head that I would work with an Olympic squad.

If I look back now, it was incredibly naive and I don’t quite know what got in my head. But, funnily enough, I came over and was fortunate enough to get a job on a fast track practitioners’ program with the English Institute of Sport and they did start to learn how to work within these structures that provide support to Olympic athletes.

But funny enough after about 6 to 8 months, I applied for, and got the job at the Lawn Tennis Association. I started working there and that’s where I’ve been for the last 10 years now.

Why she decided to pursue a PhD next to her full-time job in high-performance sports 

Christian: You had a full-time job and then on top you wanted to pursue a PhD. Why did you make that decision?

Gill: I know it was silly, if I think back on it now. At the time, I was working on our youth development program. So our youth athletes came into our national age-group training camps and we would assess them, monitor, and provide feedback to the trainers in the regions.

But also, we would be benchmarking these players and fundamentally ring-fencing certain players to go on to get support in funding and access to coaching. I noticed that a lot of the players that we were ring-fencing, tended to be a lot larger than I am. This wasn’t very difficult because I’m not very big, but I noticed it tended to be a trend.

At the time, I felt this was quite bizarre because there were some smaller players, which I felt were quite skillful, but fundamentally weren’t quite getting onto those programs. I, at the time, didn’t fully understand it. So when speaking to my head of department he came up with the idea that I should go and investigate it.

I noticed that a lot of the players that we were ring-fencing, tended to be a lot larger than I am. I felt this was quite bizarre, because there were some smaller players, which I felt were quite skillful, but fundamentally weren’t quite getting onto those programs. At the time, I didn’t fully understand it, and wanted to investigate it.

That’s how my journey began. I started first on an MPhil and then I transferred over onto a PhD. Basically, I looked to investigate the effects of different rates of growth and different maturity rates on identification, selection and development of our elite players.

Her darkest moment

Christian: When you looked at your journey as an S & C coach, what was your darkest moment?

Gill: I don’t want to say there have been many, but one I can recall was quite early on my journey. It was with the young squad of players and one of them, a young girl, was very slight for age and picked up an overuse injury. At the time, I was given two weeks to rehabilitate her and get her back on the straight and narrow.

Fundamentally, the programs she was part of was a funded program. If she wasn’t participating, basically she would be sent back home. In hindsight, you can look at a number of things and say that two weeks for an overuse injury is probably a very acute time period in terms of turning around a rehabilitation or rehabilitating an athlete. Obviously, I didn’t quite make that checkmark. The player struggled on for a number of months with the injury and fundamentally lost her place on the program.

I was given two weeks to rehabilitate her, the programs she was part of was a funded program. If she wasn’t participating, basically she would be sent back home. I didn’t quite make that checkmark and she lost her place on the program.

To this day, it’s something that’s stuck with me, that the decisions I made in terms of, not only the training that I implemented, but how hard I fought for the athlete’s well-being as a whole fundamentally impacts certain athletes. This is in terms of whether they’re able to go on and make a career out of sports or whether they end up having to pursue other avenues.

Christian: How did you recover from that moment?

Gill: Learning from it, that’s so a cliché. But I think fundamentally, that’s formed a big part of how I coach, what I think is important and understanding the path or journey that an athlete needs to go on.

I also do my best to educate myself on injury incidence, timelines and factors at play that can influence an athlete’s recovery and rehabilitation.

I do my best to be an advocate for those athletes, coaches, boards and selection panels. I try to provide a fuller picture of the athlete and their potential versus currently where they sit from an injury perspective.

Her best moment

Christian: What’s your best moment?

Gill: There have, again, been quite a few. For me, the best moment I’ve had, or the best moment I enjoyed when coaching an athlete is, when the athletes completely trust in the program that I prescribed and the work that we, as a team, are doing.

The best moment, when coaching an athlete is, when the athletes completely trust in the program that I prescribed and the work that we, as a team, are doing.

Whatever journey or avenue we decide to take, we’ve taken it as a team and this complete belief in what we’re doing. I find that incredibly rewarding, whether a player goes on to achieve success in their chosen sport.

I find in tennis, it’s a multitude of factors that influence how an athlete does. So from my perspective, they can be best physically prepared, but fundamentally still lose the match. So to have an athlete’s trust and faith in the physical work that we’re doing that supports their program, for me, I find very rewarding.

Obviously, it is nice when they do go on and perform well. In my instance, it can be at the very elite level in Grand Slams. But it can also be at a 25k tournament if they end up getting to the final and winning it. So, it’s very rewarding when the whole package does come together.

Christian: So you see more reward in the process, than in the goals?

Gill: No, I don’t want to say that. But yes, I think because goals can change and athletes can win or lose and it can have nothing to do with the program you’re doing.

There are multiple factors that go into performance. So fundamentally what I can control, is the athletes physical base and are they best-prepared to perform. The difficulty with athletes, especially at the elite level, is getting their trust and their faith in the program.

A lot of them will turn around and want to go a different direction or feel like when they’re losing, that they need to reassess and change things. I’ve learned the biggest reward I have had is, when an athlete is actually not winning, but fundamentally still believes and trusts in the program that we’re doing.

How to get trust and buy-in from athletes

Christian: You mentioned that you worked with some top tennis players. I know from experience, they can sometimes be a bit special. So, what are your top tricks for aspiring S & C coaches to get trust and buy-in from athletes?

Gill: This may sound counter-intuitive, but honesty. I’ve worked with some of the top players, and I’ve seen a lot of people say a lot of things. A lot of players are used to it, that they’re in that environment where they get promised the world.

Somebody who can turn around and tell them that what they are doing may not be accurate. Or tell them that it might not be possible in a particular timeframe that they’re doing it in or that it’s possible, but not quite how they’re seeing it. That kind of honesty goes a long way in gaining an athletes trust.

Honesty goes a long way in gaining an athletes trust.

Don’t get me wrong, you’re going to lose some players on that journey. Some players aren’t going to appreciate the honesty and will want to hear what they want to hear. But you will work well with athletes that appreciate that. Fundamentally, for the athletes that don’t like that honest information, things will probably unravel further down the line anyway.

I think honesty is always a good approach. I think also having a genuine vested interest in the athletes and not in the performance. This is difficult, because obviously when you’re working with players at the elite end, it’s very nice to be part of a player who gets to semi-finals of a Grand Slam.

But likewise, like I’ve said, there’s just as much reward for your player going on and achieving their best performance in the Junior tournament or achieving a final of a 10k tournament. Fundamentally, that doesn’t change for me. I think players know that and they feel better if you’re actually invested in them versus their performance.

Have a genuine vested interest in the athletes, and not in the performance.

Christian: I can see that. I’ve also seen that often with athletes that once they are successful, they have many friends, but once they are not successful, then suddenly people disappear. Athletes do value, if you are around and you’re there for the person, regardless of the results.

Gill: Yes, and I think also it’s one of those things. If you’re there in the good times and the bad times and you stick around, that builds a certain level of trust and appreciation. That is where you can actually learn to change certain characteristics or attributes that you want to, because they know you’re going to be there for the long haul.

Her advice to a younger Gill Myburgh

Christian: If you could go back in time, 10, 15, maybe 20 years, what advice would you give a younger Gill?

Gill: I think when I started out, I was very concerned about appropriate prescription, making sure that my sets, reps and loads were correct, and that I had the ideal ratio of training to physical preparation.

The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve learned, that it’s a bit messier, and that you have to take into account the athletes’ individual circumstances, the factors around them and trying to do the best you can with the time you have available with the athlete in front of you.

So there’s been times when I’ve pushed through with a training session. In hindsight, I should have told the athlete to go home, rest, recover and then we’ll try again later or we’ll try again tomorrow. As I’ve said previously, I’ve learned that in a hard way.

I’ve also learnt it from a perspective of when I’ve done reassessments. I’ve learnt that if an athlete’s fatigued or is not present in the session, the gains that you make are also influenced by that. So it’s not only as rigid and structured as following the ideal plan. There is almost no such thing.

It’s not only as rigid and structured as following the ideal plan. There is almost no such thing.

Christian: Especially in the sport you’re working.

Gill: That is correct.

Her advice to young aspiring Strength & Conditioning coaches

Christian: What advice would you give young aspiring S & C coaches?

Gill: For me, when I started out, I would do anything, and I think that’s something I still encourage. I know there’s a big drive to make sure that young interns are paid appropriately and I think that is a hundred per cent correct. But I think you should be willing to pick up jobs that might not be in your framework.

When I started out, I would do anything, and that’s something I still encourage. You should be willing to pick up jobs that might not be in your framework.

I still carry water bottles, I get towels and I do a lot of work outside of what I would say is my remit, if you had to look at it on a piece of paper. I think, again, that goes to what is going to impact and influence performance and fundamentally gain the trust of your athletes. If that helps me get buy-in to the program that I want to do, I’m happy to do it.

Being willing to muck in and help out in the number of components and factors helps you develop a range of skills. It also helps you learn probably where your boundaries are and what you will do if you get in a position where you’re able to dictate a little bit more what you will and won’t do.

Christian: The most successful interns, let’s say, that have worked with you, what qualities did they have?

Gill: I think they work very hard and are very keen. The intern I enjoy working with the most is the individual who perhaps doesn’t know everything, but asks a lot of questions. I think that’s always pleasing, because they’re questioning my program or they’re questioning why I am implementing stuff. I really enjoy that. From my perspective I’m seeing somebody who’s asking why I decided to do something.

The intern I enjoy working with the most is the individual who perhaps doesn’t know everything, but asks a lot of questions.

Because that’s one thing, I’ve learned, when I’ve watched programs across a warm-up area. I’m looking at some of the work and thinking, that I have no idea why I’d do that a particular exercise now.

What I’ve learned is there’s generally a rationale for most trainers why they’re implementing something at a certain time period or prior to competition. I think the best interns I have worked with are very inquisitive.

Her coaching philosophy

Christian: What is your coaching philosophy?

Gill: I’ve probably spoken or touched on that a little throughout this podcast [interview]. For me, it is to be sure you understand the athlete as a whole.

Be sure you understand the athlete as a whole.

I have worked with a player who very rapidly went through the ranks. When I first started with her, she didn’t have many media commitments. We were playing on a different level of the tour and I had a lot of time to dictate when we trained and how we trained. The more successful she got the more pulls on her time, the more pressures, the more stressors that came along with it.

It was really understanding and going along on that journey with her that potentially, I couldn’t get my strength session at four o’clock on a Monday afternoon, because I had to accommodate a photoshoot.

I think it’s really understanding that the session doesn’t start and end when your session starts and ends. It’s their day and their day impacts their week, which impacts your loading, which impacts their ability to train and actually apply themselves in the sessions that you want.

I found that if you appropriately allow for that component, you’re able to gain certain time periods where your athlete is in the best place to push on and drive a program forward. But likewise there are time periods when you’re going to push through as well and I think it’s also knowing that balance. If you know your athletes and know fundamentally how they’re feeling and where they are, you’re able to judge that more appropriately.

Her core values 

Christian: What are your core values?

Gill: So again, honesty is right up there. I think integrity and I think probably a can-do attitude. I  feel very committed. I want to be part of any program that I work with a hundred percent and trying to immerse myself in all aspects of their program to again make sure that the athletes get the best out of it. I’m probably guilty of sometimes getting involved in a lot of things that I shouldn’t, but I want to understand the athlete as a whole.

I  feel very committed. I want to immerse myself in all aspects of their program to make sure that the athletes get the best out of it.

Christian: A question that pops up. Honesty can sometimes be a little bit of a balancing act and I envision situations, where you can be with your athlete and the athlete, is probably not in the best of his or her shape, and you know that. But sometimes it’s also about us empowering the athlete.

So, sometimes we have to bend honesty a little bit. How do you see that?

Gill:  Yes, you have to be honest, but you also have to be kind. How you deliver honesty is very important. So if an athlete is not in a good place, by telling them that they’re really unfit or that they haven’t done the work that’s required, I don’t think is going to empower them or motivate them to get better. In fact, for me, it probably will push them lower and then it becomes a very difficult job to get them out of it.

You have to be honest, but you also have to be kind. How you deliver honesty is very important.

It’s about empowering an athlete and fundamentally appealing to their nature, which 90% or I’d even say 100% of athletes I’ve worked with, are very competitive. They want to get better and want to improve. It is important then to challenge them in a really kind way, but still provide them with the information that you think is important to help them.

I think sometimes it’s also timing and when you deliver the information. It’s probably not the best time when they’ve just lost an important match to tell them straight off the bat that if they’d done the session or if they’d done more work, we wouldn’t be where we are. I think there’s also a time and a place in which you can have these discussions.

Then lastly, it really depends on the relationship you have with the athletes. When you’re starting out with an athlete, it’s important that you build the relationship of trust first. I think whilst I’d like to say I’m fairly honest, I also don’t go in brutally straight off the bat. I need to build a relationship with an athlete first, in which I can deliver information.

It’s important that you build the relationship of trust first, in which you can deliver information.

It also really depends on the individual themselves. So, when I’ve worked with some guys, I’m able to give information a little bit more bluntly and straight off the bat. Some guys I need to also temper the information and provide it to them that makes them feel good about themselves. Fundamentally, they understand the reasons behind why I think or where I think they need to improve.

The person that has influenced her most

Christian: Which person has influenced you most and why?

Gill: I thought a lot about this, since there’s a number of people on my journey, who’ve played a really big role. There’s been mentors, I’ve had a guy called Andy Hudson who really helped me, when I first came over, a really enjoyable guy.

But I think the person who’s played the biggest role in helping me form my philosophy and impacting how I train and coach is my husband. This sounds very clichéd, but he is now a retired, professional athlete. He played cricket for a living and what was really interesting is to have him come home and talk about the requirements placed on him from the support staff and the expectations.

The person who’s played the biggest role in helping me form my philosophy and impacting how I train and coach is my husband.

For me, then being on the outside looking in, I could say that some things really didn’t make sense. Or that I would like the information, but listening to him, I can fundamentally agree why this timing isn’t fantastic. I think that has really formed my philosophy, in terms of how you should deal with an athlete. You have to ensure that you think about their home and background environment, what they’ve got going on in their lives as well, versus just your training session and stimulus.

Christian: That’s interesting because you get to see it from the different perspective.

Gill: I had a different perspective and I actually had an athlete who was training at a very competitive level. It was very interesting, because if I think of how many times I ask for information and want to tick a box and want to do a test to make sure that my program is working well.

Then realizing that perhaps timing-wise or the time schedule does really impact that individual from a whole. I think that really helped me form my philosophy in terms of how I work with my athletes.

How to manage expectations

Christian: Very often we deal with individuals and they have their own expectations and sometimes we need to manage expectations. The question I have when the expectation of the individual is different from what you think should be done, how do you manage that? How do you try to persuade?

Gill: I’ve learned that when somebody is very set on a certain course of action, there’s probably very little you can do to change their mind. In some instances, the more you try and change the mind, the more they will be steadfast in their approach that they want to pursue a certain course of action.

When somebody is very set on a certain course of action, there’s probably very little you can do to change their mind. In some instances, the more you try and change the mind, the more they will be steadfast they want to pursue a certain course of action.

I found information is a big, big help. So I will provide all the information. I will explain my rationale for why I think a different course of action needs to be followed. I will also look to discuss with other support staff and get their viewpoints if it’s appropriate and help and get a team involved, in terms of if we feel that this is the right course of action.

What I’m talking about is anything that’s not going to cause injury or illness. So if I feel that it’s definitely going to lead to the pathway of an injured player or that they will get ill as a result, I think I will take a stronger approach. But I’ve learned why in the sport I work in, it is up to the athlete to make the final decision.

So I think what I do is, try and provide them with all the information from the right individuals to make an educated decision. Then I have to let it go and then whatever decision they make, even if it’s different to mine. What I’ve also learnt is sometimes the decision that I felt was so inherently incorrect turned out to be okay.

What I do is, try and provide them with all the information from the right individuals to make an educated decision. Then I have to let it go.

So you don’t quite know where it’s going to end up sometimes, based on what they want to do. Sometimes it’s not quite as bad as what you envision, or actually it works out to be the opposite and you have to admit that you had that one wrong.

I also realized that my opinion is just that. It’s just an opinion and I am one of a multitude of people who is offering opinion in that space. So it’s just providing the information, making sure I know exactly what it is so I’m clued up on all courses of action. Then I put it in front of the athletes and help them make the decision.

How to deal with decision you don’t agree with

Christian: That leads perfectly into the next one. You mentioned the support staff. So in a team of support staff, we all wear our own hat, so everyone looks through its own eyes. If there’s disagreement on a course of action, how do you deal with that?

Gill: Sometimes it depends, I think I have to defer to a medical professional, because they know a little bit more about certain injuries and recovery rates than I do. Once again, it’s making sure that all components of the sports team are aware of the reasons why a certain course of treatment is being pursued or a certain action is being included.

What I’ve learned is, that communication is king and a lot of times the message is probably very similar. But fundamentally, somewhere along the line, the communication between certain parties is broken down. They might not have a full picture or they might not fully understand why something’s happened.

Communication is king. A lot of times the message is probably very similar, but somewhere along the line, the communication between certain parties is broken down.

From my perspective, I’ve had to work really hard on that, and I’ve had a lot of individuals help me and pull me up to provide information when I requested it, and to make sure that I am best informed. But I think it comes down to regular and consistent communication.

I think there needs to be a leader from the sports team. So how we function within the unit I work, is you’ve got a Case Manager who manages input to the player. There tend to be a lot of voices in the air and it’s about making sure that you manage the information that goes to the athletes. If they get conflicting information from different support staff, that can be very confusing.

Again, that can delay treatment or delay action because your athlete is unsure why they’re getting from their support staff, two very conflicting viewpoints. So, I think it’s making sure that you have somebody who manages the information to the athlete, manages what is communicated and when and make sure there’s an agreement amongst all parties.

There tend to be a lot of voices in the air and it’s about making sure that you manage the information that goes to the athletes. If the athlete gets conflicting information from different support staff, that can be very confusing.

There could be individuals that disagree on the course of action, but fundamentally, they get on the boat and they get on board. So the information that’s communicated is the same from all support staff.

The role of a case manager in a team of support staff

Christian: How does it work with the Case Manager? Is it someone from the support staff or is it someone external?

If we think about the ‘athlete-centered, coaches driven’ approach, where does the Case Manager sit?

Gill: In my instance, I’ve fulfilled that role with the athlete that I work with. But it can be,  anybody that’s part of the support team or support structure. What’s most important for me with the Case Manager is, that they have constant communication with the player and regular interaction.

What’s most important with the Case Manager is, that they have constant communication with the player and regular interaction.

If you have somebody who is case managing, but their face time is maybe once a month or once every two months, the efficacy of the information becomes less. You’ll need to have somebody who’s got constant and regular access. In my instance, I had daily access with the player that I work with, so it made more sense for me to be channeling the information.

Also, some of our support staff are not directly involved or have one-on-one with the athlete that I work with. They have a number of players that they work with. It was to make sure that they received the information and timelessly get the information when they want to. Also, it allowed my practitioners or the other practitioners to make sure they can balance their load. They’re not on call and on-demand. So it just made sense from their perspective.

It can be anybody, but I think it needs to be somebody that has regular consistent access with the athletes and somebody that is very in-house in a team.

A typical day in the life of a tennis strength & conditioning coach

Christian: How does a typical training day in a life of an S & C coach in tennis look like?

Gill: I can honestly say that there is no typical S &C day. What I’ve learned is, it depends if we’re talking travelling on the road or we’re talking at-home training.

I can honestly say that there is no typical S &C day.

If you are at home training, you’re probably looking at getting at least one or two tennis sessions a day. And there’ll be a couple of warm-ups prior to that. There’ll be at least a physical session a day. Some days you might have a lighter day, which involves recovery, but there’ll genuinely be at least one or two warm-ups and a recovery and that would probably be your standard day.

Then on the road it can really be anything, because you’re at the whim of scheduling, you’re at the whim of weather, transport, access to facilities and so fundamentally that brings a whole new ball game to it. It’s making sure that you’re able to get the work done that you need to, based around the restraints that you have, even if it’s equipment.

You might not have access to a fully-fledged gym or you might not have access to one close by. The gym you have access to is a 45-minute drive away. So it’s making sure you accommodate and account for those factors when you’re in the environment.

So generally, when I go into any week, I do a Reiki. I’ve gone to a number of weeks repeated times and it’s making sure the first day I spend talking to the organizers, finding out where the facilities are, what we have access to and what I can do that I need to work with my player, because I’ve also learned that although the one year the official gym might be based at this gym, the next year they could have a different vendor that’s providing that service and it’s based across town.

It’s making sure that the first day of my week whenever I travel anywhere, I understand where my things are, what I need to get the job done and then I try and work the best I can around weather and scheduling.

How to design a training program

Christian: How do you design a training program step by step?

Gill: Again this is a little bit of a challenge in the sport I work with, because the offseason, although it’s not the shortest in any sport, tennis has a fairly long competitive season.

Tennis players can travel up to 40 weeks a year, which leaves very little time for physical development and recovery. I generally start with the big training block, which tends to be at the end of the year and that is designated 5 to 6 week block.

This is a challenge in the sport I work with, tennis players can travel up to 40 weeks a year, which leaves very little time for physical development and recovery.

Then I look to try and push a lot of the physical development or baseline values that I want. I work together with a coach in identifying attributes that they want the player to be able to cope with on the court, and that will be my first big-block. Then there will be potentially a few weeks post-Australian Open prior to ‘clay-court’ season which I can ring-fence.

Again, there might be another a couple of weeks post the ‘grass-court’ tournaments, after Wimbledon prior to the hardcourt swing, then I’ll definitely get in the diary. Then I tend to look at the competition’s schedule. If I’m lucky enough and I’m very fortunate to work with a player who has the ability to really identify her tournament structure fairly early on, but then she’s also very diligent in adhering to her schedule, so I don’t have too many changes throughout the year.

So once she’s identified what she’s playing, although there might be variation due to injury or illness or in terms of ranking, whether she needs to play an extra tournament or remove one from the schedule, I know what my tournament schedule is going to look like for the year. Then I try and put together pockets of time where I know I can potentially add another couple of training weeks.

Then from that, I try and link up my blocks from a priority perspective. The athlete I work with, we train through the off-season, because I’ve had a number of years working with her. We’ve learned the hard way that to take the full 3 weeks off means that my first 10 days or 2 weeks, she’s either very sore or I have to really temper the load that I’m doing.

If she does the minimum kind of work throughout that time period, it just means I start from a better place, because she has to actually get through a large volume of work in 5 to 6 weeks. It allows her to feel better in the beginning weeks, but it also allows me to start from a better place.

Whatever key areas we’re identifying in the testing, as well as in discussion with a coach and support team, because there will also be requirements from a physio perspective or from the doctor, that there are potential areas of interest that we need to explore and we try and then build on that. That becomes the main priority for the 5 to 6 weeks.

We maintain it until the end of the Australian Open, which is a 6-week time period and then we look to reassess and reevaluate and constantly try and push forward those priorities that we’ve identified. We also make sure that we maintain the values that are our baseline and which have got us in a position to perform. We reassess and redo it.

So what I’ve tried to do, is every time she’s back in the building, we reassess those key attributes. If we’re ticking the box there, we look to push on. If we’ve kind of regressed, we look to spend a bit more time on those areas. Then, because I’ve been lucky enough to work with an athlete for now, going on 5 years, every year I try and build on the platform.

So we’ve had a master plan so to speak, in terms of the approach that we look to take with this. That’s been a long-term view and I started with telling her that this is step one and that this is a year-long focus area for us. Then I outlined for year two and three, that this is where we want to go and this is what we want to explore. If I’ve learned anything, because of the high competition’s schedule is that you do need to temper your expectations on what is achievable from a physical perspective.

If I’ve learned anything, because of the high competition’s schedule is, that you do need to temper your expectations on what is achievable from a physical perspective.

Often, if I’m able to maintain values throughout the competitive year, especially into the back of the year, I’m very happy because you tend to get a dip, if they’re not maintaining those values throughout the year.

The implications of her PhD, where she looked at the effects of growth and maturation in elite tennis players for the training practice

Christian: I’d like to talk about your PhD. You’ve recently completed your PhD and you looked at the effects of growth and maturation in elite tennis players. So can you talk us through what you did and what is the implication for the practice?

Gill: We did a couple of things. Initially, we wanted to determine whether we were selecting our players based on difference in maturity. For those that are listening [/reading], I’m not sure if they’re aware, but you get players who proceed bang on standard and we call those on time maturers or average maturers.

They go through peak height velocity at the age of 12 for girls, and at the age of 14 for boys. Then there peak in muscle mass development, 6 to 9 months later for girls and the boys tend to have this accelerated muscle mass development post-peak height velocity.

Then there are those that are ahead or behind. For those that are ahead, PHV occurs slightly earlier. So for girls, they can go into puberty as young as 10 or 11 years and start to experience a progressive increase in height and then a progressive increase in weight. For boys again, this can happen up to a year to two years’ prior, hence at the age of 12 or 14 years, depending on how advanced they are.

And then for the ones that are delayed in their development, the late maturers, everything I have just outlined happens later.

But because of these differences at a time period when we were selecting individuals into high-performance programs, these differences have a physical impact on their development. So boys tend to, regardless of the training that they’re experiencing, once they go through puberty, go through peak height velocity, along with the injection of hormonal infused, predominantly testosterone. They pick up bigger muscle mass, they become stronger, faster and more powerful.

So you can imagine that those that go through that earlier, look a lot more like the finished article at a younger age. From a perspective of identifying talent, I’m looking at a young boy who’s maybe 12 or 13 years old, who looks almost like a man and I’m thinking that if he looks like that now, I can only imagine what he’s going to be like in 5 to 6 years. I envision that he’s going to be a beast.

But fundamentally, it doesn’t work like that, because those early maturers, have just gone through their growth spurt earlier and they peter out. So although they get a higher peak and they get a great muscle mass, they also then slowdown in growth.

But these late maturers who we’ve managed to maintain in the systems, if we protected them and they’ve managed to, by developing a host of other skills, stay in the system, when they go through the peak height velocity and develop the same physical attributes, they tend to come out later, with a greater host of skills.

They tend to not only then be physically strong, powerful and fast, but they tend to have greater tactical awareness and they tend to have better mental capacity, because they’ve had to go through an incredibly tough time to stay within the system.

So my approach was first identifying, whether we select players who tend to be further along in the maturation, than those who are delayed.

We found that we did and then it was first of all, deciding how we evaluate these players. But then, also what we do about leveling the playing field, to make sure that we gain players within our system who are best prepared to perform at the elite level when they get there.

I don’t need a junior to perform extremely well in the Under-16 category, but much rather I want them to be an incredibly good senior player, because the whole point of junior development is exactly that. It’s development and you’re going to win and you’re going to lose.

You’re going to get some precocious talents, like your Federer’s or your Belinda Bencic. She was an incredibly, precocious junior that performed really well at 16 years, and wasn’t really playing on the senior WTA tour, but that isn’t the case for everyone.

What we want to do is make sure that we include the right people in our selection protocols. Also whatever players we sit with, we develop them on multiple arrays of attributes versus just prioritize their strengths. So I think it had a two-pronged approach. It was not only about identifying the right players. It was also making sure that we do choose early developers and that’s perfectly fine.

We also had to make sure that when they’re 16 or 17 years, they’re not just relying on their physical attributes. We have made sure that we’ve developed their tactical awareness, that we’ve developed their skills and other attributes so that they aren’t exclusively reliant on that one skill. My research was not only about the development of athletes and all the selection, but also then how we develop different types of athletes of different maturity levels.

My research was not only about the development of athletes and all the selection, but also then how we develop different types of athletes of different maturity levels.

How to assess the rate of maturation in young athletes

Christian: How do you assess the rate of maturation or where they are?

Gill: The best method, as it covers the entire period of growth is skeletal hand x-rays and they usually take the skeletal hand x-ray of the left-hand wrist.

However, this tends to be very expensive. Individuals do need to undergo a small dose of radiation, which a lot of parents aren’t particularly happy with. It is negligible, it has no impact on the health, but understandably, it’s not for any medical reasons, so they tend to be more cautious in allowing this.

There’s a number of non-invasive measures that we can use. Now, the most common one that most people will have heard of is the Mirwald method. However, there’s a number of research papers that have recently come out. There’s one last year by Malina and Koziol, who discussed the limitations around this method, and the fact that it tends to class majority of people as on time and then it tends to over predict those who are going to experience peak height velocity early and under-predict the late maturers when they experience the peak height velocity.

So we’ve implemented a method by Comes Roche and it requires parental heights, the age, date of birth, as well as height and weight of the individual concerned. From that, you’re able to get their predicted adult height and from that you are able to calculate where they are, and how much of percentage of the adult height they’ve attained.

By that calculation, we’re then able to determine, first of all, where they are in their growth cycle, because we know that peak height velocity occurs, according to the latest research  around 90 to 91% of adult height.

Therefore we know, that if a player is around 87%, that they’re pre or they’re starting to enter into that period of accelerated growth and we also know that if a player is 94 or 95%, they will generally be post.

There’s always exceptions to the rule, but if I’m talking from a general perspective that we know where the player is on their pathway and that allows us to tailor our training stimulus. It also allows us to determine where they are in terms of if they’re struggling with certain components or if they need certain input.

From a general perspective that we know where the player is on their pathway and that allows us to tailor our training stimulus.

For some individuals, who go through peak height velocity, they develop a period of awkwardness, the loss of coordination, and that tends to happen, in around 25% of the population. Consequently, if we were able to match up the fact that there is a loss of coordination and we’re looking at their growth curves, they are most likely in a period of accelerated growth.

We could put the two together and put strategies in place to account for that. Also when kids are going through a period of accelerated growth, they tend to be more at risk for injuries. There’s a lot of research coming out now, that talks about how to protect an athlete through this time period.

The most difficult thing to manage is with those who are late in maturation, they tend to experience their accelerated period of growth around potentially 15 or 16 years of age, if they’re a boy. It is at the time period when most development programs increase their volume or when they require greater demand from that athlete.

Then it’s about educating coaches and practitioners that actually, during this time period, you probably need to focus more on skill development and actually allow them to literally grow first, prior to loading them up.

There are certain nuances to how you then develop the athlete based on where they sit within their growth curve, and this is the real exciting part. There is a number of strategies coming out now. There’s one, in particular, that’s gaining traction, particular in football called bio-banding, where they’re grouping players according to their percentage of adult height attained and from that perspective, they’re trying to match players who are more likely of the same maturity status.

Bio-banding groups players according to their percentage of adult height attained and from that perspective, they’re trying to match players who are more likely of the same maturity status.

Then you don’t get the big guy pushing the little guy over. You get the big guy playing against another big guy and generally, also then the smaller or less mature players playing against similar peers and as a result they’re able to showcase their skills better, which from a scouting perspective allows them or coaches to actually see their value within the team.

Christian: And less players get lost in the process.

Gill: Well, that’s the hope. I think with anything, there’s the hope and then there’s the reality. I think they’ve started it. It appears to have gained popularity. What is very pleasing is the athletes involved are much more aware of where they sit within the growth curve.

I think alongside any program that you implement, it’s making sure that the athletes themselves are aware of where they sit, because if an early maturer understands that their physical capabilities are potentially transient, they might be more inclined to work on developing their tactical ability. For example, they know that now if they serve the ball they may hit maybe one shot and win the point, but they’re not going to be able to do it forever.

It’s likewise, it’s almost encouraging for the late maturer thinking that they’re now getting pushed up the ball. But you will learn certain attributes in terms of how to counter that and if you’re able to stay with it long enough, you potentially could match these players physically.

So I think there’s a whole range of avenues that we can explore, based on the information that’s coming out now in terms of talent identification, but also how we develop youth players.

I was recently at a conference and spoke to one of the Sport Science individuals at Ajax [Amsterdam Football Club] and their system tailors perfectly to players of different maturity.

It’s probably one of the reasons why they have such a high success rate of the youth football players going on to actually gain success on the senior stage.

Her interview nomination

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

Gill: Yes, I do. I’ve come up through a Centre in South Africa, High-Performance Center and one of the individuals that I worked alongside there, who’s now the Head of the Sports Science is Shona Hendricks, and I’d like to nominate her.

I think working within the African system provides unique challenges in the area of sport and she’d probably be best placed to provide a different perspective in terms of how to train and develop youth athletes.

Christian: Oh that’s cool.

Where can you find Gill Myburgh

Christian: Where can people find more about you?

Gill: So I am on Twitter, so they can probably find me at my handle at gmybs, if they’re looking for me. You all drop me an email as well. I can provide the details to you and they can get in touch if they want any information on anything I’ve discussed.

Gill Myburgh’s social profiles

Twitter

LinkedIn

Christian: Thanks a lot. That was really good.

Gill: Thanks Christian.

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