‘My job is to help express the athlete’s ability come game day.’ Dr. Nic Gill All Blacks S & C Coach – Olympic S & C Coaches interviewed Episode 53

Christian: Today I’m joined by Dr. Nicholas Gill, who was nominated by Andrew Keene. Nic is the Head of Strength and Conditioning of the All Blacks since 2008 and he is an Associate Professor in Human Performance at the University at Waikato.

His most notable successes as a Strength & Conditioning Coach include two Rugby World Cup wins with the All Blacks. Hopefully, he is on the way to the third one. [The time of the interview was before the Rugby 2019 World Cup].

Nic supported the New Zealand Track Cycling Team Pursuit towards the Rio 2016 Olympics and supported New Zealand Rowing over two Olympic cycles.

And last but not least, Nic has recently published a book, Over Nutrition and Lifestyle.

Welcome Nic.

Dr. Nicholas Gill: Hello, how are you?

Christian: I’m good. Nic, I heard you also grow the best avocados in the Southern Hemisphere.

Dr. Nicholas Gill: Oh, absolutely. Big, fat, beautiful tasting New Zealand avocados.

Christian: That’s great. Nic, when I spoke to Andrew Keene he mentioned that the All Blacks had a terrible loss in 2007 and they have revamped the whole system. Considering you started 2008, have you been part of that new system?

Dr. Nicholas Gill: Obviously yes. Very much so. They got knocked out of the quarterfinal in the World Cup in 2007 and I was lucky enough to get involved in 2008. We changed a bit and we keep changing things as you’d expect. This is my 12th year of been involved.

How he got into Strength & Conditioning

Christian: What brought you into strength and conditioning?

Dr. Nicholas Gill: I was a competitive athlete. I loved cycling, triathlon and rugby. I played rugby, but I suppose I came to the realization I wasn’t going to make it to the Olympics or to a World Championships or anything like that. So I thought the next best thing was to be involved as a coach.

I came to the realization I wasn’t going to make it to the Olympics or to a World Championships. So I thought the next best thing was to be involved as a coach.

That’s really what got me started when I realized I didn’t have the athletic potential to maybe achieve what I wanted to. I just wanted to go to the Olympics, and so that’s what got me into strength and conditioning.

Why he completed his PhD before he moved into Strength and Conditioning

Christian: I saw that you finished your education first, including completion of the PhD before you moved into strength and conditioning. Is that correct?

Dr. Nicholas Gill: Yes, I finished my Bachelor degree and I didn’t really feel like I knew enough. I didn’t feel I could go out and be a Strength and Conditioning coach or a Physiologist because I really didn’t feel like I had the knowledge. I definitely didn’t have any experience.

I didn’t feel I could go out and be a Strength and Conditioning coach or a Physiologist because I really didn’t feel like I had the knowledge.

So I carried on studying. I did my PhD and during that time, got some experience coaching people. So I was sort of at University for about nine years, learning but also gaining experience coaching.

Also check out the interview with Olympic S & C Coach Dr. Gill Myburgh how she wanted to learn more and ended up completing a Ph.D.

How he got involved with the All Blacks 

Christian: You were Assistant Coach for the All Blacks in 2004 and then you moved on to become the Head of Strength and Conditioning. How was that?

Dr. Nicholas Gill: In 2004, I was involved as Assistant S & C Coach for the All Blacks, but I left.

I was involved as Assistant S & C Coach for the All Blacks, but I left.

My reason for leaving was, that I was having a young family and it was just a bit hard spending too much time away. Then I came back at a later point, I got in charge of the strength & conditioning and I haven’t looked back.

His darkest moment

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

Dr. Nicholas Gill: I suppose the dark moments for me is when an athlete is injured in one of my sessions. So that’s probably a bad situation for any S & C Coach, because we’re there to help athletes achieve their potential. And when we involved and them getting hurt, that’s a dark moment for me.

I feel like I missed something and created an issue for an athlete because that’s essentially not doing what I’m striving to do. I’ve had a few of those in my career and they are always a dark, sad time and you’ve sort of got to move on and learn from it and try and ensure it doesn’t happen again.

As a S & C Coach we’re there to help athletes achieve their potential, when an athlete is injured in one of my sessions, I feel like I missed something, because that’s essentially not doing what I’m striving to do.

Christian: How do you bounce back from these moments?

Dr. Nicholas Gill: For me, I review what’s happened and whether I could have done anything differently or if the athlete could have done anything differently. I take the learnings out of that experience and you can’t dwell on it too long.

You’ve got another thirty-odd athlete to work with. I’ll lock myself away in my room for a couple of hours and beat myself up a bit. I’ll come out and I’ll just move on and you just have to get back into it, which is about being positive and energized and being supportive of the athlete.

His best moment 

Christian: What was your best moment as an S & C Coach?

Dr. Nicholas Gill: I just like being part of a group of men that are striving for success every day. So, my best moments are when the team performs as a unit. For us, it’s not always about winning, it’s about performing. And I just love any time that we put a performance out in the park that makes us all proud to be part of.

For us, it’s not always about winning, it’s about performing. And I just love any time that we put a performance out in the park that makes us all proud to be part of.

So we have lots of those moments and I can’t really separate any moment in particular, although, the last World Cup {2015] when we won the final was pretty special. We had six or seven guys that it was their last game for the All Blacks and we won.

We won in style and it was pretty emotional too, I suppose, not only win the World Cup, but do it with a group of men that had put so much into the team and were leaving. So yes, it’s pretty hard to isolate one moment, but the 2015 World Cup was pretty special.

Christian: And to the best of my knowledge, that hasn’t happened before that a rugby team won back-to-back the World Cup, right?

Dr. Nicholas Gill: No. I don’t think a team has won back to back nor won overseas neither. Normally for some reason, the host team do pretty well, but yes, we were the first to go back-to-back.

Christian: Really cool.

His advice to a younger Nic Gill 

Christian: Really cool. If you could travel back in time 10, 15 or maybe 20 years, what advice would you give a younger Nic?

Dr. Nicholas Gill: Relax a little bit more. I suppose for me, I feel like I’m only just starting to  relax and enjoy what I do. When I was younger, I was very high strung and stressed about making sure everything was perfect.

Relax and be yourself and enjoy every moment because one day you won’t be there doing that anymore.

When you realize that nothing’s perfect, you have to adapt and adjust to what happens on a day to day basis and just take it in your strides. Probably the biggest piece of advice I’d give my younger self is to just relax and be yourself and enjoy every moment because one day you won’t be there doing that anymore. So that would probably be it.

His advice to young and aspiring Strength & Conditioning Coaches 

Christian: What advice would you give young aspiring S and C Coaches?

Dr. Nicholas Gill: Know your athletes, simple. Just get to know your athletes as people. Everyone’s and every athlete’s different. It’s not just about numbers and reps and sets. Every athlete has a partner, a child, some issues, anxieties and stressors.

Know your athletes, get to know your athletes as people.

Understanding those things and trying to get to know the athletes will get them to trust you, believe in you and come to you for help. Probably the most important thing is to know your athletes. It’s not about the bit of paper, it’s not about the program, it’s about the athlete.

Christian: For interns that want to go to the All Blacks or want to become All Blacks S and C Coaches, what qualities would you like to see?

Dr. Nicholas Gill: We don’t have interns, but the unfortunate thing with strength and conditioning is, that experience is very important and it’s hard to get experience. It’s probably the same as any job. As a young S and C Coach people will say that they can’t have them involved because they’ve got no experience.

So my advice to young S and C Coaches is to go and get to know and meet people. You should find some mentors or some people that you can have a cup of coffee with. You can also learn from putting yourself in lots of different situations, whether that’s observing sessions or talking to people about philosophies, watching training sessions, and things like this.

The unfortunate thing with strength and conditioning is, that experience is very important and it’s hard to get experience. So my advice to young S & C Coaches is to go and get to know and meet people.

But the most important thing when it comes to getting a job is that people know who you are. It doesn’t happen by sending a CV that has a beautiful color and having some nice qualifications. People need to know of you and have bounced into you or bump into you at some point because you’ve been proactive and making connections.

His coaching philosophy 

Christian: What is your coaching philosophy as a strength and conditioning coach or as a coach in general?

Dr. Nicholas Gill: For me, it’s a matter of trying to find a balance. At the end of the day, my job is to help the athlete express themselves come game day. So there’s a fine balance between physical work and getting stronger and fitter and faster and being recovered enough to be able to express yourself.

My job is to help the athlete express themselves come game day.

Therefore my philosophy is around balance between working, playing and recovery. What I mean by playing is having fun. Most athletes need to have an enjoyment factor. Some athletes’ enjoyment is about hitting certain times on the track and for other athletes it’s about lifting certain numbers in the gym.

That’s where knowing your athlete becomes really, really important. But that’s probably my philosophy to have a well-played, well-structured programs to allow the athletes to express themselves and enjoy doing it.

His core values  

Christian: What are your core values?

Dr. Nicholas Gill:  Honesty and trust is important, communication is vital and being very organized and professional in how you deal with your athletes and your coaches.

Honesty and trust is important, communication is vital and being very organized and professional in how you deal with your athletes and your coaches.

It doesn’t mean you can’t have fun, joke around and be the idiot at times but they’re probably the key things that help me do what I do.

The person that has influenced him most  

Christian: Which person has influenced you most and why?

Dr. Nicholas Gill: There’s some deep questions here.

Christian: We want to get to know Nic Gill.

Dr. Nicholas Gill: I suppose the people that influence me most are my athletes to be fair. I think about people that I’ve met as S & C Coaches or Performance Coaches and there are some amazing people that I’ve rubbed shoulders with. I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of people in great positions that have got amazing careers and are doing very, very well.

The people that influence me most are my athletes.

But I think I learned the most from my athletes by the questions they ask me, the questions I ask them and the observations I make, the way they are moving, and just dealing with the athletes and the coaches day to day.

You learn a lot from working with these guys’ day to day, especially in a situation like a World Cup where you’re together for two months stay, every single day living in a hotel. We’re together all the time. So yes, the athletes are probably who I learn most from.

How to manage expectations  

Christian: And talking about athletes, sometimes as S and C Coaches we face that athletes have expectations. Sometimes these expectations and ideas are different from our ideas. How do you influence change? How do you convince and how do you get your point across?

Dr. Nicholas Gill: Yes, that’s a really good question because it is a problem I suppose that pops up all the time. Something that I used to struggle with was athletes not necessarily buying into where I was trying to take them.

Something that I used to struggle with was athletes not necessarily buying into where I was trying to take them.

I feel like now, I’ve been doing this for a while with this group, I feel like there’s more of a collaboration with regards to where we’re trying to go versus me telling them. I’ve got my ideas, they trust me and if they’ve got some ideas we discuss them and make sure that there are some logics and common sense, when we discuss.

We’ll come up with the decision and the direction together. So it’s not butting heads, it’s not disagreeing and it’s not sneaking off to do it anyway. We discuss our ideas and our directions and where we’re at.

This is where knowing your athletes is important because if you get some good discussion going on and then they know that you’re listening, they’ll come to you more often. All of a sudden, you’ve got this collaboration through a path or so.

It doesn’t mean they can do what they want. It just means that they get an opportunity to voice their ideas and I get my opportunity to voice my ideas and then we end up coming up with a solution. Then we’re both, I suppose, excited about it. Yes, that’s probably that the way that I deal with it.

How to deal with decisions you don’t agree with  

Christian: And in a team of coaches and support staff, where everyone wears his own hat and has his own ideas, priorities, looks through his own goggles. If disagreement comes up, how do you deal with that?

Dr. Nicholas Gill: Again, just the same. You have to have robust and honest conversations. Everyone’s got different ideas and our management team, has some very, very, very strong personalities and everyone’s very, very experienced.

 You have to have robust and honest conversations.

Some of our coaches have been to five World Cups and some of our support staff have been to four World Cups, so there’s some amazing experience and some smart, smart minds. It doesn’t mean that someone that’s new to the group can’t have their own ideas as well. But we basically have to leverage off experience and knowledge within the group.

We have to leverage off experience and knowledge within the group.

You have to drop your ego at the door and have open discussions that are honest. Then if you have to debate, not argue, and discuss things, we do that. And once we’ve come to the conclusion or an agreement, everyone commits to it. There’s no second-guessing it. “This is what we’ve decided, let’s do it.” That’s how we do it.

The All Blacks ‘no dickhead’ policy  

Christian: I guess most people know who the All Blacks are, also know the culture of the team and it seems like they are famous for ‘the team is bigger than the individual’, so it’s decoupled from the individual athlete.

I also read that there is a ‘no dickhead’ policy. when it comes to people selecting athletes. How does that playout for the support staff? Is there also some code of conduct?

Dr. Nicholas Gill: The ‘no dickhead’ policy applies to the whole team for sure. Yes, I think you would have heard this phrase before, ‘you’ve got to have the right people in the right seats on the bus’. So any team or any performance is about people.

You have to have the right people, whether that’s in your team of athletes or in your support staff and management team.

Any team or any performance is about people. You have to have the right people, whether that’s in your team of athletes or in your support staff and management team.

If you’re not the right person for the job, then you don’t last long and you’re gone. So it’s all about people. It’s not about anything else than the people on the bus.

A typical day in the life of the All Blacks S & C Coach 

Christian: How does a typical day in the life of an All Blacks S and C Coach look like?

Dr. Nicholas Gill: I’ll get up and exercise for an hour. Then I would get a quick smoothie and get to the training field to set up. I start training about 6:00 am and get to the training field about 7:30 am. By the time we set up and start training, and we’ll be on the grass with the team for four to five hours.

I come home for a late lunch and a nap, and then I’m off to the gym. I might be at the gym for about three hours with the team. Not all the players are there for three hours, but by the time I set up the gym and players come through and I pack up the gym, that will take me through about 5:30 pm.

Then we’ll have a coach’s meeting to discuss the next day. I’ll do an hour or two work and then I’ll be beat. So pretty much I am at the training field for four to five hours and at a gym for two to three hours and it’s the day.

I am at the training field for 4 to 5 hours, and at a gym for 2 to 3 hours.

And then you rinse and repeat to do it again the next day. That’s sort of a typical day. We obviously have some days off through our week, but yes, three days out of five, we’re following that sort of routine.

The strength & conditioning structure at the All Blacks  

Christian: And considering you’re the Head of strength and conditioning for the All Blacks, how many other S and C Coaches are there? What’s the structure like?

Dr. Nicholas Gill: I’ve got a part-time assistant. So Kim Simperingham is my assistant at the moment. He assembles with us when we travel, but when we’re not away, he has another job. So it’s really just me for 12 months a year and then when we have a competition like this, I have an assistant.

Christian: And how do you distribute tasks? Is everything in your control and the assistant carries it out or you give responsibilities away?

Dr. Nicholas Gill: I am a bit of a control freak so I make all the decisions and I discuss everything with the coaches. So I oversee all that stuff and Kim helps with coaching. He hangs on in the gym, on the field and all our sports science and all our monitoring are done by him.

So GPS and all that databasing and stuff is my assistant’s responsibility. He gets me the information and I’ll discuss plenty with he and I will chew the fat about a lot of things. Then normally myself and the Head Coach make the decisions.

How to design a training program  

Christian: How do you design a training program?

Dr. Nicholas Gill: Good question, I suppose I have a funny process of every year trying to design it differently and do it better, and I end up every year coming back to a very similar method.

I have a funny process of every year trying to design it differently and do it better, and I end up every year coming back to a very similar method.

Basically, I look at my positional groups within the team and I’ll design a strength & power and speed program based on the key movements that I think that that positional group needs. I looked at my sets and reps, the volume structure based on travel and who we’re playing, the  time together, time of the year, and the time of the season.

I then look at individuals within that to adjust, to include specific injury prevention for the individual, but also for the position, specific rehab, specific movement preparation and recovery and things like that.

Then on top of all that, we’ll throw in our conditioning and our running load, which is based on GPS and history. So we have 31 players here at the moment, each of them has their own strength & power program, but each of them also has different metrics that we’re trying to hit within the field session, such as if you’re running fast enough, volume of high-intensity running,  total distance, and these sorts of variables.

We just constantly tried to use that information to tweak individual plans and then, after all, when all that’s done, we got a bit of paper work, it comes down to daily adjustments and how you’re feeling today. This is what we had planned, but what are we actually going to do?

So the daily adjustments is probably the thing that I put most emphasis on. A bit of paper is a bit of paper. Anyone can write out a reasonable program on paper, but it’s about how it’s implemented. That’s important and how you consider what’s happening with the athlete and the rest of the program that needs to be adjusted.

A bit of paper is a bit of paper. Anyone can write out a reasonable program on paper, but it’s about how it’s implemented.

So, I’ll have daily conversation with the athletes to make changes and tweaks, based on what I’m seeing and how they’re feeling.

Why you shouldn’t try too hard to gain muscle mass    

Christian: I listened to an All Black podcast, where you were speaking and there was one thing that piqued my interest where you said you found if you’re trying too hard to put on muscle mass through hypertrophy training that can create injuries. Can you elaborate on that?

Dr. Nicholas Gill: I don’t remember saying that, but simply put, hypertrophy training is very hard. Traditional hypertrophy training with high volume of low load, high reps and short rest periods is pretty tough. So there is huge metabolic cost, a huge central nervous system cost and huge fatigue.

Traditional hypertrophy training is very hard, there is huge metabolic cost, a huge central nervous system cost and huge fatigue.

So if you were then to go sprinting the next day, having done a hypertrophy program for the legs, you’re very likely to hurt yourself, more so than if you did another form of training that didn’t create the same stress on the muscle. And probably what I was getting at in that podcast is, that hypertrophy training through the legs can create such fatigue that you’re going to end up hurting something.

In addition to that, there is also the fact that our sport is collision-based and if you’re fatigued going into a collision at let’s say only 80 percent, you’re likely to come off second-best. If you come off second best, the risk of injury is greater.

So if we’re talking hypertrophy training and injury risk, it can be based through running or typically collision. So we don’t want tired athletes trying to smash each other because you end up coming off second best and getting hurt.

Listen in to the All Blacks podcast episode with Nic Gill

Christian: I would like to dig a little bit deeper into that. For example, my athletes are pretty strong and quite muscular, however, muscular hypertrophy training is never the primary training means. So they get the hypertrophy through different means of training, mainly maximum strength training.

Of course, your guys are also pretty strong and massive in a way. How do you do it? Do you have dedicated hypertrophy periods or is hypertrophy a side-effect of the max strength, for example?

Dr. Nicholas Gill: Yes. In my opinion that’s how we do it as well. When you’re dealing with them needing to perform every week, you can’t really put too much emphasis on hypertrophy training. So we basically get gains in muscle mass through our max strength program and only little doses of hypertrophy. So we might have one exercise at the end of the training, which is a bit more hypertrophy based.

We basically get gains in muscle mass through our max strength program and only little doses of hypertrophy.

If we’re trying to put on some lean mass on someone, then it’s a long process. It’s not something you’re trying to smash out in a couple of weeks. Typically, we try and get stronger and we’ll try to maybe have an exercise or two that is more hypertrophy based through our reps and rest periods.

Bear in mind that I’m together with the All Blacks only together when we play. We don’t have an off-season or a pre-season.

Another reason, why I’m not a big fan of hypertrophy phases in the program in our sport, because hypertrophy training basically builds slow muscle. And in the end, we’re not after slow-twitch, weak muscle, we’re after strong, fast-twitch muscle. So we’re very much a max strength orientated program versus hypertrophy orientated program.

I’m not a big fan of hypertrophy phases in the program in our sport, because hypertrophy training basically builds slow muscle. And in the end, we’re not after slow-twitch, weak muscle, we’re after strong, fast-twitch muscle.

Christian: I think we are S and C brothers from another mother in our training philosophy.

Dr. Nicholas Gill: That’s good.

His motivation to write a book about Health & Fitness   

Christian: You recently published a book and the theme of the book is Health and Fitness and you want every reader to become his own health guru. What was your motivation to write that book? I guess people would expect you to write an S and C book, right?

Dr. Nicholas Gill: I just get frustrated with how little people know about how to be healthy. I get far more joy out of helping someone change their life through being healthy than I do out of helping an athlete jump higher.

I get far more joy out of helping someone change their life through being healthy than I do out of helping an athlete jump higher.

When people come and see me and tell me, that I have helped them come back off their cholesterol medication, their blood pressure’s gone down, they’ve lost 15 kilos and they’re no longer pre-diabetic, that’s so much more satisfying than helping an athlete jump a little bit higher.

You’re potentially helping people live longer. I just got a little bit frustrated about how little people know about basic health, exercise and nutrition. So I just tried to get my ideas on paper so that maybe I could help a few more people be healthy and live longer.

Check out Nic’s book Health Your Self: The One-Stop Handbook to a Healthier, More Energetic You

His interview nomination

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

Dr. Nicholas Gill: Yes, I do, Marc Harvey. He’s now with the New Zealand Breakers. Marc Harvey’s a good friend of mine and he’s had an interesting career in the last four or five years.

He’s moved from a New Zealand Sevens Rugby League team as their S and C Coach to the New Zealand Warriors which is a basketball team. So he’s moved across three sports in the last two years. But he’d be fantastic to interview.

Where can you find Dr. Nic Gill

Christian: Where can people find you?

Dr. Nicholas Gill: I suppose the easiest place to find me is my website www.nicgill.com, N-I-C G-I-L-L.com. Drop me an email there and I monitor Instagram as well, so track me down on Instagram, Nic Gill Health and Performance.

Nic Gill’s social profiles

Instagram

LinkedIn

Facebook profile

Website

Christian: Awesome Nic. Thanks for being generous with your time. And thanks for sticking to it despite all the technical glitches we had leading up to this interview.

I definitely keep my fingers crossed for the All Blacks in this World Cup. I don’t understand the rules of rugby, but I watched it the last time and I just liked the All Blacks. Also my son was so excited when I said that I am going to speak to you, he put on his All Black shirt that he got from Andrew Keene.

Dr. Nicholas Gill: Oh, good on him, that’s fantastic. We’ve got supporters all around the world. It’s pretty special.

Thank you.

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