Welcome to Sports Discovery and our first blog interview, with Dr Ian McKeown who works in AFL as Head of Athletic Development at Port Adelaide Power. Ian completed his PhD in 2013 through the AIS and University of Canberra entitled “Power development and movement ability in junior athletes” and we worked together in the Sports Institute of NI before he moved to Australia in 2009. I chatted to ‘Mackers’ (pictured on the left below) earlier in the week and he’s given us a short insight into his career journey so far…
Tell us a little bit about your career path so far…
My career started by working in Performance Services for University of Ulster before moving into the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland which was based on the same campus. Here I specialised as a Strength & Conditioning Coach and was mainly in charge of supporting the Team Sports Programmes, particularly in Women’s Hockey and the Gaelic Games. I also got to work a bit in Track & Field, so it was a great role for me to develop my technical and coaching skills in different sports and with different kinds of athletes.
In 2009, I moved across to Canberra ACT, to take up the AIS PhD Scholarship Programme that was available. I had a keen interest in Research (into Athletic Development), as well as in Coaching and this golden opportunity allowed me to combine the two, which was ideal for me at the time. The income I earned from coaching (both at AIS at ACT Academy of Sport) paid for my tuition fees and kept me going while I was an International Student.
At ACTAS, I was again involved in Hockey as well as National S&C Lead for the Women’s Soccer Programme and at the AIS I was involved in the Basketball and Volleyball Programmes. In total, my PhD took me 3.5 years to complete but I started working in my current role (Head of Athletic Development) at Port Adelaide Power 3 years to the day from when I arrived in Australia so I completed my thesis during my first 6 months in Adelaide. My first preseason was a great experience but also the most trying of my career – my first professional preseason along with trying to write a PhD thesis meant a lot of late night and early starts and huge days on the track or in the gym too. I’ll never forget the day I had to submit but equally the moment I received confirmation of the PhD being accepted was easily one of the best feelings I will have in my career.
What’s exciting about working in your current field in AFL?
What’s not exciting about AFL? It’s a dream position for a practitioner in a dream sport, particularly where I am (Port Adelaide Power). The playing group are the most impressive group I have ever seen or heard of. The interaction within our performance department is exceptional with top quality practitioners looking after our medical and sports science needs. I’m really lucky to be in a position where Athletic Development is given such a high priority in our squad’s preparations. I have lots of hands-on coaching and lots of highly thought provoking work to do, on a daily basis. It’s really superb!
The challenge is to first meet our generalised needs of the program whilst also catering for the individual needs of each player on our list, which creates a programming challenge for our roster of 45 individuals. This forces us into becoming very creative within our delivery. This is a great challenge but also one where I get to explore the boundaries of my expertise and make me better as a coach along with furthering these players’ athletic capabilities.
To give you an example, we’ve thought very carefully how to fit our injury prevention work into our daily timetable, without compromising any other component, such as our strength sessions. This has required a huge amount of collaboration with our coaches and with our medical team, but it’s working – and to the benefit of the players, as it should.
Tell us a little about your Key Philosophies as a S&C coach…
#1. Be a Good Coach!
Having lots of Knowledge about S&C Theory is really great, and very important, but coaching is about translating that to a person who has little or no knowledge and being able to communicate what you know in a way that others can understand is a key skill to develop. Having been involved in multiple male & female sports in different countries, has really helped me develop these skills. The trick is always to Make it Simple.
#2. You have to Care!
Athletes are still just people – and they’re able to see right through you. They can work out if you’re doing something to benefit them or if you’re only trying to do something to benefit you. If they don’t see that you care about them, you won’t get very far.
#3. Prioritise the Needs of the Athlete
Maybe in the past I would have been in job interviews and would have rehearsed answers I know would have scored me points on the panel’s clipboards. Training Athletes the ‘proper way’ isn’t necessarily the ‘right way’ and it’s so important to figure that out. We’re not in a factory making robots and there is no blueprint to follow or production line to grind out. A good coach is able to assess needs and then prioritise, adapting a programme around an athlete, not necessarily forcing the athlete to follow a set programme. We simply want them to become better versions of themselves already.
What were your top 3 learning outcomes from your PhD?
Ok, the main outcome from my PhD was to make Athletic Ability Assessment a much more robust and reliable measurement. Most Coaches use some form of functional movement screen and can recite why it is important but I feel that not enough coaches truly understand why they are assessing particular movements and the importance of assessing correctly.
I want to continue my work in this area and lead strength and conditioning coaches towards a meaningful assessment of athletic ability that caters for their coaching and their specific environment of sports performance. I want to investigate this area to greater depths, creating more consistency in measurements, create more understanding about what makes a worthwhile change and how it all relates to the on-field performance. We understand the importance of strength on human performance and we have evidence for this, we now need to provide sound evidence for what is logical and common practice in elite sport; to ensure our athletes move well and have a well-rounded foundation in athletic movement. Anecdotal evidence tell us this is correct but as a profession we must strive to provide more evidence that can be scrutinized and supported by science.
Through the PhD process itself, I have learned to become very diligent and I have an obsession for detail. This is what it is all about. I’ve always had a No Compromise approach to my professional career, but this process has affirmed that within me and I constantly challenge myself to keep making progress in new areas every day. I accept No Half Measures from my athletes, I hate the attitude of “that’ll do it”. The PhD process has really taught me to be very thorough, has given me a greater ability to critique and communicate much more effectively.
Any advice for young practitioners just starting out on a similar path?
Yes, Lots! If you’re lucky enough to be in a position working in a professional or High Performance Sporting environment, you need to realise that what you’re doing is very cool! Once you’ve grasped that, then get busy and don’t waste a single minute of your opportunity. Seize the moment and enjoy the ride, otherwise frankly, you don’t deserve the opportunity.
In terms of advice, It’s really important to learn how to self-reflect. Be well aware of where you sit, what you know, and more importantly, what you don’t know! Always look to get better both as a practitioner and as a person and learn how to figure out how you’re going to get better. Don’t just expect it to happen either, you’ve got to make things happen, go and do it. Become a trusted individual, show that you’re reliable, talk to the right people, show you’re willing to learn and you’re not frightened of making mistakes. Avoid reciting material from textbooks, but instead show your interpretation and how you understand it, relate your knowledge back to the athlete and the performance.
Doing all of this really shows that you care.