Q&A with Limerick FC S&C coach, Joe Gamble

With the eagerly anticipated 2018 Airtricity League season kicking off on Friday, we caught up with Setanta College graduate, former Ireland international and current Limerick FC S&C coach, Joe Gamble, to hear how their preseason preparations have been progressing.

What is preseason like for a League of Ireland Strength and Conditioning coach?
Well I can only answer from my own experience with Limerick, but we have very good facilities here at the University of Limerick. We’re not running and racing doing a pitch session, getting into the changing room then going to a different place for the gym. Everything is on campus, so the gym is literally right next to the changing room and the pitches are here as well, so for that reason it’s much easier. It’s more organised. We have gym in the morning for maybe 30 – 40 minutes. Then a 20-minute break and straight out onto the pitch. If I felt that a certain player needed a bit extra, I would do individual top-up sessions with him.

Joe Gamble playing for Cork City. Photo Credit: The 42.ie

What is your aim for preseason?
My main aim is to get the players to be more robust. I don’t want any soft tissue injuries or any type of injuries really. The only injury that I can’t prevent is contact injuries because obviously that happens, and there’s not much you can really do about that. Basically, I want to make the players more robust; better conditioned to meet the demands of the game and beyond. I want them to get used to the volume, the load that we put on them, and not break down easily. Obviously, that’s not always possible, as you have new players coming in and you don’t really know their full training history. But as regards the players that were here last year, we were quite fortunate in that we did a lot of work with them; injury prevention, mobility work, a lot of the fundamentals, so hopefully this year we can kick on and develop that more. So for me, my number one aim is no injuries.

Is preseason S&C training much different to S&C training during the season?
Yeah, it would be. In preseason you have a lot more volume, you train a lot more because you don’t have a game at the weekend. Performance isn’t really counted for the first four weeks. It’s all about volume. For the last two weeks you’re looking to bring down the volume down and up the intensity. With the players having 10 weeks off in the off-season (before preseason starts), I really wanted to hammer home that that’s really their preseason. The onus is on them to do the real work. You’ve got 10 weeks to gain muscle and improve aerobically. You can really work on a lot in 10 weeks. Again, there’s no match at the weekend. The recovery part isn’t as important as you’re not racing to be ready for a game at the weekend. The emphasis is really on doing a lot of volume in the gym, a lot of conditioning; off field stuff as well as on grass. When they came into preseason then in January, those six weeks would be of real quality. From my own experience as a player, we only had 4 or 5 weeks of an off-season. You had 2 or 3 weeks to get back up to speed and then you were straight back into preseason. Now you have 10 weeks of an off-season in the League of Ireland. It’s too much of a break in my opinion but you must turn that to your advantage. Aim to get into very good condition so you can really hit the ground running in preseason. The players that we had last year have come back in really good condition because they’ve done their own work in the off-season. The key is the players have taken ownership of their conditioning. They don’t need me telling them what to do. That’s the mark of a really good squad. The players actually push you and my job then is to hold them back a little bit. So really, the off-season plays a massive part in a League of Ireland player’s conditioning.

Does it take the players long to get up to speed in preseason?
Yes and no. As I mentioned, we have a good group of players and they’ve done their own work in the off-season and have come back in good condition. If you do nothing for 10 weeks in the off-season, you will get an injury when you come back. The intensity and volume are high in preseason and it increases during weeks 2, 3 and 4 so you are going to break down if you haven’t looked after yourself in the off-season.
Luckily, our guys come back in good condition and if there are one or two who aren’t, you’ll see them behind in a lot of aspects. Not just fitness testing, but in small sided and big sided games, they can’t maintain the same intensity. As I said, you make the big gains in the off-season. You have a great chance to improve certain aspects like power and speed.

Is it mainly gym-based work you’re doing or is there a good deal of pitch-based work?

A gym session with Joe Gamble and Limerick FC

I would say that we do 70% on the pitch, 30% in the gym. In terms of the gym, instead of doing an hour and half twice a week, we do about 40 minutes a day, so little and often to keep their gains from the off-season going and to try and push it on for the preseason. We start in the gym every morning. It wouldn’t always have to be heavy lifting or hard work every day. We would probably do three days a week in terms of lifting. Every day would be different. We would do a lot of speed type sessions, a lot of mobility, activation and injury prevention. After the gym we go out onto the pitch. At the moment we are doing a lot of conditioning games and high intensity possession games. We change the format of the games every week. It could go from 9 V 9 to 7 V 7 to 4 V 4, bigger pitches, smaller pitches, so they go from a lot of high intensity running to high acceleration, deceleration workload. It’s all about trying to mimic what they do in games and the best way to do that is to play small sided/big sided games. No drills or sessions will do that, in my opinion. We’re trying to do it in a way that overloads them, sometimes underloads, but more so overloads in preseason.

In what way are the players monitored in preseason and what are you looking for?

Well you’re looking at players in terms of fatigue and stress levels. We currently have a good system in place where a PhD student collects data every morning from the players. They have an app on their phones. They sign in and do three or four tests every morning – groin squeeze, ankle mobility, sit and reach, and once a week they do CMJ Jumps, which for now we use as our recovery protocol to see if they’re recovered or not. You would gauge from that if they are stressed or fatigued. If we found that certain players were, we would reduce the load in training or we would take that player out and he might only take part in 60% of training. If we saw a trend over 2 or 3 days that a player was constantly fatigued, we would pull him back a little bit because the idea is not to overload them too much so that they’re overtrained, but we want the stress levels to be enough so that they adapt and improve from the training. That’s one of the challenges we face. We want to push them enough, but we don’t want to exert them too much, because we don’t want chronic fatigue kicking in either, so we want to get a nice balance.

Is it difficult working with new players when you haven’t coached them before?
Not really. It’s nice to see new faces coming in and I’d generally have a chat with them about what they’ve done before. It’s good to hear what other clubs are doing and to see what levels the players are at and what they think about what we’re doing. I’m very honest in my approach as an S&C coach and I’d encourage players to be honest with me. If something doesn’t work for them, then I want them to tell me. If they didn’t enjoy a particular session, I’d like to know why so we can look at that. I find it beneficial working with new players, seeing what they like and don’t like. What works for them and what doesn’t work. We talk about what they’ve done before, and my job then is to see if I can push them on another level and make them better. I’m a demanding coach but I like the players to be demanding of me too. It works both ways.

Presumably some younger players from the U-19s are training with the first team in preseason. Do they take long to adjust to S&C training or have they some experience of it already?
Yeah, the lads coming in from the 19s now have had some exposure to it because they would have been with us a bit last season too. They would have done some as part of their training in the academy as well. I would oversee the training that the academy coaches do, so they would do a lot of the same drills and same sessions as the first team. It mightn’t be the same intensity or frequency obviously, but they would have a good idea of the type of warm ups, gym work and conditioning that we do. One thing that we are aware of with the young lads is that they are not used to training every day, so we would pay particular attention to their markers in the morning to see if they’re very fatigued or stressed and if they are, we will pull them out of the gym session or give them half the session. If it’s a pitch session we would pull them out halfway through, just to get them used to the levels. We don’t want to put too much strain on a new player that’s not used to full-time training. He’s not a full-time professional so why train him like one for 6 weeks? He’s only going to break down or get chronic fatigue. We are mindful that we don’t push them too much. It’s just common sense when they’re not used to full-time training.

The club changed manager at the start of preseason. Did this disrupt your preparations somewhat?
Not really to be honest. Before Neil (the previous manager) left we worked together to put the preseason programme in place, so really, I just stuck to that. I’ve been involved in the game a long time, so I’m used to guys coming and going. It’s the nature of football – people come and go. It didn’t faze me. I had everything planned, so we just rolled with it.

Was S&C coaching something that you thought about getting into, when you were a player?
I think it was something I considered since I was 21 to be honest. I had a bad injury and I was out for 10 or 11 months. I was told that I’d never play again, so straight away I started to think about other career options. I actually looked at being a physio first but the more I looked into it, the more I felt it wasn’t for me. It was during my time playing for Cork City that I found out about Setanta College and realised that I could do a course while playing. That really appealed to me. I enrolled in the Certificate in Physical Fitness and Conditioning for Sport (now called the Certificate in Strength and Conditioning) and really enjoyed it. I thought I knew about S&C from being a professional footballer and being in that environment for so long. The course really opened my eyes and I realised that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did. It gave me a great insight into S&C coaching and it was great to be able to do it while playing.
For the last two years of my career, I played for a club in Brunei in Malaysia. I was also doing some S&C coaching with the team; the warm ups and some gym work. That was great for my development. I was still playing but I was getting used to the role that I would eventually do. It helped me massively because when I came into Limerick I had a very good idea of what I wanted to do. Brunei was a great learning curve. I gradually stepped away from playing and moved towards S&C coaching. It’s a role that I love. It’s different and it’s challenging.

Do you think that football as a sport has traditionally been reluctant to embrace S&C and are we now seeing that starting to change? Is S&C a bigger part of a League of Ireland player’s schedule now compared to when you were playing?

Joe Gamble overseeing S&C drills with Limerick FC

Yeah, I think in the past maybe football was a bit reluctant to embrace S&C. Going back to my playing days, the manager would usually control all aspects of training. The weekend’s result would often set the tone of training. If the team lost the manager might decide that the players weren’t fit enough, so next week’s sessions were all about making them run and work harder. The reality might have been that players were overtrained to begin with, so they went into the match in a fatigued state. Then as a result of making them run and train harder after a defeat, they become even more fatigued.
I think education plays a big part. Managers and coaches are definitely more aware of the benefits of S&C now. In the past, S&C sometimes consisted of the token warm up session, a bit of stretching and running the players harder in training if the manager thought they looked unfit. The advances in technology in recent years have definitely helped to make coaches and clubs more aware of S&C. GPS in particular has been hugely beneficial in terms of managers/coaches monitoring the daily training loads of players.
I wouldn’t necessarily say that S&C plays a bigger part in the training schedule of a League of Ireland player nowadays as I worked with some fantastic S&C coaches and medical professionals during my playing career. I just think that now all clubs and managers are more tuned into the benefits of S&C. I also think that players are a lot more educated about nutrition and taking care of themselves these days due to exposure to online sources, especially social media.

How do you feel the course you did at Setanta College has helped you in your current role?
Well it helped me massively to be honest. The research that I did and the assignments that I submitted were really beneficial in terms of the feedback that I got from tutors. I thought I knew a lot, but it really opened my eyes to the fact that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did. It gave me great fundamentals for S&C – screening, Olympic lifting, speed work. I had some knowledge of all these things, but the course gave me a solid grounding in them and showed me how to implement them in a coaching environment. When I played for Hartlepool in England, I showed the S&C coach what we covered on the course and he was really impressed by how functional it was and how it could actually be applied to players. So that was great to hear. It confirmed for me that that I was on the right track as regards a future career in S&C.

What is the most enjoyable aspect of the job?

As a player I loved physical training so it’s great to be involved in that on a daily basis. The way I look at it in football terms, by the age of 14 or 15, 85% of your technical ability is already formed. Football is an early specialisation sport, so you have about 15% to technically improve when you’re 16 and above. That’s not a lot. You could train a huge amount and maybe improve 5% but you’re never going to be a Lionel Messi if you haven’t already been technically brilliant when you were younger. I’m not saying that you cannot improve technically; of course you can, but the room for technical improvement isn’t as high as other aspects that can be improved, at a professional/elite level. My attitude is that you can always improve physically. You can always get faster, stronger, be better conditioned, be more robust. So, my aim is to get players to a level where they’re so conditioned that they’re playing in the 90th minute like they were in the 10th minute. In professional football if you’re organised tactically and extremely fit, you’re halfway there, without a doubt. Then if you have some individual quality in the group, you’ve got a serious team.
My attitude to the players is that if you buy into it and give me everything, I’ll give you everything. I want to help make you a living for the next 10 years in this country or elsewhere. I don’t want you to fade out. If we do it together, you’ll become a better conditioned player. If you’ve done the work you can go toe to toe with your opponent and you know that you’re better physically conditioned than him. If you can say that, you have the upper hand. That’s what I want to instil in players. I love that interaction with players. I want them to trust in what we’re doing and if they give everything to it, we’re both on to a winner.
Another aspect of my job is to look at the injury history of a player. Everyone has a chink in their armour, whether it be hips, knees, ankles, bad hamstrings. I work closely with our physio to find that weakness, work on it and make it less of a weakness. The player can then become more robust and maybe prolong his career because of the work done by me as the S&C coach, the physio and the player himself. We all have to work together to make that happen. Look at the most successful teams in this country, the likes of Cork City and Dundalk. They have that mentality. The players take ownership themselves. They’re obviously very good players but it’s a collective effort with everyone buying into it. That’s what I strive for here at Limerick. I’m grateful to the management that they let me get on with my job. You have to have that mutual trust with a manager. You might have arguments but ultimately, you’re striving for the same thing and that’s what’s important.

Joe Gamble playing for Ireland. Photo credit: RTE

How do you feel Limerick FC will do this season?
It’s going to be a tough season as there’s now just 10 teams in the league. If we’re fit and conditioned and really organised, as I’ve previously mentioned, we’re halfway there. We have got good players in the team, but you need good foundations. We have to have the desire to go and win games and have a real ‘roll up the sleeves’ attitude and we’ll be fine. I’d be confident that as the season goes on, we’ll surprise a few teams.

And finally, just to bring it back to your own playing career Joe, what was the highlight for you?
Obviously, the Ireland caps I got are a major highlight. I would also have to say that winning the league with Cork City in 2005, just the way we won it on the last day of the season, would rank right up there. It was a special moment. But yeah, as an individual achievement playing for my country was such an honour and privilege. I never thought I’d get there so when I did, it was great. I suppose looking back on it, when I was playing I was in a bubble and I just wanted more so I didn’t sit back and enjoy it as much. Now I can enjoy it and reflect on it with pride. That came from all the hard work I put in down through the years and I’m honoured to be able to say that I played for my country.