Saracens Women: We are a tight bunch who care and look after each other
With the 2019/20 Tyrrells Premier 15s season having come to an end, members of the Saracens Women performance team have given us an insight into how the players will be keeping sharp during this period of self-isolation and lockdown.
Saracens Women Head Coach Alex Austerberry, Lewis Sones, Saracens Women Performance Pathway Coach, Gemma Skudder, Saracens Women Lead Physio, and Harry Waine, Saracens Women Strength and Conditioning Coach, spoke to us about the different plans in place over the next few weeks, how they've had to adapt, and the challenges of working together during self-isolation
Q: Alex, with the season over can you give us an overview of the provision planned for the squad over the coming weeks and months?
Alex Austerberry: Obviously in these unprecedented times everybody has had to adapt, change and evolve. For us as a club we are putting a real emphasis on supporting one another and staying connected. The players are very good at setting each other challenges and I am sure they will be posting lots of videos to keep people entertained and lift spirits.
Formally, we are reviewing the season with players and ensuring they have a clear and achievable development plan that is adapted to ensure that it is something they can do from home. There will be some technical and skill focus relevant to their game and some tactical development.
As a staff group we touch base daily through various means. Houseparty is the latest way we have been keeping in touch!
Q: Obviously with everything on lockdown, how are you keeping in touch with players around IDPs?
AA: The focus up until the end of May when the season would have been ended is to continue development and striving to be better. Although we all completely agree and support fully the decision to stop playing rugby, we all have a passion for the game, so we miss it.
With this in mind we wanted to keep rugby going to ensure we met the needs of the players, provide a support structure for them in these testing times and also maximised what we could do during the period away.
Essentially, we are working through the end of season reviews and putting in place with the players development plans that they can do while at home so that when rugby does return, we will be in the best place possible.
Q: This one is for Lewis. Alex mentioned technical and skill focus in training, can you tell us what that looks like, and what the focus is in training at the moment?
Lewis Sones: What this slightly odd gift of time has given us is a chance to really allow the players and coaches to get more detail into this than we would have had in a normal off season, so some positives to take still.
We have been keen for the players to keep up with their skill work alongside their strength and conditioning, so currently we have set out some skill challenges for all players that they are able to do at home, either with family, housemate or on their own.
It is an area that during the season and preparing for games that we have a real focus on, but never get as much time as we would like to due to the nature of a mix of full-time and part-time athletes in the programme. We have tried to keep these fun and adaptable so the players are still engaged in a training routine and as soon as pre-season starts, we are ahead of the curve.
Q: From an S&C point of view Harry, what have we put in place to support players during this time?
Harry Waine: All players have had a template for conditioning circuits and running sessions. It gives the players the flexibility to make their own sessions based off of the equipment they may or may not have accessible. Some players have been in contact to ask for more specific sessions or guidance. Players with individual needs (injuries etc.) have been given advice on areas of improvement and guidance on how to progress.
Q: What is the overall focus of the programmes that players have been given?
HW: Overall focus is to keep the players physically and mentally healthy. Ideal scenario for S&C for rugby players is a combination for heavy or dynamic resistance training, on feet and off feet conditioning, and circuits.
Limited equipment and social distancing hinder how much we could replicate pre-season and in-season training. So, sessions aim to be the next closest thing. When we do return to pre-season, the conditioning done now will allow us to work hard to get better results later on.
Q: And how will you guys look to progress all of that over the coming weeks and months?
LS: As we start to get more of an idea of timelines, we will start to shape this more as we would any off season. As a coaching group we will be working with players specifically around their skill work and try and individualise this a bit more for them.
HW: We have to be fluid to what is going on, with the information we receive from the government. Best case is the lockdown ends and we can return to regular gym sessions and rugby sessions, a long pre-Season. If unlikely, we shall continue to give alternate conditioning options to break up the stalemate and have targets to set players.
Q: Looking at the medical side, how will we be working with the squad over the next few weeks considering that lack of face to face contact time?
Gemma Skudder: At the moment the team are on hand to answer any players or staff questions via WhatsApp and video call reviews. Our Clinical Lead, Dr Zain Haider, is providing the team group chat with regular updates and changes on COVID-19, which has been very reassuring and informative for us all.
Players who are rehabbing will continue to do so under supervision via regular video call and have also been filming their rehab sessions and sending to us for feedback. All have plans and we have been keeping in touch daily, if not every other day. Players who are slightly further along in their rehab have thorough plans to follow for four weeks and we will still be doing video reviews.
Q: Is it difficult to support rehabbing players during this period?
GS: Actually, apart from manual therapy we can do most rehab over video calls, so that's lucky that hasn't changed too much. We just have to explain how to do things more creatively or in detail so players can do things themselves.
The players have been fantastic with this. If I'm honest, we all miss being one as a team, but we must be respectful of why we need to do this and the global importance of keeping people safe.
Q: And how often do you keep in touch with Harry and the coaching staff?
GS: Currently we have a spreadsheet that is updated in regard to who is leading on a player’s rehab, which stage they’re up to and what they can and can't do. This is shared with all the medical team and select staff on a weekly basis.
If a player is due to progress in their current plan, this will then be discussed via telephone or email. Some players have their own WhatsApp group with us all in which is useful for daily updates and communication. I am also keeping a COVID monitoring sheet for the team, as suggested by Dr Zain. Regular communication, in the way or forms people prefer, is key to everything.
HW: The medical team are having regular dialogue, via text and video chat, with injured players. Conditioning plans can be tailored to work around the injury where necessary. We have 2 - 3 players returning from lower limb injuries, who are restricted to how much movement and pressure they can apply through joints – lots of seated and prone exercises.
AA: Gemma and Harry are doing a great job in enabling all elements of our programme to be delivered remotely. All the staff and players are finding practical and often creative ways to keep rugby ticking over.
Q: Are there different plans in place for our EPS players?
AA: All our plans are squad wide. I am sure England will be supporting the players and some of that will be joined up with us at club. Some things will be specific to England. However, all our EPS and non-EPS players will be supported in the same way with collective involvement twinned with specific individualised plans.
Q: There's a good chance that the squad won’t play any rugby now till August or September at the earliest. How has that impacted training plans?
LS: Ultimately we will try to replicate as much as we can in a normal cycle. We would have been working towards the play-offs and final at the end of May, which we were on course for, and then give the players some down time before starting a pre-season block in July ready for the new season.
As a coaching and staff group, we have a really good period now to continue to plan and to maximise the pre-season block for the players, with now an even fresher group coming back after a longer rest period.
HW: When we return to pre-season, we will have to take these considerations into how we return the players to match fitness. The challenge is to be match fit without playing, therefore gym and on-field conditioning will need to replicate the demands as best as possible.
In the short term with restrictions set, this is not possible. However, once we return to normal, we will determine the appropriate steps. The longer we have, the more time we have to prepare, the closer we can get to this target, and the work has already begun.
Q: How important will it be over the next few weeks and months to find other ways of keeping the group engaged?
LS: As key as it is to keep on top of the “on pitch” needs, our social capital as a group is even more key. We have a fantastic group of players with a lot of entertaining characters. This has been key to our success over the past seasons. As the country is adapting to multi-person video socials, we will be looking to do the same, the players already have started this type of engagement from their side.
Q: We talk a lot about Saracens being a family. How important will that to be ensuring the group supports each other in the coming weeks and months?
AA: The welfare of players and staff is essential. Everyone will be feeling pressure and anxiety in different ways during this challenging period. There are a lot of unknowns, we don’t know when we as a society will be rid of COVID-19.
The things we do know is that we are a tight bunch who care and look after each other. That will continue and those bonds made stronger during this period. It is important for everyone to stay connected and check-in with friends, family, teammates and colleagues.
Just like in a game, tough times need players to come together. We now need communities and society as a whole to come together. A famous advert used to say, it’s good to talk, we should all be looking to engage more to support everyone.