Living the (Sport Science) Dream
One might not expect to find a bastion of sport science and conditioning in a small town nestled in the countryside of the Eastern Cape, but there it is. With less than 500 boys, St Andrew’s College in Makhanda (Grahamstown), would not be expected to be making waves on the school sport scene. However, over the past few years they have been experiencing a sporting resurgence, and maybe one could even say they are dominating. It’s probably safe to say that Laurence Christie has something to do with it, so I’ve managed to steal some of his valuable time for a very insightful interview. Disclaimer: This is a long one, but it’s seriously worth the read.
What is your sport science background and area(s) of expertise?
LC: I do not consider myself an expert as I believe one never stops learning. One needs to be humble enough to be able to learn from an interaction with an U14c team player the same way you would relish the opportunity to learn from shadowing the New Zealand rugby team for example. One can always improve.
My academic background started out at UCT with a BSc in Chemical, Molecular and Cellular Science in 2009 while playing for the U20 team and training at Sport Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA). I loved the rugby, training and socialising which is where my passion all started.
It was SSISA that lead me to move over to NMMU in 2012 to continue my studies in Human Movement Science and later honours in Sport Science. This was where I had the privilege to learn from some of the most amazing lecturers.
During my undergrad at NMMU I coached at Grey High and later on during my honours year I was given an opportunity by Robbie Kempson and Nadus Nieuwoudt to be the assistant strength and conditioning coach for the Kings Academy and basically a glorified match day waterboy while learning as much as possible. We were lucky enough to have a brilliant coaching team that included the current Springbok backline coach Mzwandile Stick. This coaching team, in combination with talented players, resulted in the team winning the under 19 Currie Cup that year.
I have always had to balance my personal playing career along with coaching and my academics. This was tough, but I believe it is what made the difference in the long run. The combination of academic studies, my playing career and hands on practical experience has allowed me to submerse myself in what I loved all day, every day.
Why did you choose to go into sport science and conditioning?
LC: This was a no brainer for me. I knew I didn’t want to focus on rehabilitation and have always been very competitive. Thus during my undergrad when we were asked to choose between Biokinetics (Bio) or sport science it was an obvious choice.
I looked into how more developed countries recognised the difference. Sport Science is generally more recognised overseas than Biokinetics. In S.A most set ups would employ a Bio to do rehab as well as strength and conditioning.
Sport Science at NMMU focused on elite player development in multiple different sports. The fact that I would be the only Sport Science Honours student in that year was also a massive benefit to me as most of my lectures were a one-on-one basis. During these lectures we would direct discussions towards my specific interests and get through the workload at my own pace due to my hectic playing and coaching schedule.
What is your role at St Andrew’s, and what are your responsibilities?
LC: I am currently employed in a permanent capacity at St Andrew’s College as the Director of Athletic Performance. This is after completing a three year contract as the Head Sport Scientist, Strength and Conditioning.
I oversee all athletic development at the school, from developing the fundamental movement skills in critical learning periods with the grade 8’s to the senior sport and position-specific development with the grade 12’s. Besides the gym work and fitness training during the rugby season I do the school’s scrum coaching across the club, float around to different teams along with another brilliant staff member to do breakdown/ruck work. I also do most of the pre-game video prep on the opposition and post-game video on ourselves as a first team.
During my time at the school I have assisted with implementing a Sports Performance Diet at the school with the help of a dietician to increase the number of meals the catering company prepares for the boys to five per day. This goes hand-in-hand with educating the students about the correct diet for athletes through my annual invitation to Prof Jon Patricios who is one of the leading sports medicine doctors in South Africa for the past 20 years. He also helps me run the school’s concussion program.
At the start of each year I invite Prof Pippa Nell, a lecturer at NMMU and a 2012 Olympic Games Doping Control Officer to come and talk to all the athletes regarding the South African Institute of Drug Free Sport procedure for testing athletes.
I manage most sporting codes’ transitions between off-season, pre-season and in-season, monitoring the athletes that are involved in multiple sports codes to ensure they are not over worked to avoid burnout. I help set challenging, achievable and realistic targets for athletes throughout their sporting career at the school and assist with contract negotiation and general advice for boys leaving school and those signing sporting contracts at university or provincial clubs.
On top of all this, managing the relationship and communication between the school doctor, sanatorium sisters, coaching staff and academic staff also takes up a considerable amount of my time.
Which sports do you work with?
LC: I mostly work with Rowing, Hockey, Athletics, Swimming, Waterpolo, Soccer, Basketball and Rugby. To a lesser degree, I also work with shooting and archery occasionally when their coach asks for specific strengthening for the younger athletes. I don’t have anything to do with the technical aspects of the golfing athletes as I am a rather useless golfer myself but do assist with the gym-based and flexibility work they have to take part in.
Not that I want you to give away school secrets, but what would you say has been key to the success of St Andrew’s sport over the past few years?
LC: I cannot take the credit for the schools performance over the past years as there are so many moving parts with some of the best people in each position for all sporting codes. I like to think that I have just streamlined what was already in place by assisting with the communication between seemingly mutually exclusive silos that often take place between most different sports codes.
When I arrived at the school, I did a S.W.O.T. analysis to help me realise where I could start introducing small changes with maximal return.
Although many may see the small number of boys at the school as a weakness compared to other schools with bigger numbers, this was a strength in my book. I have been able to develop deeper relationships across all age groups to better motivate athletes to be the best version of themselves that they can be. Almost all of the coaches at St Andrew’s are completely immersed in school life as we are over 80% boarders and some coaches are housemasters.
Most sports codes utilize the same athletes in the different competition seasons and all operate in mutually exclusive silos. Identifying these athletes early on is vital to ensure each athlete can take part in as many sports as possible and follow the advice of the early vs late specialization research. To develop individual annual periodization programs for each of these athletes is vital. These strength and conditioning programs have to be dynamic as each athlete’s response to training will vary in a team environment and some recover faster than others, never mind personal and unforeseen circumstances that could alter one’s plans.
The biggest positive attribute for St Andrew’s College sports performance would have to be the trusting relationship between the staff which allows everyone the freedom to get the job done with the ultimate unified goal being that of the student-athlete’s best interest.
We have a system here where the coaching staff, school doctor, sanatorium nursing sisters, director of sport and all the heads of sporting codes meet once a week to discuss the athletes. Keeping in mind that they are all academic students first and then athletes is key. Good, clever humans make better athletes in the long run.
A good friend of mine, Simon Thomas (who has been the Head of Physical Performance for the New Zealand Crusaders Super Rugby team for the past 5 years), said that our roll as sport scientists/ directors of performance is to be the centre cog in the massive machine that is the sports environment that you are involved in. He is one of the most humble humans I have ever had the honour and privilege to learn from, and I firmly believe in that, along with removing our own ego from the situation is key to any working environment.
In my opinion, the most valuable relationships to have for a long-term successful school sports team are those between the head coach, school physiotherapist and myself. We are very lucky to have Andy Royle as the Director of Rugby who is brilliant in his coaching strategies, trusts my approaches and is willing to rest a player for a game under the combined advice from myself and Eurico Marques, our school physio. Eurico is a blessing to work with and helps ensure we manage the player load appropriately, so that we can have as many of the squad available for the duration of the season. When a player is returning from injury while working with the physio, the last week of his rehabilitation process is done in conjunction with my performance testing and depending on these performance results his return to general population/sports practice does not necessarily mean he can return to 1st team sport matches. To ensure a player can meet his pre-injury position-specific aerobic, anaerobic and contact fitness norms plays a massive part in preventing re-injury or a new injury. The school coaches are happy to adhere to our advice regarding an athlete’s return to competitive 1st team sport. On return to sports participation after injury a player can generally expect to start out with a maximum of 10-15 min at a lower intensity 2nd or 3rd team level which along with the fitness benefits also helps to build up the confidence of a player before returning to 1st team.
What have been your biggest challenges or barriers as a sport scientist in a school environment?
Generally one of the biggest challenges in the school environment is where a student athlete might have a conflict of interests or difficulties prioritizing school work and school sports. Players need to be constantly reminded that academics must always come first. Knowing my athletes’ academic results or test schedule helps me to be proactive rather than reactive.
My take on this is that early morning team training sessions are a privilege and may only be attended if one’s teachers are happy with work being up to date and class performance is not negatively affected. This has helped build a strong relationship between the academic and sporting staff and as a result I have been very lucky to be in a position where I have not had any major challenges. The combination of one’s theoretical/practical knowledge and sometimes more importantly one’s people skills are needed to facilitate these communications.
Many of my colleagues at other schools across South Africa have expressed their frustrations about not being able to be as effective as possible due to constantly being over-ruled or not given the freedom to implement what they have theoretically studied into practice. At these schools often players returning from rehab are put straight back into top level competitive sport against the advice of professionals only to be re-injured and start the negative cycle yet again. Luckily, as I have mentioned previously, St Andrew’s College has an incredibly trusting relationship between the staff, which allows everyone the freedom to get their job done with the ultimate unified goal being that of the student-athlete’s best interest, even if this means resting a player. The strong relationships between the head coach, school physiotherapist and myself are incredibly valuable to help us avoid major setbacks such as re-injured athletes and helps us to establish long-term successful school sports teams. Schools don’t often have the luxury of endless depth in squads, so the fewer injuries the better the season.
A consistent challenge between most of the schools that have asked for advice over the years has been about summer and winter sport codes competing for time. The end of Cricket season tends to overlap with the start of Rugby season by two weeks, Soccer and Basketball ankle injuries carrying over to Athletics season. It can also be challenging trying to meet the needs of a player whose rugby coach wants him to pick up 5kgs for the next year, while his polo coach has him swimming 2km four times a week and the cricket coach doesn’t want him to bulk up as it could decrease his range of motion for bowling.
I am sure we can all think of an athlete that might have similar conflict of interests and I am lucky enough to avoid the majority of these issues by having such a great team of coaches across all sporting codes that understand the situation and all have the best interests of the boys at heart.
What is your opinion on the state of school sport in South Africa and the direction it is headed? Care to make any predictions?
This is a tough one as it depends on which schools you are asking about and more specifically what sports you are asking about. There is a broad spectrum and South Africa has some of the best school sport coaching systems in the world but some schools are very privileged and others are unfortunately not.
Generally speaking, I think that schoolboy sport is unfortunately becoming too competitive. I am worried that the nature of competitive schoolboy sport in South Africa is becoming so competitive that some schools lose sight of why we play games. You only have to stand on the sidelines of any schoolboy sports game, from U14 Water polo to 1st team rugby and listen to parents or coaches screaming while their blood pressure sky rockets.
The trouble comes into play when results are more important than the performance. The most important thing should be moulding the young minds that leave the school to be positive contributing members of society.
While ‘buying’ players or awarding bursaries to players from other schools may be seen to strengthen your team it also weakens your opponents, consequently favouring the odds of a win. Celebrating a victory such as this is ultimately to stroke your own ego and add to the entitlement of some youngsters nowadays.
St Andrew’s might not have the best school boy sides in S.A., but I like to believe that we strive to be the best coaching club we can be. We motivate the players we have to give the best performance possible and then win or lose you can be happy and proud of the result.
I like to believe that we have the right system at St Andrew’s as the schools 1st team sports sides are made up almost entirely of the grade 8 pupils from 5 years ago. I believe in developing the talent you have rather than buying a new team. Spending a fraction of the cost it would take to buy new players every year and rather invest in the staff that would get the best out of your current pupils. Ultimately, this is a more sustainable strategy for the long run. I like to think that if one looks after the process then the result will take care of itself.
Do you have any sport science mentors?
LC: The list here is endless and I worry that by trying to name the people in our field that have positively sculpted my career I will undoubtedly miss someone out.
Graham Bentz and Johan Pretorius who were my house masters, my conditioning coaches at school and massive positive influences on me as a youngster. Mr Bentz went on to work with the SA sevens team, Kenya sevens while Mr Pretorius went on to head up the Sharks conditioning program in Durban and is now the head of performance at Worcester Worriers.
Ryan Raffan, Mark Kramer and Sam Kahts-Kramer who all lectured me during my Honours year while I was the only Sport Science student between a class of 12 Bio’s and 2 general honours students. They were strict enough on me to make me reach the deadlines of pre-reading and presenting all subject chapters myself in the Sport Science specific subjects while other subject chapters were divided equally amongst the students in some of the general subjects. They were lenient enough to help me balance playing Varsity Cup rugby and working with the E.P Kings team.
Jarred Salzwedel who was a year ahead of me at university and helped me forge the way I think about conditioning.
Robbie Kempson and Nadus Nieuwoudt who taught me a great deal while I was assisting them as a glorified waterbody at the Kings academy.
Doc Michael Posthumus who also used to play prop at UCT a few years ahead of me and one of the scariest individuals I had ever met at that stage. He is currently the lead researcher and head of sport science at Sport Science Institute of South Africa and a guru in the cycling world. He reminded me of the basics – K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple stupid) and to remind athletes that training doesn’t make one stronger, but rather it makes one weaker and recovering from training makes one stronger.
Simon Thomas who is the Head of Physical Performance for the New Zealand Crusaders and Maori All Backs and an absolute legend in our field and has taught me some of the greatest lessons on how I think about my program designs and interact with my athletes.
I know you’ve been overseas a fair bit, and have spent time with as many experts as possible. How does South African sport science and conditioning compare? Are there any techniques, philosophies, or practices that we should be paying more attention to?
LC: I am very lucky to work at a school that allows me to take the time to travel and learn from some of the best in the business. There is no secret recipe for success just the appropriate implementation of basics. There is a general trend to share ideas at most overseas clubs where they try make international athletes.
Locally, we compete and compare ourselves to other provincial athletes and as a result are less open to sharing ideas. Simon Thomas and Scott Robertson said something that has stuck with me when I questioned them about how wonderful it must be to coach the Crusaders. Their response was that they do not just coach the Crusaders, but rather they coach All Blacks… the only difference being that some of the players are not All Blacks yet. This is something that I try to pass on to as many coaches as possible. They’re not just coaching U14a’s but rather future 1st team players.
This resonated with me so much that I tried to get the coaches back home to buy in to the idea of treating everyone you meet or train with the same amount of respect, energy and effort that you would if you were helping an international level athlete.
What is your personal view on the role a sport scientist should play within the context of a sports team?
LC: The question of one’s role in a team is often wrongfully associated with where in the management staff hierarchy your position is situated. Can the head coach of a sport overrule your decision to minimize a player’s load this week and rather play 20 minutes off the bench then start or sit out completely?
In short if the system you are working in is efficient with the primary goal of long-term peak performance and the health of the athlete going hand-in-hand, then the role of the sport scientist, S&C or team physio and head coach shouldn’t matter. We should all be unified by having the same goal.
The job description or title of a sport scientist, S&C is often very broad due to being able to cover multiple aspects. Overseas professional set ups will have a team of multiple physios, Bios, S&Cs, sport scientists and video analysts. Here in S.A., with tight budgets, most set ups try to employ fewer professionals that can cover multiple tasks. In most local set ups we cover load monitoring, program design and implementation, manage the transition from final phase rehabilitation back to peak performance again. This is difficult, as one must be careful to not become a “jack of all trades but a master of none”. One has to avoid paralysis by analysis and find what area of the game you can have the greatest performance return in the shortest time and start there.
Theoretically: If you were given free rein to do as you wish within the context of sport science in South Africa, what would you try to implement to promote, progress, and protect the field?
First thing would be to create more awareness about who and what a sport scientist is by setting up a regulatory body like Biokinetics Association of South Africa (BASA) or South African Society of Physiotherapy (SASP) to clearly specify the scope of practice for all professionals. When South Africa catches up to the more developed countries the appropriate professional will naturally stick to his or her area of expertise but until then the best we can do is promote our field with the best advertisement there is… Word of mouth after repeated successful seasons. In the last few years there has been an increased trend in sport scientists being employed for S&C positions.
What is the next step for Laurence Christie? Or what do you see yourself doing in 10 years?
LC: I love what I do and I do not see it as work. I often find myself offering my services outside of St Andrew’s college working for fun at a Craven week level, University varsity shield, local club rugby and even at a Currie Cup level.
I still miss the competitive nature of the professional environment and would like to work with an international sports team. Rugby and, more specifically, Sevens has always been my passion. However, I am not sure if the contract performance clause, stresses and slight financial bump would be worth the pure bliss that I am intrinsically rewarded with on a daily bases by positively influencing multiple young men’s lives through sport and giving young athletes the opportunities I wish were given to me as a player, setting challenging yet achievable goals and helping these young men reach them.
While I do not see myself moving laterally to another school, I would have to seriously think about the offer if an international opportunity presented itself.
Is there any advice you would give to those considering or working towards a sport science qualification?
LC: Make sure it is your passion. This is a very difficult and cut throat industry that is saturated with personal trainers, biokinetics and six-month part-time course gym instructors, who all market themselves in a very similar manner. There are very few schools and fewer private schools that acknowledge the difference between the different professions.
Be willing to buckle down and work at early hours of the morning, being an energetic morning person is a massive benefit. You should be willing to always be the first person at training and the last person to leave. You will have four to six months of 5 am pre-season session three times a week that nobody will see or reward for each and every sport code, but that is often not remembered when teams finish a successful season injury free. Don’t do this for your ego, you will not stick it out. That is why I say make sure it’s your passion and you love what you do because then you never have to work a day in your life. It will also be a massive help to volunteer your time during your academic studies to gain some experiential learning with sports teams. This is the most important thing, because having all the theoretical knowledge in the world will never help unless you can practically implement it. The time you spend volunteering will show your enthusiasm and help set you apart from the other 50 candidates who apply for the job.
You will also have to have developed the people skills to navigate all sorts of tough situations when the lack of sleep has left everyone on edge due to the performance clauses in most contracts.
Love what you do, put your energy, time and effort into your work so that you do your job unapologetically well. Then you will naturally climb the ranks in order to gain the financial reward that it deserves.