Alan MacDonald: Taking Scotland Women from strength to strength
Scotland women are halfway through their two Test tour of South Africa. The first Test on Monday saw Scotland beat the hosts 5-47. They now have the chance to make it a double this Saturday against the Springboks.
They will be playing against South Africa at City Park Ground, Athlone, Cape Town (kick-off 2pm BST – streamed live via scottishrugby.org).
Two international level matches of rugby in one week is a test for most teams which is why the role of the Management Team is key to ensuring every athlete is in the best physical condition possible.
Scotland Women's Lead Strength and Conditioning Coach Alan MacDonald has been supporting the national team for the past 12 months. His role is to make sure the players can physically do what the coaches, Philip Doyle and Bryan Easson, want the team to deliver.
His role doesn’t just start and end with a camp or tour though. He works with the players all year round to make sure that they are in the best possible condition.
“Although the competitive rugby is measured in seasons, being an athlete is 24/7 – 365 days a year. You have to have that mindset the whole time so that when we get to competition rugby, they are used to doing it and can perform better on the field.”
“What we have tried to do is to instil three key principles that the players can follow, and that should help in really practical situations. The first is the ‘Rugby First’ principle. This means if the players are planning their training day, they should always prioritise rugby first. Whether that is ensuring they fit it in around work or studying over a gym session, or to prioritise it over the other sessions that day.
The second is to ‘Work hard’. That means not just working hard in sessions, it means work hard and recover hard.
“The third one is ‘Ownership’. I can’t see exactly what the players do out with Scotland camps and training sessions, but the players can own that and know that ultimately it is down to themselves if they want to get better or not.”
Talking specifically about how he monitors how the players are training, MacDonald said: “There are lots of different things that we do to monitor and support the players with for the whole season. One is understanding what it is physically they need to do in camp when they are with Philip and Bryan.
“We use a really simple tool called RPE (Rating of Perceived Exertion) for that which simply rates how hard you have to work in a session. That is the load. We look at how Philip wants the camp to look like and then we look at how close the girls get to that load in their own training environments and make recommendations based on that.
“The more objective way is the use of GPS. Scottish Rugby has invested a lot of money into GPS units for each of the players. They all wear it for rugby or running sessions and then download and send the data to me. I can then look at it to see how it would compare to a match situation.”
On a match day, the proof will be in the pudding of how well the players are learning and improving from the programmes put in place by MacDonald. However, even on the day itself MacDonald has a key role to play.
He said: “The biggest thing for me on match day is making sure that the players are physically ready, and their body has the right fuel for the match ahead. I plan a mealtime schedule for them to ensure that they aren’t eating too close to the game or too far away. We also carefully plan what the meals are so that they are getting a good combination of the things that their body needs.
“I also make sure that they are really hydrated. Particularly in South Africa, because it is so hot, we know that their heart rates are going to be beating a bit faster. We also know that they are going to be sweating more and their blood will lose some fluid, so we try and get a head start on that.
“During the match, I am involved in the warmup. I know exactly what the drills are going to be, so I prepare the players bodies for these drills. For example, one of the handling drills will have quick acceleration and is going to have side stepping involved, so I make sure that the hips are properly warmed up and the lower body is ready to be extremely explosive.
“Half time is a big window of opportunity for us to make sure they get rehydrated again and refuelled.”
“As soon as the final whistle goes, it is about rehydrating, refuelling and rebuilding in countdown to the next test match.”
“For any players that didn’t play, I run top up conditioning. We use the GPS tools to try and ensure all players have done enough through specific drills to get them to the correct level for their position. We do just enough conditioning to make sure that they don’t lose stimulus or fitness, but they should still be fresh for training.”
“It is the Goldilocks of training. You don’t want to give them too much, or too little, you just try to keep them in that sweet spot.”
To make sure that any new players coming into the squad through the Scottish Futures Programme adapt easily to the physical demands, MacDonald works closely with their Strength and Conditioning coaches.
He said: “We try and do a few things but do them exceptionally well. The first thing is ensuring that they use are those governing principles of ‘Rugby First’, ‘Work Hard’ and ‘Ownership’. They are threaded through everything that we do in the Scottish Futures programme.
“There are also several practises that we do with Scotland Women when they are in camp. Such as, every morning, they do about ten minutes of diagnostic work around common injuries like ankle range of movement, hip range of movement, shoulder etc. They complete some screening questions every morning that we can then quickly look at and make any recommendations.
“We have rolled this programme out with Scottish Future U18 and U20s when they are in camp or on a training weekend. It gets them used to those processes and it isn’t detracting from ‘Rugby First’.
“It is around them taking ownership of their own performance.”