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Inside the High Performance Unit: Q&A with Brynley Abad from the Queensland Firebirds

I’ve been writing about sports injury and performance for a few months now, so I thought I would change my tact for a moment. Rather than write about sports injury and performance again and again, I thought that it might be a good idea to get a "real world" perspective of the ins-and-outs of a professional team. So what better way to get insight into the professional world of sports, and the effect of injury and performance, by asking a few questions to a person working right at the coalface.

Everyone meet Brynley Abad.

Brynley has overseen the physical preparation of the Queensland Firebirds in the ANZ Netball Championship since 2012, and has played a pivotal role in the team reaching the Grand Final in each of his years at the club - including winning back to back titles over the last 2 years. A large part of the Firebird’s success over the last 4 years with Brynley at the helm of the Physical Performance Department, is the fact that the team has consistently had one of the lowest injury rates of all the ANZ Championship teams. As a result, I wanted to find out more about the systems and programs he has in place at the club to reduce the risk of injury, and how this impacts on individual performance and overall team success.

Mick: Thanks for taking the time to sit down and answer a few questions Brynley. I see from your LinkedIn Profile, that the Firebirds have not had 1 ACL injury in the last 4 years with you as Head of Physical Performance. That’s an incredible feat for a sport that has a high incidence of ACL injury, what systems do you have in place to identify those at high-risk of injury, and what programs do to reduce the risk?

Brynley: Fantastic question and difficult to completely cover off here but I’ll do my best to summarise. Our approach has been very holistic. When I came into the role one of my first projects was to highlight areas of injury potential within the sport of Netball. The statistics show that each professional netball province would do at least one ACL per year. The Firebirds had been affected by this injury in previous years, so I set about ensuring we minimised the risk by managing what we can control in an elite program. We looked very closely at player's previous injuries dating back to when they were first exposed to netball, and we also completed a comprehensive Physiotherapist screening which enabled me to eradicate musculoskeletal issues that predisposed players to future injury. We believe the most significant aspect of our program that has reduced our overall injury rate is our heavy emphasis on strength work. In the preseason we will lift three times per week. The game of netball consists of acceleration and deceleration forces which is highly dependent on eccentric strength. Within gym sessions we include at least 15 minutes of neuromuscular control. The girls still work on landing mechanics with many different types of advanced proprioception drills. We don’t have access to indoor GPS monitoring systems. Therefore the player’s total load is tracked internally via Rate of Perceived Exertion. We utilise an Athlete Management system to avoid spikes in training load which has been proven to predispose players to injury.

Mick: Considering the ACL injury is the “king” or “Queen” of all injuries, do you find that implementing programs to reduce the risk of ACL injury has a carry-over in reducing the incidence of other lower limb injuries such as ankle sprains and PFJ pain?

Brynley: Absolutely! I think our very low injury rate has proven this. That is the fantastic thing about developing this type of performance program. There is so much you can control to avoid any types of injury. In addition to our non-existent ACL injuries our soft tissue rate over the past four years has been extremely low.

Mick: When a player is injured however, is there shared decision-making amongst the doctor, physio, coach, player and yourself? Or is the players rehab and RTS plan dictated by doctor and physio?

Brynley: This is one of the strongest points of our program. We understand each practitioner adds great value in their own right which leads to a unified approach to return to play. We all agree upon a plan and then it’s my duty to ensure the player reaches a pre-injury level. There is continual communication between the medical staff and head coach to ensure we are on track for a successful return to play.

Mick: Over the last 4 years, have you had any injuries that were very difficult to treat and manage?

Brynley: I’m pleased to say it’s been smooth sailing with the odd hiccup here and there. It’s something we are very proud of and has been part of the team’s success.

Mick: Load management is a very sexy topic in sports physio and sports science circles at the moment, how do you monitor training and playing loads to reduce the risk of future non-contact, soft tissue injuries?

Brynley: Yes, I touched on this a little in your first question. Unfortunately we haven’t the resources to track external load. I don’t think we are far off utilising Accelerometers and GPS systems in the future. We are therefore heavily reliant on tracking internal load through rate of perceived exertion and other wellness indicators such as muscle soreness, sleep, and illness. The data is collected through an athlete management system which we keep an eye on daily. Even more importantly I spend time each day connecting with players ensuring they are coping with training load and day to day life. Sometimes a question is much more powerful than putting a number into an iPhone or computer. Human relationships are a key factor.

Mick: Compared to other codes, the season is fairly short (14 regular season) with the grand finalists playing up to 17 games a season. That means there is a 35 week off-season and pre-season. What do a majority of the players do in between seasons? And how much involvement do you have in their conditioning in the “off-season”?

Brynley: A majority of our players are involved in the national side and the remainder of the squad also have other representative honours such as the fast five so there is always something on their plate. The girls aren’t a difficult squad to motivate. I try and transition them with active rest for 3-4 weeks. Then we try and work on a physical capacity that maybe lacking e.g. strength, speed and conditioning. It’s also a good time to work on niggly injuries and spend a little more time in the gym which they love.

Mick: I hear anecdotally, especially in some sections of elite sport that the Head Coach is often resistant to exercise science and evidence-based practices such as load management and “injury prevention programs”. Have you had any difficulty getting “buy-in” from the coaching staff and/or players?

Brynley: Yes, and that’s where our program differs and the key component to our success is an exceptional relationship with the head coach. Our head coach Roselee Jencke is an avid fan of load management and the positive effect strength and conditioning has on the program. We have a saying that skill is king and without the players on court we do not improve as a group. The playing group have seen the many benefits of a well put together program which has led to consistent performance over the past four years. Buy in has never been a problem.

Mick: I see also that you have previously worked in Rugby Union. Firstly, what are the biggest differences between the sports in terms of reducing the risk of injury? Secondly, are there any differences between the 2 sexes in managing a player’s injury or physical preparation?

Brynley: In Rugby there are more sessions to deal within a week and so much more body load to consider when planning a week. Rugby players have the obvious contact issues but also have specialist roles to improve such as kicking and scrummaging. I’d have to say there really isn’t a difference in the way I program for both sexes. The methodology remains the same but the specific requirements of the sports are different.

Mick: How much emphasis do you place on sleep, nutrition and recovery in managing your players between games and training and/or those players with injury? If so, what strategies do you have in place to optimise sleep, recovery and nutrition?

Brynley: Sleep and nutrition are the biggest things we can control. The players receive a lot of formal and informal education around these critical factors from our Sports Dietician. Each player have unique recovery needs post game and training so we try and plan around this with our Sports Dietitian. As the player’s transition into full time professionals I think sleep will be something that is further investigated with netball players.

Mick: Finally, what advice do you have for any new grad physios, exercise physiologists, exercise scientists or strength and conditioning coaches who are looking to work in, and have a long career, in the professional sport arena?

Brynley: My biggest recommendation is get exposure to a team and practice your trade whilst learning from other people that are more experienced than you. I did numerous hours as a volunteer in different sports at the elite and club level. Strength and Conditioning Coaches like myself are always happy to provide hours of experience if students are keen and willing to put in the time. I’ve been on the same journey so I am always keen to mentor the right applicant.

And there you have it. A little snapshot of what it is like to be a physical performance manager at one of Australia’s most successful and professional sporting clubs.

Thanks for your time Brynley, your insight has been fascinating!

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