By Alana Leabeater – Current Bachelor of Sport and Exercise Science Student
“Learn to win without the ball”
This is the quote emblazoned across the wall of the state-of-the-art gym at the Panthers Rugby League Academy in Penrith. Underneath the quote are glass doors that frame one of two full size playing fields at the academy, the perfect grass torn up daily by gruelling field sessions. It is a quote which exemplifies the way the Panthers and their extensive support team operate; and it resonates with my idea of what sports science should aim for.
In November last year I began a four-month Athletic Performance Internship with the Penrith Panthers, headed by their sports scientist, Tom Lovell. I spent the weekend prior to the commencement of the internship cramming NRL lingo with a Tigers-obsessed friend. This was put to good use when, on day one, Tom handed me a folder with pictures of every player in the squad, rattled off which playing positions were in which gym group, and suggested it might be good to start studying names.
This folder would become my bible in the fortnight to follow; not just for knowing the players’ names, but for knowing those of the staff as well. One key job I undertook was collecting Ratings of Perceived Exertion (RPEs) from the players after each session, which is used to calculate their internal training load. You can imagine the chaos when 40+ players rolled into the academy after a field session, blurted out a number to me and disappeared into the changing rooms. Needless to say, I learnt names very quickly.
As well as training load, there are a host of other metrics that the sports science department at the Panthers monitor daily and weekly.
Some of these include sleep quality and duration, muscle soreness, neuromuscular fatigue and joint range of motion. These are monitored in a concerted effort to prevent overtraining and injuries, and to observe the delicate balance between too much training and not enough training.
One key metric that feeds into the players’ training load and injury risk is their running data, particularly the amount of high speed running they’re doing. At field sessions, I helped to set up GPS (Global Positioning System) devices with live data analysis, which shows distance, speeds, field positions, heart rate and more. I came to learn that when I saw the Athletic Performance Manager making a beeline for me from the field, that I should be ready to tell him the data for that drill before he asked.
After the session, this GPS data is processed and shown to the coaches, which helps to inform them of whether the drills matched their expectations for distance and speed, and which players are running the furthest and fastest.
One of the strengths of this internship was that I was not solely restricted to the sports science department, but I was also involved with the nutritionist, S&C coaches, athlete wellbeing managers, physios and a range of other staff. This not only gave me a chance to network and see how each department contributed to best athlete performance, but also diversified my skill base. As Tom rightly pointed out, not every organisation or team I will work for will be as well-equipped as the Panthers are, so it is important to be able to perform a range of skills and be a well-rounded sports scientist.
What was most rewarding for me was being able to work directly with a team, and with a diverse collection of support staff as well. Being part of pre-season, I got to see the athletes improve and develop over the four months and was privy to just how hard they work. Now that the season has begun, it has been great to follow the progress of the Panthers and know that I contributed to their current success, albeit in a small way. My thanks to the players and staff at Penrith for the great experience, and especially to Tom for taking me on and fostering my professional development.
Images courtesy of Jeff Lambert, Digital Content Producer at Penrith Panthers