Understanding Performance | Pro Rugby Tom May

Understanding Performance

The Athlete Tribe sat down with Tom May, ex-London Welsh, Toulon and Newcastle Falcons back to talk about all things training, rugby and performance.

Check out the full interview on our new YouTube Channel here.

How did your training change during your long professional career?

“When I first started playing – you think back to those times now – it was players like Donny Weir, George Graham, Scottish internationals, Rob Andrew. They weren’t brought up on a structured training regime as we are now. They wouldn’t have had dedicated fitness plans or anything like that. Our trainer at the time, he wasn’t as run of the mill as you would expect now from any of the S and C coaches that you would come across. So, Steve Black did a lot of work with the Lions, Fulham Football Club, Newcastle United. He would get you on machines and he would beast you, and you wouldn’t necessarily know how many reps you were doing and that, for me, was all about developing mental strength. To the point where, as a young player in a group of players like that that had so much experience, you felt like you could run through a brick wall for him. He was really good at that.

But then, as you moved on, I spent 10 years or so at Newcastle and then I moved to Toulon, which basically was put together at the time by a group of players that had been picked from all over the world by Philippe Saint-Andre, who obviously had an experience of working in England, which was a lot more structured than France was at the time, in terms of the training. Over many years you’ve always seen English players doing extras with their fitness or extras with their weights. That was non-existent when I arrived in France, and Philippe wanted to instil that within Toulon. Steve Walsh was down there in Toulon, and we had a lot more structured training compared to where I’d been at Newcastle. But it almost ramps up; you can imagine a graph, it just sort of went bottom left to top right, in terms of structure throughout my career.

Then, as I got towards the end of my career, as you’ll know, Lee, I started to have to steer away from Olympic Lifting for physical reasons. My back was struggling, my tight hip flexors, tight hamstrings. So, machine-based weight machines were a lot more comfortable for me back then – a lot of band work, which is quite interesting given the situation we find ourselves in now. My back garden is covered in bands, TRXs and things like that. It tests the way that you train, but in terms of the structured nature of it, when I first started, it was way back. I was a 16 stone 19-year-old, that was a ball-carrying centre, and I finished 15 stone 2 (lbs), quicker, stronger. That, you would have to say, was down to the structure of the training.

I remember we were doing quite a lot of bench during one period, maybe it was pre-season or something. I was really struggling with the front of my shoulders, wasn’t I? So, to off-set that we were doing some reverse flies with bands, or using normal flies with the bands worked really well and took the pressure off my shoulders. The idea of a rugby player going ‘right, I need to change from bench to bands,’ you’ve got the old macho thing, and certainly, I felt that in the corner of the gym, and every lad that walked past me was like ‘what are you doing?’ But, needs must at that point. Then it’s a case of I can get something out of this, what can you get out of it, how can you adapt it to make it slightly harder but better on your body, so that actually you can play and train”.

Having played for different clubs, how did your physical development change?

“I think because for 10 years I had the same coach, I had Steve Black and Mark Wilkinson, who was Johnny’s brother. They worked very closely together and were very similar in the way that they coached players. My first real experience of structure in S and C and in fitness was with Toulon, where we had structured weights, everything like that, especially when I came back to the U.K. actually. The U.K. had kicked on so far when I went back to Northampton Saints and the team they had there was amazing. They really put a focus on the individual and those coaches that they had almost looked after a certain number of players each. That meant that they were a lot more focused on their coaching, and the players were a lot more focused on their training, which ultimately helped the team. Coaching certainly became important. When I signed at London Welsh, that was the same with you and Ryan Campbell, because of the ways we structured our training – forward, backs – you could split up. You had the guys that were coming in as interns and working with those guys as well and it works. If you know the guys have developed an understanding, a reason why behind that training, then it makes your day a lot easier, in terms of the coaching”.

Now that you have finished playing, what do you struggle with in terms of physical development?

“The two first things that jump to mind are: not having a reason to train is really difficult. For the best part of 20 years, I had a clear reason why I was training and why I was doing something. That was really difficult when I retired because then you get sucked into doing things that you like doing. Actually, you have to step away from that and go, ‘right, if I want to get fitter and want to get stronger, if I want to keep working at staying in shape, you have to keep changing it and doing the stuff that you actually don’t like doing either’. That’s hard when you’re on your own, and you take yourself out of that team environment where someone is coaching you, where everything is done for you. Look, there’s a lot online – you can go and get stuff from anywhere really, but you’ve still got to do it on your own. I was quite lucky. In my career, I was never the quickest, never the strongest, never the fastest, but I’d hang in for quite a long time, and I think my level of desire would have got me through that period. That’s really what I’m using now, my internal drive going right, ‘keep going, keep doing this’. It’s been instilled as a habit. I used to leave the house, go to the gym, come back, and it wouldn’t even cross my mind. Now it’s like, oh wow, that’s such a big part of my life. I think you get two polar opposites when players stop playing. You get the ones that continue and are really into it, and you get the ones that go the other way and balloon”.

You have spoken about internal desire and work ethic, where do you think this has come from?

“I think it’s been there from a young age because I haven’t necessarily had a huge amount of belief in myself through my career, which made me fight for things harder. If I thought there was someone who was more skilful than me, faster, quicker, whatever it was, I would almost have to prove to myself, and to them and to the coaches, that I was the person to pick anyway. I think that instilled a bit of a mental edge about me and I think maybe that is now being reflected in what I’m doing, in terms of my training. You know, I’ve come up with some pretty crazy ideas to raise some money for charity. Sitting on a Wattbike for 24-hours, which was difficult. Not as difficult as running around London in 6 days, which was 150 miles. But, there are different elements of mental strength that you would need for that. The Wattbike was alright, you can sit there, and you can peddle away, but it’s actually up top is where you’re fighting boredom, you’re fighting why am I doing this. Certainly, in terms of the run, it was the recovery bit that got me. So, run a marathon, go home, sleep, get up and oh my god I’ve got to do it again”.

Check out our blog with Richard Hussiany, when he talks about mindset here.

How do now challenge yourself?

“I’m 41 now. I don’t know whether those endurance challenges – I would probably say I’m more able to do those than I would be taking part in some crazy Cross Fit competition, because of all the Olympic Lifting. The techniques involved, the problems that you would have as you get older as an athlete, that is where you’re going to find your issues. Whereas, as long as you can find where you need to be, in terms of your running, you can probably work it out. Then it becomes a case of have you got it up top to get through. That’s where it becomes a bit frustrating, I guess, as you get a bit older because there are things you want to do, things you want to be good at and want to try, but it’s just not happening”.

What do you think has been the biggest challenge you have faced as a professional rugby player?

“My mental battle would be the constant worry in my head that someone else was better than you, or someone else would get selected ahead of you. It’s interesting, I talked about this on House of Rugby the other week, and I was sat next to Mike Tindall. I couldn’t go on a rugby tour way back when I was playing for England Schools and he came on the tour instead of me, and he just kicked on about it. And he was just sat there going ‘I cannot believe you’re saying this.’ I was known as a bit of an aggressive player and always getting into scrapes or whatever, but I think that was me trying to almost go completely the other way and sort of say ‘I am here, I am really confident, I am really brash,’ when actually inside I was really fighting that. I think that was probably the toughest thing that I went through.

Obviously, there are difficult days physically when you have a double training day. Some of those pre-season days are pretty rank, in terms of what they have in store for you. I certainly don’t necessarily miss those, three months of pre-season anymore. I think physically, I used quite to enjoy it – maybe that was something that allowed me to continue for so long. If you’re enjoying the training, then that’s half the battle. If you’re really hating training and you don’t want to go to the gym, you don’t want to do the sessions, then actually that has a detrimental effect on your playing, your performances go down, and then you lose your whole love for the game. The fact that I actually like training – my fiancee is constantly saying ‘why do you have to go to the gym?’ Well, now it’s a case of A: I’m used to it, and B: if I don’t, mentally I’m not in anywhere near as good a place if I haven’t trained than if I have. It’s is quite interesting given what is going on now with the lockdown due to the Coronavirus. Gyms are closed and it makes it really difficult to train, so then how do you get around that? Well, today I’ve gone out, and I’ve leased a SkiErg, so I’ve got one of those in the back garden at the moment”.

What advice would you give to young up and coming players?

“I think the ones that are striving to get into those positions; then you would have to say do everything you can, and you’ll have to make some sacrifices to get to that position. I made a hell of a lot of sacrifices throughout my career to be in the best condition I could be to play or to train. I don’t think that comes as easy to some people as others. Or the understanding, perhaps, isn’t there. My advice to players that are involved in those academies and are making that progression is to not ever forget the opportunity you’ve got. I think it’s very easy when you’re in there to just go ‘this is it, this is what we do.’ But actually, now I’m out – it’s really hard to appreciate something when you’re in it, but actually, when you step out of it, it’s tough. It’s like, as soon as you take something away from someone they go ‘I want it.’ I think if I had tried to savour the now a lot more when I was playing, that would be a piece of advice I would pass down to those players that have that opportunity at their disposal”.

Check out our blog on the young athlete, where we talk about how to improve performance in the right way here.

Now that you have completed the 24 hours Wattbike and 150 miles around London, what significant challenges are planned next?

“There will never be water involved because it absolutely terrifies me. Someone said I could run the London loop back round the other way. No, I am not doing that again. I still haven’t run since. My left knee is in bits. I don’t know, for the moment it’s just finding a way to train effectively in this period of time where it’s so difficult to train. I’m fortunate that my missus is a PT, so we’ve got some bits and bobs in the back garden, and we’ve obviously got this SkiErg now as well. So, it’s getting through this period of time. I think when I get out the other side of this, I want to try and maintain some of that running. 10, 15 km is quite nice to keep doing every now and again. I want to try and really push myself a bit in terms of what I’m doing. There’s a lot of good opportunity in terms of the competitions you can get involved in now. Whether it be vets competitions in terms of – what do they call it? National Fitness Games and things like that. It’s an excellent way to compete when I’m missing out on the competition probably, a reason to train and finding ways to push myself for where I’m at physically now, as a 41-year-old”.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank Tom for his time and honest approach to our questions.

You can follow Tom and his challenges on his IG page @Tommay1

If you have any questions, drop us an email at info@theathletetribe.com


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