Ashley Jones' road to Croke Park
By John Harrington
Ashley Jones is one of the most well-respected strength and conditioning coaches in world rugby.
A native of Australia, he has previously worked with the New Zealand All-Blacks, the Australian Wallabies, and the Scotland national rugby team.
He’s been prolific at club level too, both in Rugby Union and Rugby League, with stints at Edinburgh, Crusaders, Newcastle Knights, Parramatta Eels, and Northern Eagles all featuring on an impressive CV covering over 20 years working in professional sport.
Attendees at the 2018 GAA Games Development Conference in Croke Park (January 12-13) will have the opportunity of hearing Jones speak about his coaching philosophy and how it might best translate to Gaelic Games.
He has made his name as a rugby coach, but Jones has always been an innovator who has sought inspiration in other sports, including Gaelic Football, which he has used in the past as a conditioning as well as recovery game in rugby training.
He’s proud of his Irish roots too – his family emigrated to Australia from Carrickmacross in Monaghan in the 1850s, and one of his prized possessions is a Carrickmacross Emmets jersey – so the chance to speak in Croke Park is a prospect that excites him.
“It's one of those special events I guess, bringing all the coaches from around the country to be a part of it,” Jones told GAA.ie.
“And with my Irish ancestry and as a rugby coach it's a massive honour to be able to speak at the GAA National Conference. I'm really up for this one.
“I've been speaking to a really good friend of mine, Mike McGurn, who lives up in Belfast and has done a lot of work over the years with the International Rules team as well as different Gaelic teams over the years. I've read a lot of his articles too to give me a background.
“I love talking to coaches, particularly from the grass-roots level, that obviously have to be very imaginative in the way they put together their programmes and how efficient they are with their timing so they can get the maximum out of the sessions they have available.”
Jones believes his over-arching philosophy on strength and conditioning is one that can be applied to Gaelic Games as equally as it can rugby or any other sport.
He wants to make the people he trains stronger, but only in a functional way that complements the skills of the sport they’re trying to play.
“I want to try to give a perspective for using weight-training to make you a better Gaelic player, whether it's hurling or football,” he said.
“You're not using it just to get you bigger like a body-builder. I guess the whole thing really comes down to is what are we using it for? How we are going to use it? What age is the best to start? All those perspectives.
“I want to give people a heads-up as to why we use weight-training to improve performance and how we can make them better Gaelic players and emphasise really the skills of the game.
“Rugby has made a huge mistake over the years, particularly with the younger players.
“I think Brian O'Driscoll said it better than most when he said the academies seemed to be strength and conditioning academies rather than rugby academies.
“They were failing to teach skill development which is the most important aspect and they're just spending too much time getting bigger, stronger and faster and they still don't know how to play the game properly.
“Everything we do should transfer to the field, so select the exercises and the way we train people to promote that.
“The old adage when I was growing up was that weight-training would make you slow. And they were 100 per cent correct - the wrong type of weight-training will indeed make you slow.
“But the correct weight training will improve your physical performance if it's done correctly.”
In recent years strength training has made its way from the senior game down into underage Gaelic Games, sometimes with mixed results.
Done correctly and in a sport specific way it can accelerate a player’s development, but done incorrectly it can send a young sportsperson down an unhelpful path.
“I guess particularly with younger players coming in using strength training to appropriately develop them, for example from the age of 15 or 16, which I think is starting to come more and more into Gaelic Games, a lot of those programmes are internet based programmes or they're from some body-builder down the road,” said Jones.
“It's okay to put on a couple of kilos of muscle-mass, but if it's in the wrong places or is just sitting there to make you look good at the weekend, then that's a problem.
“It's important to set the foundations correct with any activity because obviously the skill acquisition takes thousands of hours to actually develop a skill correctly, but it takes even more to break down the skill or break down the activity that's the wrong direction and then to retrain them in the correct direction.
“So you might as well get it right from the get-go.”
Now aged 56, throughout his career Jones has made a point of constantly challenging himself to keep ahead of the curve when it comes to best practice in strength and conditioning coaching.
And he believes that if you want to be a successful coach over a long period of time, then it’s essential to have a growth mindset.
“I heard a great quote not long ago that every decade that we age as coaches, the people we coach remain more or less the same age,” said Jones.
“So, we have to continually find a way to connect with that coaching group so that we are still relevant as we get older as coaches.
“We still obviously have a great part to play in the development of that group of people.
“But if we can't connect with the players then we can't buy into the culture that they have and the ideas that they have and take on board some of the newer ideas.
“In that scenario we basically end up dying as a coach.
“I think it's important for everyone to expand their horizons outside what we're currently working in and taking what we can from elsewhere.
“I'd like to be known as a generalist rather than a specialist. Because I want to basically sample from every avenue to help the team I'm currently with play better at whatever it is they play, rugby in my particular case.
“Irrespective of what stage of your career that you're at, you're still going to pick up something from somewhere.
“To paraphrase the Shawshank Redemption, you get busy learning or get busy dying.”
• The GAA Games Development Conference 2018 is being developed in partnership with Sky Sports and will take place on Friday and Saturday, January 12th and 13th 2018, in Croke Park.
Run as a partnership between all of the Gaelic Games Associations, the Conference will offer the 750 delegates attending an opportunity to access talks relating to key coaching issues in Hurling/Camogie, Gaelic football/Ladies Gaelic football, Handball and Rounders which are related to players across the entire player development pathway.
Tickets can be purchased HERE.