Jools Murray is a talented Ultimate Frisbee player and an ambitious Strength and Conditioning Coach who currently works alongside the England Netball Squad with the English Institute of sport. ?Originally from Canada, Jools spends her spare time outside of the EIS coaching the GB men’s Ultimate Frisbee team.
The FCN had a great chat with Jools as we asked her about her career and advice for up and coming strength and conditioning coaches…
How has sport been a part of your life growing up?
I am originally from Canada and moved to the UK when I was 13, I’m now 31. When I was little, I would follow my dad running round the park, going to the gym with him and playing with dumbbells. At school, I was that kid who was super keen and completely untalented at everything but, whether we were winning or losing (or whatever the weather was like!), the teachers knew I was someone that would still be running hard and giving it my all. I somehow kept making it onto sports teams but, not because I was actually talented at what I did! When I came to the UK, it was a big shock to me because the sports were completely different. In Canada, we don’t wear skirts to play sport, so that was something I didn’t get on particularly well with my school about because I refused to wear one. I slowly got a handle on UK sports as I could hit things hard and throw stuff far. Sport has always been a massive part of my life and it continued to be through Uni and now even more so.
How did you go through that transition of just being a big sports fan to then becoming a coach?
This is slightly embarrassing actually; when I was at the University of Edinburgh, I was studying physics and competing for the Great Britain Women’s Ultimate Frisbee team. The Uni decided they would provide me, and another girl, with money to support us on our journey to compete for our country, mainly because we were extremely successful. The University team we helped build started to win and it became a BUCS (British University Championship Sport) sport. The Uni decided, as they were giving a load of money to other sports that weren’t doing very well, they would give us money because we were getting them more BUCS league points. This support included physio and for the first time I was introduced to strength and conditioning (S&C) training. I had always loved being active, yoga and going to circuit classes but, this was in the gym. We were taught the Olympic lifts, how to use the bars and the weights; the head of S&C, Steve Bishop, was incredible with us. He treated us just like he treated all his other athletes, even though we were the only women in the gym surrounded by guys lifting massive amounts of weights, it didn’t faze him at all. He still demanded things from us and that was the first time I kind of thought, wow, I love this! I can’t believe he is actually paid to do this. I just loved doing it and realised that there could be a bit more to it.
What were your first steps into making this a reality?
When I finished my degree, I felt a bit lost. I knew I wasn?t smart enough to go into Physics and get one of the cool jobs! One day, I was with my mum back in Canada getting my toe nails painted and the woman said to me, so erm…your feet are quite well worn. I told her it wasn’t from wearing high heels, it was because I wear boots most of the summer and my feet get absolutely wrecked! I explained how I needed as much dead skin as possible on my feet to protect them and then I launched in to this massive long spiel about what I had been doing and how I had just finished the World Championships out in Vancouver that summer. She just said to me, I wish you were there for me to get me up in the morning and get me to the gym! I just realised then that I am that person I will never be talented enough at anything to be able to compete at the Olympics but, I am someone who has enough motivation that can help others to get there. I have always enjoyed that.
After that conversation I decided that was what I wanted to do; I worked to achieve my accreditation in strength and started studying a Masters in S&C which I am just completing now. I was introduced to Alex Wolf, who is Head of S&C for the English Institute of Sport (EIS), and he mentioned they had a work placement coming up with the GB Rowing Team; if I applied and worked hard, that could be a way in for me. After a successful interview, I joined him working on the GB rowing programme. I would probably say it wasn’t until that point that I truly understood what S&C was. Before that I think I was just super keen about fitness! I now work for the EIS at Sportcity in Manchester (England), working with the England Netball Team and a few England Women Rugby and Football players as well.
What is involved with this role day to day?
A lot of gym work, getting the athletes strong and making sure they are moving well. We also do a lot of work on agility and speed as well as mobility and injury prevention. Unfortunately injuries do sometimes occur in sports so I also work closely with the physiotherapists. This partnership is especially important when working on return to play strategies for the athletes or keeping an eye on their physical progression once they are fully fit. I have daily communication with the athletes, lead technical coaches and other support staff. I make sure I am communicating with the girls, making sure they are happy with their programmes, explaining what they are trying to achieve, working on any movement issues, and providing target loading in certain lifts. It’s one of those jobs where I may be sat at the desk for a whole day analysing data from monitoring, running a testing session, being on the phone or having meetings. There are even days when I am on my feet running around with the athletes and getting involved in whatever sessions are going on. It suits me, I definitely wasn’t built to sit at a desk all day!
So because you work with so many different sports and athletes, I guess you have to have a good understanding into the demands that different sports place upon different athletes?
Yeah, which is huge! In the EIS, we say that you are part of a multi-disciplinary team working with that athlete and we offer support to the sport. The sport must always come first. I need to make sure I am fully aligned to the requirements that the sport has.? This is why having a good relationship with the coaches, physios, nutritionists and performance lifestyle is important. Worst case would be that you start doing your own thing which isn?t aligned to anything, this starts sending mixed messages to the athlete. The sports have a lot of pressure on them. The way sport works in the UK is if you aren?t successful you don’t get funding which is cut throat and that is a reality for us. Even if we have a difference in opinion on things, we have to give that information to the coach and support their decision. Ultimately, they know more about their athletes and the different demands placed on them because they are with them day in and day out and have known them for years. It would be silly for any S&C coach to think they are above it we are there to support! Sometimes our support can be as simple as going along to a training session and just being in that environment to understand what the coach is trying to build. If you can create a similar environment in your own training sessions, this reinforces the message to the athletes.
Do you think it is important that all sports coaches gain a good understanding into strength and conditioning?
Yes, but only to a certain extent. For example, as a track and field coach, if I came in to support you, what level of knowledge would you expect me to have of track and field to be able to do my job well You’re a technical coach because that’s your expertise and the reason why you don’t get coaches with multiple expertise, is simply because it can become very difficult to put all those different hats on and mange them. However, at the same time you can’t be completely ignorant of the sport you are working with and what it takes to succeed. I think that’s where the line blurs and is why communication is so important. I would say to any technical coaches out there, you should recognise the importance of fitness for your sport but that your knowledge will only ever go so far unless you start to specialise within it. Without a fair understanding you will struggle to separate the wheat from the chaff. Some exercises can look great but actually only works if you already a certain level of athlete. Bear in mind the benefits of S&C, understand the basics of what you need for your sport to protect your athlete and the more you can try and pull in S&C coaches (or even an S&C intern) it is better to learn from them and this gives you someone to help critically analyse your fitness options.
How do you keep up to date with all the S&C information you need to learn?
Starting my masters was my way of increasing my understanding and learning how to assess information. I knew it was important to have the ability to determine the validity of information so that my programmes were based on evidence rather than new fads. If you are UKSCA (United Kingdom strength and conditioning association) accredited you need to keep up to date with the latest research and attend some professional development conferences to support your progression. Also, reading journals is a good way to stay informed and discussing various topics with your colleagues. They may have read something you haven?t and together you can explore new ideas. Make sure some of it is a formalised process as it will ensure you get the most out of it to drive your development.
Me personally, I also take it one step further. If I am at a conference and I hear someone talk about something, I am definitely the person who is asking the questions out in front of the crowd or going to the coach after and wanting to talk to them about it. I think that?s important because I always want to know more. Take the time to listen! Especially in S&C, we all tend to be quite alpha, everyone has their opinions and we are not ashamed or scared to share them. However, you know what they say about listening, it is not just waiting for your turn to talk but, to actually hear what the persons saying. I would say this is an extremely important skill for any S&C coach. Ask someone what their thoughts or philosophies are on an exercise, listen to them and give yourself a chance to engage with that information.? I also use things like twitter as you can follow some of the top S&C coaches from around the World. Different websites are great sources of information too, for example, www.allthingsgym.com or www.gymnasticswod.com. There are always buzz things going round! When you have got your eye in, you will be able to tell what is good and what is not. There is a lot of information out there and all platforms are amazing, as it can all reignite your creativity!
I guess you do have to be really creative in your line of coaching because you are working with athletes from so many different sports?
Yes! Something I would recommend any S&C coach to work with disabled athletes. I did a load of work with some Paralympians just before 2012 and it really challenges how you approach certain exercises. You realise just how limited you are with your understating of the body when you have one athlete that doesn’t have a hand or doesn’t have a leg below the knee or is paralysed from the waist down. If you are trying to get them to do core for example, suddenly you are faced with a whole new way of looking at training and having to decide what’s actually important and what isn’t. That was a big learning point for me! I was really lucky because when I was on my work placement with rowing, the EIS employed me to work with some para-equestrian athletes. One of them was Sophie Christiansen who has won multiple god medals. I challenged her in all kinds of ways never feeling limited by her disability but only limited by my own creativity and knowledge. Some things worked and some things didn’t but, she was always willing to try. I was constantly checking whether she was limited because of her disability or because she had never done the exercise before. It really makes you start to think about what a training programme needs to be for the athlete and not just the standard set of lifts.
What are the opportunities like for women in S&C coaching in the UK?
This is something which I struggled with in the beginning not because of other people but, because of me. Being in the EIS, you are treated the same as anyone else, which means you have certain targets to hit, they expect a certain standard and they are there to support you regardless of whether you are male or female. Any of the roles that come up, if you can’t cut it, it’s not because you are female, it’s because you can’t cut it. I spoke to a colleague, Michelle Pearson who was the head of S&C for England women’s football in the UK, and asked her how she coped being a female in a very male dominated role. She made me realise that it wasn?t the men that were the issue but that I was the one who had the chip on my shoulder about being female.
I didn’t really understand what it meant to be a female strength and conditioning coach. I have never wanted to be someone who is one of the guys because I am not, but then at the same time there are very few female role models, so you are almost searching around in the dark thinking things like, should I wear nail polish or does that make me look too feminine? Do I wear make-up or should I not wear makeup? Little things, that sound so superficial, which leave you in this weird place feeling, I’m not really sure who I am. This is when Michelle helped me realise that these issues were not a female thing but a me thing because I didn’t know who I was in this environment. She suggested that I talk to other female S&C coaches about it and ask their opinion on the matter. Basically, guys don?t care if you are female! If you happen to go into a job where a guy cares that you’re female, well that’s in every profession…you could be discriminated against because of your ethnicity or if you have tattoos etc, unfortunately that’s the world we live in; we are judged. So why would you want to work for someone who is judging you on those things anyway.
For example Stuart Yule, who is the Head of S&C for Glasgow Warriors, said that some of the best S&C interns he has ever had have been women. There were only the women who were confident and knew what they were about. I would say to any female S&C coach out there, it?s not a case of saying, yes, but women are objectified etc etc… that just makes things worse for ourselves and it’s not the case. The issue is with us. If we just went into a role saying, I know this, I am confident about this? and supported women getting their confidence high, we would achieve so much more, rather than the men changing their opinion about us.
You mentioned the EIS treat everyone the same with regards to opportunities and hitting targets, but have you come up against any closed doors because you are female?
No but, I have had interviews for male dominant sports and my feedback, after not being successful, just came down to my lack of experience; which is fair enough! The person who was successful had more experience than me, so I would say I have never faced an issue because I was a woman; it was simply because I didn?t know enough or wasn’t right for the job. The men get the same treatment, those who are not successful were just not right for the role.
Maybe there are sports were a female S&C coach would be big news and a big deal, but then again I think there aren?t many of us in the first place. The ones that are coming through may not have that much experience in particular sport. I would say the day you get a female with loads of experience in a male dominated sport, this woman would get the role. Sport is about winning…so the coach will pick the person who will be most effective in helping them to get medals. If there are any sports that have issues with having female coaches, chances are they are probably not doing that well anyway!
How did you become the Head Coach of the GB U23 men?s Ultimate Frisbee Team?
Back in 2010 when I first set out to gain experience coaching S&C, I offered to do the fitness plans for the GB U20 teams. That was also the first year it as announced there would be an U23 World Championship. The two lads, who were the current head coaches for the U20 men?s team, were eligible to compete for the U23s. They asked me if I would come in and be the coach for the U20 men’s team. I knew a fair amount about Ultimate at that point and had experience captaining and leading teams. I also understood what it would take to win having won Gold at the European Club championships. I agreed to be their coach even though I was totally scared of not being right for the role because I was female. I had a great support network in terms of the admin staff and an assistant coach. We ended up winning the bronze medal at the World U20 Championships in Germany! At that point, it was the highest medal that GB had ever won on an International level.? I realised then that it was something I really enjoyed and it taught me a lot about my own game. I went on to coach the GB U23 women who also won a bronze medal at the U23 World Championships!
In America and Canada, you can get sports scholarships to compete in Ultimate! They have a professional league in the states and the sport is played in Japan, Columbia, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Russia, basically all over the world! Ultimate is also part of the World Games.
Ultimate is a self-refereed sport even at the highest level. It is not about getting one up on the opposition; if you do something wrong, you own up to it. That’s why I love the sport! It personifies and embodies sportsmanship to the highest level, you can be competitive and be proud to represent as a team but at the same time, you are expected to be honest about it all. If you are playing people from another country it can be challenging if you don?t speak their language so it’s about finding a common ground. If you think they have fouled you but, they don’t think they did, how do you go about explaining that to each other. That’s why I am an avid supporter for this sport, especially in the youth programme. In how many other sports do you get to travel all over the world and compete against these different countries where you are expected to be honourable in competition? Even if you want to win, if you have cheated, you have got to stand up and say you have cheated!? And then how do you deal with other countries? The Italians are known for being a bit hot headed and they will yell at you…but in their culture that?s fine…the Japanese are very quiet and they don?t want to argue… so the whole experience is incredible!
I moved to Manchester in 2013 and set up the Manchester Ultimate women?s team and then decided that although I love playing, I am too competitive, I hate losing! In 2014 I felt I wanted a new challenge. I decided to put in a bid to run the GB U23 men?s team and was successful which, I was surprised about!? This is my first year of coaching at a level which I would never be able to compete. We have World U23 championships in London this year between July 12-19th and it is going to be amazing! I will be there either crumbling under the pressure or rising to it!
What are your ultimate ambitions as a coach?
I would want to go to the Olympics with a sport as an S&C coach because I like the idea of knowing what it takes to work with a team for 4 years and then go through that process. Also, I think unless you have something behind you to back up your credentials, no one is ever going to listen to you. So I feel I need to do these things and be with these teams to win gold medals and go through the processes so I can come back and say I have done it and people don’t doubt me. They know what I have achieved. As a coach, I love S&C but, in this role you will only ever be support staff. Like I said, I am definitely an alpha, I like being in charge, I like to facilitate the right kind of atmosphere and environment to help individuals achieve their potential. When Ultimate is in the Olympics, (because I believe we will get there as we are very close) I would love to be the Head Coach for the Men?s team. I think that would probably be the proudest moment of my life.