When injury ended Julie Davis’ promising career as a hurdler, she wanted to stay involved in sport, but in what context?
Then a sports science student in the University of Ulster Jordanstown, she approached the matter... scientifically.
“At that time terms like ‘prehab’ were coming in, so I felt there might be a gap in the market when it came to bridging the gap between being on the physio’s table and getting a player back to his or her coach.
“When I was competing there weren’t strength and conditioning coaches as such, your coach did everything, so that’s where my interest in rehab courses and physical therapy courses started: I didn’t want to become a physio but I felt I could combine those two approaches, and that’s how I got into the strength and conditioning role.”
At that stage the GAA didn’t figure as an option. Her brother Jonny played rugby for Ulster and her sister Amy won a Grand Slam with the ladies’ rugby team last year.
But John McCluskey, the Armagh trainer, was in her UUJ training group. He was the connection.
“To make a few quid I did a sports massage course and I was doing that for Ulster Rugby part-time. John knew that; he said Armagh were short of masseurs and asked me to help out. I’d never been to a Gaelic match in my life at that stage, so my first game was the Ulster semi-final replay between Armagh and Tyrone in 2002.”
The Orchard County won and Davis was considered a lucky charm: she stayed with Armagh through the championship, right up to their sensational win over Kerry in the All-Ireland final that September.
“At the time I didn’t appreciate it. It was all new to me. The ironic thing is that now I’ve been involved in Gaelic football for the last 10 years I’ve seen teams trying to replicate that. You’d give your right arm to be back there. It was only the following year, when Armagh got back there, that I appreciated how hard it was. I was so lucky to be involved with Armagh in one of their most successful periods, from 2002-06, so my introduction to the game was a pretty good one.”
After that Davis travelled and worked abroad, getting valuable experience in New Zealand. She got her strength and conditioning qualification in 2004, and her role with Armagh grew.
“I’d started off giving a few rubs but John knew what I was doing in college, he gave me the opportunity to take the warm-up, to take the players doing rehab and so on.
“Being a woman in a man’s sport wasn’t that much of a factor; not if you’re good at your job. You’ll always have smart comments, but anyone who doesn’t expect to hear that kind of stuff isn’t living in the real world.
“What is important though, is we create environments where women can feel like they have an equal shot and be respected for how they do their job.
“I’ve never heard negative comments from opponents — maybe the players have and haven’t told me, but it’s never been a factor for me.
“I’ve always tried to be professional in my job, and as long as you are, then other things don’t really matter.”
Because she’s not from a traditional GAA background, Davis didn’t feel bound by the myths and conventions of the game — “I probably didn’t buy into that old-school stuff because I didn’t know it, honestly,” — but on the other hand, over the last 10 years she has seen the new discipline of strength andconditioning become so popular that regulation may be needed.
“It has become so big that there is a danger, maybe, of everyone being a strength and conditioning coach.
“There probably needs to be more regulation of the qualifications which are out there. I know the likes of Setanta College are offering great courses, the universities are now starting to offer degrees in strength and conditioning, and it’s important that anyone who’s working with inter-county players — or young kids — needs to have solid qualifications.
“It can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’redoing.
“It’s important that all counties be sure they have qualified coaches with relevant experience; that’s no disrespect to someone who does a weekend course, but strength and conditioning isn’t an exact science, there are a lot of theories out there and it takes years to become good at it.”
After Armagh she broadened her GAA horizons, working with the Cavan footballers for a couple of years before a lengthy stint with the Kildare footballers, from 2008 to last season.
She’s back with the Orchard County again now, though, in a new role with Armagh GAA — as high performance manager, trying to educate strength and conditioning coaches in the county.
“There’s a lot of good work being done in the GAA trying to set up structures for younger players with qualified coaches, and we’re lucky in Armagh that we have very good coaches in place. But it’s easy for people to get on the bandwagon and say any strength and conditioning coach will do, or this one will do because he was with this team — there can be a sense of ‘he has to be good because he was with team X’. That’s not necessarily the case.”
Davis is broadening her work base at present, as she spends a lot of time in Cork she is in the process of setting up a business on Leeside focusing on women’s fitness.
“People were asking me to train them and for women, in particular, strong is the new skinny. So I’m hoping to set up classes and get associated with a gym when I’m in Cork and to help women become fitter and stronger.”
For more information follow @coachjules79 on Twitter.
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