'Balance Is Vital': Olympic Performance Coach Ishan Rawlley-Singh
We chat with Olympic performance coach Ishan Rawlley-Singh
Ishan Rawlley-Singh’s list of qualifications go something like this: He’s currently a Performance Coach with the Chinese Olympic Committee, working with athletes who are preparing for the world championships and 2020 Olympic Games. He was previously working in a similar capacity - as a Senior Physical Preparation Coach with SportsScotland. And before that, he was the Lead Academy Strength and Conditioning Coach at Blackburn Rovers FC. Ishan has a MSc in Strength and Conditioning from the University of Edinburgh, and a BSc in Sports Science from Brunel (he also has a certification in Sports Nutrition issued by the International Olympic Committee). He’s also been a professional footballer, playing for two of the biggest teams in India.
We speak to Ishan about the world of elite sports, and what it takes to prepare athletes for competition at the highest level. We also talk about general fitness, the importance of strength training, and the no-so-secret mantra behind it all - balance.
To start with, could you give us a little info about who you are and what you do? Our readers know you're a performance coach with the Chinese Olympic Committee. But give us a little more info on what exactly it is that you do as a 'performance coach.'
I first got involved in the field of strength and conditioning initially as an intern, whilst completing my undergraduate degree in Sports Science at Brunel University (London) in 2007 and my masters degree in Strength and Conditioning (S&C) at the University of Edinburgh in 2011. Since then, I’ve worked with a broad range of individual and team sports such as professional football, rugby, American football, canoeing, triathlon, tennis, golf and athletics in the UK, USA and India. And have been fortunate to have worked with athletes that have competed at the highest level of competition such as the Olympic games and world championships. I’m currently employed as a performance coach (or S&C coach) by the Chinese Olympic Committee and working with the national rowing team, who are preparing for the world championships and qualification for the 2020 Olympic games.
My job involves the physical preparation of athletes for their respective sports. In skill based sports such as football, tennis, golf etc., I have led on all aspects of the athlete's physical training such as strength, power, speed/agility, aerobic/anaerobic capacity (fitness) etc., depending upon the requirements of the respective sport. In physiological sports such as rowing, sprint canoeing, triathlon etc., I’ve worked closely with the technical coach to support the athlete's physical preparation (typically developing physical qualities such as strength and power that may not be addressed through the sport training).
In addition, I also work closely with medical staff to rehabilitate injured athletes as well as devise injury reduction strategies. Earlier in my career, I provided a broader range of services to athletes, such as providing sports nutrition support. However, over the past few years, I have been fortunate to work as part of broad multidisciplinary support teams, consisting of nutritionists, physiologists, sports scientists etc. This has not only allowed me to specialise in my area of expertise but has also given me the opportunity to collaborate with practitioners from different disciplines to support athletes.
What does a typical work day look like for you?
My day to day work has differed from job to job but the key elements revolve around coaching athletes in the gym/on field, court etc., conducting warm ups prior to training sessions and conducting rehabilitation sessions with injured athletes. As an S&C coach, it is important for me to be present at training sessions and attend competitions as this allows one to better understand the demands placed upon the athletes, allowing better integration of the S&C programme with the overall programme.
In addition, being part of any team requires all members of staff to be around team training to contribute towards a variety of non-specific tasks such as carrying equipment, filling water bottles and driving athletes to sessions when on training camps. Working as a S&C coach in elite sport isn’t always as glamorous as it looks on the outside but helping the athletes succeed by ‘chipping in’ wherever possible is part of the job, even if it means getting one’s hands dirty!
Outside of coaching and delivery, I attend team meetings, individual meetings with physiotherapists, coaches, other support staff and athletes. And time spent behind a laptop writing programmes, reports as well as developing processes and frameworks, which underpin the programmes that are delivered for the athletes.
Simply put, what's the best and worst part about working with professional athletes?
The best part of my job is to be part of a team and working with others towards a common goal that is to help athletes succeed at the highest level. When things go well, spirits are high and it is one of the best feelings in the world. However, when things don’t go in one’s favour then morals can drop. But it’s imperative in such situations, for all athletes and staff, to learn from any possible mistakes and continue to find solutions to ensure future success.
Downsides of the job involve slightly unsociable working hours at times, working over weekends and being on the road for long periods of time. It is also a fiercely competitive market so competition for jobs is high. But these are all accepted parts of the job. And as it’s a profession most people only enter because of their passion for it, the positives often outweigh any negatives and this allows one to wake up each day looking forward to the day ahead. As well as driving one to provide the best possible support to athletes.
You started out playing professional football, studied sports science and strength & conditioning at university, worked as a strength and conditioning coach with the Blackburn Rovers, were a senior physical preparation coach at Sportscotland Institute of Sport, and you're now with the Chinese Olympic Committee (all very impressive). Sounds like a logical trajectory but how and when did you decide this was the line of work you want to do and what's kept you going?
I’ve played sport since a young age and have always wanted to be a professional footballer. The closest I got to this was spending two years playing for two of the biggest teams in India, after finishing school at 18 years. However, I soon realised that I didn’t have what it took to make a long term career in the game and made the difficult decision to return to the UK to go to university. Doing a sports science degree seemed like a logical option given my interest in sport.
After looking into the various career paths I could follow, I decided to start working towards becoming a strength and conditioning coach as physical training was something I always was very passionate about during my own experiences playing football (more so than the actual football training, probably explains why I wasn’t very good!).
Eventually starting out doing some personal training in my first year at university, I moved into gaining experience with athletes through internships in the American Collegiate system during my summer holidays, professional rugby and football during and after my master’s degree in S&C at the University of Edinburgh. And eventually, leading to a full time position as lead academy S&C coach at Blackburn Rovers FC.
As I mentioned, S&C in elite sport is a hugely competitive field of work to be involved in and the number of people in search of jobs massively outweighs the number of jobs available. I’ve certainly had my fair share of disappointments along the way but my passion for the profession has always made me want to learn from my mistakes and continue to develop myself as a practitioner. I’ve also been very fortunate to have met people along the way that been further into their career than myself and have been kind enough to provide me with advice and feedback, which has been critical in my development.
And to these people, I’m eternally grateful! My mother is one of these people, although she knows little about sport and S&C - she has provided me with useful advice on numerous occasions. So it a combination of these factors that has brought me to where I am today.
Tell us a little about your own approach to health and fitness. Your workouts, your nutrition, your recovery.
As I mentioned, my interest in the profession started with my own training so during my time at university and during the initial years of my career, I spent a lot of time on my own training and nutrition. My training mainly revolved around Olympic weightlifting and improving my maximum strength on major compound exercises such as the back squat, deadlift and bench press. I also paid a lot of attention to my nutrition.
I feel having played football competitively and having spent a number of years ‘‘under the bar’’ has given me some valuable skills that help me coach the athletes I support currently. I feel these experiences are one of the many skill sets any good S&C coach requires.
Currently, I follow a more general approach to my own training to ensure I stay healthy, which I believe is important for anyone. I usually do 3-4 strength training sessions a week and 1-2 aerobic based sessions, which involve running, swimming or cycling, depending on weather and what facilities I have available as I travel a lot.
If you could give one piece of advice to the general reader who wanted to improve their health and fitness, what would it be?
A progressive strength training programme that starts with being able to perform body weight exercises with technical efficiency and progressing to exercises that involve lifting some external load may be beneficial. Strength training is a fairy broad concept – anything from body weight exercises such as press ups, pull ups, pistol squats etc. to loaded barbell squats and deadlifts may be classed as strength training.
One would typically start one end of the spectrum and progress to performing exercises with heavier external loading. The specifics would depend entirely on the individual’s training history and goals. This would help build and maintain lean muscle tissue as well as help improve bone mineral density, tendon and muscle strength, which may be crucial as one gets older. As well as help carry one’s shopping bags!
Some form of aerobic training such as running, swimming, cycling, rowing etc. may be beneficial for cardio- respiratory function as well as reducing fat mass, through an increased energy expenditure. Lastly, performing mobility and stretching exercises for any tight areas is important as well as maintaining good posture.
From a nutritional standpoint, basing diet around lean proteins, vegetables, fruit and nuts, with a small amount of unrefined complex carbohydrates is advisable. Drinking plenty of water and getting adequate sleep (both quality and quantity) is essential.
Apart from performance and aesthetics, exercise and nutrition are two major preventative measures against a variety of diseases such as coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, osteoporosis etc. These are general suggestions, the specifics would depend entirely on the individual’s training history, goals etc. Lastly, I believe a balance in life is vital for both mental and physical health so rather than trying to follow a very rigid lifestyle, making healthy choices 80%-90% of the time is a lot more sustainable.
A health / fitness trend right now that really bugs you?
I don’t really pay much attention to health and fitness trends. I tend to base my practice on grounded science and research based evidence. Simple things usually work best and the principles of training have been the same for decades. If anything sounds too good to be true or appears overall complex, then I would question its effectiveness. If I’m faced with a performance problem that needs slightly out of the box solutions, then I see what’s out there that I can use. But before using any device, whether it be for training or recovery, it may be best to review any published literature to establish its suitability.
This question is from our readers - what are some key differences in the training approach between professional athletes and the general population? There's sports specific training, of course, but other than that -- is it all the same?
Training principles and exercises used may be the same for both athletes and the general population. The major consideration one needs to make when working with athletes is the demands of the sport - what are the kinetic factors (physical qualities i.e. strength, power, speed etc) that can be developed within the S&C programme to contribute towards sporting performance, including the kinematic factors (movement patterns i.e. joint angles etc).
For instance, for someone of the general population, a deadlift and squat are both good exercises to train the lower extremity. However, for athletes it may be important to understand which joints produce force, time the athletes have to produce force during the sporting movement etc., before selecting the appropriate exercise. The deadlift may be more suitable for one sport, whereas the back squat may be better for another. This would be an example of sport specificity. The key sites and mechanism of injury within a given sport is also important to understand so as to develop strategies to reduce the risk of injury occurrence. Even within a sporting context, it may be most appropriate for athletes to start with more general training, whether that is from a young age or later in their careers, progressing to more specific training.
Should everyone strength train? (I guess what we're asking is - if your goal is just general fitness, is a HIIT style group class sufficient, why or why not?)
As I mentioned before, strength training has many advantages that most people would benefit from. HIIT training on the other hand leads to very different physiological adaptations (it leans more towards cardio-respiratory adaptations as opposed to adaptations in the neuro-muscular system that may occur from strength training). HIIT training may help increase energy expenditure and reduce fat mass but also build aerobic and anaerobic capacity i.e. fitness, which may be of benefit if they’re playing recreational sports or performing outdoor activities such as hiking. If performing HIIT, it may be of benefit to also perform some strength training alongside as it provides a protective mechanism against injury by improving bone mineral density as well as strengthening the muscles and tendons and bone. Therefore, if general fitness is the goal, performing a combination of strength and HIIT may provide the most rounded training.
How important is nutrition in all this?
Nutrition plays a variety of functions. If one’s goals are more performance oriented i.e. build strength or improve aerobic endurance i.e. fitness then it will provide fuel to train at the desired intensity and for the required duration to achieve these goals. For people looking to improve body composition, nutrition will play a key role in building muscle tissue as well as reducing fat mass. Nutrition is key for recovery between sessions as it plays an important role in the repair of muscles. Staying hydrated by drinking adequate water will also play an important part in attaining these goals. Therefore, training and exercise, supported by good nutrition will provide the most optimal results as opposed to training by itself, regardless of the individual goal.
If you could only do one exercise / lift for the rest of your life, what would it be?
If we’re talking about strength training then the exercise depends completely upon an individual’s goal and physical ability. So this may differ person to person. But as a general rule, any large compound lifts such as back squat would allow an individual to recruit a large proportion of lower body musculature as well as the muscles around the trunk. As a result, it may also have a higher energy expenditure than exercises that recruit a smaller proportion of muscle mass, such as a bench press. Also, an exercise such as a back squat may develop more rounded muscular development by training the quadriceps (thighs), gluteal muscles (buttocks) and to a slightly lesser extent the hamstrings and calves. As opposed to the bench press than trains the pectoralis major (chest) and anterior deltoids (front of shoulder), neglecting the posterior muscles (back muscles). This may result in potential shoulder issues. Such understanding may help design a well-rounded strength training programme, utilising only a few exercises per session for individuals with limited time to train. For instance, a back squat, bench press and pull ups may target the majority of the body, using only 3 exercises. For those ultra busy individuals, these three exercise done well once a week, with a bit of aerobic training or HIIT as well as good nutrition can lead to good results! I know I went off track here a bit but hopefully this provided some useful information!
Fitness is having its moment right now - especially with Instagram and social media leading to the rise of 'fitluencers' (fitness influencers). What's your take?
Social medial is a good tool for health and fitness professionals to market themselves and share information, which is important for anyone trying to make a living in this industry as most are typically self employed professionals. Unfortunately, there is a breadth of information available as far as quality goes. So from a consumer perspective, it is imperative to have a strong filter and be selective in terms of sources for obtaining information online.
As a strength and conditioning coach, I’ve always been employed by professional sports team or organisation so haven’t needed to use social media for marketing purposes. However, I am fairly active on twitter as I find this is a good way to connect with other practitioners that are working in high performance sport and a good medium for sharing information and ideas. Feel free to follow me - @IRawlleySingh
Okay enough about fitness. What do you do for fun?
I believe it’s important to maintain a healthy work life balance. And in doing so, one may be a lot more productive when in the workplace. I’m fairly extroverted and enjoy the company of others so usually go out to eat or for a drink with friends at least once a week (and family whenever I am in the same city). I enjoy travelling, hiking and scuba diving so try and use my holidays to visit a different part of the world to pursue these activities, whenever possible.
And finally - any tips for our readers to build and sustain healthy habits?
It’s important to work hard in our jobs but equally important to look after our body and mind. Even for the busiest of people, short sessions of about 30 minutes of exercise a couple of times a week can be very effective in keeping in shape as well as boosting performance throughout the day.
It’s important to train smart as poorly prescribed training can do more harm than good. So if you’re not sure what to do then ask someone who does but be selective of whom you ask. Just like one is very careful when seeking medical advice, it’s as important to seek exercise/training advice from an appropriately qualified and experienced professional with a proven track record. Don’t feel embarrassed to ask a health and fitness professional to prove their credentials, before employing their services.
Lastly, get plenty of sleep, drink enough water and eat a balanced diet. And don’t forget to have some fun!