Seeking Out Knowledge and Applying it with a Sniper Scope

Coach Development | Strength & Conditioning


Darren Dillon

Darren Dillon is the owner and director of Kickstart Fitness Ireland. Founded in 2010, Kickstart Fitness has grown from what was initially a bootcamp in a local park into what is now a center of excellence for TRX®️Training and functional training, and a high performance hub for strength and conditioning. Darren also serves as head of performance at Shamrock Rovers FC, working with and programming for the academy through to senior professional soccer players. He is also Ireland’s only official TRX®️ Master Trainer, delivering all the company’s education courses to the Irish fitness industry.

When I first started coaching more than 10 years ago, I had an insatiable hunger to learn more and improve myself. This has never left me. Today, my desire to seek out information from the best practitioners who are using different methods to help their teams win continues to be a top priority. And once I’ve absorbed their knowledge, the next phase in the challenge is coming back to Dublin and deciding what’s applicable to Shamrock Rovers FC, Kickstart Fitness, or both. 

To satisfy my desire to continually upskill, I deliberately make time in my congested schedule for visits to other soccer clubs and professional education opportunities that transcend the sport. TRX events have become an automatic “yes” for me and I take at least one trip a year, whether to the annual training summit, HQ, or a special event. It refills my tank with more knowledge that’s applicable to programming, communicating with clients, and more. After spending time with performance director Chris Frankel and director of training and development Fraser Quelch, I come back with five to 10 percent more to offer my athletes. Over the years, these little jumps have accumulated into more than I could get from a degree or single formal education class. It’s like a good training program – continual small improvements over time lead to sustained growth and progress. 

I recently had the opportunity to visit Scottish champions Celtic FC and back-to-back Premier League winners Manchester City. Going to such prestigious clubs might make some people a little overawed, but to me, there’s no point in standing quietly in the corner with your hands in your pockets and never speaking up. In the coaching community, we all have something to offer our peers, so I want to be lively in discussion and freely offer my opinions when asked. So while I go to clubs like Celtic or Man City with a deep sense of humility, I’m also determined to be active and engaged rather than passive. My mindset with such visits is also one of gratitude at being given the chance to learn from the best of the best, and respect of the manager, coaches, staff, and players (not to mention the great reputation of the teams and what they’ve achieved over the years).

Another wonderful opportunity was the invite I received to participate in a UEFA football fitness study group in Poland. There were coaches who are in the trenches at clubs all over Europe, and it doesn’t get any better than having access to such brilliant minds in the gym, on the field, and in the conference room. Such opportunities are simply too good to pass up, so I had to say yes. Thankfully, the manager at Shamrock Rovers is very supportive of such things, as he sees that they will help me improve the players in the long term. It requires some forward planning to make space for trips like these in my schedule, and thankfully I’ve only missed one Rovers game each season for education-related travel. Another key is having a strong group at the football club and a wonderful staff at Kickstart. With them in place, I feel confident that things will run smoothly when I’m away. 

While I try to glean as much information and insight as I can from these trips, I’m also thinking through what can be applied and what can’t. While money isn’t everything, budgets are part of the stark reality of coaching at every level, and it’d be unrealistic to think I could go back home and start recreating the latest recovery practices or high-tech training techniques that clubs with millions of dollars have established in their world-class facilities. So while I absorb as much as possible, I also keep in mind what our equipment, space, and spending power will allow us to put into practice at both Rovers and my gym. If we can’t do the same thing, it then becomes a question of how can we get similar results for less, or even for free. 

When leaving both Man City and Celtic, I realized again how important creativity is in coaching. It’s one of the greatest skills you can develop in this business because you can never take an open checkbook for granted. For example, we cannot afford force plates and the latest GPS system. So what can we do with the same principles given the resources we do have at our disposal? This is where you have to put your ingenuity to work. Then if you have an opportunity down the line, you’ll be ready to take full advantage of a bigger budget, while still maintaining your ability to improvise and make the most of what you’ve got.

For example, at the football club, if we place too much emphasis on testing the players, it can start to feel pharmaceutical and onerous, and they dread it. So I decided to stick with simplicity. We use the beep test to gauge the players’ fitness, calipers to measure body composition, elements of the FMS for movement quality, and some basic strength assessments. This then gives me enough of a baseline to program for six to eight weeks in the gym and on the training ground. It’s the same kind of information the bigger clubs are getting, albeit with slightly less accuracy because, again, we don’t have the same financial reality. Nonetheless, I can glean enough information to measure our players’ progress and then adjust their programming as needed. 

When it comes to considering how to apply what I’ve just learned, the other lens I look through is that of a sniper. I didn’t come up with this terminology, and actually heard it during an EXOS course. What it means is that you can’t come in with a shotgun and start blasting away at everything you and your team have been doing until now, suddenly believing it’s all wrong just because you’ve learned a few new things. Instead, I like to choose one aspect and then apply laser-focus to it. That starts with identifying a coachable moment for our team. Then we start to see how it will apply to our clients – or, at Rovers, to the squad. We’ll explore it and if it works, then we start making it part of what we do from that point on. It could take weeks, months, or years to deploy everything useful from a single conference, course, or team visit, so I need to pick and choose wisely. 

So I consider what we can get the most value from. You can also use a problem-solving mindset. Say you identified five things are issues or, at least, have room for significant improvement. It might seem at first that you need five different solutions. But often, if you dig deep and reflect for long enough, there’s a single solution that can be applied to three or four of them. So what’s going to give us the biggest bang for our buck? No matter how profound a learning experience has been,  I never overhaul my philosophy. I’m always going to be an old-school coach who’s hands on and people-first. A decade into my career, I’m still focusing on trying to master the basics. There’s always going to be some new technology, gizmo, or approach that’s the hot thing for a while. Or a research study that everyone seems to be talking about. But then people move onto the next thing. In the end, coaching always comes back to doing the simple, elemental things well, and getting your staff and athletes to do the same.

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