From the Queensland Academy of Sport to training the Bangladesh Cricket Team and elite athletes in Europe, Theo Pickles’ career in sport has spanned the globe.
Now based in the Netherlands, his working days are split between specialist gyms and the pool, where he prepares rowers and swimmers from the Dutch Olympic team to compete at the highest levels of elite sport.
With the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, his job acquired another dimension: training in isolation. “From March to July we were in full lockdown and then again later in the year we went back into lockdown,” recalls Theo. “We got all the rowers a rowing ergometer to the house inside the first week so they could continue the training schedule. Swimming was more difficult as the pools were completely closed but we gave the swimmers home strength and mobility programs and then during the second lockdown they kept the pools open just for us.”
While an established discipline in its own right, strength and conditioning (S&C) is a rapidly expanding specialisation within elite sports preparation. Theo has seen his own team grow from six to 26 people over the last nine years, with requests flowing for S&C involvement in other sports too.
“Technology has really changed the landscape. Two decades ago, sophisticated testing could only really be done at universities and the equipment was hugely expensive, slow and difficult to operate with athletes often getting feedback a week after the test. Now with wireless technology that is cheap and user-friendly we can do really good testing in our normal training environment as often as we want (even daily) and the athlete has feedback instantaneously. Our athletes can do a lot of testing themselves and that allows us to adapt very quickly to change and optimise.”
But it’s not only technology and interpreting data that makes a good strength and conditioning coach. Theo believes one of the most challenging parts of his job is being a good filter for athletes. “Everyone has an opinion about training – there are endless blogs, articles, personal trainers and club S&C coaches who influence the athlete and their coach. Trying to give them the right information at the right time can be difficult.
“We need to stay ahead of the curve and innovate but sometimes ‘innovation’ is just noise. It is really important to understand the fundamentals and make decisions on new strategies and equipment based on science, which can be surprisingly scant in its application to elite athletes,” said Theo.
He developed a solid foundation in that science and scientific method through a Southern Cross Bachelor of Human Movement Science (now called the Bachelor of Sport and Exercise Science), a study program that has been a key ingredient to his success. “I loved the smaller class sizes and personalised attention. There were so many opportunities to make contacts all through my undergraduate and postgraduate studies and these got me my first jobs,” he said.
Climbing the ranks to reach the heights of training Olympic athletes is a testament to Theo’s determination and hard work and he has been rewarded in kind. “The best part of my job without doubt is seeing your athletes achieve on the world stage. One of my swimmers recently set a new world record in the 50m – it makes all those hours of meetings, programming, trying to come up with solutions to problems worth it.”