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St Helens’ rugby team benefits from backroom staff’s University research

Nathan Mill, Professor Craig Twist, and Matt Daniels, before the graduation ceremony at Chester Cathedral

Two of the key backroom staff at Super League rugby league club St. Helens R.F.C. have graduated with a Master’s from the University of Chester.

Head Physiotherapist Nathan Mill, from Rochdale, and Head of Strength and Conditioning, Matt Daniels, from Rainhill, Merseyside, worked full time at the club while completing their MRes (Master’s by Research) qualifications. Both of them were supported in their sports exercise research by Professor Craig Twist, Dr Jamie Highton and Dr Edd Thomson, who all work in the Department of Sports and Exercise Sciences.

Matt has been at the forefront of research within rugby league over a number of years and his collaboration with Professor Twist and the University of Chester has already contributed to providing a number of practical considerations for sports scientists and performance staff worldwide. He said: “I chose to do my MRes at the University of Chester due to the excellent reputation worldwide of the Sports Sciences Department. I also chose Chester because of my close working relationship with Sports Sciences staff over the past 10 years, when we have been undertaking research projects alongside placement students from the University.”

Matt’s research topic was looking at training load and adaptations in strength, power and high intensity intermittent running of elite rugby league players across a pre-season training phase.

He said: “This subject has a direct impact on my job role as Head of Strength and Conditioning. The findings of my research proved that the prescribed training programme was effective in eliciting significant improvements in strength, power and high intensity intermittent running over the training period. The findings also suggested that the use of the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) with my group of athletes was not an accurate measure of training load. (RPE is a quantitative measure of perceived exertion during physical activity which is frequently used by sports professionals).”

He added: “Due to the nature and time demands of my role, a conventional Master’s course was not a viable option. The flexibility and independent nature of the MRes meant that I was able to fit my research studies alongside and around my work. Also, the nature of the research undertaken was specific to my job role, and served to improve our approach as a club to athlete monitoring, as well as validating our pre-season training methods.”

The club’s Head Physiotherapist Nathan Mill started his career in professional sport at St. Helens R.F.C. as an academy physiotherapist from 2003 to 2008. He then moved on to work full time in Premiership Rugby Union before becoming the Head Physiotherapist at Huddersfield Giants. He returned to St Helens in 2013 (where he was part of the club’s incredible 2014 campaign). During his time working in rugby league, Nathan has held the position of Head Physiotherapist at England Rugby League from 2011 to 2015, where he was responsible for the physiotherapy care of players in the Elite Squad including the World Cup in 2013, Four-Nations in Australia in 2014 and the successful series win versus New Zealand in 2015.

Nathan explains why he chose to study for an MRes at the University of Chester: “Like Matt, I also had a strong affiliation with the Sports Sciences Department through previous collaborations, and it also has an excellent reputation in the subject area. The University has enabled me to achieve a formal level of qualification that I have aspired to achieve for a number of years but never had the opportunity. The MRes allowed flexibility for my studies and my career commitments, and the support of the staff throughout has been an important aspect for me personally.

“My particular research was aimed at detecting potential differences in jump performance of previously injured rugby league players and non-injured players. It also considered the implications that jump performance could be used to help progress injured players through rehabilitation and eventually, to return to play. From a club point of view, my researched subject has enabled us to make informed decisions and, in some instances, alter our practises based on the findings.”

He added: “I am very proud of achieving this qualification and extremely indebted and grateful to the support Professor Craig Twist and Dr Edd Thomson at the University have provided throughout my studies. It has enabled me to develop an understanding in an area of my profession, while gaining a qualification that will hopefully assist in my career progression at St. Helens R.F.C. It has given me a passion for further reading into my chosen MRes subject and the wider field of sports performance. Having thoroughly embraced the academic process, I would love to undertake a more challenging research opportunity in the future. In the near future, I am applying the knowledge gained to advance our practice at St. Helens R.F.C. Going forward, I hope to continue to use current research to continually employ a best practice approach that is appropriate for our club and the players and staff within it.”

Craig Twist, Professor of Applied Exercise Physiology in the Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences at the University of Chester, said: “The Department has had a long-standing working relationship with St. Helens R.F.C., collaborating with Matt and Nathan on several projects that have benefitted both parties. Being able to support them both through postgraduate degrees that will contribute to their own development and, more broadly, the club’s training practices is fantastic. Managing their studies alongside full time roles in an extremely high-pressure working environment also speaks volumes about them and their enthusiasm to develop knowledge that improves applied practice.”

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