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Martin Harland: force behind the students

by Aaron Scott* (October 2006)

Sydney University Athlete Performance Manager Martin Harland

For much of the winter David Lyons looked a spent force as an International rugby player. Throughout the Super 14 season his form was slated by critics: he was too predictable, too one-dimensional, not dynamic enough. He found himself relegated to the Waratah's bench. In May he was a shock omission from the Wallabies training squad. He didn't play a Test all winter. Only gradually did it emerge that he had been suffering from a prolapsed disc in his back. Either way, it seemed that the 40-Test veteran and 2004 John Eales medal winner was washed-up at 26.

Enter University's Strength and Conditioning coach, Martin Harland. Lyons' problems were pin-pointed. Two years of injury (groin and back) had eroded his superb physical attributes. Barely able to drag himself through an 80-minute match, Lyons had shunned the gym and the training paddock. His legs had all but atrophied.

Harland decided to settle the prolapsed disc in Lyons' back, redevelop his core strength, then rebuild the dynamism in his legs. Within 13 weeks Lyons was playing a starring role in the Students dramatic victory over Randwick in the Tooheys New Cup Final. He was back in the starting line-up for the Waratahs in the recent APC tournament. He has been named in the 37-man squad for the Wallabies Spring Tour.

"My body is feeling really good," he recently told the Sun-Herald. "My priority was to build my core and back strength, and that feels fine now."

This is a story that says a lot about Lyons. But it is also a story that speaks volumes for Martin Harland. Not that he would admit this.

"David makes it easy for me because he is such a good trainer," says Harland. "He looks after himself, he listens and he's forward thinking in his own programs. I give him a program and he embellishes it; and it's only ever with good things."

The truth is, however, that Harland's skill as a strength and conditioning coach and his exquisite understanding of the physiological make-up of an athlete's body were pivotal in Lyons' rebirth as a footballer and, consequently, in the Students' stunning 2006 success. And this is just one example among many.

Martin Harland supervising Daniel Halangahu on the dumbbell press

"I think there's no coincidence that Sydney University Rugby was struggling after the premierships in '99 and 2000," says Students' outside centre and Waratah, Tom Carter. "Then Marty comes on board, manages an Elite Development Squad and we've won back-to-back premierships over the last two years. We've won, I think, nine premierships out of a possible 14, and won two Club Championships. Marty's Elite Development Squad has basically changed the whole club."

The EDS Carter talks of was established by then-Rugby-Director Todd Louden and Harland back in 2003 as a pre-season fitness, conditioning and skills program. This year 25 elite players will participate in the program that begins in October.

"For me I was playing Australian 7's, weighing 90 kilos and I was physically inept," says Carter. "I was never going to go to the next level. Marty's EDS has certainly changed me physically to a point where I can now compete at that level. It's a feature of 90% of the players that come out of Sydney Uni Football Club; they're physically superior. We go into Super 14 programs so much better off because we're exposed to this high quality training."

These comments give some indication of Harland's contribution to the Football club. His work with the rugby boys, however, is simply one facet of his incredibly varied program.

"Most trainers only work in one sport," says President of Sydney University Sport, Bruce Ross. "Marty is quite amazing because he works across such a broad field. He's working, of course, with our rugby squads, he's had a lot to do with the extraordinary development our rowers have experienced, he's recently worked with the Flames, with the cricketers and, of course, earlier on with Astrid Loch-Wilkinson representing Australia in the bobsleigh."

It's this variety of sports, this vast spread of fitness and strength levels that Harland thrives on.

For years he worked exclusively with elite-level football teams: the Illawarra Steelers, St George-Illawarra Dragons and Sydney Swans. The positions were an exciting divergence for a young sprinter turned Olympic bobsleigher (he competed at the 1988 Calgary Olympics before a severe back injury forced him from the sport in 1989) who completed an Exercise Science degree with first class honours in 1994.

Martin Harland supervising Jerry Yanuyanutawa on the HipneeThrust

It was the huge amount of research he did in sprinting and power development that saw him snaffled up by the Steelers as a sprint coach in 1995. When the club amalgamated with St George in 1999 his position blossomed into a full-time strength and conditioning role.

In 2000 he shifted codes to AFL where he worked as strength coach for the Sydney Swans.

"It was a lot of fun," says Harland. "It was very different; I'd never had anything to do with the sport before so I really enjoyed it. But AFL is very full-on in terms of what they ask of you."

With the birth of his first child Harland rejected a two-year contract with the Swans and decided to head back to the Andrew Farrar-coached Dragons. It was short-lived. With Nathan Brown's appointment as coach in 2003, Harland's contract was not renewed.

"It put my nose out at first," he says, "but in the end I think it has been for the best."

Harland shifted to the Sydney Academy of Sport where he was contracted to work with the Sydney University Football Club. As the SAS was gradually consumed by the NSW Institute of Sport, Harland's involvement with Sydney University deepened.

None of the higher profile NRL or AFL positions, however, offered the disparate challenges that Harland now faces at Sydney University. And it is this variety, this sheer diversity that Harland revels in.

"With high-level sport everyone is much the same in terms of training age which makes it easier if you know your stuff," says Harland. "You can bash the group and you know what will happen. Here you have a massive training age difference, from guys and girls who have never trained but are still fantastic at their sport, to those who are so highly trained you're really splitting hairs trying to get those physical results.

"And I love the different sports. Some sports I've perhaps watched once - like European Handball - but a scholarship holder will give me a video of a game, tell me what they need and away we go. So I'm always learning as well. You know, high-level coaches - I pick their brains, high-level athletes - I pick their brains, medical staff - I pick their brains. I learn so much here and it keeps me sane. You never fall into a comfort zone, never fall into a rut."

And - with Harland's impeccable understanding of training methods and how they work on a cellular level - it's unlikely that Sydney University's fine stable of athletes will slip into a rut.

*A Media and Communications graduate from Sydney University, Aaron Scott is currently working as a sports journalist for Sydney University Sport. He also writes freelance articles for the Sun-Herald and Inside Sport.

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