Follow Your Passion: From American Football to the Head of Athletic Performance & Science at the IRFU
Growing up in a small suburb outside Portland, Oregon in the United States, the IRFU or even the sport of rugby probably wasn’t in the future plans of Nick Winkelman. But 2021 marked his sixth year as Head of Athletic Performance & Science for rugby’s governing body on the Emerald Isle.
Maybe not rugby, but sport was certainly a passion for Nick from an early age.
“I always played sports growing up, like many kids here in Ireland. I didn’t have GAA, but I played baseball, soccer, basketball.
"By the time I got to high school, basketball was still very much my passion but unfortunately, I wasn’t very good at it.
"As a bigger, strong guy naturally I got recruited into American football. I enjoyed playing it but in the four years I played I only started a handful of games, and they were all in my senior year,” he said.
While Nick was not going to go on to play sport at the elite level, he had still discovered his passion by playing it.
“I really enjoyed the training. And, most notably, it’s where I found the gym.
“Fortunately for me, it was the early 2000s, we had a strength coach. We had our own private gym.
“I almost enjoyed the training and development more than the playing itself, probably because I could be successful on my own terms from a physical development perspective. At 14 or 15 I started to fall in love with strength and conditioning,” he said.
Finding the gym was a transformative experience for Nick, in more ways than one. He admits that, at the age of 16, he wasn’t happy with his appearance.
“I wasn’t really happy with how I looked on the outside. I didn’t feel it resonated with how I felt on the inside,” he said.
He underwent a dramatic, yet healthy, body transformation, losing 60lbs in just six months.
As a byproduct of this transformation, Nick had also found his calling card and at the age of 16, as a sophomore in high school, he firmly set his sights on a career as a trainer.
He enrolled in Oregon State University, one of the two biggest in the state. Originally, Nick thought he might go into pre-med to become a doctor or orthopaedic surgeon. But after chatting with an advisor, he was made aware that he could get pre-med credentials through an exercise and sports science degree, which is exactly what he did.
Eventually, when he got to his junior year, Nick had a big decision to make.
“By the time I was a junior and had to select whether I was going to do pre-med.
“I realised I liked coaching and strength and conditioning way too much. It wasn’t going to be a lucrative career. And there’s a cap on the number of top jobs worldwide. But none of that mattered to me.
“It was a calling, a passion. It was a zero-effort decision to go with strength and conditioning,” he said.
It was during his time at Oregon State that Nick decided to get his qualifications as a personal trainer, realising the need to hone his craft alongside his studies.
Something that Nick says was of huge benefit to him early in his career was the mentors he was able to find, something he says everyone should try to do, in any industry.
“Along the way, I met a number of really great mentors. Some people don’t find mentors but if you can’t, find individuals who have made a lot of the mistakes that you’re likely to make, and learn from them. That’s how you accelerate improvement in any industry from one generation to the next,” he said.
It was one of his mentors that set Nick on his professional path, getting an internship with Athlete’s Performance, better known nowadays as EXOS, one of the global leaders in private athletic performance development.
Based in their headquarters in Phoenix, Arizona, Nick worked at Athlete’s Performance for the better part of a decade, helping elite-level athletes across a range of sports with their athletic development.
“Professional athletes from all the different sports in the US would come to Phoenix, Arizona in their offseason. My in-season was every professional sport’s off-season.
“Models like this don’t work as well in Ireland. We don’t have sports that have really long offseasons.
“In the US, let’s say you’re playing for the New England Patriots on the east coast, but you’re from California, you have over four months of an offseason. You’re probably going to go to that warmer state and go back and see family. You need a place to train and develop.
“Now, private high-performance is all the craze across the United States. And Athlete’s Performance was one of the first ones,” he said.
Nick left EXOS in 2015 with an impressive list of achievements and a raft of experience under his belt.
“I took over the NFL Combine development program. I was helping American football players going into the NFL via the Combine to optimise speed, agility and all the various tests.
“That program still runs. 38% of the attendees of the most recent combine used our facilities. I ran that program for seven of the 10 years I was there. I wrote the speed methodology for the 40-yard dash.
“I ran and developed the education system at EXOS. Now they have online certifications and they run live mentorships throughout the world.
“For me, coach education, as well as coaching, were always dual passions. All throughout that process, that’s the thing that I fell in love with, the passion within a passion. I think that’s an important concept. A niche aspect of what they do that wakes them up in the morning and keeps them up at night. For me, that passion has been that act and art of coaching,” he said.
It was around the end of his tenure with EXOS that Nick earned his MSc in Strength and Conditioning from Edith Cowan University. It was a time he began to feel as though he had reached a limit in the work he was doing at EXOS, something that Nick welcomed.
“I felt my time at EXOS had run its course.
“I think this is important for people, that when they get into an industry, they want to be able to recognise there’s a cap to what they can bring to a position. There’s a cap for what that position can give to them. That’s not good or bad. It just is.
“Once I started to get the early signs of that, like being aware that you’re working a little bit more, you have a bit more fatigue associated with your working, it takes a bit more effort, I realised I wasn’t being challenged as much. I needed novelty. I need a new stimulus, a new challenge,” he said.
The new challenge that came his way might not have been one he expected.
In late 2015, Nick was introduced to David Nucifora, Performance Director for the IRFU, ironically when Nick was speaking at a conference for English rugby.
The two hit it off and not long after Nick was appointed as Head of Athletic Performance for the IRFU, the title he holds now, and it is not a decision he has looked back on since.
“So, he and I met. It was a hand in glove situation. It worked and they gave this American guy with a background in American football a chance to come to a new country and a new sport.
“Six years later I can say that it was the best decision I’ve made at this point in my career. I like to think that they haven’t kicked us out yet so we’re doing ok in terms of my personal contribution to the space. And the family is loving it.
“We always joke did I think when I was getting my exercise science degree that one day, I’d be the Head of Athletic Performance for Irish Rugby in a country I didn’t grow up in and in a sport I never played. And I always say no.
“But that’s what’s exciting about life. If you’re open to it, it can take you on an amazing journey,” he said.
Follow Your Passion
If, like Nick, you have a passion for sport and want to pursue it, then get in touch!
If you are interested in any of our sports courses or have any questions you can book a consultation call with our expert sports advisor Jo Shaw here, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01 892 0024.