03 October, 2023 | Posted by Michelle Hogan

Sports Science Degree is like ‘An Arts Degree for Human Performance’ - Leinster Rugby Senior Athletic Performance Coach Joe McGinley

Photo Credit: leinsterrugby.ie

Driven by a deep passion for working with people, Joe McGinley is fulfilling his potential as the Senior Performance Coach at Leinster Rugby, working with some of the top athletes in Ireland such as Johnny Sexton, Cian Healy and James Lowe. 

His journey to success started with the setback of not getting the requirements for Primary School Teaching after his Leaving Cert. Inspired by passionate high-level coaches he had encountered while doing athletics and rugby in school, Joe pivoted from teaching to coaching. 

He did this by embarking on a Post-Leaving Cert (PLC) further education course in sports science. This offered him the chance to test the waters in this topic and gain entry into his sports science degree.  

Describing his undergraduate degree in sports science as ‘an arts degree for human performance’ giving him a broad base from which he could pursue many different pathways, Joe strongly believes in the power of practical experience alongside the qualification. 

“All throughout that time the most important part is that I was coaching, even when I was in secondary school one of the teachers helped me to coach a team, we just made up a team, so I was always coaching and that’s the main part when I reflect back I started my coaching journey before I started my degree and I think for any graduate I think that’s huge,” he said. 

While he was always interested in many sports from athletics to GAA, it was his internship with Connacht Rugby in the third year of his degree that set him on a path to working in rugby. 

“You certainly won’t know at Leaving Cert what you’re going to do, and I didn’t even know by third year but I guess you have to kiss many frogs to find your prince, I had to try various things. 

“To be honest I was just keen to coach anyone at that point, getting people interested and invested in exercise and self-improvement is what I was into. That internship led me to Galway, and I fell in love with rugby,” he said.  

This newfound love of rugby coaching progressed to gaining other qualifications in conditioning specifically for rugby and once he had finished his degree he went straight to Munster Rugby, putting in early morning gym session shifts coaching the U17 schools' development squad. 

“It was 11 months after I graduated that I got a paid role with Munster, up to that it was voluntary.  

“During that time, I had three hurling teams on the go in Clare doing strength and conditioning programmes with them cutting my cloth. I was personal training at the weekends in the gym in UL Arena, so I had coached so many different types of people and moving into a full-time role coaching I was quite comfortable,” he said. 

The Rewards of a Role in Sports Performance 

The desire to win is what drives most sportspeople to push themselves to their limits for success and for Joe, the reward system he enjoys the most is seeing the development in individuals he is coaching.  

This was especially the case when he worked in academies and watched young people in three-year cycles go from young beginners to accomplished athletes.  

This is still the case at senior level, but the reward system has much more seasonal highs and lows which is relevant now as he watches many of the Leinster team playing for Ireland in the Rugby World Cup.  

“With the senior role you grow into it, you have those seven or eight players performing now in the World Cup that I would have had first year in the academy, and you move with them to a degree.  

“You’re just a fan now for the next few weeks! I haven’t seen them since the European final in May but it’s great to be a part of it,” he said.  

Working in sports, Joe says there is a lot of room for specialisation at a high-performance level but before that, you need to be a ‘jack of all trades’ which a sports science degree can give you the foundation for.  

“There are so many parts, in international sports there is room for a lot of specialists and higher paid stuff like soccer or the NFL you will have your standalone data analyst, your sports scientist, nutritionist, strength and conditioning coach, rehab coach which all stem from a sports science background.  

“When I was in a role like the academy or if you are with a GAA team you have to be the jack of all trades, when you go back to your degree you don’t need to know everything but you need to have a fair idea of what’s right and what’s wrong and be able to investigate. 

“That’s why a sports science degree is like an arts degree for human performance. It gives you that understanding if there is an injury that you know who you need to speak to or who to refer to, you have to be this really broad generalist,” he said.  

Choosing to Pursue a Master’s in Sports Performance 

When it came to choosing a master’s degree to progress with, the entire process came about naturally for Joe who came up with his own research question through his practice and he wanted answers. He sought out an MSc in Sport and Performance Psychology.  

“I had been working in the industry for six years, my main interest was around the appraisal of young athletes and how to intrinsically motivate them, keep them on track and focused, and keep their self-confidence up. 

“I started asking myself those questions and decided I needed more education. I already had my research question before starting the master's, what I wanted to do and what I wanted to get out of it.  

“The masters answered my questions, it was a good help, it gave me that framework and opened more doors to people to talk to in that sports science field who could understand that better than me. It’s about knowing where to look too, that’s what education gives you, access to journals just being back in that mindset of being a student, it was good to step back into it. 

“In terms of academic qualifications, I’m happy with what I have but there is always more modern sports science coming up and other professional development opportunities which are huge like accredited coaching memberships,” he said.  

Day to Day Role as a Senior Athletic Performance Coach at Leinster Rugby 

It’s an exciting time to be involved in rugby in Ireland with players making history, breaking records and ultimately in the best position we’ve ever seen an Irish squad in the World Cup. 

Joe has been working with a number of these players for years and thoroughly enjoys his day-to-day role which can vary widely and involves a lot of early mornings.  

“It’s hugely enjoyable we’ve got a really good work environment, we have got 21 people on the national squad, they are all very high achieving players, and they are a pleasure to work with. That makes our jobs very easy and on the coaching ticket there are five coaches, three analysts, a performance manager, a lifestyle managers for the players off the field, five physiotherapists and three of us plus an intern in the athletic performance team," he said.

Sharing some insights into what it takes to reach this calibre of performance, Joe says that the core principles of a sports science degree are always at play. 

“There is a huge group of us and it’s full-time, your day is very front-loaded you do a lot of prepping and planning. My job is to get the guys strong and powerful to play the style of rugby the coaches want. The guy’s gym between three and six times a week depending on games, injuries or what they need but a minimum of three gym sessions a week, three pitch sessions a week plus a match and you’ve 44 players to look after.  

“You’re constantly working in small teams, I hated group projects in college, but I don’t do anything on my own now, everything is done through the rugby coach, the physiotherapist the nutritionist and the players so there are always those people involved in any conversation with an athlete.  

“If an athlete wants to get bigger or stronger or lighter or has an injury, you set up a meeting and the core principles of your sports science degree are all there, your nutrition, physiology, strength and conditioning and psychology. They are the four governing bodies in your undergrad and those are the four people sitting around a player. It’s hugely rewarding to be able to do that.

“I start around 5:30 or 6 am on a Monday, your week is front-loaded so you are in there until 3 or 4 pm which gives you time to set up your gym programme. If anyone gets a bump or a bang their programme changes so you modify the programme every day trying to get the best out of them and their programme. Whether it’s delivering content, coaching or one-to-one meetings with the players or your multidisciplinary team meetings with the players you’re doing all that work in the background to take as much work off them, you want them to focus on themselves and the game plan. 

“The best thing is the people, you are working with high achievers and they’re very hard on themselves. People think ‘it must be class to be him’ but they are quite tough on themselves too and you just think ‘give yourself a break’ and have that chat with them more often than you think but they are so determined.  

“Being around those characters is amazing and you don’t see them every day so to be in their company and the camaraderie of those people that are all trying to do the same thing is great,” he said. 

Watching Ireland at the Rugby World Cup  

With 21 members of his 44-strong Leinster squad currently away at the World Cup, Joe watches tentatively hoping his players avoid injury while also remaining quietly confident in their abilities.

“It’s nerve-wracking, I’d be a worrier. I would be watching it through my fingers first of all thinking ‘don’t get injured’ and all that talk of South Africa being huge and they have seven forwards on the bench and they were calling it the bomb squad and I was thinking well no I know what my lads can do, I know what they can do in the gym.

"I speak quite regularly to a lot of the South African staff, ten years in the industry I would network with a lot of people in Capetown, people in France, it’s such a small world, it’s such a small industry, and I know what he’s doing I know what he’s capable of in the gym and I know what our guys are capable of so I’m not bothered by that.

"In one sense I would be trying to block out that noise from the media and in another sense I would be sitting there worrying like a Mom,” he said.  

With the nail-biting fixtures not set to end anytime soon, more worrying will be on the cards in the days and weeks ahead as the Rugby World Cup continues to unfold.

If you are interested in a career like Joe’s working with high-performance athletes in coaching or any aspect of sports science, Portobello Institute offers a BSc in Sport and Exercise Science awarded by Liverpool John Moore’s University which can get you on the path to follow your passion and fulfil your potential. 

This offers you a broad base from where you can learn the foundations for multiple aspects of coaching, analytics, nutrition, physiotherapy and more to go on and become part of these expert teams that are the backbone of athletic success all over the world. 

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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 Jason Lester, email jason.lester@portobelloinstitute.com or call 01 892 0029. 

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