Melbourne Storm’s director of performance Lachlan Penfold on preparing the best team possible, his time in the NBA and the athletes he admires most. By Cindy MacDonald.


Best practice: Lachlan Penfold, 50, director of performance

At Storm, we have three strength and conditioning coaches, two full-time and one part-time physio, and a doctor who’s part-time. Essentially my job is to coordinate that team in terms of all our physical development preparation and also to control the players’ training loads. I work with coaches to plan training – not to tell them what skill drills to do, but to give them guidelines of how much they can do based on what we’re trying to get from a physical perspective.

I did a sport science (human movement) degree at Queensland Uni, so my background is strength and conditioning. My first job was with Brisbane Bandits in the Australian Baseball League. I was doing a uni assignment and rang up the coach and said, “Can I come and talk to you about baseball training?” We had a chat and then he rings me up later and says, “Do you want a job?” So that was it. I think I earned $750 for the year, but I got a free trip to the States. Then you meet people…

After the Bandits I worked with the Queensland Sheffield Shield side for a couple of years, the under 19s or 20s for the Brisbane Broncos, the Queensland Reds in the first years of Super 12s, the South Queensland Crushers, the Brisbane Lions, Sydney Roosters, the Australian men’s Sevens rugby, Golden State Warriors [in the United States] and now Storm. I also had the Australian women’s softball and water polo teams, and Queensland Academy of Sport athletes such as swimmers Susie O’Neill, Sam Riley and Rob van der Zant. In track and field I coached 800- and 1500-metre runner Sandra Dawson, and javelin thrower Joanna Stone.

People in my role can think the world starts and finishes with strength and conditioning, so sometimes they lose sight of the fact that athletes actually do a sport that involves skill. It’s important to be able to balance what they need from a physical perspective with their sport’s skills. That’s the challenge at Storm – making sure we do enough football work and physical work to get a good team out on the field.

From where I came from everything was about the physical. But you realise if you don’t have your life in order, then it doesn’t matter how good you are, you can mess yourself up. It’s hard to get kids to look to their future when all they want to do is play footy. You try to get them to not focus solely on football; to have a life away. As coaching staff we try to be aware of that.

What did I take from my time at Golden State Warriors? American sport is not very… scientific is not the right word. But I think they could do a lot of things better in terms of training, preparation, recovery – all those sorts of things. What I took away, though, was their total professionalism about turning up and doing a job week in and week out.

For what I do, the NBA wasn’t that satisfying. Because with the playing schedule you don’t have much time to do anything except a bit of recovery and this and that. From a family perspective, I was away four months out of nine and it wasn’t a great life for our family. The Storm is a good footy club and I’d always admired them, so I thought, “This is a good opportunity, let’s take it while we’ve got it.” So that’s why we came back. I’m happy we did.

I love track and field and I like most football codes, so rugby league and AFL are a good challenge. Essentially you want to be involved in a good organisation, with good staff, coaches, support staff, good players. You want people to appreciate what you do and for those people to want to get better. I worked with the softball girls and the water polo girls and they were Olympic sports, non-professional moneywise. But they were very professional about how they went about things, and they were good people and successful. I really enjoyed my time with those teams.

The one athlete I really admire? It’s hard. You look at a guy like [100-metre world record holder] Usain Bolt. How do you go past someone like that? He’s streeted the field, taken the sport to a whole new level. It’s unbelievable. And then you’ve got your classics like Ali and Jordan, those sorts of guys. Also Daley Thompson, the decathlete. He won two golds – a guy like him is pretty impressive. And I don’t know anything about skiing but there’s a girl called Mikaela Shiffrin who’s dominating. She’s won that many World Cups and gold medals and this and that, and she’s really young. You just admire excellence in people.

If someone is dedicated and wants to become better, you want to work with them. The javelin thrower Joanna Stone – she’s probably one of the most single-minded, dedicated athletes I’ve ever worked with. When I took her over she’d busted her shoulder, and then she tore elbow ligaments, so she missed more time than she competed. She had to go to hospital to get injections a few times a week just to be able to throw at training. But every day she’d turn up just wanting to be excellent. For me it’s a privilege to work with people like that.

I’m extremely lucky to do something I love and get paid for it. I wouldn’t have ever thought when I started on $750 for the year that I would earn a living from it. Now I’ve been lucky enough to live in Sydney, Melbourne, Oakland [California], and travel the world with Rugby Sevens and Olympics teams. To be involved with people at the top of their game for 20-25 years is pretty cool.

You look back on the highlights of your life… I was involved with the women’s water polo team that won Olympic gold in Sydney. I still get tingles thinking about it. That’s what it’s about for me – helping people realise their potential.


This week’s highlights…

AFLW: Fremantle v Carlton

Saturday, 2.05pm (AWST), Fremantle Oval

NRL: Melbourne Storm v Wests Tigers

Saturday, 7.35pm (AEDT), AAMI Park, Melbourne

Cricket: Women’s ODI Series – Australia v India

Sunday, 2.30pm (AEDT), Vadodara International Cricket Stadium, Gujarat, India

Super Rugby: NSW Waratahs v Melbourne Rebels

Sunday, 4.05pm (AEDT), Allianz Stadium, Sydney

• Cricket: Australia v South Africa, 3rd Test, Day 1

Thursday, 7pm (AEDT), Newlands, Cape Town

AFL: Richmond v Carlton

Thursday, 7.25pm (AEDT), Melbourne Cricket Ground

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 17, 2018 as "Best practice".

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Cindy MacDonald is The Saturday Paper’s deputy editor.