- US trained tactician has used the concept and helped improve performance of rugby, athletics and football teams
Until recently, strength and conditioning was not part and parcel of Kenyan sport. But it is increasingly becoming an important aspect of modern sport.
One man who has embraced it fully is Geoffrey Kimani. He has worked with the Kenya Sevens rugby team, Kenya 15s rugby team, Uganda 7s, Kenyan Premier League teams Mathare United, Tusker and rugby club Kenya Harlequin among other sports teams.
Kimani was born and raised in Pumwani, Nairobi. He became a sprinter and later moved to the USA in 2004 to pursue a career in athletics. However, he dropped his ambition midway to pursue a strength and conditioning course. That changed his life. But just who is Geoffrey Kimani?
“I was born in Nairobi and at that time, my parents were living at Mlango Kubwa, Mathare. I am the third born in a family of five. When I was growing up, life in the early 1980s was exciting in the city. There was a lot of open space in the neighbourhood. Competition and rivalry among my peers started at an early age.
“In our free time, we played football, shake, tyre races and many other games. However, it wasn’t all play and no work. My parents assigned us farm work. Looking back, it was a good way of keeping us busy and passing on the values of hard work and honesty which we practice to date,” Kimani opens up to Nation Sport.
Kimani went to Juja Road Primary and Kahawa Primary School before joining Highway Secondary School where he completed his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education in 1992. A year earlier, in 1991, Kimani had won the Kenya National Junior 100 metres race. This convinced him to pursue a career in athletics before he shifted focus to strength and conditioning (S and C).
“Sport has been my passion from a very young age. After early retirement from competitive athletics, coaching was an obvious route and I chose to specialise in sprints and hurdles. The requirements for preparing a world-class sprinter borrow heavily from strength and power training, therefore, it was easy for me to transition into S and C. It’s a fulfilling job and we are paid through a currency known as ‘satisfaction’,” Kimani jokes.
“Helping athletes reach their goals, get back on their feet after long injury lay-offs is quite fulfilling. Indeed, its service to man, therefore, money alone shouldn’t be the driving factor,” he adds.
JOINED KENYA 7S BENCH
Kimani started gaining recognition after joining the Kenya 7s technical team. He said this opportunity opened doors for him.
“My first session with Kenya 7s was in November 2007. I had just returned from the US and was eager to put to practice what I had learnt while in school and also from my internship. I started off with a free session for the then Kenya Sevens coach Ben Ayimba who later took me on board to help out on speed training,” he revealed.
“The agreement was for me to hold three sessions a week, but at the request of the players, I extended my services to strength training and rehabilitation. I became engaged with the players full time. I have been in and out of the team for the last 12 years.
“I was part of the delegation when Kenya made the first ever World Sevens Series final in 2009 during the Adelaide 7s. Of the five finals that Kenya has played in, I was involved in four of them. (Adelaide, Vancouver, Hong Kong and during Kenya’s maiden victory at the Singapore Sevens in 2016. I’ve also been to two Rugby World Cup Sevens, the Commonwealth Games and the last Olympic Games in Rio, Brazil, in 2016. It has been a great experience and I have traversed many continents.
“Because of Kenya 7s, I was also able to handle other national teams as my expertise was now much sought after because of the good performances. In 2015, I was appointed sprints coach for runners preparing the World Athletics Championships. I was also privileged to work as a conditioning coach for our national football team Harambee Stars under then coach Jacob ‘Ghost’ Mulee,” Kimani said.
He revealed that harmony in the technical bench was key to Kenya 7s’ success.
“This has always been a team effort where various expertise is brought together by the head coach. I was lucky to have worked under supportive coaches especially Ayimba and Innocent ‘Namcos’ Simiyu who understood the importance of S and C. They gave me full support and trust,” he said.
“Strength and conditioning doesn’t work in isolation but it heavily aligns with the respective coaches’ philosophy, tactics and style of play. The conditioning coach, therefore, plays an advisory role to the coach and prepares the players to match the needs and demands.
“My background as a sprints coach, plus input from these rugby minds helped a lot in the transformation of our boys. Rugby 7s borrows a lot from speed, power and agility. I’m also a keen observer and student of other sports that compliment rugby, for instance, wrestling, mixed martial arts and Jujitsu among others. This knowledge greatly helped our cause since the coaches allowed me to incorporate some of these combat skills into the team’s training regimen,” he added.
Kimani commends rugby players for embracing him and the strength and conditioning concept.
“The result was not just swift, strong rugby 7s players but equally skilled players in contact situations, combat and evasive skills while in tight areas. I also took lessons to further my knowledge in rugby and through the years rose to be the first Kenyan strength and conditioning educator in rugby, this greatly helped in deepening my understanding of the sport and its needs,” he said.
“All the above wouldn’t have resulted into good performance if the players didn’t buy in. It, therefore, helped a lot that they were receptive to the new ways of training which contributed a lot to our good performance. A good strength and conditioning programme meant that we reduced injuries considerably, hence we had fit and healthy players consistently in practice which carried over to the competitions.”
Kimani said that during the 2016 Olympic year, Kenya were ranked the fourth team with the lowest injury count for the season in the World Series. In 2018, during the Commonwealth and World Cup year, he said, Kenya was among the teams that used the fewest players - 20 - for the entire year.
Kimani said this is no mean feat for a contact sport where injury is the greatest hindrance to competing effectively especially in those long seasons. He said that with limited equipment and not so good training grounds in Kenya, these were great statistics in comparison to our competitors who otherwise had superior facilities and sponsorships to boot.
Kimani is, however, quick to point out that it is not easy to maintain the Kenya 7s in tip-top physical condition especially with the constant financial problems at the Kenya Rugby Union (KRU).
“It takes meticulous planning which includes several aspects like physical training, nutrition, recovery and the most important part of it is mental preparedness and stability. We have the luxury of knowing all the competitions beforehand, therefore, we have more than enough time to get the pre-season and in- season plans laid out and budgeted for. All these are tied to proper funding. If there are limitations, then preparations are greatly affected,” he said.
Kimani, who is credited for turning former rugby star Collins Omae into a fine sprinter, said it is critical to identify the special needs of each athlete even in rugby and develop specific programmes to fit each individual.
“Profiling plays a key role in determining the needs of athletes taking part in a given sport. The Kenya 7s players are tested then profiled individually against team requirements and players’ positions. This helps us determine a player’s strength and weaknesses. Therefore, when drawing out the team’s training plans, all these aspects are taken into consideration and individualised programmes are set - one size never fits all!”
Kimani said there is a misconception that S and C coaches are know-it-all and Jack-of-all-trades. On the contrary, Kimani said the S and C training enables a coach work with any athlete competing in any sport. He said their training covers all aspects of human movement (kinesiology, physiology and biomechanics etc).
Kimani said all the S and C coaches are required to know about a specific sport are the rules, energy systems demand, competition calendar and they proceed to prepare athletes to compete at the highest levels.
“In our context, Collins’ programme will have a lot of strength, linear speed, power and endurance as this is what is required in his sport. It would be useless and dangerous to have him do combat work! On the other hand, a rugby 7s player requires all the above done at different planes of motion repeatedly in addition to combat.
Kimani predicts eye-popping performances by athletes in the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. He said science will play a great role in the future of sports.
“The signs are already there. Many world records and human defying feats have been achieved in the lead up to these Games. Delilah Muhammed holds the 400 metres hurdles World Record, Eliud Kipchoge holds the marathon World Record, New Zealand 7s the World Cup and Commonwealth golds medals, USA women rugby 7s is on the rise, Ugandan middle and long distance running is also on the rise. It is the fastest, wittiest, most enduring athletes and teams that have been carrying the day, therefore, to compete effectively means surpassing or matching what is currently on offer.
“You will recall that at the past two World Cross Country Championships and at other major events, top runners were annihilated.
“In the 2017 World Cross Country Championship held in Kampala, it was the altitude doing damage in last year’s event in Aarhus, Denmark, it was the long steep hills slowing down those that hadn’t incorporated some strength training into their preparations for those wet, cold, muddy conditions!
“Last year’s World Athletics Championship in Doha dealt the heat card. Sport has greatly evolved over the period and science has taken centre stage in helping to design programmes that get the athletes adapted to the changing trends,” he said.
Kimani quit his Kenya 7s S and C coaching position at the start of the 2019 season. He said that it was a tough decision to make.
“As much as we are called to serve, we also have our private lives. I decided to take a sabbatical for personal reasons to study and also for family reasons. I have since become a world athletics sprints and hurdles lecturer. I’m helping certify more coaches in the region. Sometimes we learn more by teaching,” Kimani said.
He urges Kenyan federations and sporting organisations to believe in and empower local coaches. Kimani urged coaches to constantly improve their skills and qualifications.
“Federations should believe and trust more in local expertise, indeed the most successful coaches across most sports in Kenya have been locals. Also practice fairness when appointing candidates for coaching courses, many times candidates with limited knowledge, competence and interest are picked to sit courses just because they helped in elections (delegates) hence rewarded by such appointments,” he said.
Kimani said local coaches cannot also escape blame as most of them don’t undertake continued education programmes and are overtaken by science and new training concepts. He said this should be a matter of personal commitment for any coach if they are to make changes and improve performances for our sportsmen.
“We should also start engaging the athletes more and letting them be part of the planning and understanding why certain decisions are being made. The millennial athlete is more exposed and knowledgeable - they are looking for guidance and clarity since the information is already out there thanks to the internet,” Kimani said.
What would be his advice to any sportsmen wishing to pursue strength and conditioning as a career in future?
“Passion, patience are key ingredients to being a good practitioner. Also, qualifications (papers) are great but must be complimented by equally good skills which can only be acquired through job experience. Volunteer to work in teams as assistants, water boys, back room duties etc also helps.”
“Preparing athletes who have gone on to capture national and world titles despite having very limited resources and using improvised equipment and facilities is no mean feat,” he said.
He is currently working with the National Olympic Committee of Kenya (Nock). The first phase was engaging with youth coaches at the first ever Nock elite youth camp which was held in November last year.
Kimani said the coaches are key as they are preparing young athletes who will compete at the youth Olympics in 2022. They are now in the age bracket of 12-15 years. Lessons passed on being that they should plan and draw training programs that respect the Long-term athlete development pathways and not burn out the young athletes by training them like miniature adults,” Kimani said.
“There are a lot of examples of Kenyan sportsme-n who dominated the local and international scene as juniors but never made any significant impact once they transitioned to senior levels. There is a future plan to open a high performance facility that caters for all sportsmen and mostly those who aren’t in the national teams and who are the majority, in effect to keep the conveyer belt going,” he added.
His parting shot?
“The talented or not so talented athlete who will have the utmost discipline, put in good quality work and follow the set recovery protocols relentlessly, will certainly be the next big thing in Kenya. As Eliud Kipchoge said, “Only the disciplined ones are free in life, if you are undisciplined, you are a slave to your emotions and passions.”