What Makes Kevin Smith Tick

In ‘What Makes You Tick’ I get the chance to pick the brains of some inspirational people from all walks of life, in the hope that by sharing ideas we can continue to progress, push our limits, and inspire each other.

Kevin Smith is a native of Graiguecullen, Co. Laois, and is in his seventh season working as a strength and conditioning coach for Stade Français, a professional rugby team that compete in the Top 14.

For Kevin, it was very much a case of taking advantage of every opportunity that was presented to him. After returning from a six month Erasmus spell in Sweden during his third year in college, he jumped at the chance to join the Leinster set up for a week where he shadowed his cousin Stephen, who was the S&C coach in Leinster at the time, and is the co-founder of the rapidly-expanding Kitman Labs.

This proved to be a wise decision, as almost immediately after completing his studies, he was on a plane to Paris.

“I was having dinner with my now fiancée Anna, after having just completed my final year at UL, and was a little anxious about what the hell I was going to do with myself to be honest. Just like that, I got a call from Stephen to say that Michael Cheika, the Leinster coach at the time, was going to be joining Stade the following year and he needed an intern to join his S&C team. It was a year unpaid, with my accommodation provided, and of course I jumped at it.”

Cheika departed Paris in 2012, paving the way for current head coach Gonzalo Quesada to take the reigns the following season. Kevin has remained an integral member of the backroom staff throughout, and a Top 14 title in 2015 was certainly a moment to remember.

Kevin was kind enough to take the time out of his immensely busy schedule to answer some questions, and share his insights.

Would you say you are more introverted, or extroverted? 

I don’t think I could put myself into one category or the other. I’m not afraid to voice my opinion when asked, but by the same token, I don’t look to seek out attention. 50 shades of grey, I suppose.

What is your passion?

Sport. Playing, watching, discussing, in that order.

What are you driven by?

I strive to be the best possible version of myself, professionally, socially, and everything in between. I’m a big advocate of taking yourself out of the comfort zone and trying new things. Even if it leads to failure, you grow as a person, learn new skills, and will be better equipped to face what’s ahead in the future, as a result.

I also look at it as being driven by that which I fear, which is to coast by in life without experiencing anything new, with little or no opportunity to learn and grow.

How do you measure success? 

It depends on your outlook I suppose, to some people it’s a purely monetary question, while others would say that it’s what you have achieved and learned along the path that counts. I guess I would put myself somewhere in the middle of the two. If I ended up back home in Ireland with a happy wife and kids, with the house sorted and paid for on the back of a successful career in professional sport, I would have no doubt I would be a very happy man.

What is your approach to daily life? 

I’ll throw some Latin out there for this one, if I could.

“Mens sana in corpore sano” 

A healthy mind in a healthy body; if you follow this I don’t think you can go too far wrong. I also believe very strongly in showing up and doing what needs to be done, so to be a little more crass I would also say to “just fucking do it”. I have a hard time dealing with the fact that I sometimes overthink and analyse things too much; I find if you just front up and get things done it takes care of 99% of your issues.

Who had the most influence on you at a young age, and why?

For sure my parents, they supported me through everything no matter what. As they are both self-employed, they also have a huge work ethic, which is something I’ve carried with me and try to replicate to this day. My younger brother was also a huge influence. He always gave off the impression that nothing ever fazed him, and he practically oozed confidence. Girls, sport and everything in between- he was never shy and always got stuck in. I was always a little unsure of myself, so was very jealous of his effortless bravado.

What’s the best book you’ve read, and why?

“Inspiring Champions” by Henning Gericke. A very easy and powerful read filled with loads of nuggets of wisdom related to the habits and lifestyles of champions in a variety of disciplines, without the jargon. Some really fantastic insights that show how to apply sport psychology.

Describe your typical morning routine. 

Coffee!! I generally get up at 6:30/7 AM and head straight for work on the scooter (no better way to navigate the streets of Paris). I’m very fortunate that breakfast is usually provided in work. I will leave a list on my desk the night before, so that when I arrive in work the next morning I can start ticking it off without too much thought. Lashings of coffee throughout, obviously.

Describe your perfect Sunday.

A Sunday off that I can spend with Anna, which is a very rare occasion given my line of work. A Sunday spent in Croke Park is also pretty special.

I am happiest when…

Winning!

Do you have a guilty pleasure?

Champagne. Couldn’t be more French, I know.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of coaching elite level athletes? 

It’s hard to not to deviate from the obvious and say winning, because that is ultimately what keeps you in a job, but it is very satisfying when you see the guys performing well at the weekend and developing along the way, especially the younger players. The old warriors reach a stage where it’s just about match preparation during the week, without much extra development due to the fact you reach a point of diminishing returns with the risk of injury.

Do you have a coaching philosophy?

Over prepare, and then go with the flow. It is very important to have a sound scientific base to all your training, but you must always remember that you are dealing with people not machines, so you have to build some flexibility into your plans.

A simple example: Player X has had the whole weekend off, so you plan a very intensive conditioning session first thing Monday morning. The player arrives and informs you he has broken up with his long term partner, hasn’t slept a wink all weekend and has drank pretty heavily. You could still make him train of course, but knowing all that extra information the risk/reward curve of the session shifts drastically, so you need to adapt.

What was the most significant learning experience you can recall having?

Most definitely, I would have to say my first year in Paris.

Not that I had any pre-conceived notions of myself in terms of where I was at, or where I thought I deserved to be, but it was an immediate reality check of sorts, and a harsh realisation that a degree is simply a piece of paper that gets you in the door. My responsibilities during that first year consisted of pretty much anything that needed doing; I swept the gym, prepared the ice baths, got the protein shakes ready, put the cones out. It was an apprenticeship, essentially. I was entering at the very bottom rung of the ladder, putting in 14 hour days, working, training, and learning from the very best.

It was a valuable lesson in discipline, through which I had to earn respect in order to progress.

I was incredibly lucky to have such a magnificent support system throughout, without whom I wouldn’t have gotten through it. My parents gave me so much help during that first year especially. Thankfully I didn’t have to take up another job for income, which meant I could dedicate all my time to Stade. Not to mention the love, support and constant encouragement I received from Anna, who was still living in Ireland at the time.

What advice would you give to the younger generation, or indeed anyone looking to pursue a certain career path?

I would say that if you want something badly enough, go after it wholeheartedly and immerse yourself in it. If an opportunity comes your way, grab it with both hands. Volunteer your time if needs be, shadow people in the field, be a sponge.

I was a couple of weeks into a Liberal Arts degree in Mary Immaculate College, when I found out that I had been accepted into Sports Science in UL on a third round offer, after a decision to have my exam results checked deemed successful. It was a decision that proved to be life-changing looking back on it, but my parents weren’t overly excited about it at the time, and they took some persuading. I guess the career prospects for Sports Science graduates weren’t clear to see, but it was what I had always wanted to do, and I simply had to pursue it.

So I suppose to add to that, I would say to be young and dumb enough to persevere in the face of adversity, even if you aren’t able to see the end goal clearly. Immerse yourself into whatever it is you are passionate about, take every opportunity afforded to you, and trust that you will find your way.

You can follow Kevin on Twitter: @SmithyGraigue