When we were putting together the PFCA Expert Panel, Neil Parsley was one coach that we really wanted on the team. Neil is a sports performance specialist, sport addict & director of a very unique training facility – The Underground Training Station. He’s a great addition to the team and the glass is definitely always half full when you speak to Neil!!
In this, the second of many Q&A’s with members of our expert panel, we ask Neil a couple of questions to give everyone an insight into his background.
Q: Neil, can you tell us about how you got into strength and conditioning, and what teams and athletes you’ve worked with so far?
A: I think I’m a bit different really to most of the members on the expert panel! I went through my A-Level and I worked in a gym as part of mywork experience in the Lower Sixth, as it was back then! I don’t know what year that is in ‘new money’. Whe I left school I worked in a Village hotel gym and then that got me going. I knew as soon as I started, ‘This is the sort of thing I want to do’. I always loved physical training, probably almost more than technical, like rugby. I love rugby training but I loved it when it was more physical than technical.
I then did three years picking up vocational qualifications to get me going at the Village hotel. After that, I was a supervisor at a racquets club (as it was called before it became the David Lloyd) in Ellesmere Port – There wasn’t such a thing as personal training when I first started, there were no Personal Trainers. I’m not sure if that was just up north! However, when I got the supervisor’s job at the age of 21, there was a bit of PT involved.
A bit of work at the Lawn Tennis Assocaition (LTA) came up and that’s where I did my first bit of strength and conditioning with a really cool guy called Jez Green, who has worked with Andy Murray. I don’t know if he spotted any potential in me but he took me under his wing and said, “We need to do Cheshire County squad, 10-12 year olds once a week in Manchester. I’ll give you £20.” It was about a tenner’s worth of petrol! And that’s how I started – once a week at the LTA. That soon grew however, so I was doing a couple of different squads and different age groups at the same time that I was trying to become a Rugby League player. So, it was good at the time playing semi-pro and I had a go at pro. I didn’t quite get there, I wasn’t quite good enough!
After that finished, I thought, ‘Right, I’m going to give this a really good go. I want to work in sport not PT.’ I started doing the Academy in Bolton still with the LTA for 18 months with a guy called Dave Samuel although still under the tutelage of Jez Green.
Someone contacted me to work with the England Women’s’ Rugby team and there were two players in Merseyside so I started working for them. I was sending the invoices to the English Institute of Sport but I didn’t really realise just who I was working for. I just thought it was cool because I was working with two rugby players and a programme for playing rugby. I enjoyed it but a few months later I found out about a part time job at the English Institute of Sport (EIS). I met Mark Simpson there and saw what he was doing in Manchester and had that ‘I want to do this’ feeling again.
That was how I actually got to proper Strength and Conditioning at the EIS. I did my degree as soon as I started there via distance learning with the MMU. It took me four years whilst I worked at the EIS Manchester. My first job was with multi-sport; cycling, boxers (there’s a boxing group in Liverpool), track and field. Everyone was doing a bit of everything and that was great as a young practitioner. There was an Australian guy there who took over the lead and he then started to push towards people having specialisms with sport. So following this, my next job was as the lead with disability swimming across the network. Manchester was the lead site but there were of course disability swimmers all over the country who I coordinated and delivered to the group. There were a couple of really good disability swimmers in Manchester so that was really cool as my first real foray with a specific group.
In 2005 we got the bid for 2012 which opened up funding. All of a sudden, the wrestlers in Salford got a bit of funding and with my rugby background, Mark Simpson thought I would be a good fit. And so I took over as lead S&C for the wrestling group in Manchester. They tried to get as many of the wrestlers from in and around Manchester from the hotbeds of Wigan, St. Helen’s in the north and a bit down in the south by centralising things. There ended up being a really good group of wrestlers which enabled me to get stuck in and, for an S&C Coach, wrestling, a bit like rugby, is brilliant to cut your teeth on because most physical qualities that you can think of are also justifiable in training within wrestling. I was working with a Russian coach who was hard work but they had a lot of old school ways of doing strength and conditioning but in a different way. I learnt a lot from the wrestlers and from the coaches, and it was great for me in that I could trial all kinds of things. I came across a Russian guy who had a degree in Physical Education who was doing a Master’s Degree in wrestling – he translated his whole manuscript from Russian into English to explain to me what he was looking at. That was really eye-opening.
Going to Beijing I had Fran Halsall, Andrew Steele, Jenny Meadows and Michael Rimmer but unfortunately none of the wrestlers qualified because it was such a tough sport and a tough qualification – a couple of them just missed out.
After Beijing, the Taekwondo came to Manchester and they wanted and S&C Coach. They looked at the programme and thought there was an opportunity to ramp things up and become a better programme from the S&C Coach and so I interviewed for that, got it and I had great four years with Taekwondo. It was a brilliant journey as a team and as a group of athletes which culminated in going to two World Champions – The first one in 2009 was a shocker but we had a brilliant one winning five gold medals in 2011. We then got two medals in 2012; a gold and a bronze with Taylor and Jade.
That was a great, memorable four years but in S&C you can do some great work but you don’t always get the good times if things don’t go well for the athletes. I’ll never forget those years – a real great group of practitioners who I was working with.
In 2012, after having three kids it was becoming too tough travelling up and down to Manchester. I opened the gym in 2009 on the Wirral (The Underground Training Station) because my job as an S&C Coach was a worldwide thing. Although there is no reason why you can’t go round the world with three kids, it does get tricky with education and the like. We had a good family setup with two good families around us and so I always knew that the gym was a good idea. I had always wanted a facility but it worked well for me later on in my career.
I then looked to do a bit of consultancy and drop down a little bit so I looked at doing three days a week with the EIS and just as I started to do that, I had an opportunity with the England Rugby Team. They were looking for a third S&C coach to come into the camps which was like a dream job! Matt Parker got the job as Head of Performance. He spoke to me and said, “You could be a perfect fit here if you are doing a couple of days up at the EIS and we need you at camp for a couple of days here and there.” So, I started doing that and soon realised that this was an absolutely fantastic job working with Paul Stridgeon and Dave Silvester of the S&C team, Ben Pollard, Sports Science and a good medical team as well
So, I left the EIS to accept guaranteed hours from the RFU as well as consultancy at my gym. I had a great three years culminating in doing six month’s full time leading into the home World Cup 2015. I went on tour to Argentina and New Zealand but this time, unlike the Taekwondo, it didn’t finish in a great way; we didn’t qualify for the knock out stages. However, I had a great couple of years, learnt loads and it was a great job at Twickenham warming players up in front of 80,000 people in New Zealand.
By now, I had finished with the RFU – Eddie came in and wanted to shrink the team a little bit so I was no longer needed and became a full-on S&C consultant. I’ve been working in football/soccer (Manchester City) since then with several players and at The Underground Training Station as consultant.
From a Underground Training Station perspective, things started ramping up at the end of 2015 when RFU went out and I had more time, which coincided with moving to a double the size, 8,000 square foot site with Underground Training Station. Underground was ramped up at this point especially the youth programme, which was great. I really got my teeth into that and then for the last six to eight months of 2016, I have been working more with profesional football players.
Q: That’s a fascinating journey, I didn’t realise quite how much we have in common. I’ve known you for more than decade and one of my first roles was delivering workshops for Cheshire County Tennis back in the day in Manchester. Our paths must of crossed unknowingly. I think it is interesting for the people reading this who look at the Professional Fitness Coaching Academy and see the headline names – A lot of our guys are working in high performance sport and to actually see that you started right back in working with general population in health clubs and hotel chain fitness clubs, high performance sport and coming back almost full circle now in setting up your own facilities with the Underground Training Station and working back with the community with members of general population as well as keeping a hand in with elite sport. It is interesting to see how you have journeyed through.
Through your work, and you have been working for a long time now, if you had to sum up what your training philosophy was, what would your philosophy of strength and conditioning be in a nutshell?
A: I would probably go right back to the basics. I’m a big believer of doing the basics at an extremely high level and being consistent. So I’d say, high-level basics, be consistent, be focused and you won’t be far off.