New Year’s resolutions. Gym memberships. Dry January. So many of us begin each year with the best intentions but by the time February rolls round, operation transformation has often malfunctioned well ahead of schedule. For Strength and Conditioning coaches like Robbie Cannon, their counsel is often sought to provide a programme capable of resisting potentially derailing temptation, but more dedication is needed from would-be pupils than simply a fleeting notion of change in order for Cannon to take you under his wing.
“You have to have a goal in mind,” says Cannon. “If you don’t have a goal, you’re wasting your time – no matter what level you’re at.
“The one rule I have is I’ll only work with someone who wants to get better. Over the years I’ve had people who come in and it’s almost like they’re just trying to tick off a box. ‘Oh I must try this’ or whatever but they’re not that committed. I’ll work with anyone who gives me that commitment. I love coaching and I get excited about making people better.”
Cannon’s journey to becoming one of the most popular S&C coaches in the country started 11 years ago when he completed a Diploma in Physical Fitness and Conditioning. The Balbriggan native went on to attain his Bachelor’s Degree from Setanta College before graduating with a Masters from the Limerick Institute of Technology. An avid sportsman with a background in Gaelic and soccer, the 40-year old is the current Head of Athletic Development for the Tipperary Football teams after spending two years with Laois. In that time, he helped Laois get to Division 2 from Division 4, but it’s amongst this island’s golfing elite that his star has risen highest.
A superb amateur talent in his own right, Cannon was a winner of the 2009 South of Ireland Championship at Lahinch, the 2013 Irish Amateur Open at Royal Dublin and most recently, the 2018 Irish Close Championship at The European Club, yet it was his journey to becoming a serial championship winner in Ireland that inspired his career as a fitness expert.
Following an assessment from PGA professional John Kelly in 2008, Cannon was advised about numerous issues with his glutes and upper back mobility that were restricting his own progression in the game. Although he seemed strong to the untrained eye, Cannon had focussed his training on his ‘beach body muscles’ and was given a real wake-up call when Kelly’s assessment was delivered.
Kelly advised his student to seek out Dr Liam Hennessy and it was through working with his now mentor, a long-time fitness coach to Padraig Harrington, that Cannon experienced first-hand the gains available to a golfer once they understand the power of S&C.
“It was definitely a game changer for me,” Cannon said of his progress working with Hennessy. Operating his own environmental products business at the time, meeting Hennessy completely transformed Cannon’s outlook and with it, a new career path was paved that has seen him become a key influencer in the fledgling careers of some of Ireland’s top fairway talents.
“I went back to college part-time. The whole thinking was I wanted to help younger golfers coming up and educate them and try to prevent the mistakes that I made in my training.”
“I’ve been S&C Coach for the ILGU since 2014. I’ve been with the GUI National Panels since 2015, from under 16s to 18s and the men’s panels. I love working with young people, young athletes and getting them on a long–term player development plan – that’s what excites me most and what I’ve learned most from Liam Hennessy through my studies – getting young athletes, starting them from 13, 14 and getting them on a good programme that is going to get them stronger, hitting the golf ball further and more importantly, reduce the risk of injury.
“I’ve seen some great players come through those programmes over the years. I’ve worked with Paul Dunne, Alan Dunbar who won a British Amateur and Olivia Mehaffey who’s been a great player over the last few years for the ILGU and is someone who I believe is going to go from strength to strength over the next number of years too.”
Yet for all the success stories of Cannon’s career to date, none can top the thrills of 2019 when his client of five years, Shane Lowry became Ireland’s latest Major champion when he blitzed the field for a six-shot win in the Open Championship at Royal Portrush.
“When I first met Shane, I started him off as I would do with any client, whether they’re 16 or 70, and that’s with a screening – find out what weaknesses or limitations exist, what we need to work on and identify where we need to build from with stability, strength and power,” said Cannon.
“Generally, when somebody hasn’t trained before, they will get some significant gains over the first 4-8 weeks which can be quite exciting for an athlete, especially when they’re working hard at it because they can see a huge difference straight away. Shane played Gaelic football growing up but he wouldn’t have had much of a training age. He would’ve done bits and pieces on S&C but really you need to be doing a lot of supervised training over a year to be considered to have a year of a training age, for example.
“I know when we started working together five years ago, like a lot of athletes, there were areas of his body that were very tight and needed work. He needed to get much stronger at that stage but it didn’t take him long to build up strength and power and he’s pretty strong right now!”
A common criticism levelled at Lowry throughout his career, particularly from the arm-chair pundit, has surrounded his physical conditioning. For many, at least prior to his Open win, the Clara star’s size had held him back from producing at the highest level. After claiming the Irish Open as an amateur at Baltray in ’09, a certain expectation was quickly attached to Lowry’s career and any time he failed to meet it, observers questioned why?
More often than not, the answer that those who knew little landed on was his work-rate, however, for all Lowry’s fun-loving nature and his partiality to a pint, Cannon is adamant that his star pupil is in ideal shape to ensure he extracts the most from his golf swing.
“Everyone has their own bio-mechanics to fit their golf swing and if you mess around with their mass too much, the bio-mechanics of their swing is going to change. In extremes lays danger,” Cannon warns.
“But Shane is in great shape for the demands of his sport,” Cannon insists. “He is well able to play six or seven rounds over a week. He’s very strong and powerful. His mobility is great. He is healthy and injury free.”
It could be argued that Lowry is a victim of social media in that it has bred a culture of gym selfies and obsession with body image that previous generations of golfers played without. Even though Cannon admits that some players can benefit from their high-intensity workout schedules, the nature of the beast means certain bodies will respond better to different types of treatment.
“It is so individual,” he explained. “You have to find what works for you and Shane does a pretty good job on what works for him but the most important thing for anyone reading this is identifying what your physical requirements are, finding your weak links and working on them and don’t try to copy somebody else.
“It’s a big problem I see with other athletes at 15, 16. They’re content doing their online programmes, their bodybuilding type workouts and generally they’ll end up doing themselves some damage long–term regarding the balance of their body. Always get an assessment regardless of the level you’re at and build it up from there.
“Like every sport, it’s all about increasing the training age to prepare athletes for the transition from youth sport to senior level sport. With the younger athletes, it always starts off with an assessment, find out about their background, what other sports they play or have played and generally the guys and girls who have played a lot of sports growing up are much more advanced in their movements compared to those who didn’t play so much.”
Still, when it came to Lowry, Cannon knew long before the pair began working together five years ago that he had a player capable of going to the very top of the sport. He played alongside the now world golf star in the qualifying stages of the West of Ireland as an amateur and within six holes, Cannon recognised a player who “had it all”.
Knowing the potential that Lowry possessed, Cannon’s new role alongside the Offaly man and his long-time coach, Neil Manchip, has been to maximise the now 32-year old’s chances to deliver on the biggest stages in golf, and no stage came greater than the Open Championship returning to home shores after a 68 year absence last July.
“In a perfect world, you’d love to peak for these big tournaments but depending on the energy levels leading up to Majors and that, you really can’t plan it perfectly because if somebody gets sick or the energy levels are down, you just have to focus on rest and recovery,” Cannon said.
“It’s not like the Olympics where athletes are planning for that over a long period of time. A good off-season is crucial and a good base built up. I find with that base level, it’s a lot easier to maintain and recover whereas without that good preparation, you’re behind the eight ball and constantly trying to catch up.”
2019 was always going to be a special season, especially for golfers in Ireland, and therefore this island’s biggest stars would’ve been targeting a mega year. With that in mind, Lowry and his team executed the ideal pre-season camp.
“Prior to his Abu Dhabi win, there was a bit of a break over Christmas for a week or so but then he went off to Dubai for 3-4 weeks of training before the season started. Obviously, he got off to a great start there winning and that gave him great confidence and confirmed he was working on the right stuff right across his game for the rest of the season.”
“We always believed he was going to win Majors. I always knew he was going to get to that level and his coach Neil thought it too. I think that win now has given him huge belief. Post FedEx Cup was the best he’s trained in a couple of years – it’s been amazing. He’s so motivated. He’s an ambitious guy and he wants to go on and win more big tournaments now.
“The big thing for me is to keep him playing golf and to keep him injury free and touch wood, we’ve had no problems for the five years. The focus of my programme is to work on his conditioning and keep him strong, stable and flexible so he can practice hard and play these tournaments. He’s so competitive, he just hates losing and that’s one key ingredient of DNA that I’d be looking for in any golfer.”
And any golfer, as long as they’re committed to improving, can avail of Cannon’s expertise. Given the flood of information available to aspiring golfers at any level, it’s no secret the benefits that a solid fitness programme can have on a player’s progression but like most things, it’s ensuring you’re on the right path from the outset that guides like Cannon can help with most.
“From my standpoint, some golfers can be really strong and hit the ball a long way but their putting and chipping isn’t great, so they should probably start spending more time practicing their putting and chipping. People tend to do what they’re good at a lot and not concentrate on things they’re probably not good at.
“At the end of the day, these are golfers – their job is to shoot as low a score as they can and it’s about identifying areas they can improve on right through their game and obviously the physical side can be a big part of that. The flip side is that there’s plenty of golfers who have great short games, they’re great putters but maybe they pick up a few niggling injuries because they don’t go to the gym; they’re not strong enough, they’ve got poor hip mobility, poor T-spine mobility, so maybe a bit of extra time for them should be spent in the gym.
“Again, everyone is individual so there has to be analysis put into them by their golf coach. The golf coach is the chief behind all this along with the player. It’s up to them to decide where they need to improve. Sometimes there can be too much emphasis placed on the physical side, sometimes too much on the mental side or the technical side so it’s about finding that balance and I think that’s something that Shane does brilliantly.”
For Cannon, his own work/life balance is something he toys with often. His victory at the Irish Close in 2018 was lauded as a win for the working amateurs, those perhaps not able to dedicate as much time to the game as they would wish. He has plans to embark on an arduous PhD that would test his own fairway ambitions even further and although he sees the benefits of education in his own career to date, he believes the role of the S&C coach shouldn’t be defined by the certificates on their office walls.
“There’s so many great coaches out there without a Masters or a PhD. Experience is a huge thing as well. If you’ve got a proven track record with individuals or teams who are enjoying success but you only have a basic degree, who’s to say you’re not well qualified?
“The more qualifications you have, the more learning that you have so that’s obviously beneficial but that doesn’t mean you can coach. There are several people out there who have PhDs but I wouldn’t let them coach my dog. Obviously, you need to have your education behind you to know what you’re talking about but you need to be able to coach as well. Sometimes, and Liam Hennessy and I talk about this all the time, the coaching side is a little bit undervalued.”
As for his own playing vision for 2020, hopes of a Cannon-Slam on the Irish amateur scene haven’t diminished yet.
“I wouldn’t say I’m finished yet. I’m back working with my good friend Seamus Duffy the last while. I struggled a bit technically for a couple of years and lost focus a little but he’s got me back on track now so with a bit more hard work, I could be back winning tournaments. I played my best golf working with him 2011-2013 and we are starting to see some really encouraging signs.
“I’ve always said to clients of mine, you generally do get rewarded for hard work. 2018 when I won the Irish Close was a great example of that for me where I put in a lot of hard work and it took a long time to get rewarded for it. I’m still mad keen and I’m sure by the time the West of Ireland comes around, I’ll be highly motivated to play in that.”
For more information and to get involved in a programme with Robbie, visit cannonperformance.ie