NEIL GIBSON has come a long way from playing rugby league on a high school astro pitch and training at a gym behind a pub.
He’s now director of performance at Oriam, the £33 million national centre of sporting excellence currently under construction at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.
It will provide an elite training and recovery base for the national football and rugby teams, as well as a whole host of other sports. Among its facilities will be an indoor pitch, matching the dimensions of Hampden Park’s playing surface, complete with a stand for 500 spectators, and gyms designed for elite conditioning.
It’s a far cry from what Gibson played on as a young rugby league player at Widnes, his home town club in Cheshire.
“We were probably quite lucky to be using an outdoor astro pitch,” he said. “But I think we can get too caught up in facilities. Oriam is fantastic - but it’s only as good as people want to make it.
“There are those who train in what we would class as a poor gym, but still become very good players or athletes, because they have a willingness to use it to its maximum.
“Oriam won’t make athletes better by itself.”
It will however offer them a considerable helping hand. In a country with notoriously inclement weather, training sessions will no longer be cancelled because of sudden downpours. Coaching expertise and recovery advice will be under one roof.
“I think, certainly in Scotland, this will be one of the few facilities where you can train either indoors or outdoors,” said Gibson. “We’ve got the strength and conditioning gyms, medical support, and athletes will be able to recover on site with the hydropool. I’m not aware of anywhere else in Scotland that can offer such a range.”
A new centre of excellence was a key recommendation of Henry McLeish’s 2010 review of Scottish football. A key influence on its design was St George’s Park - the English national football centre which opened in 2012 - but Oriam differs in two important respects.
While it will be primarily used by the SFA and SRU, it will welcome other sports. And being based on a university campus, it will be used by students and members of the public.
“The fact we’re based in Edinburgh means Oriam should appeal to a whole range of people,” added Gibson. “If you’re a young athlete, you know you’re in a city with four different university options. You can pursue your studies and link that with the ability to train regularly.
“There will be a mix of people - young children coming in to attend summer camps, for example, right through to professional athletes. I do think there’s a real strength in that - it’s a visible pathway to elite level.”
Gibson was appointed director of performance in June 2015, having previously worked at Heriot-Watt as head of sport science.
He is already well-known in Scottish football circles, having worked with Hearts since 2004 and eventually managing sports science and conditioning at the club.
Asked what his day-to-day job will involve, he cheerfully admits he won’t know until Oriam opens for business in August. But he does have a firm idea of the benefits being based on campus will provide.
“We’re not trying to limit ourselves to psychology, bio-mechanics and physiology, which would be the traditional mainstay of sport science,” he said.
“Research is a key part of what we will be doing. We’re already working with university colleagues in maths and computer science on aberrant movement patterns. The technology is being developed with Parkinson’s patients. We’re interested in how it can help athletes engaged in solo practice to understand when their movement is breaking down.
“Oriam can help our colleagues gain access to real world scenarios. Too often research goes on behind closed doors, and the message doesn’t quite make it to the end user. We think Orian can be a conduit to that.
“You can come and work with coaches on site, who can then relay their message to athletes. Ultimately, that’s the purpose of research, it’s there to inform practice.”
Gibson is keen to see building work on site completed so Oriam can welcome its first athletes and the wider sporting community can move in.
“The really exciting thing for me is seeing people work together,” he said. “I bumped into a nutritionist this morning that I haven’t seen in years. We spent an hour sharing ideas. When everyone’s in the same building, working in the same space, hopefully that will happen even more.
“We’re a relatively small country. We should abolutely be taking the best things from each area of different sports and putting it altogether. I hope that’s what being on a university campus, and that ethos of knowledge sharing, will be a central theme for Oriam.”