How strong, fit, and fast is the modern rugby player? Every minute of every day, Athletes raise the bar and create a new standard of professional performance. And behind every athlete’s performance is a fortified strength and conditioning (S&C) program. Behind Old Glory’s program is Head S&C Coach Mark Dixon. Honing his skills over the last 12 years in multiple countries and various sports, Mark brings his wealth of knowledge and expertise back to rugby to help OGDC win the MLR Championship one day. To Mark, it’s not just about pushing the envelope on what makes a player stronger, fitter, and faster. Instead, it’s about a deeper understanding of how the body works, the culture of the team and its players, and how everything integrates to produce a winning product on the field.
Growing Up in Rugby
While Mark joined Old Glory in the Fall of 2020, his journey within the rugby world began in Edinburgh, Scotland, when he was only six years old. Mark’s father, William Gordon Dixon, was the President of the Scottish Rugby Union from 2004 to 2005, and his uncle, Richie Dixon, was the Head Coach of Scotland from 1995 to 1998.
Dixon started playing rugby with the local club team and excelled at cricket, competing semi-professionally in New Zealand and National age-grade cricket for Scotland. However, his heart always returned to rugby, and he continued to play into his college years at Robert Gordon University, where he started to piece together where his future in sport may take him next.
“I was at the gym at six in the morning, did a load of classes, and played club rugby in the evenings,” Mark said. “As I went through it, I gravitated more towards thinking about how the performance works. Not only because I was doing it as a mediocre player, but more because of my educational background [made me think] how everything pieced together.
“In my third year, I was given an opportunity to do an internship with the Scottish Institute of Sport with Scott Crawford, who I can thank to this day as the reason why I got on this path. It was because of the things I was exposed to working with some of the Scottish rehab guys for the 2007 World Cup. It opened my eyes to where I wanted to be.”
Upon graduating from Robert Gordon University, Mark resumed his studies at the University of Edinburgh, this time for his Masters’s Degree and in search of a deeper understanding of academics and data analysis.
The Zigzag Road Through the S&C World
Following his masters, Mark wanted to get exposed to the full gamut of the S&C world and not limit himself to rugby. To accomplish this, he took the long and winding path through four countries and seven different sports.
His ten-year journey to Old Glory started with the Georgian Rugby Union, where for two years, he built an S&C program from scratch in a foreign country where he hardly knew the language. For the next several years, Mark would work with the United States Ski and Snowboard Association as the Men’s Alpine World Cup Tech Team Conditioning Coach; the Scottish Institute of Sport/Scottish Football as the Lead Strength and Conditioning Coach for Women’s Football; the Chinese Olympic Committee as the S&C Coach for the National Track Sprint Cycling Team, Women’s Wrestling, and Women’s Heavyweight Judo Team in preparation for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games; and most recently, the Pittsburgh Pirates Major League Baseball organization as the Minor League S&C Coach in 2017. Based in Florida, Mark worked with the Pirates for four years focusing on developmental strategies, sports science, and rehabilitation.
“I wanted to grasp everything that I could and eventually bring it back to what’s ultimately me,” Mark notes. “Picking up little bits and pieces from different sports along the way as well as how to deal with people from different cultures because we all see it differently.”
All of this training and knowledge culminated in 2020. After the pandemic cut short Old Glory’s inaugural season, Mark kept tabs on the team through the association with Scottish Rugby. He reached out to John Manson, OGDC’s former Operations Manager, who had played for his uncle for Scotland in the late 90s.
“I introduced myself and said if you ever need any help from an S&C perspective,” Mark said. “I spoke with Andrew [Douglas] and talked about how he likes to play rugby, how typically New Zealand teams play, and how we could approach it. Then I spoke to Chris Dunlavey about having been in Georgia and talking about the developmental aspects and wider public health.”
“To cut the short from the long, initially, I was speaking to John if there was a need to support Old Glory’s emergence. Then speaking to Andrew and Chris, they shared their vision with me around what they wanted to happen with Old Glory. It was something I was excited to be a part of. What rugby boy wouldn’t want to be in rugby, particularly with an organization in the DC area that has massive potential and links with Scotland. [On top of that, there are] wider visions impacting the growth of rugby in this untapped resource of DC.”
One of Mark’s earliest tasks as the Head of S&C for Old Glory was to figure out how everything integrated from a technical, tactical, physical, and mental aspect, understand how everything interacted, and make everything drive the club’s performance forward in the way the coaching staff wanted.
“I needed to understand how Andrew envisions his culture, how Chris envisions the culture of Old Glory as a brand, and how then we would approach developing these guys,” Mark said. “We had guys from Ireland, Scotland, England, New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, America, and Canada. So the cultural understanding piece of what I did earlier in my career became so important because it’s the understanding of how our squad would look, how Andrew wants things to look, and ultimately what’s best for the player.”
Today, Mark works closely with “the two Matts,” which includes Matthew Bales, the assistant S&C coach who has been with the club since the exhibition season, and Mathew Skyner, a Scottish S&C intern. Together, they are integral members of Dixon’s team.
Pictured: Matt Bales
Pictured: Mathew Skyner
“Together, they help make the program tick,” Mark reflected. “We all cover something a little different while working towards our over-arching physical goal, which we like to say is taking physical issues off the table. Making rugby the main thing.”
Additionally, his S&C department works hand in hand with Meghan Wilkinson and her Medstar Health team.
“Medstar has been massive for us,” Dixon elaborated. ” Medstar Health has been a long-time partner. We’ve grown together. The support they have given us has taken us in a direction toward the holistic viewpoint. We can give the players what they need to succeed. They are our partners and a sponsor, but they are part of our team. They are colleagues.”
Pictured: Meghan Wilkinson
Along with Medstar, Mark has made the most of the team’s partnerships with the St. James, Old Glory’s training facility; Mighty Meals, a DC company that provide meals to players twice a week; StatSport, a GPS service that allows the team to see and understand what they do; and Science and Sport, a nutritional supplement company.
The Wider View and the Necessary Approach to S&C Today
“From an S&C perspective, we are all human beings. Knowing we all respond to certain stresses are similar, but then how you can produce those responses the best requires a deeper level of thinking about where a person comes from, their gender, family background, and how educated they are because that all influences your interaction.
“It’s not a simple case of getting there and running this as hard as you can,” Mark continued. “If someone turns around and tells you no, what’s your response? Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the nose. For me, it comes down to understanding what someone else’s purpose is in their performance because, ultimately, I’m here to support them to be the best they can be.
“[It’s] understanding them and their sport and understanding what people are about because then we can actually help them be the best they can be. I like seeing people get stuck into themselves in the sense of being better. When people are driven to be better and to help people be driven to achieve their desire is what keeps me coming back.”
After all his stops worldwide, Old Glory is where Mark wants and needs to be. “I love the DMV area. In essence, I’m in my dream job right now. I’m working in rugby with a great organization. I want to continually grow this organization from a physical perspective and then how we look at our recruitment, our impact on the community, and engaging in what DC has to offer. I want to keep pushing the level of performance that we can be on the field. My main goal moving forward is to support what we need to produce on the field. Ultimately, that means winning the MLR Shield.”