25 January, 2016

The next frontier: measuring the stuff that really matters

So I was having a trip round a Professional Sporting Academy, being given the behind-the-scenes tour by the Academy Manager. We walked through the indoor area into the next room to "where the sports scientists live" I was told. And that's what they do, in nearly every sport, sit behind their laptops where they can produce lots of data from all the testing they do. 

Now, I thoroughly understand right now there are going to be staff within that part of the sporting community that aren't going to be happy with that generalisation, this post and see this as a personal attack on their profession. This isn't about that so please don't take offence this early into the article! 

We continued on the wander round, chatting about the great work they do and the value they bring to player development. Interestingly, the view from the Academy Manager was also that there is a danger that some sport scientists are becoming a hinderance. I was told of one SS that tried to stop a 16-year old going out to practice later in the afternoon "based on data"! I think that's the opposite of the mindset we should be creating, we should be fostering players wanting to go out and get better, to continue learning and developing. The Academy Manager very clearly told the SS that regardless of the data being churned out and his flashy degree from a university that this was the real world and absolutely what he wanted at his club! 

As we moved on to have a look at the noticeboards there were stacks of numbers on the board from the last U18 and U21 game. GPS data, HR lines and graphs of a variety of forms for every player. One such graph showed the average running speed for all the players compared with each other. And this is where I start to have an issue. 

For starters, why compare one player with another? In football, where is the value in looking at running data of a full-back and comparing that with that of your centre forward? The goalkeeper made it onto the list as well! Who were the opposition and what type of game was it? Did they have much possession and what tactics were they playing? This data in isolation is meaningless so why show it to everyone?

It is fairly well accepted by those in the know that the defining factor between the good and the great is what is between the ears. Everyone in coaching and recruitment has their own stories of players that have been in the system with amazing technical prowess, tactical nous and built like a machine but the one common factor that has stopped these players progressing was a psychological gap. And I hear this all the time in lots of sports. 

"He wasn't motivated enough"
"He lacked desire and lacked work ethic" 
"He didn't have enough resilience" etc.

And this is where my issue about the resource allocation starts to come into question. 

There are loads of sport scientists in professional sports clubs across the country now, literally thousands of them, all churning out data about our players as machines. However, it becomes very easy that we start to value what we can measure and NOT actually measure what we value. 

I am interested in learning. The development, continued progression of players and the trajectory and path they are on (regardless of age, including the First XI). I would like to know how those players had been improving and developing over periods of time and whether they were on the up, plateau or down. And this is easily done in the world of sports science. 

But I'd like to know about mindset. About their levels of mental toughness. About their grit and resilience. I want to know about the players that have coping skills, the ability to implement these when they need them and adapt to ever changing circumstances in elite sport. Most of all, I want to know who the learners are. Some of these are easier to measure than others, might not be an exact science and I get that, and this is not straight forward by any stretch. 

I was in a Primary School in Hull when a Headteacher started showing me her noticeboards with laminated vases and poems and 'all the learning' that had taken place in Year 5. That's not learning, that's the outcome or 'performance'. The learning is in the five vases that were started but not finished properly because they didn't draw the edge right or the rough copies of poems where that had to scribble out and change words that didn't quite work properly. 

Great work by Ainee McNamara and colleagues (see http://clok.uclan.ac.uk/4826/) highlight some essentials, the determining factors that can differentiate the good from the great but when you then compare this to resource allocation and investment in professional sporting systems this just doesn't add up. 

One professional sports club I know has 15 full-time sport scientists across all age groups and one psychologist that tried to cover everything from U9 to First XI, and this won't be uncommon. The allocation of budgets and resources seems wrong to me. Some of this will come from the 'traditionalists' perception of a psychologist ("lie on my couch and I'll fix you") when in fact the good ones get out on the pitch/court/grass with the player's and act as a performance coach, building on strengths for development, not just putting plasters over problems. 

Fifteen years ago there was a revolution and investment in sports science and all these jobs starting popping up all over sport. It's critical that all the different experts work together and avoid silos, which is easily done too, for the betterment of player development. That's difficult to get right but many are starting to in lots of sports. 

Psychology could well be the next piece of the jigsaw to go through this drive forwards but, until that point, we could be continuing to measure a whole host of stuff that is useful to know but not the determining factor...


  1. Great piece. Totally agree.

    My son at a Cat 3 Academy Club for 6 yrs (Development Phase U12-U16)
    Suffers from anxiety to a point where only last season ran off the pitch upset during the game thinking he was letting the team down due to poor performance. Technically good, works very hard, physically avg, majority of the time C Mid.

    Through support at home, research (Dan Abrahams/eBooks/YouTube) we're slowly building up his self belief, my concern is the club don't seem to understand, put resources into dealing with the problem. I appreciate the time coaches have to put in doing reports, planning sessions etc and if I'm honest I'm not sure there is an answer due to lack of resources.

    After adopting techniques from D Abrahams, visualising, self talking etc his development in the psychological area of the game has improved dramatically but I'm not sure anyone at the club has noticed due to not knowing enough about the subject. At appraisals I've repeatedly asked them to concentrate on the psychological side of his dev.

    Could I also raise a point on the ridiculous amount of travel expected of Academy players and their parents in the Foundation and Development Phases in relation to actual game time on the green stuff! Before I give you my Saturday/Sunday diary, the coach doesn't tell the kids before the weekend what position they are likely to be playing in on a Sunday, again in my opinion clear lack of understanding from a coach the importance of visualisation and how some players rely on it to play with self belief.

    Sunday playing a Cat 1 club 200 miles round trip, tough challenge which he's well up for, from my point of view great he's looking forward to it and realises the challenge. Not the greatest travelling that distance as I believe there are other local Grassroots clubs that would love to play against a Pro Academy team that would give them just as good a challenge IF PLAYING AGAINST OLDER OPPOSITION.

    Saturday - decide to travel 3/4 of the journey and stay at a relatives house, didn't want to travel 2 hrs in the morning in preparation for the challenge ahead.

    Sunday - Good preparation food wise, 40 mins to the ground, he reads Dan Abraham's ebook, visualises playing C Mid a continuation of his training sessions. Very positive really looking forward to the game. (For someone who suffers from Anxiety, a massive leap forward)

    First Period 25 mins (Times and touches approx)
    On the bench, no problem the club has 4 extra players so the coach has no option but to rotate.
    5 mins from the end of the first period he comes on Right Midfield. Approx 4 touches and got a shot on goal.

    Second Period 25 mins
    Right Midfield, struggled to take find space, little impact on the game. In my opinion due to lack of understanding in that position.
    Worked hard as usual 15 touches at most.

    Third Period 15 mins
    Right Midfield, similar to the second period. 20 touches at most. It was now apparent the challenge was too much for him having to cope with a position he very rarely plays in against strong opposition.

    Forth Period - On the bench didn't get on.

    I have 2 main issues the main one being mentally preparing for a game which in my opinion he needs to do in order to improve decision making etc (Info from DA) which then has no reflection on the tasks he's been asked to do. If the coach had told him his plans a few days before rather than 10 seconds before he went on that would have given him a far greater chance of influencing the game and getting some positives out the game.

    Going back to your blog a lack of resources being put into psychology which leads to coaches not truly understanding how their decisions affect a players self belief and performance.

    Other issue is 4hrs on the road, 200 mile trip, meet 1 hr before the game, 1.5 hrs Match, 30 mins warm down and changing.

    7hrs away from family, 45 mins on the green stuff, approx 40 touches.

    Now I'd be amazed if anyone thinks this is the best way of developing young players.

    Any thoughts?

    1. Some really important points there made about the importance and how little we manage the situation on an individual basis. Pleased to hear that the work you have been doing has helped you son improve but disappointing that the coaches haven't supported this or the club hasn't seen the importance of this either. Well done for addressing this though and hopefully this will have benefits in the long term.

      The issue of travel time and game time for players is a different issue but again some great points made. I know this isn't perfect yet but the Professional Leagues, and the work that great people like Dean Smith at the PL are doing with their games programme will make a difference. Work in progress is probably the best term but certainly agree that carting children around the country for little game time is something we can improve upon.

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