Sports Science in Professional Football: How to choose your battles?

Sports Science as we know is a very broad spectrum. One that is ever evolving with many new disciplines and subsequent techniques, processes and interpretations being established from this.

As I previously discussed, even the molecular physiology of exercise can be taken into account.

But ultimately, what does it take to maintain and balance your workload against all the multiple facets of sports science? These days, we have specialists to maintain and cater for these facets.

  • Sport Psychologist: To manage the well-being of players. This can be rehab related as well with goal setting during these processes and establishing the needs of the players. Interestingly, a hormone known as oxytocin has been shown to accelerate healing.
  • Physiotherapist: Providing physical therapy to players such as healing, mobilizing and strengthening muscles in the context of movement deficiency within rehab.
  • Sports Scientist: This varies but this can range from collecting, interpreting and analysing data from GPS metrics and devising plans to overcome and maintain performance levels. They may also lead muscular activation warm ups as an on-field provision through a distinct set of exercises designed to minimize injury.
  • Strength and Conditioning Coach: This is sometimes used as a dual role with the sports science role. Ultimately, they are there to improve physical capacity through a number of means such as acceleration, energy systems development, core strength, flexibility and coordination. They can be integrated into a rehab system as well for final phase rehab.
  • Nutritionist: They are responsible for the player’s energy intake and to make sure they are at a suitable weight and are on a diet to achieve this. Sometimes they would calculate the player’s BMI, BMR or simply calculate their weight. They would like devise nutritional plans to ensure how much energy players are getting from the macronutrients of fat, carbohydrates and protein.

Professional clubs have their own set ups in how they break down their structure within the sports science department. But the question remains, what is the best system to have and what will serve the needs of the players to achieve greater on-field performance.

There isn’t one answer that is universally accepted. But the general guidelines are to “choose your battles”. In other words, focus on the things that will get results and how does that come about? Data.

Data is a secret weapon that when used correctly, can bring out suitable results as this provides a reference from which to work from that is objective and not subjective.

For example. Let’s say that a sports scientist or the strength and conditioning coach devises a warm up, but decides not to use activation bands to fire up the muscles more quickly, injuries could increase to the soft tissue.

Then another coach would do the same warm up with the bands and the data on injuries that occurred from that. Ultimately, we want to take data from as many processes as possible so we can gain an accurate understanding of players’ wellbeing, fitness and health.

The data should aim to challenge subjective bias or any theoretical hypothesis a practitioner may possess. It drives best practice.

But then again, there is a lot of data that we can track. A nutritionist could track energy intake but all of the vitamins and minerals as well and on top of that, a whole squad as well.

How do we choose which data is most meaningful to track? A good system will certainly manage this but when we are talking about results on the field, we have to choose our battles?

Which data do we prioritise? This is then down to the staff to calculate what is most meaningful. Don’t take data for the sake of it. Yes, it’s on paper but what good does it serve to meet the needs of the players to fulfill their desire of winning games? Let’s say we take BMI measurements.

We have it on paper. Now, what are we going to do with it? Are we going to leave it? We could do the following options maybe:

  • Calculate it against their previous BMI to detect a consistent longitudinal change against the singular variable, in other words, the player
  • Devise a nutritional plan to increase/decrease weight such as carb loading, reduction of fat or protein or specific vitamins and minerals to aid a rehab process.
  • Analyse the skinfold sites to identify inconsistencies with current and previous data.

Which battle do we choose? Or do we choose any of them? A game could be coming up and do we focus or attention on that or something that is more worthwhile that could contribute more greatly to on-field success.

A nice to have is always good, but it should never be prioritized over something more meaningful. Subconscious bias could always play a part from the perspective of the practitioner but everything needs to have a proven purpose to contribute towards performance.

If we are to collect data, baseline data should always be taken. This is normally at the start of pre-season when a player reports back for training and are at a general level of fitness which is intended to be built upon by the necessary staff previously discussed.

This data is then considered to be the data that we subsequently compare against. Performance is increased through strategical protocols such as periodization, RPE scales, nutritional intake and so on.

Again choosing the battles. For each battle, it does have to be managed so we can get the win and see that increase. Data should drive this but our solutions to them must also be good, otherwise we are fighting a losing battle.

An example, a player is showing a slow increase in velocity, signifying poor accelerations. How do we provide the solution? Do we create an acceleration plan?

If we do, we need to understand the biomechanics, the agonist and antagonist muscles that contribute to that, the players’ previous acceleration scores from their baseline data, technique of acceleration which could be analysed through video and so on.

But what will get us the desired outcome? This is when the practitioner must decide. Experience will play it’s part but knowledge is just as if not equally more powerful, whose to say we have choosing the wrong battles for several years?

Data can again provide the answer we are looking for.

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