SSA Blog: England's captain fantastic?

Harry Kane has been announced as England Captain for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. The role of England Captain has long held an association, like the game in the UK, with the more physical aspects of the game. The captain is supposed to be the embodiment of the 3 Lions, the heartbeat of the team, the leader, based on a model seemingly drawn from a combative military history.

Football is now more professional than ever. Tournament football, which comes at the end of a long domestic season is increasingly demanding technically, tactically and emotionally. So, is a traditional chest pumping, hard tackling lead them over the trenches style of captaincy really the right fit for the modern game?

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The role of the captain has always generated debate. The build up to Russia 2018 has been no exception. Whether Gareth Southgate has added to the debate by not naming a fixed captain during his time as England manager is also a matter of opinion.

Part of the problem with naming a captain is the lack of clarity around the role. What is needed/expected from a captain, do different captains excel in different ways and do different teams and situations call for different types of captaincy and leadership?

Simple early research conducted decades ago highlighted that captains were often selected due to their high levels of performance and they tended to occupy central positional roles within a team. These basic propositions seem to have been followed to the present day with the majority of dissenting voices around Kane’s appointment pointing to his playing position rather than any lack of leadership quality.

In their 2014 study ‘The myth of the captain as principle leader’ Fransen et al, established four key leadership areas or roles that exist within a team, these were;

·       Task - linked to tactical advice and key in game performance decisions

·       Motivational – supporting and encouraging teammates to perform

·       Social – develops a positive team ethic and atmosphere

·       External – leads communications between the group and others such as coaches and media

In the same study, where the authors surveyed over 4000 team sport players, results showed that in almost half of cases the nominated captains were not perceived as the leader in any of the four categories outlined. This led them to conclude that a shared leadership model could actually be the most efficient way to maximise team cohesion and performance.

As mentioned earlier, Gareth Southgate may have added to the media speculation regarding the captaincy by sharing the responsibility around the group in the build up to the World Cup. In interviews since the announcement it has become clear that Kane knew his fate over a month before the media announcement. But has Southgate, by exposing Jordan Henderson, Gary Cahill and Eric Dyer to the role and formally establishing them in the minds of other players as captains, enabled him to build a wider leadership team which, according to the research can result in more effective outcomes?

Cotterill & Fransen suggested in their 2016 paper, examining leadership in team sports, that good captaincy can have a marked impact on performance. By identifying a number of players and sharing the leadership roles Southgate may have established a system that better supports the needs of modern international tournament captaincy.

Looking back at the areas identified as the role of a captain, in football, the tactical decisions are made by the manager and coaching staff so this area is of limited importance, particularly when dealing with elite well drilled players.

Under FIFA rules a captain must be named for the tournament to act as the focal point for officials. This then naturally expands to other groups such as fans and media fulfilling the external element of the job. But behind the scenes, as we have heard from so many previous tournaments, the motivational and social responsibility is key to establishing a happy and cohesive squad.

With three previous captains within the squad presented recently by the management team as leaders, the scope for effective leadership across these key areas is increased. Players are no longer limited in who they seek advice from, vent frustrations to, or socially engage with.   

Gareth Southgate has challenged the status quo in a number of ways since becoming England manager. In naming Harry Kane as his captain, it seems as if he has conformed to the old adage of your best player is the captain. However, the way he has developed other leaders within the group prior to the tournament shows his broader understanding of the demands associated with the role.

Should Kane be the England Captain? Of course.

Should Southgate be praised for the process by which he has developed this situation? Absolutely.

Sport Science Agency works with brands, broadcasters, rights holders and agencies to create insight, experiences and content from the latest sport science research. If you want to know more just drop us a note via and we can arrange to go for a healthy performance boosting drink. 

SSA Blog: Federer's dark secret

Even the most disciplined athlete might be forgiven for reaching for a chocolate egg or two at this time of year. Whatever your preference, it is hard to avoid the plethora of treats available over Easter. But is this such a bad thing? Could athletes actually see some benefit from indulging in a little chocolate over the Easter holiday?

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Chocolate has an established place within the sport sponsorship family. Winter sport, in particular, has benefited from a long-term relationship with Milka across mainland Europe. Not to be outdone the American Ski and Snowboard Association has partnered up with Hershey’s. In the UK, Cadbury has experienced an up and down relationship with sport. A successful sponsorship of the London 2012 Olympic Games prompted its recent confidence to sign up as the Official Snack of the Premier League. However, back in 2003 Cadbury had to endure a backlash to it's partnership of the Youth Sport Trust, which the Food Commission criticised for “encouraging unhealthy behaviour” with its proposed school sports rewards scheme.

Whilst a little of what you like is said to be good for you, remember that not all chocolate is born equal. Dark chocolate is rich in cocoa-derived phytochemicals that may have bioactive properties including caffeine and flavanols (Stellingwerff et al, 2014) and the potential health and performance benefits of these flavanols is currently of great interest within nutritional research.

The dietary flavanols that occur naturally in cocoa powder (namely Epicatechin, Catechin and Procyanidins) have been found to provide anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and cardiovascular health benefits - such as decreased blood pressure and improved blood circulation. The last of which has been identified as a potential means of enhancing nutrient and oxygen delivery to the working muscles and removing waste by-products, potentially enhancing performance and recovery.

In an earlier blog, we examined how Roger Federer is able to maintain such incredible levels of performance well into his mid 30’s. Interviews across national and international media discussing the various factors such as genetics, training adaptations and psychological maturity followed. But did we miss a contributory factor? Perhaps the secret of Federer’s success is linked to one of his long-term sponsors, the Chocolateries’ Lindt…

Dark chocolate consumption has now been identified as an alternative means of raising the bioavailability of nitric oxide, the compound thought to be responsible for the health and (albeit mixed) performance benefits associated with beetroot juice. But how does eating a bar of dark chocolate translate into performance benefits for athletes and could it be the secret behind Federer’s success?

The reality is, at present the literature is in its infancy and, subsequently, is sparse. Stellingwerff et al (2015) and Decroix et al (2017) have observed that acute doses of dark chocolate can have an effect on key processes that could lead to performance benefits. However, both studies failed to establish a link to improved exercise performance.

It may be the case that dark chocolate needs to be consumed over a greater time-period for the physiological changes to provide performance benefits. Patel et al (2015) examined the impact of supplementing both dark and white chocolate (40g/day) for two weeks. The authors found that in a subsequent bike test, the gaseous exchange threshold (during sub-maximal exercise) and time-trial performance (2-minute max sprint) both increased following the supplementation of dark, compared to white chocolate. Unfortunately, as the flavanol and nitric oxide concentrations were not directly measured, the causality of these performance benefits could not be definitively established.

So even if Roger Federer has been an avid consumer of Lindt’s Excellence dark chocolate it’s difficult to link his continued performance excellence with this new area of nutritional interest. However, with Easter upon us and many hoping to enjoy a traditional chocolate treat, it seems that if you manage to fit in a few training sessions and then opt for dark chocolate, you can justify it as part of the latest nutritional research.

Even if a positive performance impact is still to be established, if it’s good enough for Roger…

Happy Easter  

 Sport Science Agency works with brands, broadcasters, rights holders and agencies to create insight, experiences and content from the latest sport science research. If you want to know more just drop us a note via and we can arrange to meet and share a bar of dark chocolate or go for a healthy performance boosting drink. 

SSA Blog: The diet of a champion

The Formula 1 season kicks off today in Australia with all eyes on World Champion and pole sitter Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton is, without doubt, the sports biggest draw and maybe it’s only true crossover star. He goes into the season chasing a 5th world title, which if he achieves it would move him up to joint second on the all time list.

Midway through last season, a different spotlight was shone on Hamilton after he announced his decision to follow a vegan diet. Many questioned the wisdom of this lifestyle change at such a time, but any criticism was soon overshadowed by his imperious form following the mid-season break, which saw him storm to the driver’s crown with two races remaining.

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Hamilton is by no means the first major sports star to promote the virtues of a vegan diet. Perhaps the most famous advocate of a vegan, or predominantly vegan diet, is NFL star, Tom Brady. Brady, at the age of 40 has the most super bowl wins of any current NFL player. His longevity and continued success have created considerable attention around his diet and training practices. Brady’s diet is reportedly vegan throughout the year except during the winter playing period when he introduces limited lean meat to help with protein intake.

But are there performance benefits to such a diet for athletes?  

In a 2010 paper, Drs Fuhrman and Ferreri suggest potential training and recovery benefits linked to a vegan diet. They attributed this to high antioxidant, micronutrient and carbohydrate rich foods that a plant-based diet would provide. A recent review by David Rogerson, based at the Academy of Sport and Physical Activity at Sheffield Hallam University, also highlighted evidence a vegan diet could promote health in non athletics populations. To substantiate the claim, he points to lower rates of obesity and reduced incidence of heart disease and cancer among vegetarians and vegans. However, the same review outlines that individuals following vegetarian or vegan diets tend to be more health-conscious and therefore other lifestyle factors (e.g. exercise) may confound these effects. Rogerson concludes that currently when examining athletes, there is a lack quality scientific evidence to support any major performance benefit linked to a vegan diet.

There can be no doubt, however, that veganism is becoming more visible. It’s not only Hamilton and Brady that feel they are benefiting from a shift in traditional nutritional strategy, David Haye and Venus Williams have also moved to a plant based diet. Often this is linked to a desire to extend their careers and an increased focus on health. With all of them now past their 30th birthday it provides a new avenue for commercial partnerships beyond sport.

The growing influencer trend across social media has left sport stars with fewer traditional endorsements opportunities in the later stages of their careers. This is due, in part, to their lack of relevance among digital natives who look to people like them for product reviews, lifestyle tips and day to day information about health, diet, exercise and fitness.

However, major dietary changes and health based transitions focused on conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer are the domain of the middle aged. These audiences are looking for role models to support a change in their behaviour rather than, in the case of generation Z, a behaviour to follow in the first place.

This trend opens the door to athletes maintaining a career into their late 30’s and even early 40’s who can create an opportunity for themselves by highlighting their switch to vegan or plant based diets. Moving away from their sporting glories, instead showcasing their story of change, the process of adoption and the shift in behaviour, adapting to a new lifestyle for health and performance reasons.

Now 33, Lewis Hamilton’s status within Formula 1 and across the globe as a sporting icon is secure. The narrative surrounding his two year transition to veganism creates a new, less performance focused story providing the extra ingredient that maintains his relevance to fans and even opens the doors to a new, older and more affluent target audience away from the track. Watch this space for the Lewis Hamilton cookbook and range of vegan ready meals!

 Sport Science Agency works with brands, broadcasters, rights holders and agencies to create insight, experiences and content from the latest sport science research. If you want to know more just drop us a note via and we can arrange to go for a healthy performance boosting drink.