SSA Blog: What it takes to win a Grand Tour - or two...

Riders performances, like in any sport, consist of a number of interdependent factors. Cycling at its professional level contains some of the most elite endurance athletes in the world. To achieve this level takes enormous dedication, going through years of training to develop the endurance adaptations needed to compete within the professional peloton.

SSA Blog: The value of talent

Last week Sport Science Agency supported Clifford French by running a mini NFL Combine. This was part of a project to promote the release of EA Sports Madden NFL 18. For those who don’t know, the NFL Combine was developed to centralise player testing so NFL scouts could compare and contrast players mental and physical attributes with previous and current draft prospects. It is now, without question, the most high profile talent identification event in the world.  

Talent identification is the Holy Grail of sport science. Being able to apply scientific understanding to spot and develop young athletes and turn them into future champions is the goal of every major sporting organisation. But it is not only sport science that cares about talent development. With the huge transfer fees now being applied across European and particularly Premier League football, fans, agents and owners are now very aware of the value of talent identification. Yet the number of home grown players taking to a Premier League field each week is falling, so what can be done to arrest the decline?

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Researchers have often highlighted the multi-disciplinary nature of sport and athletes, meaning any single theory or model of identifying and nurturing talent is practically impossible. One of the major issues professionals face is the differing development trajectories of young athletes due to their differing maturation states.

A wealth of research has shown selection bias towards early maturing players in youth football. It is easy to understand why this preference exists. Buchheit & Mendez-Villanueva in 2014, showed how early maturing footballers cover greater distances at high speed, achieved higher speeds and are involved in greater high intensity actions. As football becomes more physical, speed and power based, these attributes are key to success and often mistaken as talent in young players rather than the benefits of early maturation.

Robert Malia is a leading voice in youth development and has pointed out that despite all the advantages these early maturing players receive, in the form of better coaching and access to higher quality experiences, long term, they might actually be at a disadvantage as they rely on their physical strengths during their development stages to the detriment of acquiring additional technical and tactical skills.     

To combat the impact of differing maturation rates, the Premier League organised its first bio banded tournament last year featuring four clubs. Bio banding offers an alternative option for grouping players, using growth or maturity rather than chronological age. The first review study investigating player experience and perceptions following this bio banded tournament has just been published by Cummings et al, 2017, in the Journal of Sport Science.

The authors highlighted a number of positive outcomes among both early and late maturing groups. The physically mature players felt they needed to develop their skills whilst focusing on tactics and teamwork as well as working on quicker decision making to cope with a game that they were used to dominating due to their size. Bio banding provided these players with greater learning and developmental challenges more in line with late developers, interestingly the players felt it offered “an essential step in preparing them for future competitions against adult and/or more physically able opponents” (Cummings et al, 2017).

Late maturing players were also positive about playing within this new structure. They highlighted benefits such as greater opportunities to demonstrate and develop technical, physical and psychological attributes, exert influence on the game and adopt leadership roles together with having greater confidence and composure on the ball (Cummings et al, 2017). However, these players also recognised the benefits of playing age group games to expose them to greater physical challenges, the same benefits early maturing players identified with bio banding competition.

Cummings and his team conclude that bio banding offers a number of benefits to developing players. Late developing players receive greater opportunities to showcase their potential. Early developers obtain the learning challenges needed to create essential technical and tactical skills. However, the authors do not argue for the current system of player developed to be overhauled or replaced with a bio banded structure. Instead, they propose a hybrid approach mixing bio banding and traditional age groups to “enhance the talent identification process” via reducing the number of bigger, but less talented players and increasing the opportunities for late developers to catch up and showcase their potential.

As Premier League clubs search the globe for talent and the transfer fees linked to that talent continue to climb, could a relatively simple administrate shift in the existing academy structure prove to be the best investment of all...?     

SSA Blog: Who's to say it was a dive?

Last week, as part of a number of reforms regarding the game in England, The FA agreed to a new offence of “successful deception of a match official”. This will allow a panel to administer a retrospective ban for up to two games, if they find unanimously, that a player has deceived the referee by diving.

The move has been backed by footballing associations and many journalists have already covered the story, highlighting various incidents from this past season, when the rule could have been applied and players banned.

In Scotland, a similar rule has been in place since the 2011-12 season. This hasn’t eradicated diving and some of the criticism from high-profile managers has centred on being able to make decisions in real time rather than waiting to act retrospectively.

The panel will consist of an ex-player, former referee and former manager who will be given the power to sanction a player if they believe that player has dived. Diving, isn’t a black and white issue however. It’s not like the ball crossing the line in goal line technology, it remains subjective. It is this subjectivity that means getting the right people on the panel is crucial to the success of this new initiative.

So who should these people be?

It’s fair to say most people can recognise a blatant dive. This is because the kinematics or movement patterns of a player falling just don’t look right. But with the sophistication of players in the Premier League, the classic swan dive associated with the early 90’s isn’t where the problem lies. Several studies across Rugby, Basketball, Handball and Football suggest that actual experience of deceptive movements seem to add further expertise in the ability to recognise them in others. This theory is further supported by Rizzalotti and Craighero, who in 2004, published their thoughts regarding the “mirror-neuron system”. They showed that areas in the brain become more activated when watching movements that are part of one’s own ‘repertoire’. In essence, they are saying that these subtle movements are more recognisable if you can and have done them and not just see them. Numerous authors have subsequently made the case that experienced performers will, therefore, be better predictors of other people’s movements based on their own.

In 2014, Renden and his Amsterdam-based team decided to test the theory that motor (movement) experience supports better recognition of diving in football. They split their subjects into four groups. Expert referees, skilled footballers, wheelchair bound football fans (no motor experience), who had similar hours of watching football as the players and referees and finally novices, who didn’t watch football regularly. They found that referees (72.2%) and players (72%) were significantly better at identifying dives than fans (61.1%). They also found no great difference between fans and novices (57.4%) in identifying dives.  

The authors argue that despite no formal training or task specific experience, players were able to match referees due to superior motor experience of the situations. They highlight, that despite having similar viewing experience as wheelchair bound fans, because of the lack of motor experience, these fans were not able to identify the subtlety of dives with quite the same accuracy. Indeed, they were no better than complete novices at identifying game situation dives.

This brings us back to The FA panel. The research shows that referees are the experts. They have task specific experience regarding making decisions, training, visual experience and in many cases probably some motor experience from their own playing days. 

But to get the best outcomes from the ex-player and former coach, if we take Renden et al’s research to its logical conclusion, the player and coach selected to be part of the panel should have been ‘divers’ themselves. You could take it further and say they should be attacking players, as they create more opportunities to dive or stay on their feet i.e. task specific experience, rather than defenders/defensively minded players who are often the ones making a tackle.

I'm sure anyone reading this, taking the above criteria, will be able to think of numerous candidates to fill The FA’s panel. But a governing body looking to clean up foul play could find it hard to convince the public that those best positioned to help may be those with the worst reputations.

So, who’s to say it was a dive? The research suggests referees and ex-offenders…