Football

SSA Blog: Peter's podcast - the change in football nutrition

A quick glance at the podcast charts sees ‘That Peter Crouch Podcast’ firmly inside the top 10 (at the time of writing the podcast is 3rd in the Apple Podcasts Top Chart in the UK). In the show Crouchy is refreshingly honest about his time as a Premier League and international player. In a number of episodes, Crouch describes the contrasting levels of professionalism at the beginning and end of his playing career. Sport science is often the basis for that contrast. Every element of a footballer’s life has improved; training, tactics, diet, recovery, travel, the list goes on…   

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Alex Ferguson famously wrote that “sport science was the biggest and most important change in my lifetime”.

Sport science is now at the heart of elite football. Gareth Southgate’s appointment as England Manager has seen a shift in the approach to building a ‘performance programme’ akin to the marginal gains mantra that developed over multiple Olympic cycles by British Cycling. Coaches such as Guardiola, Klopp and Howe have sport science teams working across every area of player development, recruitment and performance. Much like British Cycling, these new performance led programmes offer sponsors opportunities to become part of the team, to support players, coaches and other staff in delivering part of the jigsaw required to compete at the highest levels. Integrating products, expertise and support within the club structure can add significant credibility sorely lacking in many traditional sponsorships.

One example of the drive to professionalism mentioned during the Crouchy podcast was the change in nutrition, particularly the post-match meal. The team talk about the transition, with some nostalgia, from a few cans and stopping off for fish and chips to now, where the team bus is equipped with a kitchen and the team chef travels with the players to ensure the correct post-match nutritional balance.

Mention is also made of the two-hour window. This is the period within which players will gain the most benefit from refuelling post-match. It is a story football nutritional sponsors have been trying to tell for some time with limited success.

A number of clubs have nutritional partners. The model is now fairly standard across the game. Provide product and a rights fee and off they go. While the products are part of the performance story and the credibility of use is not in question, they still find cutting through to a football audience a hard sell.

The nutrition category is one of the most interesting and should be one of the easiest to activate, yet success is limited. The football market is still dominated by Lucozade and to a lesser extent Gatorade. Both have tried to incorporate a wider nutritional product range. So far, both have struggled to leverage the UK’s biggest sporting market to make these new products a success. 

While nutritional supplementation is important and plays a key role in supporting performance, nutrition partners have the opportunity to go deeper and support performance over and above a well-stocked cupboard of products in the sport science office. They should be moving to offer clubs a full nutritional support package from the first team chef all the way down to parental support for youth team players. A few workshops and leaflets are just not good enough anymore. 

Obviously, there are considerations regarding continuity and control from the clubs point of view when relying on a sponsor to provide key staff or critical expertise. But Clubs should also be thinking about how their performance programmes can offer credible and integrated support to sponsors whilst still benefiting their performance goals.

There are only so many ways a nutrition brand can recommend that you eat within two hours of exercise to maximise recovery. If it is at the heart of the players’ diet plans, recovery, preseason training and the bus ride home, then shifting its message to a more holistic and brand led story should have more resonance and impact with fans. Brands need to prove they share in the common goal of supporting the team. Modern fans, who want to feel part of the club and closer to the players, seek behind the scenes insight at every level, and will act on the knowledge they gain in their own lives. Clubs need to support their partners allowing them to become the conduit for fans to access this information, therefore presenting sponsors as a credible vehicle through which fans interact with the club.  

If nutritional partners and clubs can work together more closely and use sport science as a genuine platform to activate their relationships then perhaps, just perhaps, nutritional sponsors could start to unlock the massive opportunity that football really offers…       

 

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 info@sportscienceagency.com and we can arrange to go for a healthy performance boosting drink. 

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…