With the new Premier League season soon to kick off we are delighted to bring you an interview with Head of Sports Science at Swansea City AFC, Jonny Northeast. According to public statistics on sites such as Premier Injuries and Physio Room (yes they are not perfect but they still have their uses), Swansea were one of the best teams across the league last season for player availability (http://www.physioroom.com/news/english_premier_league/2015_16/injury_analysis.php).
We asked Jonny about his role, the tools they use to try to minimise injury risk, the culture at Swansea City, research and professional development.
Hi Jonny, to kick us off can you briefly outline your background and how you came to work at Swansea City Football Club?
I started as an Undergraduate at Cardiff Metropolitan University studying Sports Conditioning, Rehabilitation and Massage. During the final year of the degree, part of the course was a Work Experience Module that was compulsory to carry out 100 hours of voluntary work in a professional sport. Having applied through an interview process, I got the work experience position with Swansea. During the Championship promotion season I worked two days a week whilst completing my degree. The role consisted of session prep ensuring activation and warm up areas were set up, and hydration and nutrition strategies were carried out. Post training I ensured that Heart Rate reports were fed back to the Head of Sports Science and the Manager. Upon graduation, I realised that I had not been completely exposed to the day to day environment so decided to work full time for the year on an internship with the club. After the year I was fortunate enough to be offered the position as lead Sports Scientist for the U21 development squad. After two years in the position, Garry Monk took the position as First Team Manager and I stepped up to the First Team with his appointment. Since taking on this role I am also undertaking an MRes (Masters of Research) and am the FAW U19s Sports Scientist.
Can you describe the setup of your department?
I oversee the Sports Science department; we have one Sport Scientist that takes care of the GPS analysis (Will Sparkes) and a newly appointed Strength and Power Coach (Dan Cunningham), plus the Head Fitness Coach (Claudio Bordon). Swansea as a club has come a long way in the past 10 years and the facilities that we have are continuing to catch up to the standard also. We have a large say in terms of the facilities and tools that we can use and implement within the environment however with the budget not being to the scale of other clubs it is vital that the money we spend is being spent wisely and on research proven equipment. Gadgets and fads come and go which is only normal but the basic principles and foundations stay the same so it is important that we stick to these and compliment where we deem necessary so that proven results can be seen.
We have already seen the positive injury statistics you had at the club last season despite, as you say, not being spoilt with the facilities and budgets of some other clubs plus a management change mid-season. What do you think this success was down to?
I believe sticking to the basics and getting players strong are key. As a club yes we do not have the largest of budgets compared to the big clubs but what we do have is a core group of staff that are willing to work together with other disciplines to discuss methods and management styles for each player. We have to understand that all players are different. They come with different backgrounds, training histories, injury history and age so we have to understand the players we are working with. Daily meetings with coaching staff and physios are critical to discuss every player in terms of training load and verbal feedback to see correlations between the two and their performance. On top of this the use of live GPS during training has been a massive tool. Every player has specific targets to hit on a daily basis. These are monitored during the session and acted on if needed. Training is tapered if players are exceeding targets while other players who do not hit targets will be given an add-on post training. We take pride in sticking to the basics, building good solid foundations and adding to where we feel necessary. Good solid conditioning blocks, recovery strategies and tapering blocks are crucial to player preparation and limiting risk of injury.
You mentioned the use of GPS, which is now permitted in senior games by FIFA and you were open about using it in games last season. What did this data add to the information you were already collecting?
Load monitoring through GPS is the biggest tool we use. The use of GPS in match play and training helps us to monitor player loads on a daily basis that are fed back to coaches. This helps us to prescribe training for the following day and any recovery strategies that may be needed. It is commonly known the discrepancies in match analysis software and GPS data. Having such differences in data only makes it hard to compare and diagnose training stimulus in order to prepare athletes. If players are being monitored with the same devices both in matches and training it provides us with some continuity and allows us to be more accurate with the numbers. GPS has been an integral part of the day to day running at the club and has become part of the kit, players ask for feedback which creates communication between staff and players about strategies for the coming week, building buy in from the players.
Last July we got a very open insight into some of the tool you were using to try to optimise preseason training including your snoozeboxes! (http://www.swanseacity.net/news/article/swansea-city-pre-season-training-guardian-2576313.aspx) Can you expand on some of the tools and technologies you use in-season to try to help you minimize the risk of injury?
We profile every player to highlight weaknesses and they are given individualised programmes to focus on their weaknesses. We also have specific markers that players need to hit in certain tests. For instance, that could be hamstring strength on the Nordbord, or the peak force and peak rate of force development on the Isometric Mid Thigh Pull. We know strength is related directly to speed, reduction of injuries and reduced recovery time post-match play so our prime emphasis is placed on getting players strong through all movements and prime movers needed during match play for injury prevention and performance. The Isometric Mid Thigh Pull (IMTP) is a simple and effective measure of how strong an athlete is and how quickly they can generate the force. Put simply the IMTP is a fixed bar above the force plate. The athlete is instructed to pull on the bar as hard and fast as they can for 5 seconds. The output produces a graph as below. Given the results of the test we can then produce individualised programmes for players depending on their requirements. The use of the Nordbord helps us to quickly identify eccentric hamstring strength and muscle imbalances. From any weaknesses highlighted in the test, players will be given prevention and strengthening exercises and the changes can be monitored over time with real time feedback.
How important is culture in these environments and what, if anything, can you do to influence it?
Creating a culture is one of the most critical parts of the job. There is plenty of research out there that suggests the best practices but putting these into an applied environment is the challenging part. If you are unable to build relationships with athletes and talk in players’ language, players will not buy into your ideas. Having players involved in the process can help them feel they have ownership in the programmes. The challenging part of the position is selling the players something that is not football. Coaches are able to sell football easily to players because it is their profession. Being a Sports Scientist, stopping players training or asking players to do additional sessions before and after training can often be hard due to it not being football related. It is crucial to create a link between what you do and the profession. Players have to see that they are getting value for their time and a direct influence on their match day performance on the pitch.
Tapping into their competitive side is often a good way of building the culture. Players love to win and when there is a competition, it builds buy in without players necessarily realising. It is however important to make sure players have the solid foundations and correct movement patterns before implementing competition otherwise you may be creating more of an issue. Once players see that time invested is having a positive effect on their performance through positive results and regular testing and feedback, players start to buy into the ideas and the culture is set.
As you mentioned you are also carrying out a Masters degree and your department has been involved in a number of publications with Dr Mark Russell at Northumbria University [Here]. What benefit does teaming up with Academia bring Swansea City? Why not keep the information to yourselves?!
Our biggest mission statement is to provide research-based practice through in house case studies and experience for local students on real problems that we encounter in day-to-day situations. It is our duty to not only learn for ourselves but to better the athletes that we work with as well as influencing the sport as a whole. Providing published research does not provide competitors with answers. How we may portray or transfer research to the practical environment may be totally different to another professional in the field.
And if all of that was not enough, you also have a position with the FAW as the Welsh U19s Sports Scientist! How does your role and the Sport Science support you provide differ between the club and international environments?
International roles differ greatly to that of a club environment. We have to be respectful that the players we deal with come from different environments with different training history. We also have to respect the fact that players come with certain needs and specific programmes set by their parent clubs so we have to allocate and allow times for players to complete the prescribed programmes. Secondly the schedule does not allow a great deal of time to work with the players specifically on the pitch. Most camps will consist of 2 games in what normally is 5 days with the players, so the majority of the time is spent putting recovery strategies in place so that players perform and return to their clubs in the same condition that they arrived in.
You’ve taken part in Rob Pacey’s Performance Podcast [Episode 53 Here] and are a regular at the Seattle Sounders FC Sports Science off-season conference – what are your thoughts on professional development and networking within our industry?
It is important to always try to stay on top of the game. That extra 1% advantage you gain can be the difference between winning and losing and/or preventing an injury from happening. Research is constantly being written and new ideas are always being tried out by professionals. We have taken great pleasure in building links with the local university in Swansea. The day that us as Sports Scientists or Coaches stop learning is the day we stop doing our jobs.
Networking is a huge way of learning about new research – 42% of learning is done through peer discussions. As professionals we need to be open with each other as it plays a big part in progressing as individuals. No one has the golden ticket on the best way to practice. What may work for one person may not work for another but it is about developing your own blueprint for what works for you in your environment.
Any advice for aspiring practitioners or students considering a career in Sports Science and/or Strength and Conditioning?
The best advice that I could give to any aspiring professional would be to get out in the industry and gain experience at any level. Learning from a textbook is great but putting research into an applied setting is a different world all together. Whether it be a Saturday local league team to professional level, any experience of putting research into practice can only enhance your practice and boost your CV.
Thanks to Jonny for the interview and giving Sports Discovery such an open insight into his role and views. You can follow Jonny on Twitter at @j_northeast.