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The Sideline Symphony: Orchestrating Player Support

6 December 2023

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The Sideline Symphony: Orchestrating Player Support

This article has been published (and slightly edited) on the Training Ground Gurou Website

Background

This editorial piece discusses the complex dynamics of player support in elite football, emphasizing the need for collaboration among different teams, including the player’s entourage, club staff, and national team staff.

It draws from both my professional experiences at clubs like PSG, Lille OSC, and Olympique de Lyon, and the perspectives shared in two recent opinion pieces, i) “Building Bridges Instead of Putting Up Walls: Connecting the ‘Teams’ to Improve Soccer Players’ Support,” which I co-authored with Silva JR, Hader K, Sarmento H, and Afonso J. and ii)  “Elite clubs and national teams: sharing the same party?” co-authored with Gregory Dupont.

It’s essential reading for anyone interested in improving player well-being and performance in modern football by fostering collaboration and communication among various stakeholders.

The aim is to underscore why such synergy isn’t just beneficial but is a crucial element in the landscape of modern football. This discussion presents a framework for enhancing player support through collective effort and shared understanding, reflecting both on-the-ground experiences and theoretical viewpoints.

 

The Invaluable Role of External Staff in Providing Supplementary Support?

The creation of personal support teams in football, involving specialists like conditioning coaches, physios, nutritionists, and psychologists, can indeed be incredibly beneficial when well-justified and strategically aligned with a player’s needs. In many cases, these external staff members bring a wealth of expertise and resources that can significantly enhance a player’s development and well-being. This is especially true when the external staff possesses specialized knowledge or resources that surpass what the club can offer or when the club staff faces limitations in terms of resources or time. However, it’s important to acknowledge that this positive impact is not universal across the board, and there is room for improvement in ensuring that such external support teams consistently add value to a player’s journey.

Practical Examples of Effective Collaborations with Player Support Staff

Enhanced Recovery: External staff can offer invaluable additional support to a player’s post-match recovery, providing resources and services not typically available at the club. They can deliver in-depth physiotherapy sessions, including specialized recovery massages and treatments focusing on alleviating muscle soreness and accelerating recovery, and facilitate access to advanced recovery techniques in state-of-the-art facilities beyond the club’s offerings. Their role can extend to nutritional care, ensuring the delivery of high-quality, tailored meals for optimal recuperation. Furthermore, they can manage key personal responsibilities, such as childcare and transportation, allowing the player to concentrate fully on recovery. This supplementary support from external staff is a significant enhancement, complementing the club’s efforts and ensuring the player is optimally prepared for quick turnarounds in game schedules.

Nutritional Synergy: A player’s long-term diet can benefit immensely from the combined expertise of their personal and club nutritionists. The club nutritionist’s understanding of training loads and health monitoring can complement the personal nutritionist’s tailored dietary plans, as long as they agree to engage in the same mission. Both professionals can work sequentially with the player (at the club and at home, respectively), offering a more comprehensive education and supporting nutritional strategy to the player.

Addressing Mobility and Functional Limitations: In cases where a player faces mobility or functional limitations, the involvement of external staff becomes crucially complementary to the club’s efforts. These external practitioners, such as physiotherapists and movement specialists, can provide additional time and specialized attention that might be beyond the scope of the club’s resources. Their work at the player’s home complements the club’s program, addressing the player’s specific needs with a level of detail and personalization that might not be feasible within the club’s infrastructure. This can not only accelerate the player’s improvement in areas like range of motion and muscle activation but can also enhance the overall performance of the team, showcasing the invaluable role these external experts play in bridging the gap where club resources may be limited.

Extended Rehabilitation: Consider a scenario where a professional player is recovering from a significant injury. Clubs often grant the player permission to train independently for a few weeks, in his country, with their personal conditioning coach and physios while rehabilitating. In this situation, if there is open communication and if planning is shared between the player’s staff and the club’s multidisciplinary team, the personal physio/conditioning coach can become an extension of the club’s support team, working in tandem with the club to ensure the player’s recovery plan is consistent and well-coordinated. This collaboration not only benefits the player’s rehabilitation but also eases the workload for the club’s staff, allowing them to focus on the needs of the rest of the team. 

 

The Misguided Formation of Personal Support Teams in Elite Football?

The issue arises when such teams are formed not out of a genuine necessity, but as a result of following trends, a desire to feel special, or simply because it’s perceived as the norm. This often leads to assembling support teams without a clear understanding of whether they are actually required, reflecting a lack of vision in optimizing player support. A significant hurdle arises when these personal professionals, aiming to secure their roles, isolate themselves and the players from the club’s ecosystem, creating secretive and exclusive bubbles around their methods.

Interestingly, the initiative to form these teams doesn’t always originate from the players themselves. In many cases, it’s the players’ agents or entourage who drive this trend, seeking to appear more professional and attentive to the player’s needs. This can sometimes result in a contrived setup, where the formation of a support team is more about appearances than actual benefit.

 

The Club Perspective: Addressing the Disconnect with Personal Support Teams

For clubs, this scenario is fraught with challenges. The lack of transparency with personal teams leads to overlapping efforts and strategic misalignments, hampering the player’s comprehensive development. This disconnected approach risks diminishing the effectiveness of the support system and creating potential conflicts.

A critical concern I’ve encountered in almost if not all the organizations I have worked for, is the variable quality of work from these external staff. Logically, the effectiveness of these professionals is questionable, especially when considering the vast amount of club-specific information they lack, which I believe is crucial for delivering quality services. This is particularly true for conditioning coaches, who require detailed knowledge of the player’s club activities to effectively complement their work.

One of the most significant challenges in this scenario is accountability. The credit and blame game is a recurring theme. There have been instances where a player’s doping violation was linked to a supplement provided by someone in their entourage, but the blame fell on the club’s medical team. 

Similarly, when a player excels, perhaps scoring a goal, it’s often attributed to that extra agility session with their personal fitness coach. Conversely, when injuries occur, fingers are quickly pointed at the club’s practices. This skewed attribution of success and failure creates a problematic narrative.

A telling example of this issue is a situation I’ve witnessed multiple times: a player arrives in the morning, claiming to have torn a hamstring overnight, an implausible scenario that raises questions about the activities and advice provided by their personal support team outside the club. Such instances highlight the complexities and potential pitfalls of players relying on external staff without proper integration and oversight by the club. This not only leads to a lack of cohesive vision but also fosters an environment where accountability is often misplaced, impacting both the player’s welfare and the team’s performance.

 

Toward Collaborative Solutions: Embracing the Inevitable in Elite Football

The reality is that we often have no choice but to accept and adapt to players forming their own support teams or bringing in external specialists. This situation often leaves us in a difficult position. On one hand, it can be incredibly frustrating and challenging to our professional egos, as it implicitly suggests that the club’s staff may not be sufficient. This perception can hinder the building of a strong, trust-based relationship with the player.

However, the reality is that opposing a player’s choice in this matter can be counterproductive. Attempting to dissuade a player from working with their chosen external team might damage the relationship we have with them, or worse, lead them to continue working with their external team in secrecy. Such a scenario is the exact opposite of what is needed for effective player management.

Recognizing this reality, the focus in my role within elite clubs has always been to foster a collaborative rather than adversarial relationship with these external teams. The onus is on us, in the clubs, to initiate and maintain transparency and open communication. My approach has been to engage proactively in dialogue that prioritizes the player’s welfare, despite the challenges it may pose to our professional pride.

This shift towards collaboration is crucial, albeit difficult. It requires working on our egos and understanding that the ultimate goal is the well-being and success of the players. By adopting this mindset, we can turn a potentially divisive situation into an opportunity for enhanced support and improved outcomes for the players. This collaborative approach, therefore, becomes not just a necessity but a strategic choice in the complex dynamics of elite football.

Practically, this includes organizing regular meetings with both club and external practitioners (even including the agents!) to foster a shared understanding of each player’s needs and goals. These meetings often involve detailed discussions of training schedules, injury prevention strategies, and performance goals, ensuring that every team member is on the same page. These sessions are not just about aligning strategies but also about creating mutual understanding and respect.

To enhance these professional relationships, I’ve often invited personal practitioners to club facilities for an inside look at our operations. I have even made it a point to invite these external practitioners to informal gatherings, such as lunches. These more relaxed settings have been instrumental in breaking down barriers and fostering a sense of community and shared purpose among all those involved in a player’s development. Through these efforts, we set a precedent for cooperation, leading the way in overcoming the challenges posed by our professional pride for the greater benefit of the players.


Empowering Players as Active Participants: The Erling Haaland Example

A crucial aspect of successful collaboration between personal and club staff in elite football is the active involvement of players themselves. When players take the initiative in coordinating their support teams, the impact on the effectiveness of the support system is profound. An exemplary case of this proactive approach was discussed by Andreas Beck, former High-Performance Coach at Borussia Dortmund and now a Sports Scientist at Eintracht Frankfurt, in an episode of the Training Science Podcast – a platform where I delve into the practical application and complexities of football science beyond textbook knowledge. Beck shared insights about Erling Haaland’s time at Dortmund, where Haaland had already assembled a personal team around him. Remarkably, Haaland had already understood the importance of aligning everyone’s efforts and took the initiative to create a WhatsApp group that included both his personal team and the club’s staff. Such direct involvement by players helps transform a fragmented collection of individual services into a unified, player-centric support network.

 

Personal Staff in the Club Football Environment: Blending Expertise?

In some of the elite clubs I have worked with, particularly those hosting high-profile players, I’ve observed an intriguing dynamic: the integration of players’ staff into the club’s routine. This experience offers a unique perspective, although it’s important to note that this practice isn’t yet a widespread paradigm shift in the football world. In these instances, players’ staff, such as physiotherapists and conditioning coaches, were actively involved alongside the club’s multidisciplinary team. This collaboration created a more holistic support system, ensuring that individual player needs were seamlessly integrated into the broader team strategy.

However, this approach also presented its own set of challenges. One of the main concerns was maintaining a balanced team environment. The presence of personal staff for certain players had the potential to create an impression of preferential treatment, which could impact the overall team dynamic. Managing this perception was crucial to upholding a sense of fairness and unity within the squad.

Additionally, integrating personal staff into the club’s routines sometimes led to clashes in methodologies and practices. It was essential to find a balance between the tailored approaches of personal staff and the collective goals and strategies of the club. This experience underscored the importance of my role in navigating these new dynamics. It involved not just overseeing the club’s strategies but also ensuring the smooth integration of personal and club staff. This required diplomatic skills, strategic planning, and effective communication to align the diverse efforts for the benefit of both the individual players and the team as a whole.

 

Adding the National Team Factor: A Third Layer of Complexity in Player Support

The integration of national team staff into the existing player support structure in elite football, which already includes club and personal support teams, adds a critical and complex third dimension. This new layer requires advanced management and coordination strategies. My professional experiences in various elite clubs, coupled with insights from my editorial “Elite clubs and national teams: sharing the same party?” co-authored with Gregory Dupont in 2018 just before the WC in Russia, have highlighted the intricate nature of this tripartite relationship.

 

Challenges with National Teams in Player Support

A notable disparity in the effectiveness of communication among national teams is apparent from my observations in different clubs. While some smaller countries are adept at establishing strong communication channels with clubs, some high-profile World Cup teams lag in this aspect. This discrepancy is evident not only in the quantity of information shared but also in its relevance and willingness to engage in meaningful dialogue.

In addition, while some national teams provide detailed data such as daily groin squeeze values and urine gravity, these specifics might not align with the more pragmatic needs of club practitioners. Clubs often require information that is directly applicable to their training and player management, like participation in key sessions such as injury prevention gym work or maximal speed exposures. This type of information is typically more relevant than extensive, data-heavy reports.

This practicality becomes even more crucial when players return to their clubs just two days before a domestic league match. In such scenarios, club staff need to make quick decisions about player readiness and training adjustments. There isn’t time to sift through lengthy reports; immediate, informal information is essential to prepare training sessions effectively. The necessity for this kind of prompt and concise communication is paramount, as detailed reports prepared by national team sport scientists often arrive too late to influence these urgent decisions. The ability to receive and utilize essential information rapidly and efficiently is vital for clubs to manage their players effectively in these tight turnaround times.

 

Who Wants To Lead the Way in Improving Player Support Communication And Structure?

The ideal scenario would have players and their personal teams acting as key connectors between club and national team staff. They are in a unique position to hold comprehensive information about the player’s needs. However, this ideal of proactive collaboration and information sharing is often not realized in practice.

A more structured approach could involve top-down implementation from governing bodies such as FIFA and player associations. These organizations have the authority and reach to standardize communication protocols and support structures across different teams and leagues. By setting clear guidelines and expectations, they could ensure that athlete-centric practices are uniformly applied and maintained. Such standardization would not only make information exchange more efficient but also ensure that it’s directly relevant to the player’s current situation and needs. Additionally, this approach could include measures to control the qualifications and credentials of individuals hired as support staff to prevent the involvement of imposters.


Conclusion: Crafting a Unified Vision for Player Support

The evolution of elite football necessitates a fundamental shift towards integrated, collaborative player support systems. The objective transcends merely combining diverse expertise; it’s about weaving these elements into a seamless, player-centered tapestry. Embracing a collaborative approach, characterized by open communication and active player involvement, has the power to transform these support systems from potential conflict zones into invaluable assets that enhance player performance and well-being. As we lead this transformation, we are not just setting a new standard for player support in elite football, but also redefining our role in the athlete’s journey.

Central to this paradigm shift in elite football is the need for transparent, relevant, and consistent communication. It’s vital to understand the value of information and share it effectively to benefit the player. Creating a cohesive and efficient support network requires the collective effort of all parties involved – clubs, national teams, players, and their personal teams. This collaborative approach underscores the importance of synergy and shared responsibility. Our recent paper “Beyond the Scoreboard: Redefining Performance Staff Assessment in Elite Sports Organizations,” co-authored with Schuster L and King R, reinforces this concept as well. The study, surveying 51 elite practitioners primarily leading departments in top-tier sports organizations, identifies communication as the key to successful and effective support staff. The research highlights that effective player support transcends mere data exchange, focusing instead on sharing pertinent, actionable information tailored to the specific needs of the player in both club and national team contexts.

In addition to these technical aspects, successful player support also involves putting ourselves at the service of the athletes, a mindset shift that is crucial yet often overlooked. Too often, the focus is reversed, with systems and structures serving the interests of the staff or the organization, rather than the athlete. In leading this change, we must remain committed to prioritizing the needs and well-being of the players, ensuring that our efforts collectively contribute to their holistic development.

In conclusion, navigating the future of player support in elite football requires a steadfast focus on effective communication and a commitment to serving the athletes first. Ideally guided by top-down leadership from football’s governing bodies, this athlete-centric approach is pivotal in setting new standards in sports performance, ensuring we meet and exceed the evolving needs of players.

 

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