A state of the nation report on sport science within Scottish football

A state of the nation report on sport science within Scottish football

By TheTwoPointOne

This article first appeared in Issue 6 of Nutmeg: The Scottish Football Periodical. You can subscribe to Nutmeg at www.nutmegmagazine.co.uk The perfect Father’s Day gift. They currently have a special offer of 3 for the price of 2 on all back copies.

The impetus behind this contribution to Nutmeg is to shed some light on what exactly sport science within football looks like; more specifically, how it currently looks within Scottish football, how far it has come over the last ten to 20 years, and present a vision for how it might look in the future.


What is sport science anyway? Well, the concept is simple. Following the lead of other related disciplines such as medicine, sport science is the application of evidence-based practice in the context of performance enhancement within athletes. Really, sport science is an umbrella term encompassing many different but interlinked aspects related to performance, such as: strength and conditioning (physical preparation), nutritional support, psychology, performance analysis, skill acquisition, recovery and a multitude of others. To call someone a sport scientist is a bit of a misnomer since virtually no one person can truly be an expert in all of these fields but the moniker is an easy way of keeping everyone on the same page rather than confusing matters by introducing yet more industry job titles.


Some Scottish clubs have the luxury of being able to employ multiple practitioners specialising in some of the aforementioned disciplines; however, more often than not the sport scientist needs to possess a broad set of knowledge and skills to address all these aspects as best they can. Perhaps it is already becoming clear why some within football simply lose interest in the discipline.


Being evidence-based in this field means having a justifiable reason for doing what you are doing, whether that be in terms of exercise selection, training drill choice, selection of one recovery method over another and so on. That justification ideally needs to be more than simply your opinion or a result of continuing practices that have “always been done like that”. Researchers at universities – literally all over the world, from Brazil to Iran, to widely accepted industry leaders Australia and the United Kingdom (yes, Scotland contributes to world-leading academic work in sport science) – are constantly conducting studies and publishing scientific articles that can help the applied practitioners (the people working with clubs on a daily basis) make informed choices regarding how to best train their players. These studies are examples of the ‘evidence’ that applied practitioners use when implementing evidence-based practice.



Now, of course at the elite end of the spectrum practice often advances beyond the available evidence in an effort to gain a competitive advantage by utilising a method or training tool that no one else knows about. So, it is important to give applied practitioners the scope to be creative and innovative; hence the term ‘evidence-based’ rather than ‘evidence-restricted’ practice.


Now. What does it actually look like? Firstly, it is necessary to point out that every football club is different and there is no universally accepted way for sport science to be implemented; however, there are some fundamental aspects of being a sport scientist. The ultimate goal, much like a coach, is to enhance player performance. There is a serious catch, though. How do you measure footballing performance? The person who comes up with a way to objectively and reliably quantify this will become rich and famous. Some might say they can answer this question easily: whichever team wins has performed better than their opponent.


Perhaps, but how many times have you heard a manager saying their team may have lost but the performance was very pleasing, or vice versa? Global assessment of ‘performance’ on the pitch is still largely subjective (based on opinion) and this is true even at the highest echelons of the game. This alludes to the well-known quote: “Not everything that matters can be counted and not everything that can be counted matters”.


Sport scientists like to measure things. After all, if you can measure an outcome, you can determine if you have influenced it with your practice. This has led sport scientists to focus much of their attention on improving players’ physical qualities; things such as strength, power, sprint speed, aerobic capacity and agility. Attributes such as these can be accurately measured and improved through training. It is perhaps no surprise then that the distances covered along with the speeds at which players run during matches has systematically increased over the last ten years as more and more clubs have invested in sport science departments. Indeed, it is not unusual to see such metrics displayed and mentioned during live television coverage these days.


Interestingly, almost in concordance with this increase in physical performance, hamstring muscle strain injuries have also increased annually by about 4% per year for the last ten years, at least among UEFA Champions League clubs. This highlights another area sport scientists are typically drawn towards: injury prevention. While the aforementioned statistics may seem to suggest that sport science has perversely exacerbated a problem that it professes to solve, it is worth noting that similar increases in other notable injury types, for example, anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears, have not yet been observed despite the increased physical demands of competitive match play. As with physical qualities, injury incidence and severity can be accurately measured and influenced with appropriate training methods.



Bearing all of the above in mind it should not come as a surprise to hear that a large part of the job of sport scientists revolves around the physical training of the players in an effort to make them stronger, faster, fitter and more resilient to injury. This training takes multiple forms and can involve gym-based weightlifting and field-based conditioning both with and without the ball. In conjunction with this training, regular testing of the qualities (hopefully) being improved is typically conducted to assess the effectiveness of the work being done. This regular cycle of training and testing ensures a feedback loop that allows applied practitioners to be further evidence-based.


Without getting into too much detail, the interpretation of these tests requires more than simply comparing the pre and post values. Any test, whether in the realm of sport science or beyond, has an element of ‘error’ inherent to it. If you ask a player to perform two ten-metre sprints it is highly unlikely they will clock the exact same time on each occasion. This is not because they have miraculously become faster or slower in the time between each effort. A number of sources of ‘error’ exist: from the timing equipment, the player themselves, the running surface, the assessor may even unwittingly influence the test outcome and so on. Relatively advanced statistics are needed to help the practitioner decide if the changes in test performance are real or down to normal variation. This kind of considered data interpretation is perhaps one element that separates sport scientists from fitness coaches (absolutely no disrespect meant to the fine and valuable work of fitness instructors and personal trainers).


In short, professional sport scientists should apply scientific principles when interpreting and reflecting on the work they do. A number of professional accrediting bodies, for example: the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES), provide pathways facilitating the development of such skills and endorsement of competence.


Another trend emerging within sport science support in football is ‘daily monitoring’. This takes a plethora of forms and it is beyond the scope of this article to go into all of them; however, we will touch on a couple. The basic concept behind this practice is to keep tabs on how players are feeling upon arrival at the training ground (i.e. judging how they are coping with the previous days’ training load) and how they are performing physically in training that day. Many professional players will be familiar with the practice of completing a wellness questionnaire upon arrival at training each morning. Questions typically include: “how do you rate the quality of last night’s sleep”, “how sore are your leg muscles” and “how fatigued do you feel”? The exact wording and content of these questionnaires varies from club to club; however, the idea is to get an impression of how the players feel they are coping with the training load being imposed on them, regardless of what more objective metrics might suggest.


Why is this necessary? Can coaches and even sport scientists not just speak to the squad as they file into the dressing room each morning? Yes, they can and they often do. Some advantages exist to also collecting this information electronically though. Firstly, players may sometimes wish to answer the questions discreetly via an electronic tablet or laptop rather than verbally within earshot of their teammates. Likewise, being able to visually inspect the results away from the players may help coaches and sport scientists better appraise the data and pick out individuals who may require some kind of follow-up.



Some controversy exists around this practice. In theory, if this player wellness information is supposed to influence the structure and content of training that day then it needs to be collected, interpreted and decisions made very quickly. In practice, this is not always possible and sport scientists need to tread a careful path between convincing players it is worth their while completing this type of questionnaire every morning and potentially not acting on the information in a timely manner. For instance, how many times will a player diligently report muscle soreness, poor sleep and fatigue with seemingly no action taken before they give up and pay no heed to the process? However, taking into account players’ assessment of how they are coping with training is important. Players are not robots and despite what some may believe there should be scope for a player to have a say in how they train.


Another relatively recent but very visible form of daily monitoring involves the use of global positioning system (GPS) units. It is commonplace these days to notice an odd sort of bump poking through players’ shirts lodged between their shoulder blades. That bump is an individual GPS device held in place with an elastic vest worn under the shirt. Thanks to relatively new rules from FIFA, these devices are now permitted during competitive matches; however they have been a common sight at training over recent years. They provide sport scientists with data on how far and fast players have run, how many explosive accelerations and decelerations have been made as well as positional information (i.e. where exactly they were on the pitch). This data has obvious value since it allows coaches to understand, objectively, how hard their session was, how hard the players worked and what types of drills may elicit the adaptations they feel are necessary to improve certain players. This information also has valuable use during rehabilitation of injured players.


It allows the tailoring of training, ensuring a steady return to match fitness, rather than effectively guessing when a player is ready to be made available for selection again. So, in addition to testing and actual training session delivery, another key aspect of sport scientists’ jobs is the collection, interpretation and reporting of this kind of daily monitoring data to coaches. We should stress that this is not an exhaustive account of the work of sport scientists within football but it provides a reasonable representation. Perhaps the hardest and arguably most important part of a sport scientist’s role is forming a good working relationship with their head coach. Ultimately, a club may have an outstanding applied practitioner on their books but if the manager is either not interested or simply unaware of the type of assistance they can provide then their value will be severely limited.


The benefits of sport science, at the professional level, are neatly encapsulated by the former Hearts and current MK Dons manager, Robbie Neilson: “Sports science is now a major aspect of all high performing football clubs and with the physical demands on players increasing season by season I expect the need for all clubs to follow suit if they have any aspirations of progressing.



“As a manager I cannot be expected to have elite knowledge in all areas. The informed and trusted input of the heads of departments is vital in the decision-making process. Managers must therefore employ, trust and empower high-quality heads of department to provide the best information to assist in decision making on player performance whether that be training content, match preparation, post-match recovery or return to training processes for injured players. Having brought Head of Sports Science, John Hill, with me as part of my coaching staff when moving to MK Dons from Hearts, I know the huge value and knowledge he provides to the coaching preparation and player development is imperative in our constant striving for progression and success.”


It is not just at the professional level that sport science has impacted the game. How we train and develop youth players has also benefited from the application of scientific principles. Many will be familiar with the term ‘relative age effect’, characterised by the numerical over-representation of chronologically older players within youth teams in age-banded competitions. One way of combatting this has been the introduction of bio-banded tournaments, which groups players based on their biological maturity rather than age. The most commonly used way of assessing biological maturation in youth football is by measuring stature (height), seated stature and mass (weight) periodically throughout the year; a method that first appeared in 2002 in a scientific journal entitled ‘Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise’.


Since the introduction of this way of assessing young players’ biological maturity sport scientists have been able to look at how physical performance changes during adolescence, amend training programmes to reflect the changing physiology of young players and advise coaching staff on the likely trajectory young players are following with regard to their physical fitness whilst accounting for growth and development. There have been a host of research articles and conferences on this topic and while sport science has not yet been able to identify who will be the next Lionel Messi at 14 years of age, they are better equipped to design appropriate training programmes and interpret data from physical tests in a more useful manner. For many clubs in Scotland this is a huge advantage and is reflected in the introduction of Heads of Football Science and Medicine to academy structures. Finding and developing a young player capable of playing for your first team, or someone else’s, is a lucrative business.


Then. It didn’t always look like this. The technology required to perform the aforementioned tasks is expensive and is only filtering into the Scottish game now. A decade or two ago, the role of the fitness coach was quite different, or at least the tools at their disposal to assess the effectiveness of their work were quite different. Perhaps it is this change that best describes why we have shifted from clubs employing fitness coaches to sport scientists, which might prompt the question: what is the difference? Both roles, and the individuals who occupy them, are expected to be able to get players fit enough to compete at whatever level their club play at. The difference however, lies in the ability to explain (or at least attempt to) why – or why not – changes in fitness have occurred after the performance of a pre-planned block of training. This knowledge is invaluable in being able to critically evaluate the effectiveness of what you have done with the players in order to make changes in the future; it also allows you to consider why your training programme is working with some players and not others.



The application of science to the process of fitness training is what underpins the work of a sport scientist, attested to by John MacLean, Chief Executive of the Hampden Medical Clinic and the Scottish FA’s medical consultant. He says: “Twenty years ago the backroom staff numbered fewer than today; travelling with a sport scientist is a relatively new development. At the international level the sport scientist works with medical and coaching staff, ensuring that training content is appropriate and that relevant information is shared with clubs before and after games.”


Acknowledging that sport science is intrinsically linked to the technology that allows us to measure aspects of players’ performance, what was happening a decade ago within Scottish football? We are far better informed. Sport scientists working in the modern game suffer from an embarrassment of riches when they go online to read scientific research papers describing how footballers respond to various types of training. When you type in the words ‘soccer’ and ‘training’ to a popular database that filters scientific papers we see that there were 410 papers published in 2016 (some may wince at the use of the word ‘soccer’; however, in the global world of academic research this, perhaps unfortunately, is the term most commonly used to differentiate the beautiful game from other codes). If we go back to the year 2000 – incidentally, the year one of the present authors (Neil Gibson) qualified as a sport scientist – the number of articles was 40.


With the increase in interest surrounding how best to train footballers has come greater understanding of what works and what doesn’t. This is information younger practitioners have had the benefit of accessing during their studies rather than, as with many of Neil’s age and older, learning on the job. Some of the biggest changes that have occurred in the training of footballers have evolved from research papers investigating the topic; go to a club nowadays and you will routinely see players performing dribbling circuits for predefined durations separated by periods of uniform recovery, sprinting repeatedly with short periods of recovery, playing small- sided games on meticulously measured pitches and lifting weights before, after, and sometimes during training. Some may argue that these training techniques have been around for years, and that may well be so; however, now, we know why we are doing them and have validated research that supports their positive impact on fitness and performance.


The bit in the middle was missing. For a number of years sport science in football was about testing players; at the start of pre-season, half way through the year and before the off-season period. Were the players fitter, stronger, quicker, more powerful? Irrespective of the answer to these questions, little was known about what the players had done to effect these changes. Few clubs kept a record of how many minutes players had trained over the course of a season and how much of this time was spent in various activities, for example small-sided games, physical conditioning, shooting practice. Furthermore, we had limited means of identifying how hard players were training, in whatever drills the coach prescribed.


Before GPS became commonplace in football we used heart rate monitors; each morning players fitted a heart rate monitor around their chest which recorded their heart rate during each training session. The resultant data could then be downloaded and analysed at the end of the session.” However, there are limitations to this method; firstly, you had to assess what the players’ maximum heart rate was. This was usually derived from the performance of a maximal running test; however, it is possible to argue how motivated players are during such tests and as a result one could ask themselves: was that really a maximal performance? After you have a ‘maximal heart rate’ you can work out how much time is being spent at varying percentages of this value; the supposition being that the more time spent at higher percentages the greater your fitness will be.



Here comes the ‘but’: as coaches will tell you, players can spend time at higher intensities in two ways, by being fit and working hard, or, by being unfit (and therefore having a high heart rate most of the time!). Heart rate is also a fairly poor guide as to the intensity of training that is designed to improved speed, strength and power that uses drills short in nature and with extended recovery. In writing this we are reminded of a slogan often used by the coaching staff we have worked with: ‘there are more questions than answers’.


There were lots of Jims but not many gyms. Although there are still many teams within the Scottish league system that struggle to secure facilities that enable their players to engage in strength training, marked improvements have been made over the past decade. Many of the teams occupying places within the Scottish Premiership will have designated training grounds complete with gymnasiums that allow professional and academy players to maximise the development of physical qualities including strength and power. It is with these changes that a role, hitherto unheard of in football, has come to prominence: the strength and conditioning (S&C) coach.


With the introduction of better facilities and specialist staff tasked with improving strength levels in players there has been a steady improvement in the fitness of players, reflected in a change in the general somatotype (or physique) of the players. This is not just true of the men’s game. There have been huge strides made in the physical attributes of females playing the game, as Joelle Murray of Hibernian and Scotland says: “I have played football for a number of years now and have seen first-hand the transformation of the strength and conditioning support we receive. Strength and conditioning was introduced to our weekly training schedule around eight years ago but at that point it was a generic ‘send to all’ programme that wasn’t tailored to the specific needs of the individual.


“Fast-forward to the present day and it couldn’t be more different. In each region we have a specific strength and conditioning coach who we report to. We complete daily tests, which are used to tailor and programme our sessions. Our week consists of two lifting sessions and one or two conditioning sessions. I feel strength and conditioning is a hugely important aspect of modern day football especially in terms of getting fitter, faster and stronger and when used as an injury prevention mechanism.”


We are what we eat. We may be on shaky ground attributing changes in players’ diets to sport science as one of the figures often cited as revolutionising the eating habits of British footballers is Arsene Wenger; however, it is certainly an area that has seen marked improvement. You don’t have to go back that far to recall eating (and drinking) habits amongst players that were at best detrimental to performance and at worst, downright unhealthy. The first part-time role one of the present authors had in football was at an English club that still has a tearoom at the side of the training pitch. The changes that have happened in the area of sports nutrition are best exemplified by the sport of cycling.  In the book ‘Put me back on my bike’, the story of Tom Simpson, it recalls how cyclists were advised not to drink water as it robbed them of their strength. That is something UEFA and FIFA might disagree with since the introduction of enforced water breaks in some games.



That is the what; here is the why. While it is difficult, if not realistically impossible, to prove whether sport science improves football performance it certainly does improve physical capability. Exceptions to the rule exist, and always will, but by and large professional footballers these days, especially at the very top level, are consummate athletes. Questions can be raised, to an extent, regarding the efficacy of sport science in addressing one of the most common football injuries: hamstring muscle strains, but considering the staggering increase in physical match demands it is testament to the field that other common injuries haven’t followed suit.


Within the fêted English Premier League some clubs employ dozens of sport scientists, alluding to their perceived value. Sport scientists are also widely employed by professional clubs within most major footballing European countries including Germany, France and Spain. With one of the present authors (Robert McCunn) having studied for a PhD in sport science in Germany under the tutelage of Professor Tim Meyer; one of the medical doctors the German FA count among their backroom staff, we can confidently say that the investment that organisation has diverted to sports medicine and science appears to have been well spent. The glittering trophies (note that is plural) on display within their headquarters in Frankfurt testify to that.


Furthermore, the international sport science PhD programme they support along with the ongoing construction of their new national academy performance centre, amounting to expenditure totalling more than €100m, demonstrate they are intent on remaining at the cutting edge of football performance enhancement. That the current World Cup holders believe in the value of sport science as a discipline is a ringing endorsement we should probably pay heed to here in Scotland.


The future. What model of sport science support might work best for Scottish clubs? The money within German and even more so within English football mean that whatever their respective models of sport science support, they may not be directly applicable to Scotland. While several Scottish professional clubs employ a sport scientist (more than one in some cases), many do not and for understandable reasons. If a club is faced with the choice of employing a sport scientist or an additional player – who may make the difference when it comes to promotion or survival – it is easy to see where funds are more likely to be invested. However, sport scientists potentially offer good value for money through improving the physical performance and injury resilience of a club’s current players.


Scotland has an extensive and well-established university sector. Many of these institutions offer degrees in sport science and employ internationally respected scholars in the field. Scope certainly exists for greater partnership between Scottish clubs and the Higher Education sector. A potential model for sport science support within Scottish football may involve cost but also mutual benefits being shared between these parties. The active involvement and participation of the nation’s universities in improving the standard of footballer in Scotland is an exciting avenue for both sides to explore. Clubs and players stand to gain the benefits associated with sport science support while universities could achieve further credibility through active involvement in the field they teach in. Such collaboration may also facilitate knowledge generation in the form of applied research. This aspect of collaboration would be a longer-term goal but one that could reap great rewards in the future.



Why should we wait around hoping that other researchers and practitioners can answer questions that may exist around football performance enhancement when we can seek to find the answers ourselves? Scotland has a rich history of innovation and scientific discovery. There is no reason why Scottish clubs cannot embrace sport science and commit to making the most of the footballing talent that does exist here. All that is required is long-term vision. Then the sky’s the limit.


Scepticism and fear of the unknown are understandable. While some within the Scottish game may not want to admit it, the introduction of sport scientists to the world of professional football, does in some ways encroach on the traditional club management structure whereby the manager has total autonomy and leads every aspect of player development: technical, tactical, psychological and physical. At least in theory, the effective application of many facets of sport science relies on consultation and collaboration between the coach, the sport scientist, the physiotherapist, the medical doctor and – though some may argue otherwise – the players themselves.


This obviously needs to be a two-way street and willingness from all parties to acknowledge and utilise ideas suggested by each other is crucial. Employing a sport scientist under the pretence that they will not encroach on or influence the ‘normal’ training routine in any way and will simply stick to ‘their bit’ is a recipe for dissatisfaction all round. In that sense, yes, sport science is a threat to ‘traditional’ football coaching and management in Scotland. Yet, this need not be a negative realisation. A good sport scientist knows they are merely one member of the support staff and there to help, not hinder their colleagues. However, an element of some decision-making by consensus is necessary if evidence-based practice is indeed to be practiced and not simply talked about. Some chairmen, managers and coaches may balk at the thought but this is the way football, at least at the elite level, is going. And that’s no bad thing.


Neil Gibson is Director of Sport, Performance & Health at Oriam: Scotland’s Sports Performance Centre. He is an accredited high performance physiologist with the British Association of Sport & Exercise Sciences, postgraduate Programme Director at Heriot-Watt University and frustrated musician.

Robert McCunn is the Performance Sports Manager at Oriam: Scotland’s Sports Performance Centre. He is also an accredited sport scientist with the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences and lectures on the MSc in Management and Leadership in Sports Performance at Heriot-Watt University. @RobertMcCunn


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