Old School Football Falling Behind in Science

sports sci

Apparently, England football manager Roy Hodgson is enlisting the services of Sir Dave Brailsford to help us win the World Cup if it comes down to penalties. He might even go completely nuts and get a psychologist in to work with the squad. I mean what is the guy thinking? What a ridiculous idea: embrace different voices, new messages and vaguely innovative ideas in this day and age. Honestly, football is going mad.

Sports psychology is now an integral part of a scientific approach to performance in many sports. Asking someone successful and knowledgeable to play a part in developing players’ mindset, confidence and ability to perform under pressure is a no-brainer. As a graduate in Sports and Exercise Science and a professional hockey player, I’ve had firsthand experience of a good number of these resources and there’s no doubt that at the top end of our sport, areas such as psychology, nutrition, strength and conditioning, and video technology are all integral parts of the game. I do think that to some degree, a balance needs to be struck. Good nutritional advice or innovative fitness ideas can’t in themselves enable a player to execute the perfect backhand or drag flick, but they can have some impact on helping to develop the skills that make sports beautiful and help you perform effectively.

Some bright spark wrote in to the BBC website that, “If Hodgson can’t motivate the players on his own, what’s the point of him being in charge?”. I feel like this (presumably ‘die hard’) England fan might be slightly missing the point. Hodgson’s role isn’t simply to select the players and decide on the tactics. It is to generate effective team performances, develop confidence and collectiveness. If he uses other specialists to help him do that job, then so be it. Ironically, despite its status as a global sport and the huge amounts of money and media coverage it involves, there is still a rather old school football outlook shared by many pundits and fans that, if overdone, science can spoil the ‘beautiful game’. Of course, these pundits are all too happy to use their little video screens and laser pens when they are over-analysing the game at great length. But science and technology actually being applied to performance seems to be seen as challenging the notion that the top teams are just playing a more high level version of the Sunday morning kickabout.

The rather Luddite attitudes of many people within football to sports science extends to most top-level clubs. A friend of mine who has worked at Liverpool FC and and Birmingham City describes the sports science she has seen there as poorly invested in and undermanned. “It is very old fashioned and there is no consistency. Too many players only want to know if it will increase their chances of getting paid more otherwise they won’t bother getting stronger or fitter.” When I compare the amount of money and coverage a sport with such a ‘backwards’ attitude to science has to one like hockey, it seems like a strange situation. Whilst we are fortunate to receive lottery funding which is partly allocated to our sports science support, our total annual spend on this is probably only equal to a few weeks of Wayne Rooney’s wages.

In some sports, performance itself is largely determined by science and technology. Many top sportspeople use equipment that has taken years and a mindblowing amount of financial investment to develop. Lizzie Yarnold’s gold medal winning skeleton bobsleigh cost around £100,000. That pales in comparison to Team Sky’s 2011 budget of £1.4m on bikes and performance equipment. (If you’ve ever had a look at the top-end equipment available in a specialist bike shop, you’ll see why.) Meanwhile the costs in other sports events are completely astronomical. The budgets for the America’s Cup teams in 2013 were approximately $100m.

The amount of money available does obviously have a huge impact on the amount a competitor or team can invest in sports science. Sometimes this does genuinely make success in or even access to certain sports impossible. There are certainly a few sports where the finances and technologies involved mean that it will never be a truly level playing field. In sports such as Formula 1, budgets and sponsorship are of major significance. The top six spending teams in 2013 finished as the top six in the Constructors’ Championship. Highest spenders Ferrari had a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars, well over $100m of which was spent on the development of the car itself. That said, Ferrari came third behind two teams with slightly smaller budgets, so the science and engineering itself (not to mention the drivers!) also play a significant role.

Another significant impact of science is in the development of and subsequent fight against drugs in sport. Recent infamous scandals in cycling and athletics have hit these sports particularly hard. Given the likely disparity between the budgets and technologies available to each, it’s unsurprisingly difficult for anti-doping organisations to keep up with the pharamaceutical companies who are developing performance enhancing drugs. Recent stories about the lack of drugs testing of track and field athletes in Jamaica have caused uproar. The economic reasons behind Jamaica’s lack of facilities and testers are widely unaccepted by some people who regard this science as more deserving and demanding of funding than the science that pushes the world’s fastest sprinters to get even quicker. Others are just skeptical about what kind of science is making these sprinters the quickest. You could argue that this is the price we are paying for constantly wanting athletes to go faster, jump higher and get stronger. There is certainly much debate to be had in this area, but for my part I believe in clean sport and I hope that the “good scientists” beat the bad guys.

Modern day science and sport are inextricably linked. Even the ‘purest’ forms of sport, such as running, swimming and jumping (where it is a simple case of human versus human in a battle against time and resistance) are affected for most people, from the elite performer to the casual participant. If you go jogging once a week, but have spent any time thinking about the best trainers to wear or what to eat and drink to fuel your body, science is playing a part. There definitely also seems to be a widespread correlation between money and science in elite sport. This isn’t a uniform thing though: football, undoubtedly one of the most global and financially powerful sports in existence, is lagging behind. Ultimately then, however much money, technology and science go into sport, it is still driven by people. An engineer and a scientist could design the quickest, most streamlined car ever seen. But an F1 race without a driver? That wouldn’t be sport.

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2 thoughts on “Old School Football Falling Behind in Science

  1. …..the application of linament (Harold Abrahams 1924), the suppression of adulthood (Nadia Comaneci 1980), the calming influence of a sport psychologist (??Eileen Dury England World Cup 1998), the golden nectar (every dart professional 1978 to 2014) and the drug abuse of Ben Johnson (1988), all share one, seemingly, common thread – the appliance of science. Long live the Corinthian Casuals – jumpers for goalposts……

  2. Pingback: Expressions I Could Live Without #justsaying | thatinkingfeeling

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