Why The Specialist-Generalist Model Creates the Best Chance for Winning and Development in High Performance

By John Portch. This article was first published on Leaders in Sport on 9 November 2020.

“Is the next evolution in high performance sport towards a more generalist model?”

That was the opening question posed by host Mo Bobat, the Performance Director at the England & Wales Cricket Board [ECB] at this Elite Performance Partners [EPP] webinar, which explored the rise of the specialist-generalist in high performance frameworks.

EPP, a search, selection and advisory firm working across elite sport and specialising in performance, feel that this shift preceded the pandemic, but is it set to continue and is it the advisable way forward?

“We believe the specialist-generalist model is the best way to develop the leadership capabilities of organisations,” said Dave Slemen, Founding Partner at EPP.

Joining Bobat and Slemen were Bryce Cavanagh and Aaron Danks, who serve as the Head of Physical Performance and the Assistant Coach of the men’s Under-21s at the Football Association respectively, and 150 attendees drawn from members of the Leaders Performance Institute as well as a selection of high performance practitioners from across the globe.

Here, we explore the main questions raised on the day and consider the implications of moving towards a specialist-generalist model. 

What is a ‘specialist-generalist’?

Let’s clear one thing up: high performance sport is not discarding specialist expertise. Rather, in these straitened times, as budgets and staff numbers are reduced, organisations will welcome those T-shaped practitioners with breadth of experience and depth of expertise. Slemen says: “The people who are best placed to break through the ceiling from practitioner to leadership have gained a number of transferable, softer skills and experiences along the way.”

Why would a specialist-generalist make a good leader?

“I’d suggest it’s people who have been in more places and have more skills and can see through more lenses,” says Slemen. “That’s why the specialist-generalist model is the best way to develop the leadership capabilities of organisations.”

Does this trend towards specialist-generalists pre-date the pandemic?

While, the pandemic has proven to be an accelerant, the sports industry was already moving in that direction, given the aforementioned leadership implications. “Some would argue the changes we’re seeing are long overdue,” says Slemen. “Practitioners in the early part of their careers are they’re gaining breadth earlier,” he adds, “not only the experience of the environment but technical capability.”

How is this changing how teams hire their staff?

“We’re seeing analysts that want to be coaches as well,” says Slemen, “because if you’re going to do that work for the coach you probably want to have a decent feel as to what it is to be a coach as well. We’d argue that it’s more useful to have a second type of breadth that comes with slightly less depth in your first specialism. By having experience in other areas, it means you don’t only experience the world with one lens and, equally, clients are starting to hire for this as well.”

What are some of the concerns practitioners share with the current model of specialists?

Cavanagh illustrates the risk of what he calls ‘cognitive entrenchment’. “We’ve been blindly participating in a bit of an arm’s race,” he says. “The ability for a generalist-specialist to not only have empathy but an understanding and experience of different facets allows us to collaborate or complement each other. The more we go down the route of specialisms, the more we risk ending up with only one tool.”

There are potential implications for athletes too. “We talk in cricket a lot about wanting to develop independent cricketers,” says Bobat. “Yet wrap specialists around them and there’s an element of them becoming dependent on that support.”

So turning to specialist-generalists can help to optimise your performance environment?

“The answer for me is that you have to create an environment that enables learning and development beyond the academy,” says Slemen.

“I think it’s important to create immersive experiences within the current world or the current job that they have,” says Cavanagh. “It can be an experience-based thing that you provide support or a mentor in that space.”

“We need to be creative about what that looks like,” adds Danks. “For example, we trained all of our coaches to become analysts. So they took responsibility for a lot of the video clipping and element of the analysis side. It meant our analysts themselves could do a little bit more around the data and the metrics.”

Cavanagh is of a similar mind: “We look for someone who can be a generalist with a more holistic view in camp or in a tournament where we can’t afford to bring specialist staff, but that they bring a specialism off camp.”

What if that specialist expertise is no longer in the building?

Then there could be opportunities for consultants, or what Bobat calls ‘super specialists’. He says: “It might be that they want to maintain that discreet impact that they can have in a sport; and they might do a set number of days with one team and then another team; they come in and have value impact in an acute area.”

Slemen concurs. “Often, as you get more senior, you quite like a portfolio-type career,” he says. However, “you have to be somebody that can earn or develop trust quickly, as you’re not truly a part of the team.”

Might a training field of specialists be preferable, though?

That will depend on your specific context and will be an outcome of clear, decisive leadership. Danks says: “It’s sometimes easier when there’s less of you, but that’s not necessarily the best; and there’s a difference between easy and best.

“The biggest advantage of a larger coaching group is actually noticing skills; we notice more and weigh up more what’s going on in the sessions and the games. When you’re on your own you miss so much; just having that humility as a coach to go and say having someone beside me who’s noticing something different or the role and responsibility of noticing something different had a big impact on me and the way I worked. That means being clear about roles and responsibilities in the planning phase.”

“There’s been times where you have a gut feeling that there’s too many staff around and there’s also times where you say we haven’t got enough staff or resources,” says Bobat. “You can have too big a management team and you can have social loafing, but equally, you can get the opposite and people hunt and look for work; the danger there is that it’s all well-intended but you start creating complexity and silos.”

Is it really a choice between specialists and specialist-generalists?

No. As Slemen says, “‘generalist’ sounds a bit derogatory; specialist, you’re special, generalist, you’re not – the people who are the best are both. They might be a specialist-generalist because they’ve got an ability across more than one specialism, but it’s also when a person is able to interact with others, their emotional intelligence, their empathy – those are the sort of skills that will be seen as generalist but are arguably the most important and difficult skills to develop.”

“You’re always going to have discreet functions,” says Cavanagh, “but it’s when you start adding multiples within those functions that the generalist becomes more valuable, or you’ve got a constraint like financial or human resource, where you can only have one person in that space. The generalist becomes more valuable.”

In summary, EPP call these specialist-generalists ‘comb-shaped’ in recognition of their technical specialisms – their ‘major’ and ‘minors’, to use an analogy from the US university system – and for the breadth they bring in terms of experience, environment and through their ‘softer’ skills. Comb-shaped practitioners not only learn their trade but seek that strong understanding of other areas.”


Are You Ready to Shoot Your Performance 'Sacred Cows'?

The moment is still too soon for Ulster Head Coach Dan McFarland but his non-hierarchical approach to leadership and the team’s adaptability stands them in good stead.

By John Portch and Dave Slemen - This article first appeared on the Leaders in Sport website on Sep 10, 2020

“If you’re not bothered about slaughtering a cow – and you think that cow needs slaughtering – then it probably never reaches the status of being sacred, does it?”

So asks Dan McFarland, the Head Coach of Ulster Rugby, who has taken time out of his day to speak to Dave Slemen, Founding Partner at Elite Performance Partners [EPP], a search, selection and advisory firm working across elite sport and specialising in performance, and the Leaders Performance Institute.

A bespectacled McFarland takes the Zoom call in his office, as indicated by the white board visible on one side. He is jovial despite Ulster’s defeat to Connacht the previous weekend and answers our questions enthusiastically. So focused is he that he does not break his flow when halfway through the conversation a colleague pokes a head around the head coach’s door just as we pose another query.

“I think it’s too early to say if we’ll be shooting sacred cows,” he says at the outset. It causes his inquisitors’ hearts to miss a beat, as the proverbial shooting of ‘sacred cows’ – obsolete practices or processes that once seemed sacrosanct – at Ulster was the primary reason for arranging our interview.

The topic is ripe for discussion across high performance sport, as EPP discovered during their conversations with leaders such as McFarland during the lockdown period. Conversations which began around furlough, cost-cutting and new regulations soon moved on to a realisation that in moments of deep uncertainty everything is on the table, and nothing is sacred.

At one of EPP’s confidential Leadership Forums, which bring together performance leaders from across sports to share and debate issues and ideas, the group went one further agreeing that not only could the sacred cows be shot, but that it was an imperative for all of their sports that they should be. The group argued that the worst thing that could happen was for teams to emerge from the lessons and insight of the pandemic unchanged, still clinging on to the traditions no longer relevant to their game.

Ulster may not be there just yet but McFarland, a former playing colleague and friend of Slemen’s, and a long-time associate of the Leaders Performance Institute, works through his response to the sacred cows question with customary thoughtfulness and allays our fears. Perhaps his answer provides more food for thought for the wider performance community than a trail of slain cattle.

“I don’t think anything immediately stands out as something we didn’t need to do before,” he continues. “What I do think – and something that’s struck me – is the importance of an environment where you need to be adaptable, where there are unusual occurrences and some teams are not necessarily prepared for that the level of autonomy within their organisation.”

One can see the cogs turning in McFarland’s mind. It is in keeping with his deliberate approach to leading and coaching and, in typical fashion, he is candid when walking one through that process.

“I’ve looked at coaches like this doing interviews in the past,” he says. “I’ve looked at them and going ‘it’s all about getting this out there’ or ‘talking about that’ and stroking your own ego.

“I actually learn an incredible amount from doing this and the reason I learn is that you have to articulate what you believe in. Just the process of answering questions around that is formulating philosophies; helping to mould and sculpt philosophies.

“In our job as leaders we have to sell ideas. If you have an idea you’ve got to be able to sell it; you’ve got to be able to have the right language, use the right language; put it in positions in front of people that people are interested in.

“The fact that I am talking to you about it, it’s difficult on Zoom. If I’m talking about an idea that I have or believe in, I can pretty much tell if I’m selling it or not with you. Are you falling off your chair asleep or are you interested and asking secondary questions? It gives me massive feedback for going and speaking to these guys out here.”

Heading into the unknown

The Guinness Pro14, which contains the provincial teams from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Italy and South Africa, was one of the first competitions to suspend play on 12 March. Ulster, however, played their last match, at home to the Cheetahs of Bloemfontein, on 22 February. Their scheduled trip to the Treviso-based Benetton the following weekend was postponed as the first wave of Covid-19 ravaged northern Italy.

A full six months had passed before Ulster next took to the field [a defeat to Connacht on 23 August] but the team swiftly returned to form. First, Edinburgh were defeated away in the Pro14 semi-finals and now McFarland’s side will take on Leinster in this Saturday’s final at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium [12 September]. There will be no let-up either, as the team will travel to play Toulouse in the European Champions Cup quarter-finals on 20 September and then there is a mere two-week hiatus before next season’s Pro14 group phase begins on 3 October. It is a programme unheard of in rugby.

For all that, McFarland saw it coming down the tracks. “It’s been a long time and there’s been so much evolution through it and a big chunk of it was so unusual that we’ve almost got used to things being unusual,” he observes. “I don’t mean that in the sense that we’ve gotten used to unusual things, what I mean is we’ve gotten used to the fact that there are going to be unusual things. That breeds an adaptability in us and the fact that we are going to be heading into the unknown. Even going into the Connacht match: how do you prepare for games after six months out? Nobody’s ever done it before.”

Adaptability and vulnerability are two of the traits EPP look for in leaders across the board, irrespective of sport or role, and it is clear that those who have embraced the ambiguity of recent months, maintaining long-term clarity while pursuing necessarily short-term goals, have responded better than their peers. “It’s about asking the right questions, and not needing to know all the answers,” explains Slemen, adding, “great leaders create followership around a culture and values that mean all are aligned in service of a common goal rather than committed to a certain way of doing things.”

This was the notion that led EPP to suggest the interview with McFarland, after hearing him speak early in the lockdown period about how Ulster had taken the time to clarify their values in light of the new situation, so all understood that they remained relevant and could use them as a basis to pull together despite being physically apart.

McFarland is certain that a hierarchical leadership style would simply not have worked. Is that because it is not his personal style to be authoritarian or is it because that was not what the team needed?

“It’s a little bit of both,” he replies. “I aspire to a distributed leadership style. I am at the mercy of confirmation bias here, but I don’t see hierarchical leadership as being sustainable. I don’t see it as being effective, actually; but I don’t see it as being sustainable because one of the biggest drivers we have here, and I would have in my personal philosophy, is growth and also being able to enjoy your job.

“I think personal growth and autonomy go hand in hand with enjoying your job. I’ve always aspired to getting people to take on tasks that they can take responsibility for.” His approach has reaped dividends since his arrival in 2018 after what had been a turbulent campaign for the province.

The ability of McFarland’s support staff to work within their specific domains was essential as the managerial meetings piled up in March. “At the start of the lockdown, there was so much information coming in, particularly in our environment where in the nature of where we’re set in Northern Ireland, and crossing over a number of jurisdictions and a number of governing bodies,” he recalls. “The amount of guidelines that we have, that the complexity of working out how we’re going to proceed, it required me to channel a lot of the oversight that I would possibly have spread out in other areas into a specific area.”

Not only has this changed someone like McFarland’s role, but it’s forced initiative on other team members, allowing those who are ready to step up and do things differently. Changes in environment, with less people able to be physically present at training grounds and matches has also had an interesting impact – during the ‘good years’ when many sports were well financed, EPP found a growth of specialists for every role, and a certain presenteeism that eroded the power of the individual and created an element of groupthink as people spent the vast majority of their time together.

Being part of a team while still having a strong sense of self is an important skill for clubs to cultivate, as is breaking down the remaining silos and developing leadership potential in practitioners from an early stage.

EPP predict one big change we’ll see is a return to the specialist-generalist and T-shaped practitioners capable of playing more than one role – for example physiotherapists who are also passionate S&C coaches – taking us back to slimmer structures more akin to days past and reducing the need for specialists for specialists’ sake.

Back at Ulster, McFarland was attending more meetings than ever during the lockdown. “I was on senior management team meetings every week at the start and previously I would have rarely gone to senior management team meetings because I could be updated by Bryn Cunningham, our Operations Director,” he recalls. “There and then I needed to be present; so straight away it’s something totally different.”

To underline his earlier point about distributed leadership, McFarland proceeds to name check a fair number of his staff. “What ends up happening is that people like Tom Clough, our Head of Athletic Performance, people like Chris McNichol, the Lead Physiotherapist, Mike Webb, our  Medical Director, Stephanie Gleadhill, our Lead Nutritionist – these people were in areas where really they didn’t even have to be asked; ‘this needs to be done and we need to have a plan here. What is happening around this?’

“It varied across the stages of lockdown but if they didn’t pick up the ball and run with it, it was going to be a mess. It wasn’t a case of me wanting to stand over them; I didn’t – I just couldn’t.

“It’s only in those circumstances where you can realise and see that competent people, they excel in circumstances like that. I suppose at the end of it I was really pleased that it felt like we recruited well and we do have good people here.”

When will McFarland know the time is right to shoot a sacred cow? “It’s an interesting one because the game is the feedback,” is his reply. “We’ve had a long time away from the game and we’re only coming back to the game now and seeing the feedback. From our point of view, the start hasn’t been great. We’ve not started off where we left off so there’ll have to be some serious review around that.

“Now, my personal opinion is that I have a good idea why we are where we we’re at. We will review that but we won’t do that until we get into the start of next season.”

It is an opportunity for his support staff and, if there is a practice or process to be discarded, there will be an open discussion. “I use the phrase that you’re trying to create space for them to shape it,” he says. “If you fill that space they’ll never shape it. To be fair, some people don’t want to be involved in shaping; they like to be told, they’re happy to follow, but if that space isn’t there be to be filled because I’m filling it constantly or somebody’s filling it constantly, people won’t be able to do that.”

Since speaking to McFarland, Ulster have returned to form just when it mattered most. Attention now turns to Saturday’s clash with Leinster before the return of the European Champions Cup. Perhaps the cattle will live to see another day after all.


Five Key Roles for High-Performing Teams

At EPP, we believe there are five key roles that high-performance teams are introducing, both in football and other sports, that are having a truly transformational effect.

Here they are - and you can read about each role in-depth by clicking on the links:

1. SPORTING DIRECTOR

This is the key full-time strategic leadership position in an organisation and is ultimately responsible for all performance matters. The Sporting Director needs to think bigger than just winning next Saturday; he or she must formulate a plan, together with other key members of the club, that articulates where they are now, where they want to be and how to get there.

This person is responsible for operational effectiveness across all sporting departments, including the first team, player recruitment, medical/ sports science and Academy. The Head Coach in turn, provides the detailed football strategy on how to win and creates an environment and culture for the team to reach its collective potential.

With the average tenure of a manager in the Premier League since 2012/13 just 14 months (21st Club data), a custodian is required to look after the long-term interests of the club. When the manager goes, a number of staff also tend to change, which makes no sense for players who have developed relationships with them.

With a Sporting Director in place, they will lead on recruitment, aligned with the club's vision of success, while the Head Coach will bring in one or two trusted coaches.

The Sporting Director will need to answer a number of performance questions:

  • How do we navigate the club to a world-class performance structure?
  • What is our philosophy for building a winning team?
  • What is our identity and culture and what makes us special?
  • How do we create standards to achieve our vision?

At Elite Performance Partners, we see this role as the link between the football and executive functions of a club. The Sporting Director can see and walk both sides; they are a vital ‘bridge’ across the organisation.

In some quarters, this role is still seen as undermining the Head Coach, but we see it as the exact opposite: it is the recognition that coaching and managing the players week to week is a full-time job requiring a huge amount of support from the senior leadership.

IN-DEPTH: What makes an effective Sporting Director

2. NON-EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR (WITH HIGH PERFORMANCE EXPERIENCE)

During previous experience in the European chemical and technology sectors, we found that all the boards we worked with included someone who was expert at building a relevant company.

This kind of non-executive role is still rare in sport, however. We believe it makes sense to have someone who acts as a bridge between the board and the performance side of the club. One rare example is Owen Eastwood, a partner of ours, who recently fulfilled this role for the New Zealand Warriors in the NRL.

His role involved:

  • Ensuring there was a detailed Football Vision & Strategy.
  • Ensuring the board continually reviewed how the Football Strategy was being delivered and looked for ways to help those employed to deliver it.
  • Assembled a Football Advisory Committee to meet monthly with the Head Coach to discuss ‘on-the-ground’ team and performance issues. This Committee included two vastly experienced head coaches: Sir Graham Henry (World Cup winning All Black coach), as well as a former Head Coach of the New York Jets in the NFL. Their purpose was to support the coach in navigating the season, not to put pressure on him.
  • Putting good structures in place for mid and post season reviews against the Strategy.

The benefit of this role is having someone grounded in a disciplined performance system who is not embroiled in the emotional rollercoaster of the game.

IN-DEPTH: Performance NED - Asking the questions no-one else can

3. DIRECTOR OF STRATEGY AND ANALYTICS

This is someone who sits behind the scenes, helping the CEO and senior leaders to make better-informed decisions. There is lots of data available in sport now and it can definitely help make better decisions. Managing the data and creating insights requires specialist skills though and many clubs would benefit from having people with this skillset.

CEOs of Premier League teams have told us they would like this research to be done, but just don’t have the time to do it. A Director of Strategy and Analytics would fill the hole, ensuring that the data/ analytics strategy is intrinsically linked with the overall vision of success.

The Olympic sports have managed to do this by asking one key question: What does it take to win? I see this person working with the most senior leaders of the club - the owner, chairman and CEO - because successful data and analytics starts right at the top. This role takes courage, as you are going to have to make decisions that may seem counter-intuitive and unpopular.

The likes of Ian Graham at Liverpool and Mikhail Zhilkin at Arsenal are examples of people with the required skillset on the performance side. This role can also be used to interpret data across all aspects of the club, including helping to better understand the supporters. A company like Two Circles has done a great job of taking ownership of that particular space.

IN-DEPTH: How the Director of Strategy and Analytics can unlock performance

4. DIRECTOR OF HIGH PERFORMANCE

This role is about aligning all the cogs of performance from a science and medical perspective, so there is integration with coaching and continuity in how players are developed.

As with a lot of these new roles, it is about having a rigorous, evidence-based plan that has the flexibility to adapt when necessary. In the best examples we’ve seen, the coach develops the technical drills while the Director of High Performance co-ordinates the process. This means the coach gets the tactical and technical training he or she wants, while factors such as training load, nutrition and recovery are optimised by the Director of High Performance.

There is a view from the leading experts in this space that there is an opportunity to train harder, smarter and to differentiate training sessions to hit different physical components in order to improve.

Training will still be Head Coach-driven, with the High Performance Manager supporting in service to the athletes. This person is hands-on, managing the integrated performance system, creating alignment across functions and achieving an inter-disciplinary approach, ensuring performance KPI’s are managed in all areas.

Darcy Norman (above) and Adam Beard are two good examples of this role and you can click the links to learn more about their approaches.

IN-DEPTH: Why clubs need a Director of High Performance

5. HEAD OF PEOPLE AND TEAM DEVELOPMENT

The leading teams recognise that psycho-social skills are crucial in order to be successful. This role is responsible for developing those.

The Head of People and Team Development creates a process and programme for learning and development - not just for the players, but for the coaches and support staff too. The best teams create high-performance cultures for developing and supporting a deep team identity off the pitch alongside mental skills and mindset on the pitch to perform under pressure.

The most common limitation we have found preventing teams from reaching their potential is the belief that football is different to other sports and that ideas from outside are not transferable.

By breaking down these beliefs, there is potential for transformational change. This can improve the culture and behaviour of players, coaches and staff in a way that leads to consistent winning performances.

IN-DEPTH: Why Head of People is sport's best-kept secret


Why the Head of People is Sport's Best-Kept Secret

In this series, I’ve been working through the five new roles I consider to be key for high-performing teams in football.

I have already covered the Sporting Director, Director of High Performance and Director of Strategy and Analytics. Now it is the turn of arguably the most under-represented role in sport - and perhaps the one with the greatest potential to create competitive advantage.

Unlike the other roles on the list, the importance - and success - of a Head of People and Team Development is difficult to measure. However, a good one can greatly impact culture, environment and performance, helping to develop psycho-social skills across individuals, teams and entire clubs and create a process and programme for learning and development.

This person should exist to help create a high-performance culture that develops and supports a deep team identity off the pitch, alongside the mental skills and mindset on the pitch, thereby allowing everyone to perform under pressure and helping develop a group dynamic that takes into account the emotional make-up of individuals and not just their technical skill.

EVOLUTION OF THE ROLE

The need for this role has been established in other sports, such as cricket, Aussie Rules and an array of Olympic disciplines, even if the role itself hasn’t.

For this, we have innovative coaches to thank - they have looked to create competitive advantage through less traditional methods such as teaching, performance psychology and mental fitness.

Those who have embraced this role have looked to shift the focus from performance to people and create an environment in which both the person and their ability are viewed simultaneously, albeit through a performance lens.

This creates a more sustainable culture in which individuals are part of a wider cause.

As with the other roles I’ve explored in this series, the Head of People and Team Development takes the focus from short-term results to long-term vision.

WHAT DO THEY DO?

To build an effective team, everyone - both coaches and players alike - need to buy into a set of behaviours, standards and culture, with a true sense of belonging, as highlighted by Daniel H. Pink in his book Drive.

The Head of People and Team Development assists coaches by sharing information that helps balance technical performance assessment with people development. This might be formal or informal, via group work or presentations, or individually with players.

They help to minimise and manage the stressful events and unwanted incidents that can derail a season. However, by helping to create cohesion and connection, they can do so much more: they can help build high-performing teams.

While many believe these are things that come naturally to a team and are part of the skillset of all the best coaches, more often than not you need a process and system to really develop mindsets and drive team bonding. You also need to prioritise them alongside time in the gym, embedding them in the overall programme, just as you would for any other skill.

This is why the Head of People and Team Development is the best-kept secret in sport and why I am confident the role will become more and more prevalent in football in the years to come.

STORYTELLING

Storytelling is a huge part of the role – and of good coaching as a whole. It helps you get beneath the surface and engage with the players over and above the game, taking meaning from other, often personal, situations and individual histories.

We all relate better to imagery and stories than we do to tactics. Anyone lucky enough to have seen professional storyteller Clare Muireann Murphy at the Leaders in Performance summit at the end of last year will recognise this truth and I know I'll remember the stories she told to illustrate the talks better than the words of the speakers themselves.

When most athletes reflect on their careers - and I am no different - it is with a sense of something bigger than the technical and tactical lessons they learnt. This is what a Head of People and Team Development is there for: to create and nurture a sense of belonging and turn it into performance on the pitch.

They are the guardians of the team’s values, helping everyone understand why they are important and how to maintain the standards they have set.

WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?

At present, these people are few and far between.

Dr Pippa Grange, who left the Football Association last November after 20 months as Head of People and Team Development, had an impact across numerous areas from helping build resilience and enabling the teams to play without fear to instilling a sense of ownership and leadership in the individual players, getting them to take responsibility for their own performance - which many clubs would do well to mimic.

Her successor at the FA, Dr Ian Mitchell, previously of the Welsh FA, has taken on a slightly different title - Head of Performance Psychology – but is another example of an excellent exponent of the role.

David Priestley, who has been Head of Psychology and Personal Development at Arsenal since July 2014, is probably as close as you will get to this role in club football. He is responsible for culture, values and the development of a high-performance environment at the North London club and previously worked for English and European rugby champions Saracens.

Further afield, Australia are once again arguably a step ahead of us, possibly as a result of the need to find competitive advantage on a more level playing field, given that many of their sports are subject to a salary cap. Anthony Klarica, who has helped Olympic sports, AFL clubs, motor sports and Tennis Australia to maximise performance in his homeland, springs to mind as a strong example.

Other than this, I see parts of the role via good performance psychologists focusing on mental skills, but not the coach whisperers who can create the real difference.

DO FOOTBALL CLUBS DO THIS WELL?

Although I have no doubt that things will soon change, the role tends to be created with a particular person in mind, rather than great candidates being found for well-considered briefs.

Most elite football clubs are currently addressing this area via a team of coaches, psychs, teachers and even ex-athletes, rather than one overarching expert.

However, clubs and sporting organisations - and particularly the coaches within them - see how this role fast-tracks performance and development once they have it. After all, players are tasked with absorbing and learning so much and come to the game with different levels of experience and maturity.

To do the role well, the Head of People and Team Development needs to be tertiary-trained but also have practical and applied experience. They won’t necessarily be an ex-athlete, although this can help with empathy and understanding when they typically have only 10 minutes to hold attention and get their message across.

HOW DO WE ADVISE CLIENTS ON CREATION OF THIS ROLE?

Time to develop people is limited and careers are short in elite sport, so good candidates need to be great with players, win trust early and be seen to have the right motivation.

If they have a good understanding of performance psychology, stakeholder management and the empathy to understand different people and what makes them tick, they are probably on the right track.

A deep honesty they are prepared to share is also critical.


Diary of a Return to Play - How the NRL’s Melbourne Storm and Canberra Raiders Resumed the Season

In the second of a new series with Elite Performance Partners, Frank Ponissi of the Melbourne Storm and Matt Ford of the Canberra Raiders chart the day of their encounter as part of the NRL’s grand restart.

This article first appeared on the Leaders in Sport Performance Institute member's site on Friday 5 June 2020

By John Portch with Dave Slemen

The Canberra Raiders travelled to the Melbourne Storm for the National Rugby League’s restart at the end of May.

The Raiders prevailed 22-6 to further burnish their Telstra Premiership credentials but the fact that the league was back in any shape or form was of greater significance than any single result.

“Did I, back in March, think we’d be back playing on 28 May? Hand on heart, no. I thought it would be too ambitious, too fast,” admitted the Storm’s General Manager Frank Ponissi.

The original 2020 NRL draw, which took place in November, pitted these teams against each other at the Storm’s AAMI Park in round 13 in early June.

That date was scratched from the calendar on 23 March when the NRL, moved by the pandemic, suspended play across the league after just two rounds and two weeks. The first round had been
played as normal and the second behind closed doors as Australia dealt with the spread of Covid-19.  A little under 10 weeks later, the NRL became one of pro sport’s first mothballed leagues to return to action.

That process was described at great length by Storm General Manager Frank Ponissi, who spoke online to Dave Slemen of Elite Performance Partners [EPP], a search, selection and advisory firm
working across elite sport and specialising in performance, and the Leaders Performance Institute.

“I recommend teams have a plan A, a plan B and a plan C because you’ll need them all,” he added.  “Planning for different scenarios is important and adaptability is the greatest quality you can have because things change regularly and you’ve got to go with it.”

In late-May, the revised draw was announced a schedule reduced from 25 rounds to 20. The Raiders’ encounter with the Storm was reinstated for the grand reopening weekend. Seven days later, the NRL and Victoria state authorities gave permission for the game to take place at AAMI Park behind closed doors. “It’s been a bit of a whirlwind,” added Ponissi.

The Melbourne General Manager is a friendly, engaging and insightful character, which is why EPP and the Leaders Performance Institute jumped at his offer to keep a performance diary on the day of the Raiders game. He even suggested enlisting his counterpart at Canberra, Matt Ford, who showed us equal generosity and graciousness in coming onboard for the idea.

“Like most clubs,” Ford tells us via email, “I am sure we have approached the travel and interruptions to normal game day processes with gratitude that we are back playing rugby league.”

On that note, both men have alluded to the newfound spirit of cooperation that exists between the 16 NRL teams. Ford adds: “To take this a step further we believe there may well be opportunities
that we look to implement post-Covid after being forced to re-think how we operate in and around games.”

The following is Ponissi and Ford’s accounts of Saturday 30 May.

Morning, Saturday 30 May

Frank Ponissi: Up to the time before we go to the stadium, there aren’t any major differences given that this is a home game for us. For all home games, we allow our players and staff to go straight from home to the stadium and we do not go into a hotel either the night before or the day of a home game. It differs for our away games, which are all interstate. The players will follow their normal routine in regards to when they wake up, eat, and have an afternoon nap. We encourage our players to have a normal preparation home and away regardless of if they are in a hotel or not.  Given that there were no crowd allowed to watch the game, all the players and staff comment how they received no last-minute ticket requests. This is a plus.

1:00pm - Raiders depart from Canberra Airport

Matt Ford: Players and staff have to be at the charter plane hangar at Canberra Airport by 1:00pm. Upon arrival all players, staff and the match day referees have their health assessment checks
(temperature recording etc.) Once the health test was passed, the travelling party could walk onto the tarmac and board the 80-seat charter plane.

The seamless air travel logistics are much preferred to the traditional domestic flight scenario. The ability to arrive much closer to departure as well as our gear van being able to drive directly onto the tarmac are much easier than the usual check-in process. Likewise on the return flight, players and staff are in their car with their backpack five minutes after landing.

No food/drinks are served, however, we each have the option to bring something along. Upon landing in Melbourne, a coach pulled up on the tarmac adjacent to the aircraft and all the team gear
was loaded within ten minutes.

FP: Whilst we do not have to travel for another two weeks [to take on the Newcastle Knights on 13 June], we are already planning ahead to that first away game and we have staff talking to other clubs who did travel to get any advice.

3:30pm - Raiders arrive at AAMI Park

MF: After a 30-minute trip by coach, we arrive at AAMI Park to a ‘pre-game corporate space’. These spaces are standardised at each playing venue across the NRL to include three massage tables, TVs, an area for dining, Wi-Fi, and couches.

The major consideration at this point is adequately planning this two hours of ‘dead’ time prior to the squad entering the change rooms. This time is locked in by the NRL as contingency time in the event of a flight delay etc. but does make for a long period when players would otherwise be in the hotel relaxing/sleeping etc.

Given our normal preparation in the change rooms commences two hours before kick-off, we used the corporate space to relax for two hours prior to transferring to the change rooms. Our plan was to have food catering as close to what ‘normal’ would be in terms of quantity/quality if we were at a hotel for the pre-game meal. We have an internal tradition on game day where the players enjoy a coffee together. Although this normally coincides with their team walk, we pre-ordered coffees at the stadium so they were ready upon arrival. This was an effort to keep the game day experience as normal as possible where we could.

Aside from this, there was an opportunity for our two physios and a massage therapist to provide treatment during this time following the travel we had just endured. Other recovery modalities such as Normatec recovery boots were utilised. Fingers crossed we believe these interventions will be successful in reducing injuries. That being said, we are about to endure another six weeks of travel, including 3.5-hour bus journeys on the day of the game, as we do not have any ‘home’ matches in Canberra (these have been temporarily moved to Sydney).

FP: Whilst fierce competitors on the field there is a genuine high level of good spirit and cooperation between clubs at the moment so we all want to help each other given the unusual
circumstances of travelling up and back on game days. In the past clubs wouldn’t be as accommodating!

3:30pm-4:30pm - ‘Clean area’ prepared

FP: The ‘clean area’ [the change rooms and the player corridor] are deep cleaned for an hour. Broadcasters must also be set up no more than four hours before kick-off.

MF: Given the tight timing for access to the change rooms our gear steward required the assistance of another four staff to set up in the one hour prior to players arriving in the change rooms. Given we do not have a media staff member travelling with the squad I assumed the media coordination duties for game day. Thankfully we are still travelling with the same personnel we would normally so all other roles remained close to the same.

4:30pm-5:30pm - Storm players go through the NRL assessment point / enter the change rooms

FP: Players entered the stadium at a different entrance than they normally would, as they had to go through a central NRL assessment point. Whilst this may not seem too challenging, players are
creatures of habit. We also planned for our players to come in slightly earlier than normal given the protocols and that there was only one assessment point.

During the week, communication and education regarding game day was absolutely paramount. We didn’t want any surprises on game day. We erred on over-communicating to ensure that everyone was totally aware. Even little things like educating the players on not having earphones or hoodies before the assessment tests as these raise your temperature. We have pushed the theme of adaptability for a number of weeks.

The Raiders and ourselves had co-ordinated arrival times to avoid a bottleneck at the assessment point.

The other factor was the stress on the players and staff; that they were going to be temperature tested on arrival and, if they failed to be below 37.3 twice within 15 minutes, they would not be
allowed in and therefore ruled out. I had a player call me earlier in the afternoon who felt fine but had tested slightly above in the morning. These are stresses that players usually don’t experience.
Once the players passed through, nothing really changed too much from normal except comments about how many normal game day staff were not there. Each club is allowed 13 staff on game day.

5:30pm-5:45pm - Raiders go through the NRL assessment point / enter change rooms

MF: For the two hours in the change rooms prior to kick-off and then the game itself, most operational things were normal.

7:35pm - Kick-off

MF: The competition has moved to a one-referee system for the remainder of this season and that is to be reviewed for 2021 and beyond. This decision was in part a financial decision by the league due to Covid.

The stadium is also less daunting in terms of the atmosphere provided in-game.

FP: Games are both more or less daunting without crowds. We really enjoy our home support at AAMI Park but we also love playing at intimidating away venues.

In terms of injuries, I don’t think anything in particular from this game or any given game will be any different. However, it’s the cumulative effect of travelling up/back on one day, and the fact that the NRL have made some key law changes, which has sped up the game, will all have an effect over a period of time. That will come down to recovery and training workloads in weeks to come. Our other issue is that the players currently not selected to play don’t have the opportunity to play in lower leagues as they usually do so when they do eventually play they will be at a higher risk.

9:30pm - Full-time

FP: The Raiders certainly adapted better than we did in reacting to the lack of atmosphere on game night given no crowds. They had a fast start going to a 12-0 early lead which proved significant in the end.

MF: Post-game presented a challenge when we were notified that we may not be able to fly back into Canberra that evening due to fog. A contingency plan had been made to leave the stadium
ASAP after full-time and possibly fly to Wagga Wagga, which would leave us with with 2.5-hour bus trip to Canberra, or Sydney, which meant a 3.5-hour drive back.

10:00pm - Raiders leave the stadium

MF: Thankfully, in the end we were allowed to fly into Canberra.

10:30pm - Storm players leave the stadium

FP: Post game, the players and staff left the stadium much earlier than a normal home game given the reduced commitments. That allowed them to start their recovery quicker.

11:00pm - Storm staff leave the stadium

FP: Now that we have been through round 3 and we know what to expect, we will pull back talking about the processes and logistics of the new match day protocols. It’s now a case of ‘just get on with it!’

With regards to performance on the field, the players have definitely learnt some valuable lessons in adapting to the vastly different surrounds. Whilst we still have one more home game [Friday 5 June vs South Sydney Rabbitohs] before we are required to travel, we were fortunate that we travelled to the Cronulla Sharks on the day of the game for round 2 back in March before Covid-19 stopped the competition. Given that we won that day, behind closed doors, that will give us a lot of confidence.

12:10am - Raiders land at Canberra Airport

MF: Had we been diverted we would likely have arrived home via coach at 4 or 5am. We are striving for consistency in how we approach our travel. We are also conscious that this is all very new to players/staff to have to deal with, so if we need to make any changes on the run we will. Our ultimate hope is that beyond round 9 (which the playing venues are currently scheduled until) we
resume playing in our home town of Canberra and, further to that, in front of crowds again before too long.

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How the NRL and the Melbourne Storm Began their Return to Play

In the first of a new series with Elite Performance Partners, Melbourne General Manager Frank Ponissi reflects on one of the first leagues in the world to return to play and attributes their speed to collaboration, adaptability and careful planning.

This article first appeared on the Leaders In Sport Performance Institute member's site on 29 May 2020

By John Portch with Dave Slemen

The National Rugby League [NRL] is back today, with games being played throughout the weekend across Australia.

The Melbourne Storm will entertain the Canberra Raiders behind closed doors at AAMI Park on Saturday evening as round three of the Telstra Premiership gets under way after being on hiatus
since 23 March.

“It’s been a bit of a whirlwind,” says Frank Ponissi with a smile. The General Manager of Melbourne is talking to Dave Slemen from Elite Performance Partners [EPP], a search, selection and advisory firm working across elite sport and specialising in performance, and the Leaders Performance Institute. It is currently two weeks before the return to play and the NRL has yet to announce a venue for the team’s meeting with Canberra.

Any notions of our growing mastery of Microsoft Teams during this lockdown were dispelled when an email arrived from Ponissi asking where his invitation had gone. Moments later, with apologies proffered and any complacency freshly dispelled, we are chewing the fat with the man, who, having returned from training, is sat in his upstairs study as the Melbourne sky visibly darkens through the slither of a window behind him.

He cracks a joke about all the unseen artifacts to be spied in people’s homes in this burgeoning Zoom era. “We don’t spend time in each other’s houses so there were lots of conversation-starters,”
he notes. “‘What’s that thing on the wall?’ or ‘what room are you in?’ We’re usually in a hotel and we don’t know each other as well as we think.”

All part of the so-called ‘new normal’ and just one consideration amongst many in this pandemic, as the conversation returns to the NRL’s restart. “We have had to think on the run, change on the run, and be adaptable,” he continues. “Usually sports coaches are not good and that - they want a heap of plans. Today we found out who we’re playing and when we’re playing - usually, coaches and performance staff would be in a foetal position when they can’t plan! But it’s the new world.”

Ponissi is both affable and candid throughout our conversation and is a reassuring presence at a time when cool heads have been essential. Few of the conversations either EPP or the Leaders
Performance Institute have been having with the sports market in recent weeks have involved performance practitioners in such an advanced state of returning to play. Ponissi adopts an air of
pride laced with humility when we point out that the NRL’s return to play has been a case study in adaptability and astute planning.

“Did I, back in March, think we’d be back playing on 28 May? Hand on heart, no. I thought it would be too ambitious, too fast,” he freely admits. “I applaud Peter V’landys [the new Chairman of the Australian Rugby League Commission, who took the reins in October 2019] who set out dates from the beginning.”

Over the next hour Ponissi delves into step by step guide that offers a detailed insight into the value of a league-wide, collaborative approach.

 

Frank, the competition was halted on the 23 March, a day after the completion of round two, which was played behind closed doors. You said it was a ‘whirlwind’ but what were your first steps at that stage?

FP: We got the players and staff in the next day and told them we need to be ready for the earliest possible date, which was 1 June at the time. That was important for the mentality of the players.

The connection piece was far more important than the physical side. We had trust in our players that they would do the right thing from a physical point of view; and as a team it turned out that we were right. We also knew that if a couple dropped off a little bit we could pick them up pretty quickly. We still had physical coaches ringing players on a regular basis to see how they’re doing but they were connected to each other and we knew what they were doing.

Members of our leadership group were each allocated a group of players and they stayed in regular contact with them either one on one or in their small Zoom groups; once a week in their playing
group, the squad and the staff.

We also had what we called a ‘happy hour’ every Friday afternoon where we encouraged the players to grab a beer or wine or whatever, sit in front of Zoom, and then we had our wellbeing staff do it. That connection piece was so important.

This period was also chance to develop the self-reliance skills of the playing group. We normally would not have that opportunity, certainly in-season.

 

Once you worked to establish that connection, what were some of the next steps?

FP: Once protocols were established, the 16 clubs had to nominate a group of 50 people; 32 players and 18 staff. You register those 32 players and your 18 staff. Most had more than 32 players, so you pick your best 32 players or your healthiest 32 players.

Each club had a responsibility to the deliver the protocols to the players in an education session before we started. Each club has also been assigned a ‘COVID-19 cop’ - I don’t like that term! It’s an
independent liaison officer who works with you at your training facility, from the arrival of the first player to the departure of the last; they are looking at your facilities, your processes; they give you updates from the NRL. We also have one of our 18 staff nominated as a liaison with the other 16 liaison officers in the other clubs. If certain clubs have questions then the answer was delivered to all.

There’s been confusion, and that happens because of the rapid speed in getting this up and running; there’s things that get forgotten, not done, not communicated but we have been able to rectify
those quickly. Every day for the first two weeks something either changed or was modified, but those two people have been our contacts and the communication has been outstanding.

 

You had your reservations and yet here you are on the verge of returning to play. To what do you attribute this speed and efficiency?

FP: As a game, I think we’ve all come together because we all saw this great opportunity to return to the game that we love playing and being involved in; it’s our profession and, like every other league in the world, there’s been salary cuts and positions lost. So the quicker we got back the better; we also thought we could be one of the first sports in the world to play again and what a great
opportunity to showcase our game. The game doesn’t have a history of being united and working together; everyone’s usually about looking after their own patch in terms of what’s good for their
club. Everyone has united to make sure we play.

A great example is the New Zealand Warriors, they’ve had to move from one country to another, effectively for the next few months. The teams of our league decided they weren’t going to start
official training until the New Zealand Warriors arrived in Australia, because they couldn’t train in New Zealand where restrictions were a lot stricter than in Australia. No one wanted a head start on the Warriors whereas in the past people were more worried about their own patch.

 

What has that collaboration looked like in practice?

FP: The 16 NRL clubs’ CEOs, coaches and General Managers of Football, which is my position, have met regularly via Zoom with their counterparts since a week before we returned to training. The calls also included people from the players’ association, coaches’ association, people from NRL management; and we met every afternoon for a week. It was an ongoing breakdown of what was
happening, we got handed the protocols we had to follow.

Peter V’landys also founded a working group, named ‘Project Apollo’ in honour of the NASA team who out a man on the Moon, to finalise a set of new health and biosecurity protocols in order to
ensure player and staff safety. He wanted rugby league to restart quicker than any other sport. Project Apollo met regularly to investigate the potential of starting the game as early as possible.
That was the Thursday before Easter [9 April] that Apollo made its submission that they would start the competition up by 28 May and the training would start on 4 May. They didn’t say it was definite, they just said that’s the date we’re working to, and that we’ve got a lot of hard work to do now. Other sports are getting their processes and protocols organised first, then they set a date - Project Apollo flipped it; they set a date to work to.

 

Project Apollo states that NRL measures are more stringent than government restrictions, with protocols reviewed every time federal and state governments review their own protocols. What does the result look like for players and staff, beginning at home?

FP: When I wake up in the morning I have to temperature test myself; everyone has been given an aural thermometer. Every member of staff and player has to download an app on their phone and must complete a check-up each morning before 9am. I have to say which club; so I go to Storm and then from there it asked ‘what is your temperature?’ It asks if anyone in your household has had a high temperature; there’s a series of health questions; are you displaying any symptoms? There’s also a section about your wellbeing. Then you hit ‘submit’. If you say yes to any of those symptoms or high temperature, you automatically get told that you must stay at home and isolate; you can’t go to training. There’s a central message that goes to the NRL body and the NRL body contacts each club’s chief medical officer.

We had one yesterday; a player woke up with symptoms, he had a blocked nose and a sore throat; he was told he was not to go to training he was to stay at home. The message went directly to our
doctor and then the doctor spoke to the player. And given the symptoms, today he had to undergo a COVID-19 test and he can’t return to training until he gets a negative result. No one wants to be the one who passes on this disease.

We also have a couple of players who live together, but unless you live together you have to travel to training on your own. You can’t carpool or use any forms of public transport.

We’re also not allowed out except to buy essential items, such as food or a takeaway - and even then we’re encouraged to let someone else in the house do that - or to walk your dog. You can also drop off your kids at school or leave the house for a medical reason with prior approval. Melbourne is very European and cosmopolitan; we love our coffee but we cannot go on our way to training to get a coffee. We’re also not allowed any visitors inside our house, except for the people that live there. If my wife has any visitors, as she did last night, I have to come upstairs.

Every player and staff inside that 50 has to complete a whereabouts form. For example, if I stopped at the petrol station on the way home from training this evening, that’s an essential, I have to put that I was at the petrol station on Friday 15 May at 3:30pm, I have to put that on the app.

 

What about once you arrive at the training facility?

FP: You get asked all those questions and are temperature tested again before you’re allowed to come and, when you enter, you must take off what’s called your ‘dirty shoes’ and you leave those at
the assessment point, then you put on your ‘clean shoes’. Your clean shoes are only used for the training facility; you can’t bring outside germs into your clean area because the training facility has
been totally sanitised and cleaned before starting. That’s what they’re called: clean zone and dirty zones.

Inside the facility, a lot of things have changed. We’ve got a few entrances and exits; the first thing you’ve got to do is have only one entry and one exit every day; all the others have been blocked off. We’ve had to split the players into two lockers because we’ve got to keep our social distancing. Even though 1.5 metres is the government guideline, the NRL have got 2m distancing.

Our meeting rooms; we’ve had to go bigger so that every player can only sit on every second chair. In our dining room, players can only sit on every second chair; usually we have buffet-style meals but clubs can only have pre-packed meals or we have servers there with gloves and face masks and they serve you the meal.

There’s a bubble created at your facility and you stay there all day and then you leave and you get on your dirty shoes. There’s a certain number of players allowed in the gym at any one time; we
started with training in only groups of 10 last week and no contact. We started contact this week, although we still must sit separately. We’re not too sure on that one.

 

Can you give us an insight into the match day protocols?

FP: On a game day only 32 can travel - that’s 20 players [17 named in the squad with three emergencies] and 12 staff. The other 12 players can’t come to the game; they’re not allowed in the
stadium.
There’s also no more staying the night in a hotel after the game; all flights are chartered and you arrive on the day of the game. You land in the city, you go straight to the stadium, where all players
and staff get temperature tested again. You have to provide the opposition with one of the corporate lounges to allow them to relax and have something to eat; you go downstairs to the
changing rooms, go out to play, and then straight out on the plane back home. We’ll be going to Sydney and Brisbane, up and back the same day again, which is unheard of for a professional team.

 

What do you think will be the impact of playing behind closed doors?

FP: How do you make that an advantage for you because you’ve lost the crowd? That’s something we’re going to speak about and we’ve got no answers at the moment; the discussion we’re going to ask the players is how do we make this still our home and an advantage for us when teams come? That’s something we’re going to have to get used to and there’s pressure on the home team as a lot of advantage has gone.

 

What advice do you have for organisations who find themselves further back?

FP: We probably over-communicated with our players and staff but make no apologies for that. Some people have a philosophy of ‘we’ve got nothing to tell them so we’re just going to not bother’.
When people don’t hear they start assuming things, which is dangerous, and they start believing rumours and what’s in the media. We told our staff and players early on that we’ll continue to
communicate with you, unless you hear from us don’t believe what’s in the media.

Another thing would be to have a plan A, a plan B and a plan C because you’ll need them all. That was like with our training; our first choice was to train at AAMI Park, then we had another one at another venue, and then we ended up training at plan C; and even plan C nearly fell through. Know that most of the planning you do isn’t going to come to fruition. Planning for different scenarios is important and adaptability is the greatest quality you can have because things change regularly and you’ve got to go with it.

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Not Every End Is The Goal - Sometimes It's About Putting Yourself Out There...

Not every end is the goal - sometimes it's about putting yourself out there...

David Court's speech at The Football Association’s Level 5 Technical Director graduate celebration dinner this week brilliantly highlighted the key to the course, without once mentioning its content.

People in leadership positions often talk about wanting their teams to portray certain behaviours, get out of their comfort zones, be open-minded. But so often, they do none of these things themselves.

Irrespective of all the knowledge and skills I saw this cohort gain over an intensive and collaborative couple of years, I applaud them most just for turning up, consistently, and working together to try to change the game.

It's hard to give up time to continue to learn, to join a group of peers you are used to guarding information from - as opposed to openly sharing it with, to challenge your views and those of others, and to accept that there may be a lot you don’t know about what you do. But experiential learning is a proven cornerstone to adult learning. And if we aren’t learning, on our own and together, we don’t improve.

So here's to Heather Cowan, Matt Crocker, Les Ferdinand, Jim Fraser, Dougie Freedman, Steve Morrow, Greta Steinsson and Stephen Walsh – and The FA for another great course.

 


The Director of Analytics

For this series of articles, I’ve been looking at the five new key roles in football and have so far explained why the Sporting Director and Director of High Performance are crucial at any ambitious club.

The third position I want to look at is Director of Strategy and Analytics, which may surprise some of you. After all, this is a job that is seriously underrepresented in English football, unlike in US sport.

Yet, for me, this person has the ability to unlock performance potential at any club. Here’s why:

WHAT DOES THE ROLE ENTAIL?

For a club with ambition to learn anything new, this position is simply non-negotiable. Being able to perform at elite level requires evidence-based practice.

The ability to interrogate internal and external evidence bases within the context of your own team ensures improvement and proper statistical analysis can help uncover a range of insights, ranging from recruitment (identifying prospective signings, for example), sports science (establishing links between GPS data and variables such as injury occurrence) or coaching (such as modelling how to create space).

A vast amount of data is collected at modern football clubs and the key is gaining actionable insights from all of it. This is where analysis, modelling and, increasingly, machine learning is used.

There is both a technical and translation component to this role. The technical side involves taking large event, tracking or other data-sets, and testing hypotheses or creating metrics in order to assist coaching, recruitment and executive staff.

The translation component involves turning these insights into something that can be visualised and explained in a way that non-technical staff are able to use. Having the data is one thing, but being able to discern what is important and then present it in a cogent and engaging form for the Head Coach and staff is another.

I've sometimes heard it said that football is too fluid, too complex, to analyse with data. But is it any less complex than understanding consumer shopping habits, or the direction of financial markets?

These industries have used data incredibly effectively for years, and smart clubs are now gaining a major competitive edge by doing the same.

Because this role should oversee the integration of multiple data sources to inform performance or recruitment, I think it’s important to have strategy in the job title.

Overseeing a department structured to work directly with coaching and performance teams, and often acting as a critical friend and translator, means data should be used to challenge and support assumptions and drive more robust decision-making processes throughout the organisation. Strategy is essential.

WHY CONTEXT IS KEY

While data is starting to play a more and more prominent role in football, I believe it should be the start of the conversation, not the end.

Historically, data has been used to win arguments, providing ‘proof’ to close down discussions. But when executed well, the Director of Strategy and Analytics does the opposite, using data as a jumping-off point to explore the connections and contradictions we see across sources.

Within this, the gut feel, intuition and expertise of experienced coaches and practitioners remains a key part of the conversation.

I can use a little of my own personal experience here. Elite Performance Partners, in conjunction with our partners 21st Club, recently helped recruit a Head Coach for a leading Championship club.

Faced with a long list of candidates, all with different experiences, our first port of call was statistics and metrics, giving insight into style of play, the profiles of players used and results etc.

Despite being the most objective input, the data started the conversation before politely moving to one side though, as instinct, human interaction and opinions came to the fore.

When it comes to collecting data on individuals and team performance there is a real danger of creating noise if we don’t understand the individual at the heart of the process. The gold lies in understanding why their capability looks that way, and critically how their development can be unlocked to improve further.

Data can give us clues as to where an individual’s performance or development constraints may lie and which ones are critical to unlock other areas of their game, but the ultimate solution lies elsewhere.

WHAT ATTRIBUTES DO YOU NEED FOR THIS ROLE?

This person will typically come from an educational background of economics, statistics, mathematics, engineering, physics or computer science, making them different to those in traditional performance analysis roles. They will be used to handling large data sets in non-sporting environments and have the technical capability to turn this data into meaningful insights.

Unlike many other positions in clubs, there is not a requirement to have come from a football background. We can see this with the new influx of data scientists, such as Susana Ferreras at Arsenal, who had previously worked for communications companies Telefonica and Vodafone, and her colleague Mikhail Zhilkin, who had worked for King.com and worked on the Candy Crush Games.

However, there is a definite need to be able to understand football, and its unique terminology and nuances, in order to perform these roles. Creating insights that can have an impact on performance is key, which requires an understanding of the game and the work of the rest of the staff.

Another key requirement for the Director of Strategy and Analytics is leadership and strong alignment with the cultural and performance philosophy of the club or team.

As Simon Timson, Performance Director at the LTA, explains: “Transformative change takes hold when excellent leaders gather the facts and develop evidence-based strategies. Too often you’ll have either the really good evidence-based strategy or a charismatic transformational leader. You absolutely require both.”

Those at the top need to be able to keep things simple, speak in normal language and fast track to the necessary, despite the complexity of what they may have carried out.

Complex statistical tests and procedures need to be relatable and relevant, while it should also feel normal to examine data and ask ‘why’? Human understanding is another core capability.

After all, we are in a people business, not a numbers one, and need to ensure that numbers do not undermine expertise.

If the Director of Strategy and Analytics has a team of statistical analysts beneath them, this would require shaping their analysis into something the rest of the club can use, too, highlighting the need for strong communication skills from the leader.

WHO DOES IT WELL?

In the Premier League, Manchester City and Liverpool have been the leaders at introducing analytics into virtually all their club processes. At Liverpool, Ian Graham's title as ‘Director of Research’ is a variation on this role - he was appointed in 2012 - and Lee Mooney has been Director of Data Insights at Manchester City since July 2018, while having worked for the club for four years in total.

Having a data science team is such a widespread practice among major US sports franchises that four years ago ESPN were able to produce a ranking of teams based on their use of analytics.

Mike Groopman (Milwaukee Brewers - formerly Kansas City Royals) and Mike Fitzgerald (Arizona Diamondbacks) are both worthy of note as influential and effective Heads of Analytics in US Sport.

Closer to home, the England cricket team - now world champions - have long been adopters of detailed statistical analysis, with Cambridge maths graduate Nathan Leamon (pictured) leading up the delivery of insights and Giles Lindsay using AI/ machine learning to develop new coachable insights that impact performance.

This perhaps makes it a surprise that Manchester United, the club with the highest turnover and most league titles in England, does not have a dedicated data science team.


EPP Featured in the Liverpool Echo

EPP was recently featured in the Liverpool Echo after highlighting Liverpool as being one of the Premier League's leaders for their use of analytics behind the scenes at Melwood.


Liverpool's data-driven transfer model at Melwood hailed as a Premier League leader

By Paul Gorst (This article was first published in the Liverpool Echo on 6th August 2019.)

Liverpool have been hailed as one of the Premier League's leaders for their use of analytics behind the scenes at Melwood.

The Reds currently employ Ian Graham as their director of research at the club, and while it is manager Jurgen Klopp who has the final say, the boss is willing to listen to ideas as the European champions strive to further develop the data-driven model that helped them win the Champions League last season.

Graham joined Anfield from Decision Technology - a London-based business management consultant company - in 2012 and was appointed by Michael Edwards, who has since risen to sporting director with the club, boosting his reputation among fans for a string of successes in the transfer market in the process.

It has previously been claimed that both Mohamed Salah and Naby Keita were recommended to the club based on the strength of the data supplied by Graham's research.

Graham is also said to have developed a computer programme designed to add value to raw data of performance numbers provided by models such as ProZone.

His exhaustive and extensive work has been highlighted over the last few months, but he has been providing Klopp with the essential information since they first met in November 2015.

David Slemen is a founding member of Elite Performance Partners, a company who work with clubs across the Premier League, and he told Training Ground Guru how the Reds' willingness to embrace analytics places them as one of the top-flight's frontrunners alongside Manchester City.

He said: "For a club with ambition to learn anything new, this position is simply non-negotiable. Being able to perform at elite level requires evidence-based practice.

"The ability to interrogate internal and external evidence bases within the context of your own team ensures improvement and proper statistical analysis can help uncover a range of insights, ranging from recruitment (identifying prospective signings, for example), sports science (establishing links between GPS data and variables such as injury occurrence) or coaching (such as modelling how to create space).

"In the Premier League, Manchester City and Liverpool have been the leaders at introducing analytics into virtually all their club processes.

"At Liverpool, Ian Graham's title as ‘Director of Research’ is a variation on this role - he was appointed in 2012 - and Lee Mooney has been Director of Data Insights at Manchester City since July 2018, while having worked for the club for four years in total."

Slemen adds: "The England cricket team - now world champions - have long been adopters of detailed statistical analysis with Cambridge maths graduate Nathan Leamon leading up the delivery of insights and Giles Lindsay using AI/machine learning to develop new coachable insights that impact performance.

"This perhaps makes it a surprise that Manchester United, the club with the highest turnover and most league titles in England, does not have a dedicated data science team."

Liverpool's relatively early delve into the depths of analytics places them as somewhat ahead of the curve and their chain of command is the envy of football ahead of the new Premier League campaign.

Sporting director Michael Edwards, chief scout Barry Hunter and head of recruitment Dave Fallows dovetail perfectly to ensure the Reds' recruitment has been virtually flawless over the last three years.

Since the summer window of 2016, the Reds have been able identify players such as Gini Wijnaldum, Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Virgil van Dijk, Naby Keita, Fabinho, Alisson Becker and Xherdan Shaqiri.

Nine of those 10 players had a role in helping the Reds to a sixth European Cup last term, while Oxlade-Chamberlain will have a more prominent spot in the squad this time around after battling back from a serious knee injury.

A lot of that transfer activity at the club has supposedly been defined by the analysis of Edwards and his team, which includes director of research Graham.

In a piece for the New York Times earlier this year, journalist Bruce Schoenfeld highlighted the work undertaken behind the curtain at Melwood by a team that includes Graham, astrophysicist, Tim Waskett, former junior chess champion Dafydd Steele and a Harvard high-energy physics genius in Will Stearman.

A 97-point Premier League season and a Champions League trophy would suggest Liverpool's director of research is operating at an exalted level.

You can find the full article from Dave Slemen on The Director of Analytics here.


Feeling Inspired by Peers

In our world ‘multi and interdisciplinary teams’ are mentioned many times a day, and yet it’s amazing how siloed people can feel without peers in the same role to share their thoughts and challenges with. Which is why it is so important that bodies like The Football Association bring together those in similar roles.

Sitting alongside Kate Baker, Russell Earnshaw, Steve Morrow, Lucy Pearson, and David Court - who brilliantly put together the Level 4 in Talent ID - I got to see the results of 15 months of sharing. Having gathered 22 people who wouldn’t naturally share a room for long, let alone their strategies and learnings, into a cohort for over a year, the course has taught leadership and collaboration alongside analysis and presentation skills. And in creating a safe space for learning, we got to see that most welcome of traits, vulnerability, hour after hour as people opened up for the good of the industry, exchanging ideas and experiences from their sport and beyond.

Thank you for letting me be involved in a small part of your journey. It was inspiring.