How Blackburn use technology to empower players

Johnson has been Blackburn's U23 boss since 2015

Johnson has been Blackburn's U23 boss since 2015

WHEN Damien Johnson was a player, video analysis meant having to watch an entire game as punishment for a defeat.

“A post-match review generally came after you’d got thumped 5-0,” remembers the 39-year-old, who made more than 300 senior appearances for clubs including Birmingham and Blackburn and won 56 caps for Northern Ireland.

“It wasn’t clips, either; it was usually the whole 90-minute video on a Sunday morning. It was generally a punishment and you’d wonder what you were actually getting out of it.”

Now, video is a crucial tool for Johnson to empower his Blackburn Under-23 players, getting them to think about both their own performances and those of the team as a whole. He places as much emphasis on the analysis sessions as he does his work with the players on the pitch.

From the same suite of Hudl products as the more widely-known Sportscode, Johnson’s U23s - who were Premier League 2 Division 2 Champions last season - clip up and analyse their matches on laptops, mobile phones or tablets.

They then discuss their thoughts with the coach, either one-on-one or in groups; either in person or virtually from the comfort of their homes.

Blackburn's U23s won Premier League 2 Division 2 last season

Blackburn's U23s won Premier League 2 Division 2 last season

The technology has opened up a whole new world of interaction and reflection between coach and players, one in which everyone thinks about performance and development and is encouraged to make a contribution. It’s a different world than the one Johnson played in.

“I stopped playing in 2012 and, to be honest, it was generally a case of the manager dictating, ‘this is what we’re doing, this is how I see the game, this is how we’re playing’. The technology didn’t exist to make the videos snappy and compelling - and that was just the way the culture was then.

“Lads need to take responsibility for their own career development though, especially when it’s so difficult to make the breakthrough at senior level, so you have to be prepared to give them that responsibility.

“The technology is something I really believe in - it’s absolutely fantastic for developing players. Instead of the game being coach led, as it was when I played, there’s now a lot of player ownership.”

EASY TO USE

I met Johnson in a cafe outside Blackburn to see exactly how he and his players use the Hudl platform. He showed me how easy the clipping was: literally a matter of setting an in-point and extending it using a scrolling bar before saving. The clips can be annotated with simple graphics, such as a circle round a player, with additional notes added too.

Whereas video analysis might have been the preserve of the biggest clubs in the past, it is now within reach of teams much further down the pyramid.

“You don’t need lots of cameras, because the wide angle can capture the whole pitch,” Johnson explains. "It’s the software that’s the important thing and that’s where Hudl comes in.

“Elite teams might have teams of four or five analysts to utilises their Sportscode packages with big powered Macs, but this gives coaches at all levels the opportunity to analyse their games. For developing players it’s fantastic, we’ve really benefitted since we started using it this year.”

Blackburn use the technology right through the Academy and have found that the players, who are already so comfortable with smartphones and tech, have taken to it pretty seamlessly.

The U23s have an analyst they share with the first team, but this wasn’t always the case. When their previous analyst left his position, they had to be self-sufficient for three months, which is when the software and support from the Hudl team proved invaluable.

As Johnson showed me, the platform offers a cornucopia of useful tools, such as ability to easily upload footage of each of the team’s matches in 2017/18; their training and gym sessions; meal plans; and even a video featuring NFL star Tom Brady which Johnson thought could inspire his players.

After a game, which is generally on a Monday night, each player will be asked to create a playlist of clips on a particular theme, be it heading, bringing the ball out from the back or one-on-ones.

“Then we'll review it,” Johnson explains. “When one of the players shares a playlist with me, a notification pops up on my phone and I can feedback instantly from wherever I am. Sometimes my wife isn’t best pleased when I’m doing this at 10 o'clock at night, but I love it, because I get a sense of ‘he’s really committed to this’.

“The lads aren’t having to sit in a video room at the end of a long day to do the analysis. Instead, they can go home, get themselves a drink and review the game in their own time and in the comfort of their own home. They can then feedback to me or to each other.

“The quality of their analysis and level of engagement has improved significantly. Before we had Hudl, James, our analyst, and I would prepare the meetings. The lads would obviously all watch what we had clipped and generally all nod their heads in agreement, but you were never really sure how they had perceived that particular situation.

"A lot of them don’t like engaging in front of their peers but with this way we know what exactly how they're seeing the game. Every player has his own objectives, based on his own individual plan of what he needs to improve.

"Our centre back might need to improve his heading if he’s going to play in the first team, so he will review this when he’s watching the game back.”

Starting on a Thursday, the team will have meetings at their Brockhall training centre to review the last game and begin to look ahead to the next one.

"Generally you find the lads are better in units, the smaller groups,” Johnson says. “Something we’re really trying to encourage is tasking groups of two or three to look at things we did well in the game and areas for improvement.

“They'll go home, clip it themselves and feed back to the group. I want to develop the personalities, I think that’s a big thing. You have quiet lads you want to bring out of themselves. It’s all about taking ownership.

"You’re almost trying to change the culture in football. Our sport scientist, Liam Mason, spent the day with England Under-20s and it was very much player-led. They need to take responsibility for their own careers, so you have to be prepared to give them it."

RESURGENCE

After several years of strife, Rovers enjoyed a season of success in 2017/18, with the first team promoted back to the Championship and Johnson’s U23s winning PL2 D2.

"It’s been a terrific year for the club,” says Johnson, who made 59 appearances for Rovers between 1997 and 2002 after arriving as a 16-year-old in the season they won the Premier League under Kenny Dalglish.

"The gaffer (Tony Mowbray) has done a fantastic job. He’s a really good guy and has been fantastic for me in terms of support and help.

"The momentum and winning culture he’s developed for the first team has spread throughout the club.

"There are some really good pros here – Craig Conway, Darragh Lenihan, Elliott Bennett, Charlie Mulgrew to name just a few – who are really good role models for the younger players.

"The gaffer has created a really strong spirit and a really good culture. He talks about an environment where he wants people to enjoy what they're doing, with humility and hard work, and we just try to feed off that.

"It’s been tough to break through when the first team is doing so well, but some of them have had opportunities, like Lewis Travis and Willem Tomlinson, while Ryan Nyambe established himself as a regular last season. If they keep working hard enough the gaffer does give them opportunities.”

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