Adam Beard: NFL Performance Pioneer
Written by Simon Austin — May 17, 2018
ADAM BEARD became the NFL’s first Director of High Performance when he joined the Cleveland Browns in 2015.
The role is still in its infancy in English football, with perhaps only Arsenal’s Darren Burgess and Everton's Ryland Morgans having the same job title and duties. We spoke to Beard about exactly what a Director of Performance does and whether he thinks the role will catch on in the Premier League.
The Australian has a stellar CV, having worked as Head of Performance for the Welsh Rugby Union and British and Irish Lions before moving to the United States.
WHAT DOES A DIRECTOR OF PERFORMANCE DO?
Adam Beard: British rowing put it best: you do everything you can to make the boat go faster. It’s about getting all your experts together and saying, ‘look, this is what the head coach wants and we need to pull together and see how we’re going to do that.’ Everything has to effect the boat going faster.
You hit the performance gaps. With Wales, Warren Gatland wanted to play a certain style of rugby and it was up to us, as a performance team, to produce the fitness to do that.
The Performance Director bridges the gap with the Head Coach. You’re the main voice to him, which is healthy. It reduces that back and forth and avoids silos. Once you have silos, you have problems, because they work separately and complain about each other.
At the end of the day, the Head Coach is the captain of the ship. You're either going to sink with him or reach your destination. We might disagree about a certain issue, but he'll have the final say and I’ll go back to the team and tell them, ‘look, we didn’t agree with this but it is what it is. We have to be 100% behind him.’
When I arrived, we did have silos. Now it’s psychology, athletic training, medical, all under one umbrella.
As a Performance Director, you don’t have to be an expert in each of these areas - you can’t be - but you have to understand and communicate with them, because ultimately you have the final say on whether someone is fit to play or not.
At Cleveland, we have a return to play well, rather than a return to play. You might be fit enough to go and play, but in the Premier League you’d better be able to go and play well. Sometimes it could be a case of telling the medical team, 'look, we’re not in a hospital at the moment, we need to get these guys back to playing well’.
I’ll talk to the head coach several times a day. He's overseeing something like 20 coaches – offence, defence and then special team. (Wales coach) Warren Gatland was more of a corridor guy - you’d see him several times a day for a coffee or in the corridor. He wasn’t big on formal meetings.
WHO IS IN YOUR TEAM?
AB: We’re focused on what will make everyone play better. There are a lot of elements to that, so we employ a number of specialists.
Sports science is only just developing in the NFL. With Wales, I had two full-time sport scientists and six interns. Arriving at Cleveland, it was the first time a lot of the players had used GPS. They would come up to me and say, ‘wow, do I really cover that much distance?’ They really bought into it. Educate to motivate, always.
When I came in, I hired a full-time nutritionist, because we didn’t have one. That was really important, as the players have three meals a day with us during a training camp and two during the season. We brought in dexascans, which are the gold standard for assessing body composition. They’re usually in hospitals and give bone and mineral density but are also very accurate in terms of body composition, rather than a skin fold which can involve human error.
That enables you to give feedback on nutrition and even say, ‘this is how much muscle mass you have in your left leg compared to your right’, which is really handy for injury prevention and performance. We do blood testing as well to see how that relates to nutrition. For example we have a lot of African American players who are vitamin D inefficient - and also we don’t see the sun for a long time in Cleveland.
There is a huge range of body size and athletic demands within the team. I have linemen who move two or three yards and weigh three hundred and fifty pounds. Strength is a much bigger factor for those guys, whereas receivers are of a similar build to footballer and will cover a lot of high-speed yardage.
We use NordBord and GroinBar and I don't think they'd seen numbers like ours before, because we have such big men and really do a lot of gym work.
Data is really big now. My boss is Paul Depodesta, who you might know from the film Moneyball. He was the character played by Jonah Hill and is pretty famous over here. Paul is our Chief Strategy Office, overseeing all the analytics and high performance and is very good.
In terms of medical, as I say, it’s about facilitating and making sure we’re on the same page.
IS THERE A TEMPLATE FOR HIGH PERFORMANCE?
AB: I’ve had a couple of guys reach out to me and ask if there’s a manual on high performance, which there isn’t really. There’s no use copying something, because it may reduce that performance gap or what you’re trying to do for the head coach.
There are scientific principles, but you should be able to construct something bespoke for your own team. I feel that sometimes the science dictates the art in professional sport. A lot of very good coaches come from an artistic kind of background.
We have to keep pushing the boundaries of how we play sport, because it’s artistic rather than scientific.
Football, like rugby, has got into really physiological loading – GPS, heart rate and all that stuff – but it’s like looking at the engine of a car. You have to make it more efficient too, pump those tyres up. That’s a big thing and I don’t think us, as practitioners, utilise that like we could.
I brought in an evaluator on running. I’m big on that. A lot of teams do the functional movement screen, but it’s very static, so evaluating their actual running is big for us. We’ve reduced soft tissues by over 60% in the last two years. We get a lot of soft tissues because our rosters are so big, with about 90 players.
Frans Bosch worked for me for six years with Wales, and with the Lions in 2013, and I took some of his principles with me to Cleveland. We do a lot of unweighted things, like water bags, where you create unstable environments, so the muscles create preflexes not reflexes, which creates stiffness and the ability to produce forces faster. I think this is going to take off in football conditioning, for sure.
WILL THE ROLE CATCH ON?
AB: I was the first Performance Director in the NFL. Now there are a couple of teams dabbling with it. They’ve changed titles, but I don’t know if they are changing their principles. It will catch on here, but it’s going to be a slow process.
Basketball is going that way and I think football is too. I know Darren Burgess at Arsenal really well and he's excellent. Managers often bring their own fitness guys with them to a club, which I understand. They have this big job, are used to a certain style of fitness and haven’t got 12 months to work things out They need results straight away.
But if you have a Head of Performance in place, he has to talk to the medical team and work holistically. Sometimes if the assistant manager is overseeing fitness, people will say, ‘that’s the coach’s guy, we can’t say anything to him.’
There's a need to work holistically, have clear responsibilities and to have one main channel from the medical and performance teams to the head coach.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD FOR YOU?
AB: I've had three very good years with Cleveland, but last year I told the club I wouldn't be renewing my contract. This is my last year here and I am interested in working in football. It's the biggest sport in the world, is fabulous to watch and it’s still growing. I think high performance suits the sport too.