TGG Podcast #50: Des Ryan - Athletic development at Arsenal Academy
Written by Training Ground Guru — June 5, 2023
ARSENAL have a fantastic record of producing athletic Academy graduates, like Bukayo Saka and Eddie Nketiah.
In Episode #50 of the TGG Podcast, Des Ryan, the club's former Head of Academy Sports Medicine and Athletic Development, explained why and how. Ryan worked for the Gunners from 2013 to 2021 and is now Director of Coaching and Performance at Setanta College in Ireland.
You can listen to the podcast, which is produced in association with Hudl, via the Player below and read an edited transcript after that,.
WORKING IN DIFFERENT SPORTS
Des Ryan: I’m always an outsider. In my community, the main sport is Gaelic Games. I started working at Connacht Rugby and was always known as ‘the Gaelic Games person.’
Then I went to football and was known as 'the rugby person.' Now I’m back in Ireland and I'm 'the soccer person'!
A good practitioner should be able to integrate easily though. Rugby would be like 70% physical importance, 30% technical/ tactical. Football is the total opposite - 30% physical, 70% technical/ tactical. Rugby is skilled but football, wow, is very fine skilled.
A good practitioner should study the demands of the game, talk to coaches, get an awareness, watch footage. The dial is turned up slightly in different sports and different positions. In football, players need to have good endurance, to be hugely explosive, have great game speed, change of direction, awareness of what is in front of them.
JOINING ARSENAL (2013)
I did a conference in the UK - Graham Smith’s ‘From Pain to Performance.’ A very clever man was there, Colin Lewin (former Arsenal Head of Medical), and he heard me talk. He liked the topic, we chatted and then he asked me over to Arsenal to do a workshop.
I’m an Academy specialist. That’s what I love. I have worked at adult level and it was ok, but I didn’t love it fully. When I started working with and educating young people, yeah, I loved that. I think Colin saw that in me. He has done a lot of very good things at Arsenal in his time and drove the introduction of athletic development and increased resources in the Academy.
I applied for a position at the club. Liam Brady (Arsenal legend and former Academy Director) gave me a good, tough interview and it worked out well.
I remember driving into Arsenal's training ground for my first day in a hire car, a Cinquecento, a little tiny car, and it was daunting. But it was a very welcoming place. Straight away I was put at ease. They were very friendly people and it reminded me of my own community in the West of Ireland. It is its own ecosystem there.
The job title (Head of Sports Medicine and Athletic Development) was chosen by Gary O’Driscoll (Arsenal Head of Sports Medicine and Performance), Liam Brady and Colin Lewin. It was apt - managing the full interdisciplinary team.
I was very cognizant, especially with the EPPP rules, that it wasn’t for me to tell the medical people what to do. It wouldn’t be for me to tell them the technical specifics. But getting them to work together in a multi-disciplinary team and leading the department, yes.
Maybe in Academies people are more early career. Having that person pulling everything together, linking in with the other departments, someone with a little bit of grey hair, a bit of experience, is so important.
I always say to people, ‘First team, easy!’ There are only a few players, 20 something, one management team; Academy, much more complex! Many teams, many parents, many players. I jest a bit, but some of it is true.
When I arrived in England, it was very much, ‘Yep, we’ll train in the morning and at about 2 o’clock we’ll head home.’ And I was, ‘No, this is Academy, you’ve a full working day.’
I suggested to Liam Brady that these young people need to work longer. He was clever and said, ‘You’re going to have to talk to facilities, laundry, kit men, coaches.’ We did that in a very collaborative way but the end result was the players are in working full days - and they need to if they want to play in the top five leagues and be the best version of themselves.
There might have been a rough patch for two months and then it was normal. I always ask three things - be mannerly, be objective and tell the truth.
ARSENAL’S ACADEMY VISION
The reference point is the VISION. (Academy Manager) Per Mertesacker's vision is Strong Young Gunners. Strong means they can cope with anything in the future. It was a wonderful vision for everyone to work towards.
The MISSION is to be the most caring and challenging football Academy in the world. What an inspirational mission that everyone in the club could contribute to. So when we were thinking about athletic development programmes, the question was, ’Is this going to make Strong Young Gunners? Is this going to make us the most caring and challenging Academy in the world?’
Then Per had his FOUR PILLARS. Most efficient movers was the physical pillar. Beneath that he called it football fitness and cleverly highlighted ‘all’, so it’s not just Des and his team contributing to it, it’s everyone.
How you do it is the VALUES - respect, discipline, humility.
The approach to athletic development is important and should be crystal clear. We had a clear philosophy called the 'arrow approach' (above), which came from the doctor. Ges Steinberg. The thought there was the club wants these players to be ready as soon as possible, because there are lots of demands coming down the road, so the arrow is about getting them ready quickly and efficiently.
Within that arrow is functional competence. If you want to run properly you have to have the right flexibility, mobility, range of motion to get in those powerful positions. We nail that first with corrective exercises. Next one is movement skills - they have to learn how to use that new range of motion, extra strength in the right way.
Then integrated conditioning. Because Arsenal is such a technical club, we wanted to do most of the conditioning and fitness work in the game. Real good quality speed is developed within the game, but if they can’t accelerate, decelerate, change direction, back pedal, jockey, lateral movement, it is hard for them to maximise their ability.
Then periodisation - making sure they are not doing too much or too little.
There are some very athletic graduates - Bukayo Saka, Eddie Nketiah, Emile Smith Rowe; before that Serge Gnabry, Alex Iwobi, Hector Bellerin, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Nathan Tella. Arsenal have a good tradition of bringing through athletic players.
The first thing I did when we got a player in was a simple training age assessment - both on the pitch and in the gym. This is an assessment of movement and competencies of exercises. In the vast majority of cases I would be going, ‘Oh no, the training age is low; the mastery of exercises which are hugely beneficial to performance is low.’
That gave me the clue to there is potential here in these players who have come with a low training age. They could be so much better and further down the road if there was more athletic development.
I think it takes about four years to develop a player physically to cope with the demands of professional adult sport. We had a level system in Arsenal. When the players came in on scholarship, the first entry into full time, they were either level one, two, three or four.
You could have a player coming from the Continent and they may not have done athletic development in their club in a major way and they would be right at level one. You could have a young player coming up from Hale End who has been with us from the age of nine and they would be up at level three.
That 16-year-old could be way further down the road in training age compared to an 18, 19-year-old player. Then the content is different, the exercise selection is different, the emphasis is different.
Developing training age in the gym takes time. If fundamental movements are mastered at a very young age and they have good physical literacy, then they can develop strength and get to a reasonable strength level, say 1.7 times body weight in the squat.
Then you can develop speed strength, rate of force development; now you can start doing more advanced exercises. But you couldn’t do that with a player with a low training age. They have to learn how to do the technique and things will go wrong if you progress them too fast.
We published an article on these framework levels in the NSCA Journal (image above). It started at ‘How well they can do movements?’ Then, ‘How well and how much?’ Then, ‘How well, how much, how fast?’ And then elite level, level four, ‘Are they ready to even surpass the players on the first team? Are they doing real good quality individual work to get the best out of themselves?’
We wanted players arriving with the first team or going on loan to be at that level. Having a good understanding of what they should be able to do and technically able to train themselves if necessary.
DEVELOPING SPEED AND HECTOR BELLERIN
There is a lovely letter on the wall in the restaurant area between the Academy and first team at the Arsenal training ground - it’s a letter from Hector Bellerin to himself when he was 16.
On it it says, ‘Des will make you do extra sessions in the afternoon. Do it, be a good pro and eventually you will be the fastest player in the first team.'
I love reading that but I also love showing the young players that on why they need to do the extra sessions.
Hector is a wonderful person and player. He is very kind and allows me to share a video of him being tested in one of my first weeks there. His time wasn’t amazing, his running technique wasn’t amazing.
Then I have a video of him playing against Manchester United and his running technique is phenomenal and his time is phenomenal - because of all his hard work. He was and is a great role model for the young players and that helped the next wave and so on.
[Are track coaches useful in developing player speed?]
I’d be hesitant of bringing track coaches in. Where I have brought them in is CPD for the conditioners. Ok, that’s straight line, here are some extra exercises for the curriculum. But, generally, when you ask a track coach to do change of direction, game speed, ooh, no, now we’re out of our comfort zone a bit.
That’s where the real specialists in sport - sports scientists, strength and conditioners - can bring value. And even more than that, if they have a good relationship with the coach - like Paudie worked brilliantly with Ken Gillard, Kwame Ampadu - how can we create something at the start of the session where they can express that and we can help it transfer.
Not some secret sauce, going away and working with a track coach, no.
ACADEMY FLAGBEARER: BUKAYO SAKA
Every Academy has the things they are proud of and everybody in Arsenal is so proud of Bukayo. I have literally never seen him do anything naughty and I’ve seen him from 12. He is well brought up with his family and there are a lot of coaches and physios who have helped him in his development.
He would be a very good example of Arsenal development, right through from Arsene Wenger sharing the club philosophy with everyone, including Mikel (Arteta), Per (Mertesacker), Jack Wilshere, who is now who is looking after the U18s.
I have a video of him and he was U11s. People slag me because he’s doing ladders and hurdles, but that is good for that age for co-ordination.
Would I have been working regularly with him each week? No. I was in a management position. Would I have taken the odd session? Yes. Who would have been working with him? The likes of Paudie Roche, Perry Stewart, Christian Vassallo. So many people would have helped him but he did the work - he was diligent, he explained what he liked and what worked for him. That’s a successful programme.
It would have been nice to see him do a degree and a very hard degree, he was that level. But because he accelerated into the first team that’s hard to keep both going.
I will emphasise, with the leadership of Per Mertesacker, not all of them will make it and his focus is on Strong Young Gunners - being the best version of themselves and being prepared for whatever comes in the future.
I am still in touch with some players - a young man working in the city, Austin Lipman; a young man who is a personal trainer, Elliot Wright. I wrote a reference for another young man who is training to be a PE teacher. I take great interest in the players who haven’t made it in pro football and they are going on good journeys.
It is equally as enjoyable to see them progress. That is the vision coming to life.
HOW YOUNG TO START WITH ATHLETIC DEVELOPMENT?
Under-9s were some of my most enjoyable sessions. One of the good things with Covid was I was based at Hale End and got to coach loads with the younger age groups.
U12s was my favourite, even though I know you shouldn’t really have a favourite! At those age groups it is important they master fundamental movement skills and there is even a phase before that, birth to 15 months approximately, when rudimentary movement patterns should ideally be mastered - crawling, rolling, climbing, separating upper and lower body, cross movement patterns.
When they got to 12, maybe halfway through the year, they could come up to the gym and learn how to spot, how to conduct themselves and use broom handles and mid balls.
13s, 14s, if your technique is good, now we can gradually load, with full awareness of your maturation status and taking an inter-disciplinary approach. 15s, 16s, by the time I was leaving they were doing programmes that were very advanced and that was helping them prepare for the big jump to the 18s.
MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT STRENGTH TRAINING
There are some misconceptions that strength equals loss of range of motion, loss of speed; that it equals bulk and interferes in skills. Not true. If you look at Padraig Harrington in his prime, when he won Majors, he had strength levels above and beyond many rugby and soccer players, but it didn’t interfere in his fine skills.
Research would show the benefits of a strength programme at Academy level in soccer - how it mitigates against the risk of injury, helps self esteem. I always go back to the World Health Organisation guidelines for physical activity in young people - they recommend muscle and bone strengthening. It helps so much.
Certainly when I arrived in the UK there maybe was not a large history of strength training athletic development in football, in Europe even, so there could be questions and hesitancy. Those questions get louder when you’re working with 13-year-olds to do these activities.
I appreciate the questions and concerns - it is up to the practitioner to educate, to show the research in a user-friendly way, to share the development in an easy-to-digest way.
Those were some of the things I could do in my position over nine years at the club, with people like Ivan Gazidis, the Board, the excellent Academy Managers I worked with. Sharing the great work by the practitioners in the department, People’s memories usually go back a month, six weeks. What I try to do is show memories that go back years, because it’s a long-term project, youth development.
This was a strategy of mine - instead of saying strength and conditioning, because of possibly those questions, the sessions were called athletic development, for increasing athleticism and not all about strength, bench press, push; no - run, jump, movement, challenge, mobility, stability, it was a broader curriculum. It certainly improved dramatically.
It (understanding of strength and conditioning) improved dramatically in the nine years I was there and there is some good work going on in Academies and the first team and the national team in England. Previously there was hesitancy towards it.
It would be hard to reach the levels we are seeing by just doing team training on the pitch. That extreme athleticism, being able to do it again and again and again, being able to do it at the end of the game - that takes a high, high training age and a long term plan of development.
This is where athletic development can help, at a young age and the adult phase. I think are huge gains to be got from it and I think we are seeing those from a lot of clubs in England, that are producing excellent players, technically, tactically and athletically and I think England is doing better than a lot of countries in that area of development.
[Can weight training stunt growth?]
This is no concern at all and there is nothing to show that - no research, no decent case studies, no decent anecdotal evidence. It’s one of those old wive’s tales. Schools have seen the benefit and there is athletic development going on there. There is a change, thankfully.
After nine years at Arsenal - I loved it and still go back - I wanted to return to the West of Ireland. I am very lucky that Setanta asked me to work with them. The President is my old boss and mentor - Liam Hennessy.
We are trying to do education differently. We deliver degrees and masters. It is done in a blended way, so you can carry on working, and we deliver all over the world.
But as well as that we try to deliver practical information, develop coaches, develop scientists. The graduates that come from Universities aren’t as well prepared as they could be. They need to be able to do readiness to train, develop speed, periodise, programme design and they are not as good as they could be. We want them to be ready.
And we want to practice what we preach, so I’m lucky to work with sports orgs, like world rugby, delivering their S&C education. We deliver to football academies in the UK, U16s down, and support clubs at the recreational level.
There are a few players doing courses with ourselves at Setanta. One is Karl Hein - a first-team player and Academy graduate who said, ‘I want to maximise my time, I don’t want to be on computer games.'
He is starting a degree in strength and conditioning. He does blended learning and I am very impressed with his marks and diligence. That is another example of a graduate becoming a strong Young Gunner.