Martin Buchheit: How to effectively integrate external support staff
PLAYERS employing their own external support staff is one of the hottest topics in elite football.
As Tony Strudwick put it at TGG Live in October, "it’s happening and it’s something we’ve got to be prepared for."
In this article, Martin Buchheit examines the "complex dynamics of player support", acknowledging that different teams must now work together - and explaining how they can do so effectively.
Buchheit is one of the most experienced and respected performance practitioners in European football. The Frenchman was Head of Performance at Paris Saint-Germain, Lille and Lyon and is now a consultant for clients including City Football Group.
Written by Martin Buchheit — December 3, 2023
EXTERNAL staff can bring a wealth of expertise and resources that significantly enhance a player's development and wellbeing.
This is especially true when they possesses specialist knowledge or resources that surpass those that a club can offer - or when existing club staff face limitations in terms of their resources and/ or time.
However, it is important to acknowledge that this positive impact is not universal - and that there is room for improvement in ensuring that such external support teams consistently add value to a player's journey.
The aim of this article is to underscore why synergy of different player support staff, including the player's entourage, club staff and national team staff, is a crucial element in the landscape of modern football.
It draws not only on my own professional experience, but also on two recent opinion pieces I’ve co-authored - Building Bridges Instead of Putting Up Walls: Connecting the 'Teams' to Improve Soccer Players' Support and Elite clubs and national teams: sharing the same party?
This discussion presents a framework for enhancing player support through collective effort and shared understanding, reflecting both on-the-ground experiences and theoretical viewpoints.
PRACTICAL EXAMPLES OF EFFECTIVE COLLABORATIONS
External staff can offer invaluable additional support to a player's post-match recovery, providing resources and services not typically available at the club.
They can deliver in-depth physiotherapy sessions - including specialised recovery massages and treatments focusing on alleviating muscle soreness and accelerating recovery - and facilitate access to advanced recovery techniques in state-of-the-art facilities beyond the club's offerings.
Their role can extend to nutritional care, ensuring the delivery of high-quality, tailored meals for optimal recuperation. Furthermore, they can manage key personal responsibilities, such as childcare and transportation, allowing the player to concentrate fully on recovery.
This supplementary support from external staff is a significant enhancement, complementing the club's efforts and ensuring the player is optimally prepared for quick turnarounds in game schedules.
A player's long-term diet can benefit immensely from the combined expertise of their personal and club nutritionists. The club nutritionist’s understanding of training loads and health monitoring can complement the personal nutritionist’s tailored dietary plans, as long as they agree to engage on the same mission.
Both professionals can work sequentially with the player (at the club and at home, respectively), offering a more comprehensive education and supporting nutritional strategy to the player.
Addressing Mobility and Functional Limitations:
In cases where a player faces mobility or functional limitations, the involvement of external staff becomes crucially complementary to the club's efforts. These external practitioners, such as physiotherapists and movement specialists, can provide additional time and specialised attention that might be beyond the scope of the club's resources.
Their work at the player's home complements the club's programme, addressing the player's specific needs with a level of detail and personalisation that might not be feasible within the club's infrastructure. This can not only accelerate the player's improvement in areas like range of motion and muscle activation but can also enhance the overall performance of the team, showcasing the invaluable role these external experts play in bridging the gap where club resources may be limited.
Consider a scenario in which a player is recovering from a significant injury. Clubs often grant the player permission to train independently for a few weeks, in his home country, with their personal conditioning coach and physios while rehabilitating.
In this situation - if there is open communication and if planning is shared between the player's staff and the club's multi-disciplinary team - the personal physio/ conditioning coach can become an extension of the club's support team, working in tandem with the club to ensure the player's recovery plan is consistent and well-coordinated.
This collaboration not only benefits the player's rehabilitation but also eases the workload for the club's staff, allowing them to focus on the needs of the rest of the team.
WHERE THINGS CAN GO WRONG
Problems can arise when player support teams are formed not out of a genuine necessity, but as a result of following trends, a desire to feel special or simply because it's perceived as the norm.
This often leads to assembling support teams without a clear understanding of whether they are actually required, reflecting a lack of vision in optimising player support.
A significant hurdle arises when these personal professionals, aiming to secure their roles, isolate themselves and the player from the club's ecosystem, creating secretive and exclusive bubbles around their methods.
Interestingly, the initiative to form these teams doesn't always originate from the players themselves. In many cases, it's the players' agents or entourage who drive it, seeking to appear more professional and attentive to the player's needs.
This can sometimes result in a contrived set-up, where the formation of a support team is more about appearances than actual benefit.
THE CLUB PERSPECTIVE: ADDRESSING THE DISCONNECT
For clubs, this scenario is fraught with challenges. The lack of transparency with personal teams leads to overlapping efforts and strategic misalignments, hampering the player’s comprehensive development. This disconnect risks diminishing the effectiveness of the support system and creating potential conflicts.
A critical concern I've encountered in most - if not all - of the organisations I have worked for is the variable quality of work from these external staff. Logically, the effectiveness of these professionals should be questioned, especially when considering the vast amount of club-specific information they lack, which I believe is crucial for delivering quality services.
This is particularly true for conditioning coaches, who require detailed knowledge of the player's club activities to effectively complement their work. One of the most significant challenges in this scenario is accountability.
The credit and blame game is a recurring theme. There have been instances where a player's doping violation was linked to a supplement provided by someone in their entourage, but the blame fell on the club's medical team.
Similarly, when a player excels, perhaps scoring a goal, it's often attributed to that extra agility session with their personal fitness coach. Conversely, when injuries occur, fingers are quickly pointed at the club’s practices. This skewed attribution of success and failure creates a problematic narrative.
A telling example of this issue is a situation I've witnessed multiple times: a player arrives in the morning, claiming to have torn a hamstring overnight, an implausible scenario that raises questions about the activities and advice provided by their personal support team outside the club.
Such instances highlight the complexities and potential pitfalls of players relying on external staff without proper integration and oversight by the club. This not only leads to a lack of cohesive vision but also fosters an environment where accountability is often misplaced, impacting both the player's welfare and the team's performance.
TOWARD COLLABORATIVE SOLUTIONS: EMBRACING THE INEVITABLE
The reality is that we often have no choice but to accept and adapt to players forming their own support teams and bringing in external specialists.
This situation often leaves club staff in a difficult position. On one hand, it can be incredibly frustrating and challenging to the professional ego, as it implicitly suggests their work is not sufficient. This perception can hinder the building of a strong, trust-based relationship with the player.
However, the reality is that opposing a player's choice in this matter can be counter-productive. Attempting to dissuade a player from working with their chosen external team might damage the relationship club staff have with them, or, worse, lead them to continue working with their external team in secrecy. Such a scenario is the exact opposite of what is needed for effective player management.
Recognising this reality, my approach has always been to foster a collaborative rather than adversarial relationship with these external teams. The onus is on us, in the clubs, to initiate and maintain transparency and open communication. I've always tried to engage proactively in dialogue that prioritises the player's welfare, despite the challenges it may pose to my professional pride.
This shift towards collaboration is crucial, albeit difficult. It requires working on our egos and understanding that the ultimate goal is the well-being and success of the player. By adopting this mindset, we can turn a potentially divisive situation into an opportunity for enhanced support and improved outcomes for the players.
This collaborative approach, therefore, becomes not just a necessity but a strategic choice in the complex dynamics of elite football.
Practically, this includes organising regular meetings with both club and external practitioners (even including the agents!) to foster a shared understanding of each player's needs and goals. These meetings often involve detailed discussions of training schedules, injury prevention strategies, and performance goals, ensuring that every team member is on the same page.
These sessions are not just about aligning strategies but also about creating mutual understanding and respect.
To enhance these professional relationships, I've often invited personal practitioners to club facilities for an inside look at our operations. I have even made it a point to invite these external practitioners to informal gatherings, such as lunches.
These more relaxed settings have been instrumental in breaking down barriers and fostering a sense of community and shared purpose among all those involved in a player’s development. Through these efforts, we set a precedent for cooperation, leading the way in overcoming the challenges posed by our professional pride for the greater benefit of the players.
EMPOWERING PLAYERS AS ACTIVE PARTICIPANTS: THE ERLING HAALAND EXAMPLE
A crucial aspect of successful collaboration between personal and club staff in elite football is the active involvement of players themselves. When players take the initiative in co-ordinating their support teams, the impact on the effectiveness of the support system is profound.
An exemplary case of this proactive approach was discussed by Andreas Beck, former High-Performance Coach at Borussia Dortmund and now a Sports Scientist at Eintracht Frankfurt, in an episode of the Training Science Podcast (which you can listen to below).
Beck shared insights about Erling Haaland's time at Dortmund. The striker had already assembled a personal team around him but, impressively, also understood the importance of aligning everyone's efforts.
He took the initiative in creating a WhatsApp group that included both his personal team and the club's staff. Such direct involvement by players helps transform a fragmented collection of individual services into a unified player-centric support network.
In some of the elite clubs I have worked in, there was an intriguing dynamic: the integration of player staff into the club's routine.
In these instances, the staff, such as physios and conditioning coaches, were actively involved alongside the club's multi-disciplinary team. This collaboration created a more holistic support system, ensuring that individual player needs were seamlessly integrated into the broader team strategy.
However, this approach also presented its own set of challenges. One of the main ones was maintaining a balanced team environment. The presence of personal staff for certain players had the potential to create an impression of preferential treatment, which could impact the overall team dynamic.
Managing this perception was crucial to upholding a sense of fairness and unity within the squad. Additionally, integrating personal staff into the club's routines sometimes led to clashes in methodologies and practices.
It was essential to find a balance between the tailored approaches of personal staff and the collective goals and strategies of the club. This experience underscored the importance of my role in navigating these new dynamics.
It involved not just overseeing the club's strategies but also ensuring the smooth integration of personal and club staff. This required diplomatic skills, strategic planning, and effective communication to align the diverse efforts for the benefit of both the individual players and the team as a whole.
NATIONAL TEAM: A THIRD LAYER OF COMPLEXITY?
The integration of national team staff into the existing player support structure adds a critical and complex third dimension. This new layer requires advanced management and co-ordination strategies.
My experiences in various clubs, coupled with insights from my editorial Elite clubs and national teams: sharing the same party?, co-authored with Gregory Dupont in 2018 just before the World Cup in Russia, have highlighted the intricate nature of this tripartite relationship.
There is a disparity in the effectiveness of communication between national teams and clubs. While some smaller countries are adept at establishing strong communication channels with clubs, some high-profile World Cup teams lag behind.
This discrepancy is evident not only in the quantity of information shared, but also in its relevance and the willingness to engage in meaningful dialogue.
In addition, while some national teams provide detailed data such as daily groin-squeeze values and urine gravity, these specifics might not align with the more pragmatic needs of club practitioners.
Clubs often require information that is directly applicable to their training and player management, like participation in key sessions such as injury-prevention gym work or maximal speed exposures. This type of information is typically more relevant than extensive, data-heavy reports.
This practicality becomes even more crucial when players return to their clubs just two days before a domestic league match. In such scenarios, club staff need to make quick decisions about player readiness and training adjustments.
There isn't time to sift through lengthy reports. Instead, immediate, informal information is essential to prepare training sessions effectively - especially when you consider that detailed reports prepared by national team sport scientists often arrive too late to influence urgent decisions.
WHO WANTS TO LEAD THE WAY?
The ideal scenario would be for players and their personal teams to act as key connectors between club and national team staff. After all, they are in a unique position to hold comprehensive information about the player’s needs.
However, this ideal is often not realised in practice. A more structured approach could involve top-down implementation from governing bodies such as FIFA and player associations.
These organisations have the authority and reach to standardise communication protocols and support structures across different teams and leagues. By setting clear guidelines and expectations, they could ensure that athlete-centric practices are uniformly applied and maintained.
Such standardization would not only make information exchange more efficient but also ensure that it's directly relevant to the player's current situation and needs. Additionally, this approach could include measures to control the qualifications and credentials of individuals hired as support staff to prevent the involvement of imposters.
CONCLUSION: CRAFTING A UNIFIED VISION FOR PLAYER SUPPORT
The evolution of elite football necessitates a fundamental shift towards integrated, collaborative player support systems. This objective transcends merely combining diverse expertise; it’s about weaving these elements into a seamless player-centred tapestry.
Embracing a collaborative approach, characterised by open communication and active player involvement, has the power to transform these support systems from potential conflict zones into invaluable assets that enhance player performance and wellbeing.
As we lead this transformation, we are not just setting a new standard for player support in elite football, but also redefining our role in the athlete's journey.
Central to this paradigm shift is the need for transparent, relevant, and consistent communication. It’s vital to understand the value of information and share it effectively to benefit the player.
Creating a cohesive and efficient support network requires the collective effort of all parties involved – clubs, national teams, players, and their personal teams. This collaborative approach underscores the importance of synergy and shared responsibility.
Our recent paper Beyond the Scoreboard: Redefining Performance Staff Assessment in Elite Sports Organizations, which I co-authored with Luca Schuster and Ryan King, reinforces this concept.
The study, which surveyed 51 elite practitioners primarily leading departments in top-tier sports organisations, identified communication as the key to successful and effective support staff.
The research highlighted that effective player support transcends mere data exchange, focusing instead on sharing pertinent, actionable information tailored to the specific needs of the player in both club and national team contexts.
In addition to these technical aspects, successful player support also involves putting ourselves at the service of the athletes - a mindset shift that is crucial yet often overlooked. Too often, the focus is reversed, with systems and structures serving the interests of the staff or the organisation, rather than the athlete.
In leading this change, we must remain committed to prioritising the needs and well-being of the players, ensuring that our efforts collectively contribute to their holistic development.
In conclusion, navigating the future of player support in elite football requires a steadfast focus on effective communication and a commitment to serving the athletes first. Ideally guided by top-down leadership from football's governing bodies, this athlete-centric approach is pivotal in setting new standards in sports performance, ensuring we meet and exceed the evolving needs of players.
- You can follow latest updates from Martin Buchheit on his personal website