Performance Pioneers: Handling the boom in private support staff

Left to right: Tony Strudwick, Tom Little, Dave Carolan and Ben Cartwright

Left to right: Tony Strudwick, Tom Little, Dave Carolan and Ben Cartwright

ONE of the biggest recent trends in professional football has been players employing their own private support staff.

These range from chefs to fitness coaches to pilates teachers to analysts. This presents potential challenges for practitioners at their employer clubs. So how can these be navigated?

That was one of the questions posed to our panel of 'Performance Pioneers', Tony Strudwick, Dave Carolan and Tom Little, at the TGG Live Conference on October 10th. Between them, these three Heads of Performance have more than 70 years' experience of working in club football.

They were on a panel discussing 'The Football Athlete of the Future' chaired by Ben Cartwright of the Football Fitness Federation.


"Someone mentioned it earlier on, about individual entrepreneurship - it’s happening and it’s something we’ve got to be prepared for. The player wants the best support system around [them] and why wouldn’t they have that?

I think it was exacerbated during Covid, because we couldn’t work with players during lockdown, so they went out and got serviced.

The danger going forwards is that there is an area now that lacks governance, where we lose control of what our players do if there is no level of transparency.

The first thing I did when I went to West Bromwich Albion, was [say], ‘I’m not against it, but tell me that you’re working outside of what we do, otherwise there’s no level of transparency.’

In the future, the whole industry is going to take more of an individual approach. There will be a big piece around data ownership. In the future the player will go for an MRI scan and we will have to feed that back to the individual player who will then take that to his consultants and so on and so forth.

The influence of having the team around the team is going to get bigger and bigger. I think it’s something that needs to be embraced, it’s not something we can fight.

It’s only a matter of time before a multi-million pound asset is doing some work on a cow field in the summer, goes over and has a nasty injury. Who takes on that level of liability?

That’s the area of governance that needs to happen. Our job is to manage around that, create a level of trust with the athlete, so they know we support them, but, by the same token, [know] they have still got club commitments and part of that is making sure we are part of their learning process.

The other challenge is you have to look at why these players are doing it. Maybe the clubs are not giving that level of support in the first place, which is why they are going outside of the club, and that needs to be addressed as well."

(Tony Strudwick is Head of Performance at West Brom and has previously worked for Wales, Sheffield Wednesday, Manchester United, England and West Ham).


"We’ve got to a point where people are leaving the industry to be these service providers on the outside. That’s an available career now, that you can go into private support of athletes.

The challenge that provides for us is in knowing where the player is going, who they’re working with, who they are listening to, who is influencing them and for what reason.

Not all the reasons are benign to the player - it could be commercially driven, someone who has a network of athletes they are trying to develop for their own ends.

In terms of the industry, we need to be careful with people going rogue and doing random things. There are plenty of stories of players turning up on a Wednesday, when they are supposed to be resting from our programme, and going to do something completely different with somebody who has got no idea of what we’ve got planned and what they’ve done.

Most of the time the player will probably give them a helicopter view of what they have done recently, but it’s in no way detailed. When that player turns up on a Thursday and then something happens to them, how do we know that wasn’t [caused] the day before?

They need to tell us and then there is an agreement between whoever that service provider is, or via the player, that the data comes back to us as well. If we are going to be sharing the data out, then there needs to be a way of them sharing the data back in. Then we can manage what we know - and we don’t want to have to take all the responsibility and blame.

Because it’s going to be the club staff who are going to be the ones in the local paper getting blamed for the injuries when it’s actually the players going to do something random.

For us as an industry we need to have some kind of governance over people who are working with pro players, whether that comes from FIFPro, the PFA or the Premier League, but it certainly needs to have the players’ involvement, because they’re the ones who are going to be off doing this stuff."

(Dave Carolan was Millwall Head of Performance until the end of October and has also worked for Stoke City, Derby County, Birmingham City, Norwich City and Colchester United).


"I think you can get in front of it as well, and have a network of people you can recommend on the most typical services - a good network of private chefs, pilates and yoga teachers are really popular at the moment, speed coaches are popular as well.

The more dangerous one does come around the more formal element of strength and conditioning but, again, there are some very good practitioners and facilities out there, more so in America, where this all seems to be born, but they have much longer off seasons and more established principles with it.

You can potentially share technologies, so they can see what we are doing with the players and we can see what they are doing and developing really good communication structures for those anecdotal points that are super important that the data can’t always provide.

My final recommendation with this - when necessary - get good relationships with the agents, because they are extremely influential with this external provision. They are not just there to say ‘get you a deal and I’ll take my bit,’ they have the best interests [of the player] and want the longevity, because it all comes back to making money for them at the end of the day!

They are starting to develop their networks as well."

(Tom Little is Head of Performance at Sheffield United and has previously worked for Preston North End, Birmingham City, Huddersfield Town and Burnley).

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