Tony Strudwick: Eight key challenges for performance practitioners
TONY STRUDWICK has been at the vanguard of football performance in the UK for 25 years.
He was among the first wave of practitioners in the English game when he worked for Coventry City, then the Football Association, West Ham and Blackburn Rovers. In 2007, he joined Manchester United and became part of a close-knit group of staff that helped win four Premier League titles, two League Cups, the Champions League and the World Club Cup under Sir Alex Ferguson.
In October, Strudwick - who is now Director of Medical at West Brom - was part of a 'Performance Pioneers Panel' at TGG Live, alongside Dave Carolan and Tom Little, looking at the 'Football Athlete of the Future.' In this article, he reflects on some of the themes discussed that day and presents eight challenges for the present and future performance practitioner.
Written by Tony Strudwick — November 28, 2023
1. Exponential Growth Of Staffing Structures
Too many cooks, not enough gourmets
More people are involved in player development than ever before. However, there comes a point when productivity tumbles with size. The exponential growth of staff creates excess noise that distracts from the most important element: a focus on the individual athlete.
There was a point when we talked about getting the right people ‘on the bus.’ The bus is now full!
To use another analogy, it can feel frustrating that there are so many cooks in the kitchen, yet nobody seems responsible or empowered enough to get the meal on the table.
The competitive advantage in future will be in streamlining the organisational model.
2. Craft Knowledge
A chef is a mixture of artistry and craft. You have to learn the craft to get there.
In the early days of football performance, there was time, intuition and engagement with the athletes. Advancements in technology should serve to compliment this craft knowledge, not as a substitute for it.
Expert practitioners possess a practical knowledge of their craft, which is sometimes called the wisdom of practice. This craft knowledge encompasses the wealth of teaching information that very skilled practitioners have about their own practice.
It includes deep, sensitive, location-specific knowledge of coaching and the environment. Young practitioners need to understand the value of situation-specific knowledge.
This is not a consequence of qualifications or association with successful teams and athletes. There can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in the months of rational analysis.
3. Falling Into The Reductionist Trap
“The search for simple, if not simple-minded, solutions to complex problems is a consequence of the inability to deal effectively with complexity” - Russell L. Ackoff
Critical thinking is the ability to analyse facts objectively and to form a judgement. It is a form of emotional intelligence. Someone with critical thinking skills can think clearly and rationally when the situation demands it.
This allows them to perform problem-solving and decision-making more effectively. The data we gather from our GPS devices leads us to search for simple solutions to complex problems.
The net result is an inability to deal effectively with the complexity of human performance. Professional athletes are not systems that behave like machines.
4. Shop Floor Management
If you are looking up, you are looking in the wrong direction.
The rise in Performance Managers, Insight Analysts, operations staff and other non-player contact roles has seen a shift away from tracksuit staff in the training ground environment.
To ensure calibration of player/ staff discipline and behaviours, it is critical that practitioners walk the corridors every day to feel the temperature of the club. In doing so, they should check and challenge the key stakeholders involved in team performance.
This is simply a shop-floor assessment of whether things are as you want them to be. Those focused on climbing the food-chain as quickly as they can fail to manage what is important.
If they are more interested in managing up, rather than managing what is important, the quest falters. Ultimately, this leads to player and staff complacency. When you’re ready to see the right path, rather than looking up, you turn your gaze inward.
That is key to understanding what you are as an organisation. Shop floor management ensures accessibility and transparency to everyone in the training ground.
5. Bricks & Mortar Don’t Make a Team
If you build it, they will come?
The key to a high-performance training ground environment is to manage the balance between challenge and support, between quality and complacency. The rise of the Training Ground Campus is a well-intentioned move towards high-performance, but the consequence can be grandeur before humility, which can send the wrong message.
Manchester United became the first team to win the Treble when The Cliff was an intimate training ground full of quality daily interactions. There were simple, humble spaces in which daily interactions frequently took place and where players searched for excellence.
The modern-day training ground does not always support challenge. I would say choose spartan over luxurious, because simple, humble spaces help focus attention on the deep-practice task at hand, which is reaching, repeating and struggling.
6. Football-Related Injuries Continue To Rise
Chasing numbers: An inconvenient truth
Over the past few decades, there has been an increased emphasis on work-rate and high-intensity actions during both competitive matches and training.
A concern is that despite increased scientific knowledge of individual and team preparation, the incidence of injury in elite football players continues to rise.
It has become commonplace for practitioners to focus on quantitative data regarding high-intensity running and sprinting (speed-based locomotor variables) without understanding the nature and context of other complex activities such as accelerations and decelerations.
This collectively leads to a gross underestimation of the metabolic and mechanical demands placed on elite footballers. A major concern with this reductionist approach to training load is that, although no longer scientifically justifiable, its shaping influence remains deeply embedded in coaching practice, with practitioners ‘chasing numbers’ when it comes to training prescription based around total distance, high-speed running and sprinting variables.
7. Injury Prevention: A Team Sport
Prepare the players for the most intense phases of the game.
Injury prevention is a whole team sport. It is important that all stakeholders within the development process are accountable for developing systems to maximise player availability. High performance arises when there is a match between the requirements of the system and the capabilities of the athletes.
8. The Rise Of The Individual Entrepreneur
Managing the boom in private support staff.
The growing number of players seeking private practitioners external to their clubs represents a challenge that must be confronted.
It is happening more and more and it is something the industry has to be prepared for. The player wants the best support system around them - and why wouldn’t they?
However, a more stringent approach is required to regulate the rise in the private practitioner. The industry is becoming more complex and uncertain. Tighter processes are needed pertaining to player health and welfare, medical governance, data ownership and transparency. This requires top-down governance and accreditation.