2018 UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
The elite footballer has never been better equipped to maximise his potential. From sports scientists to data analysts, from nutrition and sleep experts to virtual reality providers, there is no stone left unturned in the quest for success in a world where small margins can have such a telling effect.
This article was first published in the 2018 UEFA Champions League Final Programme. Buy your programme here.
The science of recovery
We’ve all heard about players plunging into ice baths to help with post-match recovery – or, in futuristic fashion, stepping into cryotherapy chambers. However, although these techniques can theoretically help the body to recover more quickly, they can actually weaken the adaptation process. “You’re saying, ‘I’m going to shut down the damage to the muscle now because I need to play again in 72 hours,’” explains Paul Balsom, head of performance for the Swedish national team and Leicester City FC, UEFA Champions League quarter-finalists last season. “When you’re training hard, oxidants are released into the body and what the body will then signal is a process of adaptation for the muscle to get stronger. But with the ice baths and cryotherapy, you are potentially blocking those pathways.”
If cryotherapy chambers are not sufficiently sci-fi, many elite clubs today have sleep pods installed at their training grounds and even employ sleep coaches. “With a player who plays in the Champions League and also plays for his country, the most they have to do is recover – they don’t have any training time,” says Simon Wilson, a performance adviser who has worked with many of England's biggest clubs. “They play, they travel, then it’s a prep session, then they play again, so what they have to do is become really, really good at recovering.” For sleep, total blackout from the sun is one requisite, and clubs often send an expert to screen possible hotels ahead of away trips. “They’ll look at bedrooms and quality of mattresses and quality of light and noise,” adds Wilson.
Eating for recovery
It is no longer a surprise to hear of top-class footballers employing their own personal chefs, but just how much should they be eating? James Collins has the answer. A performance nutrition consultant with different European clubs, he is working with UEFA on the governing body’s Football Nutrition Consensus and recommends “six to eight grams per kilogram of their body weight in carbohydrate” for matchdays, with “couscous, rice, buckwheat, sweet potato and pasta” common options used in meals.
“In the Champions League, the game’s become harder and there’s more high-speed running, so players need to fuel better specifically before the match and at half-time,” he adds. “Today’s elite player is likely to take in 30-45g of carbohydrate at half-time via a sports drinks or gel, though some players will favour water and a banana. We encourage them to think of their energy stores as a fuel tank: during the first half, those will drop down below halfway. If you don’t replace that, towards the end of the match this is one of things that causes fatigue and we know their decision-making is affected too.”
Recovery after the final whistle is critically important as well, and, as Collins explains, each player needs three things after the dust has settled: “The carbohydrates to refuel, the proteins to start to repair the muscles, and the fluids to rehydrate the body. For players who’ve played, their carbohydrate needs are higher. The ones that haven’t played tend to be eating meals with lower carbohydrate options and higher in protein.”
WE ENCOURAGE THEM TO THINK OF THEIR ENERGY STORES AS A FUEL TANK: DURING THE FIRST HALF, THOSE WILL DROP DOWN BELOW HALFWAY
If all goes well, the players should be raring to go when they return to action, and clubs can now collect a huge amount of data to judge their progress. “The players are always interested in the physical stats,” says Balsom. “They want to know how far and fast hard they’ve run in and out of possession. They might want to compare themselves to someone else in their team or to an opponent.”
These figures can also help shape training plans after a game, with a player who has performed more sprints than usual potentially allowed a lengthier recovery time. Each club’s sports scientists assess – and amend – workloads with each passing week, and the players themselves can often contribute to the calculation. At some clubs, players will enter information daily via an app, while elsewhere they might wake up to a question on their mobile phone, with their response entered into a database by the time they get to training. Others prefer a more traditional method.
“Sometimes it’s easier to do it personally where it’s more of a one-to-one chat,” says Wilson, who nonetheless feels that technological developments have raised a fascinating issue. “Players could potentially manage themselves through technology, through apps, and make better decisions for themselves. This is an interesting point: whether clubs can give players enough trust to do that or whether they feel, ‘We need our guys looking after them all of the time.’”
The potential for players to become more responsible through technology is an intriguing prospect, but their access to data also presents pitfalls. “If the player wakes up on a game day and his recovery arrow is in the red and his sleep quality is low, what do you do then?” says Balsom. “It’s almost a double-edged sword. This is one of the biggest problems we’re finding at the moment – it’s obviously a dilemma if a player sees that some of his Readiness to Perform Indicators are pointing the wrong way on the day of an important match.”
Dressed for success
There are also limits to the data that clubs can collect during games, but could the day come when a player’s heart rate, adrenaline and cortisol levels become available throughout the 90 minutes? At present, player tracking devices, which are often worn in the GPS vests that are mandatory on training pitches, are less useful on matchdays for the simple fact that it is not always possible to connect continuously with a satellite signal in certain stadiums. Local positioning system will solve this issue in the not too distant future, where you’re transmitting out from the player tracking device directly to a receiver at the side of the field and then back again.”
Additionally, for such data to be truly beneficial, both sets of players would need to be using the same system to provide a point of comparison.
One solution could be wearable technology – via connected fabrics in a shirt incorporating digital technology – though Balsom suggests that this remains some way off. “The movement of a football player means they’re twisting, they’re turning, they’re jumping, they’re colliding, they’re falling down. I don’t think anyone has really solved the problem of getting clean enough skin contact, [with a shirt] that stays in contact during the whole game.
VR OFFERS FULL ROTATION OF THE ANKLE, FOOT, SHIN AND LOWER LIMBS AND ENSURES THE ACT OF STRIKING THE BALL IS REPLICATED EXACTLY, WHICH MEANS A PLAYER CAN WORK ON CERTAIN ASPECTS BEFORE HE CAN BEGIN CONTACT WORK ON THE TRAINING PITCH
While that remains a tantalising prospect for now, one futuristic technology is very much here already. Virtual Reality allows players to work with the ball when that otherwise might not be possible, which offers a dizzying array of potential applications. “It’s a tool which could be of particular value with aiding players’ recovery from injury,” says Adam Dickinson from Mi Hiepa Sports, whose Virtual Reality kits are already in use at UEFA Champions League clubs in more than one country. “It offers full rotation of the ankle, foot, shin and lower limbs and ensures the act of striking the ball is replicated exactly – which means a player can work on certain aspects before he can begin contact work on the training pitch. We keep the mind active and the player feeling like he is using a ball long before it’s usually possible. It’s a commonly accepted norm that a player isn’t yet mentally match fit straight away, but this can help them come back as sharp as possible without risk.”
Dickinson also conjures up the alluring image of substitutes in VR headsets performing “cognitive warm-ups” in order to “shake off mental coldness”, and touches on other possibilities, such as using VR to place players back into scenarios from previous matches – to relive the action and perhaps analyse a mistake, or show them their opponent’s point of view. It might also be used to aid a new signing’s adjustment to the demands of his new team. “A new player can learn the distances of a keeper’s kick, the speed of pass from other players and so on.”
Developing the mind
The spread of VR technology fits in with a growing theory that the mind, not the body, is football’s new frontier. “I don’t think we are going to get the players much more athletic than they are, at least not at the top level, – probably just a little more robust, so we can get them through the 50 games a season with fewer injuries,” argues Balsom.
Instead, the work done on players’ minds holds ever more importance in the elite game, a fact brought home to Balsom by Sweden’s 2018 FIFA World Cup play-off against Italy. “One of our key players admitted that at lunchtime pre-match he was trying to relax but his heart was thumping because he was so nervous. Because the prizes of winning have got so great and the margins of error have got so small, the mental and psychological stress on players today is unbelievable, and that is an area that’s very difficult to measure. It’s almost a little bit taboo to talk about players being nervous, but some of these games have so much riding on them, and so there’ll be a shift towards the whole feelgood factor of the player – the confidence, the team-building.”
Footballers must be able to express themselves creatively in the face of this pressure, and Wilson believes that clubs themselves have to play more of a role. “Are there ways in which coaches need to behave to encourage more creative thinking? What part of the brain and what type of exercise do we need to do to get players more creative around problem-solving?”
One example from this season’s UEFA Europa League was the ‘culture academy’ at Östersunds IK, who surprised everyone by reaching the knockout stage. The Swedish club’s coaches made a point of cultivating their players’ creativity with projects such as writing books, staging an art exhibition, acting and even putting on a production of Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake. “We’ve done a theatre play, we’ve done painting, we’ve done dancing, we’ve done singing – I've been part of every one and it doesn’t get any easier!” said the club’s English midfielder Jamie Hopcutt. “It definitely takes you out of your comfort zone but it has helped us come together as a team.”