Dr. Fergus Connolly is probably the only person in the world who has worked at the highest levels of Premier League soccer; international rugby; the NBA, NFL, and NCAA (currently Performance Director for Michigan Football); and elite military units. Fergus is also the author of a unique book, Game Changer, which will be out in August.
I had the opportunity to ask Fergus some questions about coaching and sports science. I think you will be interested in his responses.
John T. Weatherly: Recent attention has focused on problems in the sports performance arena while ignoring what is good. What do you feel are strengths of the field?
Dr. Fergus Connolly: Great question. Everyone in this business has to admit we are fortunate to do this for a living. We are in a position to impact young people in a positive way every minute that we work.
Sure, there are downsides and negatives. We have keyboard warriors and fake coaches tweeting random noise for the sake of it, and commercial media promoting “fake sports science” articles, yet there is greater information availability than in the pre-internet age. For example, I smile when I hear the term “fake news” because this industry has been confronting “fake sports science” for almost a decade and social media has simply accelerated its availability. For the next young generation of coaches coming through, it is more difficult to differentiate the real experts from the ones who have no expertise. The plus side is infinitely greater than the downside. If you do your job right, you get to work—like I have—at the cutting edge of human performance and understanding.
John T. Weatherly: Your experiences range from working at the highest levels of international rugby and Premier League soccer, and with elite military groups, to the NFL and your current role as Performance Director with Michigan Football. Do you feel there are a few key concepts that are applicable across sports and different cultures?
Dr. Fergus Connolly: There is no question. The key principles are universal. This is actually the basis of Game Changer. All field sports have the same basic aims—score and defend through teamwork. The athlete is the same person and the team is the same tribal concept. There are principles to be learned across all sports. Many people get caught up in the specific technique for a sport or position, but it’s the principle that is universal and transferable.
The different cultures in each sport do affect the implementation and the skill of the coach, but not the principles. For example, there are generally two ways to address a problem through capability or capacity, through quality or quantity. In some teams and sports, there is a tendency to try and solve every problem through capacity, quantity, and volume—not with shrewd, lean quality. This is the reason these teams never win in the long run—it is often a cultural issue.
John T. Weatherly: Data collection and analysis has increased dramatically. How do coaches and organizations stay on top of this without being overwhelmed?
Dr. Fergus Connolly: Well, let us take a step back first. Far too many teams collect data for the sake of it, but with no real plan. They actually create noise, or what is referred to as “global” or “external” noise, and miss any signal. Do not confuse data with knowledge. Collecting data is easy; gaining knowledge from data is more difficult. There are teams that falsely assume information is power. It is not. Knowledge is power. Data is, well … just data.Don’t confuse data with knowledge. Collecting data is easy; gaining knowledge from it is harder. Click To Tweet
Some people will suggest there is no problem with collecting as much data as possible, but this is a fool’s errand. Collecting as much data as possible does three very dangerous things for any organization. First, it wastes resources, money, expertise, and time. Second, it serves to create noise and only muddies the water. And third, and most critically and gravely, it gives teams and coaches the illusion of having knowledge. This illusion is devastating, because when the illusion becomes apparent, it is too late and coaches see suddenly that it was just a myth.
A far more efficient approach is to collect information with a specific problem in mind. Sure, you could try to collect all the information you could and look for things, but in elite performance groups such as sport or security, we don’t have that luxury. You need to be strategic in your use of data so that you can solve real problems that manifest themselves on game day. Time moves too fast and games come at you too quickly to just wade through endless spreadsheets and charts hoping to find a differentiator.
John T. Weatherly: Time—whether it is a high school coach, the NCAA with a weekly limit on hours for sports, or the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) in the NFL—is an issue common to all coaches. There is only so much time for practice, conditioning, recovery, and so on. Do you have any ideas on how to manage the use of time?
Dr. Fergus Connolly: The answer is “Legislation with Education.” In the NFL, the elephant in the CBA room is the absence of guaranteed contracts, unlike the NBA or MLB. This complicates it for football. If you simply legislate to tackle issues around overtraining or excessive hours, you do not get compliance, you get enforcement. It will work in the short term, but it is not a true solution. If you educate but do not legislate and do not enforce it, you will always get cheating by those who are unethical. So, you need both simultaneously to have willful engagement in the process and protection of it.
The ultimate aim of training is to do as much as necessary, not as much as possible. You want to achieve the practice objectives as efficiently as possible so that the learning experiences are rich and deliver high-quality outcomes that help the team continually improve their performance in every game.
John T. Weatherly: I have heard you speak of a “Michigan Man” named Tom Brady. While he can certainly throw the ball, you have pointed out his greatest strengths may be psychological and tactical instead of physical. In basketball, I remember Larry Bird seeming to be one of those guys who appeared to be at the right place at the right time. Yet, if you compared Bird’s vertical jump or sprint speed to other NBA players, he would probably have been toward the bottom.
Brady and Bird are two of the greatest of all time in their sports. Can you expand on this concept of how these great athletes may not be above average on physical measures, but still are the best or among the best at their sports or positions?
Dr. Fergus Connolly: Tom is the prototypical Michigan Man. His talk with the guys last year as an honorary captain underlined that. It is never about you as an individual, but the team first, second, and third. You prepare harder than anyone else and never give in, because of the legacy and duty you have to the jersey you have on loan from the Michigan Men who have gone before you.
Yes, and what many have forgotten was that when a shy awkward kid from Indiana met with the Celtics for the first time, he had injured a finger on his shooting hand and had to shoot left-handed! So imagine the scene of a small-town kid with a very challenging upbringing who was not very fast, did not jump much, and was using his weak hand to shoot. The Celtics still took him and he became what we now remember as the legend Larry Bird.
But let us not fall into the trap of suggesting Bird and Brady are not “athletic.” What we are saying is that they, in relation to the most elite athletes in the world, achieve their legendary status through means other than being physically dominant. But they both had healthy off-court or -field lifestyles and worked very hard. They compensated for any limitations with exceptional technical, tactical, and psychological qualities. Also, they never allowed the level of their perceived “weakness” to fall below what I refer to as a “functional minimum.” This means the minimum level they need to perform other qualities.
The most highly skilled humans have the ability to solve problems through the concurrent application and integration of skill sets. This is what Tom Brady does and Larry Bird did. They combine psychological, physical, tactical, and technical abilities holistically at a higher frequency than others. This is what many coaches fail to recognize when they apply a reductionist approach to problem-solving; one that assumes most problems are either due to physical shortcomings or because a player is not mentally tough. This perpetuates a piecemeal view and a perspective of players that is outdated and inaccurate.
John T. Weatherly: Recent studies have indicated many college athletes are not getting enough sleep and are even deficient in vitamin D. Yet university athletic departments invest big money in GPS, HRV, ice chambers, and so on. What are your views on this?
Dr. Fergus Connolly: Go one step further, John. How many teams have GPS systems but poor basic food refueling? In some teams, it is laughable but not surprising.
This is one of the reasons I love working with Jim Harbaugh. He is incredibly pragmatic. If we do something, we are doing it because it is going to help the guys, and help us win, not for magazine inches. Believe it or not, this game is not complex, despite some people trying to make it such. Keep the focus on the main building blocks and perfect them. Do not get distracted by the technology trends and gimmicks, but know which tool to use to solve certain issues. Keep the main thing the main thing and get the big rocks in place first before you start arranging the pebbles.
You have teams who won one or two games last year and they are talking about how they use cryotherapy, heart rate variability, velocity-based gadgets, or virtual reality. I hate to break it to you, but none of those is the reason they lost 14 games! It is the theory of constraints—identify and fix the real limiting factors. In many cases, GPS has become the Bosu ball of the team sports world.
John T. Weatherly: There is not much research on the physical conditioning of athletes, and most of what is done seems to be with tiny Olympic sports in closed environments like weightlifting. The big three American sports of football, basketball, and baseball are almost ignored. I have heard you say periodization does not exist anymore. Could you expand on this, especially for team sports?
Dr. Fergus Connolly: Well, in the U.S., a large influence on training has been Olympic sports. While some of this has been excellent, there are many distinct differences between individual and team disciplines. The concept of periodization in team sports is archaic.
The concept of long-term or annual periodized plans is foolish when you think of all the moving parts and interconnected elements in team sport. People like Raymond Verheijen have been saying this for a long time. Every week you have a different opponent and you have to perform every weekend. Planning with a weekly morphocyclical programming approach is a much smarter method because it reflects the tactical and technical adaptations that must be prepared for. We really need to stop using the word “periodization” in team sports, because what we really do is plan and program. Long-term goals and immediate to short-term programming.
But, as I outline in Game Changer—and I cannot stress this enough—preparing teams to win games is not a physical challenge, it is a holistic performance challenge. Some people have jumped on tactical periodization as the ideal approach. They have read a few articles and completely misinterpreted this as a physical application, or physical training approach. You must train the team sport athlete to execute skills in a complete holistic manner, combining tactical, technical, and psychological qualities, not physical alone. If games were won on physical qualities alone, you would have never heard of Larry or Tom.
In defense of U.S. sports though, I do think it is difficult to do true academic research in the professional arenas, and similarly with student-athletes. I should also point out, coming from Europe and having been educated on good authority, I know to question many of the details in the published Eastern research. Some authors more than others. Nonetheless, the principles are worth being aware of.
Much of the way traditional Olympic periodization is implemented has no relevance to current team sport; particularly the schedules they face. In team sport, you have the combination of tactical and physical abilities, which can only be trained effectively in a gradual integrated manner, not separately. Also, team sport athletes are not working in a four-year cycle in which they only have to peak once for the Olympic trials and again at the Games. Instead, they have to go out and perform week after week and there is no true off-season.
John T. Weatherly: Two mentors of mine are Dr. Mike Stone and Vern Gambetta. I think a lot of both, but they have some different ideas. Dr. Stone and colleagues published a paper “Servant or Service,” which basically points out how poorly educated many sports coaches are. Yet, the sports coaches often control strength and conditioning coaches or sports scientists working with athletes. On the other hand, Vern has pointed out the need for training all-around coaches (he does not like the strength coach title) and has stated it is the sports coach who has his or her butt on the line for wins and losses, not a strength and conditioning coach or sports scientist. Do you have an opinion on who should control what is done or emphasized most?
Dr. Fergus Connolly: First of all, we are all coaches. Our responsibilities may lie within certain areas of the backroom, but we are primarily coaches trying to help a team win. So, when we talk about preparing the team to win, I look at backroom teams in terms of responsibilities, not roles. Many teams do the opposite of this and employ a person for every single possible role, rather than trying to keep the backroom and staff as lean, efficient, and cross-trained as possible. Having worked in a team context at the highest levels of pro and college sports for the past 15 years, I have experienced how the best teams operate.
The first and key focus must be communication, and the larger the backroom the more difficult and unclear this is. This affects everything from schemes to training. In my opinion, the formal education of sports coaches has no reflection on their ability, qualification, or potential to train a team successfully. This is a misguided belief that everything of value can be taught. Well, if that is the case—where is the course on love? Some of the best coaches I have been around have an exceptional level of interpersonal, emotional ability that I have not seen anywhere else, despite no formal qualification.A sports coach’s formal education has no reflection on their ability to train a team successfully. Click To Tweet
Equally, some of the most qualified, educated, and book-smart professors (and coaches) in sport that I have met over the years have great knowledge, but no personality. They have such bad interpersonal skills that they could not teach a single thing. I have met many who would struggle to help a squirrel find nuts.
I think everyone realizes the term “strength and conditioning coach” is long outdated. But, simply changing a title will not fix the problem. The only way it will change is by focusing on clear definition and delineation of the responsibilities, and this is where benchmarking the responsibilities is critical. It is the paradox: “If you cannot define it, how can you measure it?” In other words, clearly outline what your S&C coach is supposed to be responsible for and hold him or her accountable for that—stop being limited by convention.
John T. Weatherly: Do you have any ideas on how a strength and conditioning coach should be evaluated? Mark Watts has pointed out there is no objective criteria to measure job performance.
Dr. Fergus Connolly: Like all measures in chaos and life, you don’t measure simply and purely by objective metrics, but you should combine quantitative and qualitative measures. I discuss this, too, in Game Changer, because it is the same approach you should use when assessing a player’s value to a team, not their “price.”
You always start with the team and evaluate the team first, and then assess the individual’s responsibilities and influence on the group with respect to its collective aims and goals. Remember, some teams value strength and conditioning more or less than others, depending on how they decide to try and win games and how physically or technically dominant their style of play is. So, the value of the role to each team differs.
But, the key point here is team objectives first, group objectives second, and then the individual—but with respect to the team’s collective goals.
John T. Weatherly: With all the certificates and credentials out there, you do not have any specific to sports performance. Yet, you have worked at the highest levels in major sports on different continents. Do you have any advice on a career path for people wanting to work in the sports performance area?
Dr. Fergus Connolly: I get asked this question quite a lot. I have always had a natural ability for understanding human performance. I see things differently. Some people have a gift for music, drama, whatever. Mine is understanding human performance. I have been fortunate not to have been trained in a standard formulaic manner to think like everyone else, too. As a result, seeing problems differently leads to more creative and inspirational solutions. I am actually in the middle of putting a course together for professionals in this industry, and the first two modules I outlined were sociology and critical thinking, because they are the two basic areas I see as absent in modern coaching.
First, every problem you face is based in the human environment. So, the better your understanding is of the human, the better the chance the solution has to succeed, regardless of how good it actually is. Secondly, if you cannot think critically, how can you improve? People throw the word “Kaizen” around, and speak of constant improvement, but without the ability to analyze, how can you improve a player—not to mention self-analyze and self-improve? Then, you have the mass of information that is being sold to you on a daily basis. If you cannot think critically, you will continually to fall for snake oil. How often do you see strength coaches go all in for gimmicks without critically analyzing the application and implementation?
The best examples of this are GPS, Nordbord, cryotherapy, and velocity-based training (VBT). GPS is a tool, but in most sports it only measures a fraction of the activity, so is it actually adding any value? Is it just interesting, useful, or useless? The Nordbord is a great exercise for knee flexion and isometric loading, but what is the true benefit? Is there any, other than being good at the Nordbord or changing a strength curve?
Does a team who trains and plays in states where there is snow six months of the year need cryotherapy or get any benefit from it? Seriously? Or, is it just adding non-specific stressors for the sake of it? Why not just walk outside in the cold for 60 seconds for a similar effect? The principles used in VBT are very effective, but is it really a “system?” Is it any more relevant than load-based training (LBT) or density-based training (DBT)? These are just a few examples of where critical thinking has been absent, and why in this era of “fake news” it is essential for this professional more than most.
John T. Weatherly: Is there a definition for what a sports scientist is? Everybody from university professors who do exercise or supplement studies on the general population (do not work with athletes at their own universities) to people collecting and analyzing data, seems to like the title of sports scientist. The words “sports science” are popular yet cloudy.
Dr. Fergus Connolly: I do not think there is. But, then again, as you pointed out earlier with strength coaches, titles are questionable, at best. At the risk of boring the reader, far too many people focus on specific roles and not on the total required responsibilities for the team and assigning responsibilities to people that way.
Where you see it often is in the role of “rehab coordinator.” This role basically has evolved because neither the strength coach nor the athletic trainer was knowledgeable, interested enough, or practiced enough to rehab athletes—when the reality is that this should be a joint responsibility. But for some teams, it is easier to create a role than to upskill people. Now we have another salary, another person to communicate with and manage, and we have made things more unnecessarily complex … all because we did not want to share tasks or equip people with interdisciplinary, transferable skills. Remember, when it comes to staffing and backrooms, “small is big.”
When it comes to sports scientists, the role evolved because no one in the backroom had the skill sets or time to learn how to operate GPS and these other technologies that have become so prevalent, or wanted to. The pitfall, though, is when you have inexperienced people who now start to offer opinions on data without any real context.
In the future, you will see the best teams having no strength coaches or athletic trainers, but rather a single “performance staff” of smaller elite experts, who each have specific responsibilities along a continuum. Everyone does some of everything, but naturally some have more expertise.