Bangkok, Thailand
Saturday 28th September 2013

Times are changing.  The world of sports science, sports physiotherapy, sports medicine & sports performance is about to get a big shake upÖone that Iíve been predicting for a couple of years now.

Since 2007, I have been travelling regularly to the USA to spend time with the clinicians & scientists working in the professional sports franchises that side of the Atlantic.  I have made great friends, built valued relationships & learnt a vast amount from the visits I have enjoyed.

Itís been an observation throughout much of this time, however, that despite the heavy investment by the organisations on their phenomenal facilities, the investment in the support staff has never seemed satisfactory.  The numbers of staff have often seemed inadequate for the size of the playing squads & as a result the work that the clinicians are able to conduct is limited by time availability.

In comparison with the resources afforded to the support teams of the top European football (soccer for the Americans out there), rugby, athletics or even cycling teams, the top US franchises have lagged behind.  The variety of skill sets available has been subsequently limited with minimal sports science expertise involved & ATs practising a time-enforced bias on electrotherapy combined with cryotherapy, apparent at the expense of manual therapy approaches.

Iíve debated this at length over the years & I believe sports like rugby or football (soccer) have benefitted from the mass talent migration of players, coaches & support staff between European, Australasian & South African countries. 

The advent of the English Premier League attracted huge financial resource that is spent on the best or most celebrated international talent at all levels of the clubs.  The professionalism of the rugby union code encouraged a cross-fertilisation of ideas between staff that took up challenges with teams in the opposite hemisphere to where they had learned their trade.

Meanwhile, the NFL workforce has stayed predominantly North American, whilst the investment in foreign talent from Asia or the Americas in the MLB or Europe in the NBA & NHL has been biased towards playing staff as opposed to coaching & support staff.  As a result the teams have often operated as they always have done or developed along certain restricted paths guided by North American research.  Iím not saying the available knowledge is poor, far from it but itís been limited to one perspective.

However, a couple of years ago, there were ripples in the water.  The former Chelsea physiotherapist, Dave Hancock took up a role with the New York Knicks (NBA) & quickly recruited Andy Barr, himself a former physiotherapist in the English Premier League.  His successor at Manchester City, Jamie Murphy, left the club & his subsequent role was with the New York Red Bulls (MLS).  Meanwhile, the Oklahoma City Thunder (NBA) recruited Mark Simpson, a sports scientist with British Cycling.

Then last year, I enjoyed an enlightening & refreshingly informative day of meetings with Sam Ramsden, the Head Athletic Trainer with the Seattle Seahawks (NFL) who had recently been promoted to a role in charge of human performance.  We shared ideas & I was delighted to see how innovative & holistic his vision for the Seahawks support service was.

Then as the NFL season was readying itself for the Big Kick Off, I stumbled upon an article that illustrated just how far Sam has come since last October.  Not only does he deserve great credit for the changes but so do the coaches lead by Head Pete Carroll, who had the faith in him to trust his push for progress.  Itís a brave first step to be a pioneer - easy if the results go well but you put your head above the parapet & if the league standings donít reflect an improvement, fingers are quickly pointed (which may be due to a number of reasons far removed from changes in the support team).

Roenigk, A. (2013).  Lotus pose on two.  The Seahawks believe their kinder, gentler philosophy is the future of football.  ESPN; 21.08.13.

The other influencing factor that is going to contribute to these changes is the media.  The demand for an ever improving viewer experience for the sports fan has driven a thirst for statistics.  The MLB was perhaps the first of the American sports to develop down this road, with the famous change in recruitment mindset adopted by the Oakland As.

The NBA have since dipped their toe in the waters of technology advancement too.  Their installation of video cameras in several of the arenas in 2010-2011 was aimed at assessing the performance of the match officials but the implications have been far-reaching.  As of this season, all 29 NBA stadia will have the cameras in place & the teams will have the software available to use the data to track player movement. 

Lowe, Z. (2013).  Seven Ways the NBAís New Camera System Can Change the Future of Basketball.  Grantland; 04.09.13.

Allied with the interpretive skills of data analysts & sports scientists, the information provided by similar systems such as Prozone, that many EPL teams adopted over a decade ago, has shaped the nature of training by increasing the specificity of the work the coaches can prescribe.  Itís therefore only a matter of time before the teams in the NBA develop their recruitment strategies to reflect these changes.

In fact, according to a reliable source in the NBA, around half of the teams have started to cast their recruitment net internationally throughout this close season.

I remember some of my former colleagues moving from the FA to work at Manchester United as the lay of the land changed in the football sports science world.  We had spoken at many conferences & taught on courses that spoke of the benefits of sports science & what football should be doing to adopt the revolutionary approach. 

One by one, we all left to work for the teams we had been educating.  Meanwhile, Sir Alex Ferguson, as was his reputation, saw the way the world was changing & made moves to stay at the top of the curve.  While he took time to convince with some of the details of the proposed changes, bit by bit he began to trust the scientists & sure enough his teams gained the reputation for playing hard right to the final whistleÖno coincidence that they were amongst the fittest.

In light of these changes, I would not be surprised to see Sir Alexís counterparts throughout the American sports slowly start to develop their practices & given the resources available eventually surpass the current World leaders.

"If I have seen further, it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants"

Sir Isaac Newton

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