Over the last 25 years Manchester United have dominated English football, winning honours in Europe and fans around the world. Tony, who I’ve known for years through my work in Premier League football, has led their sport science and support team for seven years. For my column this edition, I asked him to share some lessons he’s learned along the way about what makes Manchester United so special.
Initially though, we spoke about what it was that he was looking to implement when he arrived at the club in 2007. He stressed that first and foremost, creating the right atmosphere was the most important thing: “Culture comes before performance. The culture of players and staff was extremely powerful and this was clearly well established over many years of sustained success. Therefore, as a new member of staff, it was critical that I understood and had a clear respect for the existing patterns of behaviour.”
Those existing patterns of behaviour hold particular relevance, he says, given that working with elite athletes demands the highest level of attention towards their preparation. The task then comes in maintaining those extremely high standards while also facilitating ownership from the athletes. There will be times when elite athletes take a lead role in defining their own preparation but on the occasions that it is coach-led, it’s vital that the athlete still understands the thinking behind the aim.
Tony believes that the forging and managing of interpersonal relationships then becomes the most critical part of a coach’s role and cites creativity, empathy and personality as the three key areas of coaching. The power of trust, he says, is something that can elevate a group of athletes to the next level.
A fundamental trust in the system and inherent togetherness is something that you would associate with Manchester United and, particularly, their former manager Sir Alex Ferguson. Working alongside Ferguson gave Tony an almost unparalleled insight into the mind-set and approach of one of the sport’s greatest ever managers and I wanted to know what Sir Alex had that others did not. What made him so special? “Sir Alex had an innate trust in his players and with that he had the ability to energize his players with positive affirmations,” says Tony. “He was able to take risks while also managing them and obviously he had an intimate knowledge of the sport which meant he was able to make quick, intuitive decisions. The key point here is that Sir Alex was comfortable in his own ability to make decisions.”
When pressed on what else is needed to produce a winning culture he talks about establishing a clear behavioural framework to improve performance and mentions the importance of effective leadership. It is his belief that great leaders can inspire a vision for the future – the importance of their trust in the players is mirrored by a need for everyone at the club to have faith in the person at the top of it all. But that’s not to say that discipline isn’t needed – a disciplined playing staff is, in Tony’s eyes, always key to the progression of a club.
Discipline is perhaps an old-fashioned term but it remains a crucial part of a football team’s make-up. At the other end of the spectrum lies those areas in which Tony has been so pivotal for over 20 years. During that time, what changes has he seen in the relationship between sports science and football? “Over the last three decades, there has been a growth in research directly related to football. Fitness is being optimised to cope with match demands while accommodating the need for specific training and dietary practices. There are certainly a number of examples of ‘good practice’ in elite football. In general, coaches that have adopted a sound scientific approach have been rewarded with success by gaining an advantage over competitors.”
On this point I wanted to know, in the changing landscape that Tony has been a part of, what key principles has he stuck with from the early days? He speaks about technology and the importance of athlete data but reiterates that alongside that is the need for intuitive feel, adding: “If it’s measureable, measure it. If it’s controllable, control it. If it is both, record it.”
But if that’s the past – what’s in the future for sports science and football? He says: “The next biggest development will be in the area of cognitive research. As the game of football becomes ever faster, we will reach a plateau in terms of physical preparation. The ability of athletes to make quicker decisions – in high-pressure environments – and the development of tools to stimulate areas of the brain that facilitate these processes will take the game on to another level. Therefore, I envisage a number of technological advancements in the areas of vision and cognition.”
Having been a part of a back-to-back, season-upon-season winning team, I asked Tony for the little things he and his department did in an effort to improve on the seemingly unimprovable.
Make at least one significant change to the environment every season. The environment creates the culture, so keep on top of the innovations.
You always need to be thinking about the recruitment of world-class knowledge, both specific to football and in a more general sense, so new staff is always a possible area of improvement.
The manner in which we communicate data to the athletes is key. Generation Y athletes are technologically savvy, so we’re always looking at ways in which we can develop how we educate and stimulate them.
DEVELOPMENT AND REFINEMENT
Sometimes you don’t necessarily need to bring in anything new – you can improve things simply by developing and refining the operation procedures that you already have in place.
The Sport Performance Summit
2 March 2019