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Leadership & Culture, Performance | Jan 29, 2020
Pierre Barrieu shares his wisdom from two decades in elite football.

Pierre Barrieu, the former Director of High Performance at LA Galaxy, began his career as a fitness coach in the late 1990s and, in the intervening period, has become one of the most trusted and respected performance coaches in football. Barrieu has worked across three continents and for a variety of teams at both international and domestic level, including the United States men’s national team, Swansea City, and the United Arab Emirates men’s national team. He also works as a FIFA Instructor and helps to deliver courses to coaches in the field of physical performance.

In this Leaders Performance Institute exclusive, Barrieu reflects on his career, addresses some of the issues that performance coaches face in the modern game, and, first, explains why he is still seeking to upskill himself as he looks ahead to his next role.


By Pierre Barrieu

As a Director of High Performance, you have to be able to anticipate the challenges that face your team.

With the increasing sophistication of player tracking and monitoring, those challenges are more multi-faceted than ever. In this environment, a performance director needs to be able to present themselves as a valuable resource to the coaches, staff and senior management.

You want all of these people to have confidence that you are explaining yourself with the authority of an expert – not that I would necessary have an expert’s knowledge in a particular field – but I can be useful for, say, the data scientist and can take his work to the head coach. I mention data science because I am currently taking online courses in AI, Big Data and data science through Microsoft and Universities like Georgia Tech. It’s entry level and time will tell if I take it further, but it will put me in a stronger position to help a club’s data scientist build and implement their strategies.

This is important because you can get stuck in a routine at a club and it can be difficult to find opportunities to better yourself. At times, you’re not as open-minded as you should be because of the pressure to get the result – this is a major reason why I help to run courses for coaches at FIFA; to demonstrate the value of high performance teams being able to support the coaches in their work.

To be able provide support you need to gain the trust of the players and coaches with whom you work, which is not something you’re going to pick up on any university course. I have a teaching background and I always go back to this Vince Lombardi quote: ‘They call it coaching but it is teaching. You do not just tell them – you show them the reasons.’

It is a question of sociology. Whether there’s a group of players or coaches in front of you, you must have different ways of getting your message through. You hope that for five performance coaches and 25 players, maybe there would be one coach who can help you to get the right message across.

Explaining it could be showing them a screen, giving them stories of your past coaching experience – this is where your resume is going to give you more or less credibility.

The high performance coach also needs to know how to pick their moments; there’s a time when you can speak to a player or a coach and a time when it’s not quite right and you postpone. You need to learn and pick up signs from experience when talking to the athlete who disagrees with you in the face of the evidence, or if they don’t hear you or even have time for you.

 

It is a question of sociology. Whether there’s a group of players or coaches in front of you, you must have different ways of getting your message through.

 

As a head of high performance, you also need to have a filter. A player might confide in you but I made the mistake early in my career of taking that information to the head coach. Does the coach really need that information and do you need to break a confidence? The coach only has so much time during the day for everything so you want to make sure what you relay to them is what’s relevant.

Cultural understanding is important too, even in countries that might seem similar from a cultural perspective. I’ve worked in places as diverse as France, the US, England and the Middle East – if you want to integrate and be successful, you’d better do your homework.

Languages help. I have worked across three continents and if you’re able to speak a few languages and explain something to someone in their native tongue then you’re more likely to hit a chord right away.

Finally, going back to the future, another area that interests me is sleep. UC Berkeley just released research linking deep sleep to reduced anxiety. However, while sleep can be measured and optimised through science-based strategies that increase the chances of getting what you need, they have not always been a success in football.

I remember this one player from my time at Swansea City in the English Premier League who understood the value of good sleep, was completely onboard, but would fall asleep at 2:30am despite having done all the right things since 6pm in terms of nutrition, temperature, exposure to light and noise. There’s clear room for improvement to eventually fully control what we can control, in this area and all the others.

 

As a head of high performance, you also need to have a filter. A player might confide in you but I made the mistake early in my career of taking that information to the head coach.

 

As for trends in the wider game, while the sport itself has moved towards more open, transition-based football, the players must have the physical capabilities to bring this style to life. The best way is to reduce injuries and train, off and ON the field, in a consistent manner. This will depend on the relationship between the head coach and the performance team.

Will we see more directors of high performance in the future? It comes back to trust. I have complete respect for tight coaching staffs, those small bands of coaches that go from club to club, even if they can be sceptical of a performance department’s work. Most of them understand the value of having someone by their side who knows and understands the background staff, as well as the club dynamics and cultural space. The challenge remains to convince the others…

The human aspects will always determine the quality of your work.

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