The latest from U's Director Of Football
To take four points and keep two clean sheets from two such tough games with just 46 hours between them is testament to the players but also the work of Matt Walker that often goes unseen and is rarely understood. “Head of Sports Science” sounds like a grandiose title and probably one that you might think is not required at this level. Well nothing could be further from the truth. Matt’s primary role with the first team is to ensure that we maximise the physical output of each individual player in terms of their strength, speed and fitness. To do this effectively takes a huge amount of work and preparation, especially when you consider that we cannot afford any GPS vests to measure the workload of the players in training and matches, have no expensive software packages to record data and certainly not the plethora of support staff that is common place in clubs higher up the football pyramid. Guy and Jordan, our two interns that Matt sourced, are very good but that is the entirety of our sports science staff!
In addition, Matt dovetails with Greg Reid to ensure that injured players maintain a base level of fitness whilst injured, whether in the pool or gym, and then oversees their top end rehabilitation programme and ensures they are physically fit when they return to training. A prime example of how crucial it is to ensure the players remain fit whilst injured (if that makes sense!) was Josh Coulson being selected by Richard for the bench on Saturday and in the starting XI on Monday having only trained once with the group on Friday. Greg got him back from his injury quicker than expected and such was the quality of work that Matt prescribed for Josh since he sustained the injury at the beginning of August, he was able to return to action and play 90+ competitive minutes after an absence of three weeks without any fitness issues. Obviously Josh deserves great credit for his attitude and work ethic but I am sure that he would be the first to highlight the knowledge, expertise and support at his disposal.
In addition to the individual gym programmes that Matt devises for each player and the work that he implements for each player returning from injury, Matt is also responsible for liaising with Richard to ensure the correct amount and intensity of physical work in each of the training sessions for the group. That becomes far more individualised now the season is up and running. Once you have a reasonably settled starting XI, two groups of players develop. Those who are playing every game and therefore need less physical work compared to those lacking in minutes and therefore needing extra work. This demands someone who understands the psychology of this situation as well as the physiological needs of each player. Being a good bloke, having the right manner, knowing your stuff and showing empathy to the players earns their respect and ensures they work hard. Knowing what they should do is obviously a pre-requisite of the job but having knowledge does make you a good teacher, how you impart that knowledge does. That is a skill in itself.
Before outlining the remainder of Matt’s roles and responsibilities, a special mention should go to the environment created for our players by all of our football staff from the youngest Academy Coach all the way through to Richard. It is our philosophy, our way, our standards, our expectations of ourselves and each other that make us different. Creating the right professional working environment does not guarantee success but it gives you the best chance. I am reminded about a quote from Vince Lombardi on his first day as Head Coach of the Green Bay Packers who he turned from the worst team in the NFL to the first Super Bowl winners, “Gentlemen, we will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence. I am not remotely interested in just being good.” That says it all.
If you can add the right players to that mix, through intelligent, thorough and systematic recruitment, they will flourish because they will have the right technical and physical attributes as well as the mentality that we are looking for. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what environment we create without the buy in of the players. Therefore, everything is dependent on everything else. Recruit well but put them into the wrong environment will equal failure. Create the right environment but recruit badly will also end in failure. Have the right environment and the right people in the building and you have a chance. That is where we are now.
Our staff has the expertise and knowledge to make the players as good as they are willing and able to become. That has taken longer to build than the team but at every level of football at the club, from our Regional Development Centres upwards we have high calibre individuals working hard together. The final and most important piece of that jigsaw was Richard, and having worked with him closely for almost a year, he is even better than I thought he would be. I wouldn’t swap him for a Head Coach or Manager at any other club. The same could be said of the remainder of our football staff. The success of the youth development scheme has come from good people, who are extremely good at their jobs and work extremely hard, and continuity. We now have that within the whole football operation. If we can create that stability within the first team set-up, which our structure ensures, then this club will be successful in the future.
Just to give you an idea of what happens before and after training every day, Matt is the busiest man at our training ground in the hour before training starts. Every player is weighed every day. Every player is tested for hydration every day. Education is crucial so Matt provides every player with guidelines for their diet, advice on hydration, recovery strategies and, along with Greg, injury prevention exercises. The players spend a long period of time each morning on their foam rollers to loosen any tight muscles, stretching and preparing for the session. A lack of funds prevents us providing breakfast and lunch but the players get protein shakes after every gym session and as part of their match day recovery protocol. Budget restrictions also prevent us from a lot of monitoring and evaluating the workload of each session, so Matt and Richard do this subjectively rather than through data collection and analysis. However, the intensity of every session is planned, recorded and evaluated down to the smallest details. Matt takes the warm ups, speed work and cool downs, while Richard does all the coaching. As we grow, and the size of the squad increases, we will need an assistant coach. Not the archetypal “Assistant Manager”, appointed for banter, collecting cones or saving the “Manager” from attending training, but another good coach to work with the players.
The archaic football conventions have long since been banished from this club. We do not have endless, pointless, directionless keep ball sessions; we don’t play endless five a-sides with players to bounce the ball off around the edge of the pitch; we don’t have endless days off; we don’t finish every day by lunchtime; we don’t bring cream cakes in for someone’s birthday; we don’t have darts tournaments before training; we don’t have a “yellow jersey” for the worst player in training each week; we don’t put “banter” higher on the list of requirements than hard work and we don’t collect fines from the players so they can have a night out. We do come into work each day to work hard, improve and enjoy doing both. I believe that every organisation needs the right culture before it can appoint the right people in management positions and they must create the right environment for the staff, which in the case of football, is the players. You cannot create the right culture from the bottom up. It must be created from the top down. That is why I accepted a job that I didn’t really want two and half years ago and best describes my role in the structure we adopted last October.
Finally, I would like to thank two local organisations who really assist our sports science department and play a massive part in enhancing our professionalism. Firstly, ARU allow us to test all the players for their body fat periodically over the year and that really helps to monitor the fitness of the players. They will often put on some weight doing their gym sessions, although Matt writes programmes to add functional strength, not bulk. Therefore, the trend of body fat scores is certainly as important. Secondly, I should mention our fantastic relationship with David Lloyd Cambridge. We use their pool almost every day to aid the recovery of players after every match and most training sessions as well as doing aerobic work with injured players. We also use the cardio machines in their superb gym when re-habilitating injured players that are returning to fitness. We benefit so much from using their facilities that our partnership really is invaluable to us.
I hope that gives you an insight into a small part of what goes on behind the scenes in just one department of our football operation. As with all of us, Matt’s role encompasses other duties that takes it beyond what should be a job for one person, and his contribution to the scholars in terms of delivering their strength programmes, teaching them for their National Diploma in Sports Studies and assisting Mark Bonner on match days is immeasurable. You can see the difference one year of doing the right physical work makes if you watch CRC play and the value we place in their education by employing our own teacher.
Dave always talks about teamwork and he is right. Matt is one constituent of our team behind the team. We are all part of the bigger team, which Dave has pulled together from every strand of this club to be as one. And you are why we do it, so you are the most important part of the team. The players need to be up for every game and we need you to be the same. When this place is noisy, it’s tough for the opposition. That’s how we need it all the time. Together, we can achieve anything…