The interview with the conditioning coach of Birmingham FC gives a brief but broad insight into the philosophical issues for modern sport science in football. It reflects the need to embrace new technology, whilst understanding that good planning, communication, and developing a good team ethos remain at the heart of effective training.
PROathlete: Thanks for having you, Dr. Tom Little.
Let´s have a look on your career. In 1999 you started as strength and conditioning coach at Manchester City, followed by Nottingham Forrest and Burnley to name a few. 2010 you received the lowest injury record in championship. Since June 2013 you are head of sport science at Birmingham FC.
In the next minutes we want to talk about periodization and your experiences you made as coach and scientist in general.
Please offer our readers some insights into your daily work.
DR. TOM LITTLE: At Birmingham FC I´m responsible for different things. As head of sport science my job is to manage performance enhancement and injury prevention. As well I like to work on the pitch. Together with the other 3 staff members I execute warm up, speed and rehab sessions.
Furthermore, I monitor and develop the concept of our youth academy. Designing schedule, goals, education of our trainer and the integration of our interns are some tasks I have to deal with.
PROathlete: You´re faced with many different functions. How do you manage that?
DR. TOM LITTLE: Organization (laughs). It is only possible with a hard working team. We have three fulltime staff members and four fantastic interns.
PROathlete: That sounds like organized teamwork. Certainly, performance enhancement is the ultimate goal in sports. Which path do you follow?
DR. TOM LITTLE: Indeed, that is a good question. In football performance is technically dominated. To add complexity, football performance requires all the major biomotor qualities, such as speed and endurance. Therefore, we attempt to improve athletic functionally globally to enable players to best utilize their technical capabilities through a match. This goal can often be achieved by carefully structuring football training drills for combined technical and fitness outcomes
PROathlete: Can you explain how you monitor training?
DR. TOM LITTLE: We look at both internal and external training load to try and gain a fuller picture of training and match load. Heart rate and RPE provide internal load markers and GPS provides external information. We use algorithms and combine the most relevant information to provide volume, intensity and mechanical load markers out of 10 for each day and the training week.
PROathlete: You are using approved methods. Let´s have a look on the planned training load. How do you think about periodization? What does it mean to you, Tom?
DR. TOM LITTLE: Periodization can appear quite complex but it is really just good planning and organization.
PROathlete: That is a simple definition. Which principles do you use for planning?
Dr. TOM LITTLE: In my experience the principle of progression, recovery and variety works well. We progress intensity, load and specificity. We must recover from matches and hard training. The body needs variety for neuromuscular and psychological stimulation. During the competitive season, the match fixtures dictate most the periodization principles.
PROathlete: Do you design your training schedules with specific software?
DR. TOM LITTLE: We don’t use specific software. I think we are working quite classical with clear excel spreadsheets.
PROathlete: To design a training schedule is fundamental to create a seasonal framework. In which categories do you divide your season?
DR. TOM LITTLE: In England we have three seasonal parts; the preparatory period, in-season and off-season. The off-season in winter is typical for Germany or Scandinavian Leagues. On the contrary, we are faced with an intense period around Christmas.
PROathlete: This fact shifts the focus more to microcycle of each week as to the preparatory period. However, let us first talk about the preparatory period, because many coaches are faced with this issue. For many coaches this timeframe is an important period to integrate new players and concepts. How do you deal with the preparatory period?
DR. TOM LITTLE: Well, we are starting with a kick-off meeting at the beginning. In this meeting everyone can present their ideas based on improving team or staff performance. As a result of this process we have the vision for the season. After that we are ready to start with the physicals. We look to progress overall training load, working from lower to higher training intensities, and using more football specific methods. Within a training day, we try to pair a high intensity energy system with a lower intensity energy system and thereby allow supercompensation periods for each training method. Towards the end of the preseason we look to reduce training load so the players start the season fresh.
PROathlete: Preventive treatments are necessary for every player. However, to persuade player for rehab exercises is an art. Which parameters do you use for the injury prevention score?
DR. TOM LITTLE: Each player is screened. We assess isolated muscular function, such as firing patterns and flexibility and functional movements like one-leg stability or landing patterns. We also examine injury history and factors such as body fat. We´re mainly focused on movement quality. Hence, it is ok in individual cases for us, when functional movement quality is good, thought isolated range of motion is poor. Players are given individual programs and the team performs a generic injury prevention program twice per week.
PROathlete: Ok. Let`s get back to the issue training design. Which advices would you like to share with other trainers?
DR. TOM LITTLE: Set up systems so you act upon your training data. Too many teams spend countless resources collecting data and do nothing with it. For each training day we have limits or thresholds for different training components. If the training does not fall within the plan, we will look to change training accordingly, perhaps within the week or for the next time we do a similar session.
PROathlete: That looks like a plan. However, in general practice most coaches’ don´t have access to sophisticated technologies. Which opportunities do they have?
DR. TOM LITTLE: That´s right. Not every coach or conditioning specialist have the privilege to work under such professional conditions like we do. However, we should always seek to advance our situation. We can create them. For instance, a renowned German company develops not only sport equipment, but also little movement or accelerations sensors, which are not so expensive.
Besides technology, to talk with the physio or with the player about their muscle stiffness could offer more insights. But consider, it is not the technology that wins a game. It is the tactical class and the team spirit which are very important, too. Physical preparation is a necessary prerequisite for success in football, not more and not less.
PROathlete: That is true. Football is more than physical fitness. So, how do you integrate your specific playing style in the training schedule?
DR. TOM LITTLE: Our playing style is a pressing and counter-attack style and so we rely heavily on having a good physicality. We tend to play 4-2-3-1 or 3-5-2 and like to get the ball to our wide players quickly and get crosses in the box. On field we use football specific training methods as much as possible. Much of our endurance training is performed using small sided games or possession. We will choose games that suit the technical philosophy of the club or an important element in an upcoming match. The drills must also elicit the correct fitness adaptation. Speed, and repeated sprint training can be done with passing and shooting drills. Even with the more generic running drills can include football elements, such as dribbling and multidirectional movement.
PROathlete: Yes, a mixture seems to me an appropriate way to cope with the special demands of football, too. In science we can observe that the discussion is often focussed on methods rather on goals. Which is your opinion and can you give any recommendations for coaches?
DR. TOM LITTLE: I can understand the confusion of many coaches. On the hand it is a problem of the scientific community and on the other hand it is a problem created by the sport industry, as well. There are a lot of tools and methods available on the market. Sometimes it is hard to understand the underlying mechanisms. But that is necessary to deal with. However, in the field of sports we have to achieve specific goals. The implementation of new methods or technology is not a necessary gut. In my experience it is very important how you do things. For instance, how do you communicate with the athlete or how do you inspire the athlete. Methods are only as good as the master knows to apply them.
Of course, we are interested in science and technology. At the department we are discussing with our interns about the latest findings. Our Interns are a valuable resource for our team. They prepare presentations to technological innovations or the latest findings.
PROathlete: Can you provide us with some information of your intern program?
DR. TOM LITTLE: Of course. Right now, we are engaging four interns from local universities. The main task is to support the staff at our academy. Over the time they are developing their own competency to give professional training sessions. Besides that it is important for me to guide the students to be a sport science coach. For this reason they have to be trained in theoretical and practical aspects of football. This opportunity opens doors for universities for scientific projects in performance sports. For us it is a great opportunity to learn from the Interns, especially to use their curiosity.
PROathlete: An appropriate and easy approach to connect science and field. You have mentioned the term sport science coach. What does it mean to you?
DR. TOM LITTLE: In the long run it is necessary how you are with the player. It doesn´t mean that methods are not necessary. However, the full impact is achieved, if the relation between athlete and coach works very well. As sport science coach you have to be both; a great teacher and psychologist. To attain the players’ awareness you have to show progresses and training loads in their language. That is necessary to inspire the players for preventive or rehab exercises, besides the pitch.
PROathlete: I see your profession is your passion. What is the wood for your fire inside, Tom?
DR. TOM LITTLE: Well, we love what we are doing, here. That is a necessary prerequisite for successful performance, I think. Our experience shows that you should only present data which has a significant effect for the player, coach or the staff. This is another point why we have meetings on regular basis to think critically about our work. To put in into a question: What can we do better than yesterday?
PROathlete: To reflect and change things is an important key for success. Which factors are fundamental for you?
DR. TOM LITTLE: At the outset theoretical and practical knowledge of the specific sport come to my mind. My theoretically thinking roots in the study of sports science. Bangsbos PhD-thesis and Verheyens early works about the energy system inspired my football specific thinking.
PROathlete: Thanks for sharing your time and your insights with us, Tom.