Paul Bower (pbower10) recently joined Luke Jenkinson (Derby County FC) and Kevin Paxton (Leicester City FC) on episode #98 of the Pacey Performance Podcast talking about physical preparation in academy football. On the back of that episode, we caught up with Paul for a Q&A. For an intro to Paul, check out episode #98 of the Pacey Performance Podcast.

Since doing this interview Paul has left Barnsley Football Club.

Strength of Science: Paul, you talked about overhauling your Foundation programme after evaluating your current set up. What process did you go through to change it up?

Paul: Myself, Nathan Winder (Head of Sports Science, @winder_n) and Luke Dopson (Academy Sports Scientist, @lukedopson) attended a few seminars and conferences in which the evidence for a gymnastics/multi-sport/multi-movement programme was presented to us in a positive manner.  Nathan and I (when he was the Head of Academy Sports Science) had always discussed getting a climbing frame and a climbing wall put into our indoor arena for the Foundation players to play on before, during, and after training. It was, therefore, something which we believed in but had not seen been implemented at clubs within football.

The open-door policy given by Luke Jenkinson (@LukeGatus) at Sheffield United (now Derby County) really allowed us to focus on what we thought was important for the players at Barnsley, in the environment which our football syllabus and coach behavior would allow. Obviously, this was different to Sheffield United so once Nathan moved up into the first team I made it one of my objectives to build a programme which incorporated some key themes which we all agreed were important. These themes were movement patterns such as squat, hinge, push, pull, brace being performed through movement challenges (e.g. animal walks, wrestling), multi-sports (e.g. basketball, tag rugby), and gymnastics.

By this time Luke had been made full-time so we were able to build a syllabus based on our football curriculum, which was then advanced/enhanced by Jordan Tyrer (ex-Academy S&C Coach, @jordantyrer92) over the following months. What we have now is a three-part, six-week syllabus that is repeated over 6 phases within the football year. The syllabus allows flexibility in regards to what the theme of the following football session is, what the players enjoy most, and most importantly, what they need to work on (age, ability specific). The movement, gymnastics and multi-sports sessions are performed as a carousel at the start of each foundation evening, giving players an array of stimulus, and better still – keeping the coaches well and truly on their toes. It is loud, chaotic and often absolute carnage.

Strength of Science: What have you changed your thoughts on over your 4 seasons at Barnsley?

Paul: I think the biggest change I have made is in regards to how to create an environment and culture which allows players to be ready for the next stage. This can be as simple as preparation for an upcoming fixture, or something long-term like changing mindset to allow you to take an opportunity to gain access to first team training (e.g. performing well in a U23 fixture).

Initially, as most, if not all ‘sports scientists’ believe, I thought I was solely responsible for the physical condition of the players I had in my care. This ranged from strength increases and body composition changes through to ‘football fitness’ and the overall condition of the players. I do believe that the sports scientist has some responsibility for these examples – we must be accountable for something – however, I also believe that coaches should be made as accountable for the condition/strength of their players as well. After all, players generally get injured during training or matches – elements of the game which are controlled (to some degree) by the technical coaches!

I, therefore, think that the biggest change I have made is my thoughts on is how to prepare players for the next step. This can only be done with clear objectives set out by the coach and followed by the staff which works for them. Tactics/style of play underpin everything that goes on in regards to team performance (these are set by the coach), therefore my understanding of tactics and what is expected has increased, and therefore how to unify this information with the physical training required. This can be pitch-based, gym-based, at the dinner table or in the dressing room before a training session – I need to compliment what the coach wants from his day/week/month/season with my information, style and overall demeanor.

As a result, I will now ask players more questions regarding their physical performance, to empower them to deliver what is required, rather than me preaching and instructing them. For example, I may ask, “if you are tired, what do you need to do to make sure that you are ready for our physical day’s training tomorrow?” – this leaves the responsibility of recovery and the process of it within the player’s hands. I then help them through that process if required. The most important factor in all of this, however, is the coach. If they do not back me up, give the same messages, or have different standards (higher or lower) then cracks will appear in the relationship and players will not be embodied in a culture which breeds performance. I hope that makes sense!

Strength of Science: Do you have any advice for young practitioners?

Paul: Yes. Think long and hard about working in sport before you dive in at the deep end! It isn’t glamourous, and it sometimes certainly isn’t fair. I don’t know of anyone in sports performance (sports scientist, physiotherapist etc.) who hasn’t regularly worked a 50-60+ hour week for an entire season. It can be hard graft but it is definitely rewarding if you are in it for the right reasons. Seeing young lads sign scholarship contracts or make first team debuts is an unforgettable experience and one which takes dedication from staff, players and the parents of those involved.

However, I think my best advice is to make sure that you expose yourself to full-time work and the politics that surround full-time employment within an industry such as ours. Understanding group dynamics, where you sit on the food chain and what is expected of you can only be gained through full-time exposure. I understand that sometimes you have to do this for free – but it is totally worth it. Everyone I know within our industry has done an unpaid internship. This isn’t right, and strides are being made to protect people from this but sometimes if there is nothing else available then you have to take the plunge. If you then make yourself indispensable to the department you will soon get paid!

Strength of Science: There have been some high profile youngsters leave the club and go on to represent their country and play in the Premier League – what made them different?

Paul: Mentality. I only saw John [Stones] work as a young pro for 6 months before he went to Everton, but he had an insatiable appetite to practice, improve and work on his game. This was evidenced by the fact he would be out long after training improving his technique and perfecting the panenka penalty chip!

On a different level, I saw Mason [Holgate] come through as a beanpole U16 athlete who couldn’t work out his arse from his elbow, to become a confident, elegant 6’2” 18-year old making his debut for the first team playing out of position. The thing that always struck me about Mason was his thirst for improvement. He was a quick learner, particularly out on the grass, however, in the gym he struggled a little bit and probably didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought at the time. He did recognise however that it was imperative to his growth and development that he did what was required, and as a result, he was ready when called upon. He never looked back after that and went on to Everton where he is breaking through now – probably via the same mentality and process which he did at Barnsley.

Strength of Science: At Barnsley, how did you ensure a seamless progression for youth players into senior football? How easy is it?

Paul: We don’t and I am not sure we can. You can’t get seamless with progression, in my opinion. Whenever a player is placed into a new environment, whether that be a U11 training with the U12 group or a scholar training with the first team, they are exposed to a new stimulus. They can’t fail to be. They have probably never been involved in that type of training before. Whether that is the change in intensity, the speed at which the shots are hit (e.g. young goalkeepers), the number of players who can move quicker (and better) than you. It all results in a massive mental and physical overload for the player, therefore this must be taken into consideration when programming for talented players (those who are likely to make the grade quicker than others), and for each group as a whole.

To counter this, you could argue that each group below should be doing more. By this I mean that to bridge the gap in intensity from 1st XI to U23, the U23 group must do a greater volume of training equal to the training load of the 1st (if not higher). This will at least give them tolerance to training, and allow the bridge in intensity to be nullified through clever manipulation and modifications within training (as and when they move up to the senior squad). Similarly, the U18 group must be therefore doing more than the U23 group. The same principles apply. This might be through some extra technical sessions, player-led sessions, more S&C work etc. It is really down to the coaches, and then the subsequent support staff to work with what is best for the squads to ensure that they do the required amount of training to bridge the transition to older age groups, and subsequently senior football. After all, men’s football is a grind. 50+ games in 10 months, on average. Therefore, in my opinion, that should be the overall aim – to provide players who are capable of grinding out thousands of minutes of game time without breaking down. These types of players have long, sustained careers and are generally more likely to succeed.

Strength of Science: Who has had the biggest influence on your career to date?

Paul: I would say that a host of people have had both major and minor influences on my career. Obviously, I am thankful to Nathan [Winder] and Ronnie Branson (ex-academy manager) at Barnsley FC for offering me the academy sports scientist role back in September 2012. Without their risk-taking attitude (!) I would not have had an opportunity to showcase my abilities or inabilities as some will point out, in a full-time, elite environment.

My biggest influencers, however, are the two coaches who I spent the majority of my time working for: Mark Burton (head of academy Coaching) and Paul Heckingbottom (now first team head coach). Both of these guys allowed me to understand the game of football and what is required at varying levels to create an environment which promotes hard work, technical/tactical ability, and ultimately success. Their methods vary somewhat, however, they both shared similar traits in regards to the way in which they questioned my views on physical performance and then took note of my opinions and challenges. This, without doubt, had a positive effect on the players and ultimately made us all better at our jobs. Great coaches, better guys.