Over the next four weeks we will witness the best players on the planet showcase their skills in pursuit of the ultimate prize any footballer can achieve – to win the World Cup.

As fans of our national teams we like to think that players are giving their all for Queen and country and while the majority of players will see this as the pinnacle of their career to represent their national side in a World Cup, others will see it as an opportunity to put themselves in the biggest possible shop window in order to gain a big money move to the promised land of the Premier League where the pitches are literally paved with gold.

Inevitably we will see a number of the big boys exit at the early stages and whilst excuses will range from arguments in the ranks, refereeing of even Virtual Assistant Refereeing decisions, to bad management or even noisy hotels! I’m pretty confident that the consistent excuse that we hear at every major tournament will appear at some stage – “the players were simply too tired.”

Whatever your thoughts on Premier League footballers, (or players from any other league in the world for that matter), the morality of their wage packets, their level of intelligence or the annoyance of their “WAGS”, you can’t get away from the fact that the world simply loves the beautiful game. Fans want to see more and more league, cup, international and even friendly games played each season, surely this takes its toll on the players required to perform at the highest level in each fixture?

But what is the reality of the situation? Is tiredness a justified excuse? Are we asking too much of players these days and how do we look after them in the best possible way? Here’s my take on things from a human performance perspective…

Dealing with injuries

The fact is that of the 23 members of each nations playing squad, every single player will have had some form of injury of varying degrees, during this past season. Whilst those players would have received incredible care from the best team doctors and sports science support team at their clubs, ultimately the decision to return would be on the player and although all top players can still perform at 80 or 90% of their capacity, consistently asking their bodies to deliver when they are not 100% fit will inevitably lead to long-term issues.

You hear stories of the old school centre halves that would take pain killing injections at half time to get them through the next 45 minutes or just man up and get on with it! But we take a more sensible approach to sports medicine these days and look after the welfare of the players first and foremost, meaning that these type of things simply can’t go on nowadays.

Life moves on and football has moved on at a rapid rate. The evolution of sports science and the evolution of the game itself has drastically changed even in the last few years. The role of the full-back has drastically changed from the guy that just needed to hoof it up the touch line, into a much more skilful attacking player that arguably runs the game from an attacking and defensive perspective. These guys require the upper body strength to hold off other opposing players, the cardiovascular fitness to run over 10km each game, the speed to sprint up and down the touchline and the skill to take on defenders and deliver pinpoint crosses.

But even these highly conditioned athletes will have their weaknesses, typically most players are very one sided which will immediately causes potential imbalances and weaknesses. Coaches and sports scientists are very aware of what they term “functional dysfunction” they just need to address to these imbalances in a structured manner before they potentially lead to injury.

Technology

The fact is we now have the technology to monitor top athletes in so many ways around the clock, we can see how much they’ve moved, how hard they’ve trained, the quality and quantity of the  recovery and sleep they’ve had, we are aware of their personality type and how they need to be managed. We know their stress levels and how they manage it (or don’t). We can monitor how they walk, talk, eat, sleep and breathe, and we have the ability to control so many aspects of their human performance.

Dave Brailsford the former performance director of British Cycling termed this approach “marginal gains” and the advancement in sports science over the last ten years or so has meant that these marginal gains within any sport have enabled a huge impact on the overall analysis and performance of each individual and team.

But, and it’s a very big BUT, we need to realise that these are young men and not machines and sometimes things don’t quite go to plan!

 

How well do you think you would perform with a relatively simple task in your day to day work life if you had over a billion people watching you doing it?!

 

Fail To Succeed

How you deal with pressure and how you respond when things go wrong is, in my opinion what defines you as a potential £100 million pound athlete.

Every single player that has been selected to represent their country in Russia this summer is the best player in their position at their club, they were the best player in the youth team they graduated from and they were head and shoulders above every other kid in the playground at school. When it comes to football, all these player have ever known is how to deal with success!

The real test is when things go wrong.

The average player falls away, but the star performer just gets better.

When David Beckham was sent off for England in France ’98 some thought his England career was over. Instead it ended up being the making of him, the following year he won everything with Manchester United and single handily dragged England through to the 2002 World Cup and in the process became a phenomenal captain and leader.

So what separates the superstars from the nearly men?

In my opinion elite human performance comes down to four areas:

Fitness, Nutrition, Recovery and Mind Set.

 

Fitness – Everyone knows that fitness is a vital component to any athlete’s makeup. Physical fitness and freedom from injury allow a player to compete at the highest level for the longest period of time, but this in my opinion is bottom of the pile when it comes to determining performance, it just gets you entry to play with the big boys.

Nutrition isn’t just about having six pack abs. Good Nutrition will give you a positive outlook, it will turbo charge your energy levels, it will improve your alertness and productivity and can even speed up your recovery from injury. Gone are the days when a typical player’s diet would consist of a pre-match fry up followed by some post-match beers! I’m sure a number of players out there still do this from time to time, but I guarantee they’ll never become a £100 million pound athlete with a Sunday League players diet. If you’re after marginal gains then first stop is the fuel you are putting in your engine.

Recovery is the toughest one to manage. Every player just wants to play and the biggest mistake many of them make is rushing back before they are fully recovered. Top players have amazing coaches, therapists and doctors at their beck and call to safely manage their return from injury. Everything from physiotherapy to cryotherapy, soft tissue work to fitness testing is covered. The problem isn’t when they are at their clubs, the issue is what do they do when they are at home?

A £100 million pound athlete will do everything required to get them back to their best. They will have their own recovery routine, wrap themselves in cotton wool and prioritise a good night’s sleep over a big night out every time.

For high performance I cannot emphasise the importance of sleep enough. It’s no coincidence that Roger Federer and LeBron James who are arguably performing better than ever in twilight of their respective careers swear by 12 hours sleep each night. It doesn’t sell newspapers hearing a footballer is tucked up in bed at 9pm, but it definitely ensures that the player makes headlines on the back pages and not the front pages!

Mind set – This is without doubt the key ingredient to building a £100 million pound athlete.

Forget about success, If you want to look after a £100 million athlete them teach them how to fail big time at a young age!

Throughout their career players will be faced with any number of challenges, from injury, humiliating defeat, falling out of favour with the manager, to transferring to a new country and managing personal issues. Problems will always arise and the bigger the problem, the bigger the potential reward. The truth is in football and in life it’s never about the problem, it just comes down to how you deal with it. An average player will just see the problem and it will always hinder their progress, the top player will simply see each problem as another small hurdle along their journey to becoming a superstar!

Get all four of these ingredients in place in a manner that works for that individual player and success is guaranteed.

 

**Food for thought, at the last World Cup in Brazil, then 22 year old Mario Goetze famously scored the winning goal that saw Germany lift the trophy. Four years later and arguably at what should be the peak of his career Goetze didn’t make the squad for this years tournament. We all want to see the star players perform and I’m sure the winning goalscorer will again be the lasting memory of this tournament in four weeks time. But just keep an eye on the spectacular failures, it may just be the making of a new £100million athlete!

Enjoy the World Cup

David Osgathorp