The Evolution of Science in Football

Football existed long before modern science and modern football will never be the same because of science. However, just how did we get to the current state of play.

Football as a sport has changed. Science as a practice has changed. Sport as a science, in particular football, has changed the way the game is run. This is both a frightful and exciteful prospect in equal measure.

After a general codification of the laws of the game had been agreed at least across continents (global agreement took slightly longer due to travel and communication limitations) and pioneer coaches had decided on how best to set up their sides tactically, the logical progression was to improve a team’s physical attributes.

At this stage in the development of football whether you would consider this a science is very much up for debate. Coaches like Jimmy Hogan training players’ abilities to jump higher and run further was by its nature a conditioning of sorts. Where it comes up short is in the rationale behind the training. Was the training actually leading to progression and improvements. Limitations in resources (both financial and physical), time, scientific input and technological advances obviously made it difficult.

Nevertheless, the very fact that coaches were looking to improve their team’s performance from a physiological perspective started the ball rolling. For one of the few occasions in sporting history, football was ahead of the rest and to some extent ahead of science. That being said, it did not take long for both science and other sports to surpass football. The beautiful game has a crippling habit of failing to embrace progress in many respects. Look how long it took for FIFA to allow goal-line technology.

Round pegs in round holes

Acquiring an explicit definition of sports science is as much of a challenge as reaching a unanimous decision on the greatest player of all time. The Oxford English Dictionary defines sports science as:

The study of disciplines such as anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, and psychology as they relate to sporting performance.

As definitions go this is rather vague in nature, but it does offer some elements of value in showing the range of scientific areas it encompasses. Each area however much linked to the others can standalone in its own right and requires specialist background to have an understanding and practical application in a sporting context.

The traditional set up of coaching staff at professional football clubs even up until the early 90s was minimalist to say the least. A manager to pick and run the team, an assistant manager to help with decisions and training and a physio to deal with injuries. Sports science was not a field of work, let alone an essential cog in the set up of a football club.

Football club’s staff up until the early 1990s

Whilst managers could input practices and principles they had learned from experience or research in the areas of conditioning, there was no thought towards employing specialists from these areas. An issue with this being there was neither a supply of qualified specialists available nor was there a demand for there to be any specialists at all.

This changed as technological advancements sparked an intuition to look at the data and statistics within sport. Labs researching cardiovascular outputs, bloods and biomechanics soon became established. University degrees began to come to the fore and sports science in ernest was born. Managers soon began to realise that with the assistance of these newly established experts they could have a greater understanding of match performance and work on the training ground.

The rise of sports science has led to a major overhaul in the way football clubs are staffed. The make up a modern day elite level coaching set up is a stark contrast to that of a bygone era.

Click to enlarge to see the scale of a modern day football club’s staff

Staying on message

The challenge that sports science is facing, especially in football, is ensuring that the focus remains solely on improving the player, in doing so hoping to achieve more positive outcomes on match day. The scale of research and data that sports scientists across the disciplines have at their finger tips needs to be applied in the right way.

It is easy to be led down a path that is both relevant and intriguing from a scientific point of view, but has little link to the player and sporting performance. This is where cynics of sports science and so called ‘traditionalists’ can build up a head of steam.

In saying that, the overall acceptance of sports science being able to provide so many positives for a football team across the coaching world is starting to take shape. Technological progressions and further evidence based research from within the game can only strengthen this further. It is by no means a unanimous adoption, however in the modern game if you do not integrate sports science, sports science will leave you behind.


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