Anton McElhone: Exploring how the Sports Science landscape has changed in the SPL, Premier League and MLS

Rich Buchanan was joined on the Zone7 Performance Podcast by Anton McElhone, former Head of Sports Science at Celtic FC, to discuss changes throughout his career, switching between football management and performance roles, and differences working under various managers and in various leagues

In the most recent Zone7 Performance Podcast, our Performance Director, Rich Buchanan, was joined by Anton McElhone, former Head of Sports Science at Celtic FC, who left following the club securing their record eighth Treble earlier this summer at Hampden Park. 

Having initially started out his journey in sport almost two decades ago shadowing Kenny McMillan at Celtic. McElhone has spent years working in Scotland with Hibernian FC and more recently Celtic FC, as well as a decade in the Premier League with Tottenham Hotspur, and in the US, where he followed retired Spurs goalkeeper Brad Friedel to the New England Revolution in the MLS.

Returning from the US in 2018, McElhone took on coaching roles as both an assistant and interim manager, providing him a unique perspective having sat on both sides of the table. 

The conversation begins with Buchanan exploring that journey, and probing McElhone for insights into what he has seen change throughout his career, how the demands differ from country to country, as well as the challenges he faces in servicing the needs of each different manager.

Rich Buchanan: How have you seen the industry change over the last 20 years? Perhaps touch on the roles and responsibilities that you had that maybe look a bit different today, or not as the case may be.

Anton McElhone: I think the industry’s grown hugely, if you go back 20 years ago, it would be a one or two-man department. I think what you’re now getting is a huge performance and sports science department. I think the actual role of the sports scientists back in the day was as generalists – nutrition, S&C, sports science, physiology, etc., whereas now I think the industry and the departments are a little bit more specific, the departments are bigger, there is more clarity to sports scientists roles. Similarly, with the addition of GPS data, back in the day it was heart rate monitors for that internal/ external load, I think there are big changes there in how and what data we collect, but I think the basic foundations are still the same.

From 20 years ago, the philosophies and principles, I don’t think they’ve changed, I think as practitioners we have changed, the industry’s evolved, there is more tech, there is more staff, there’s more finances to really grow the departments.

At Tottenham when it was Sam Harris, Nathan Gardner, and myself working in the academy, there was three staff plus two interns, and we would always be looking at the Italian teams and the staff that they had, and now you can see that like 5 or 10 years later and you look at Tottenham now and they have multiple staff on top of what Antonio Conte had within his own coaching staff. I think all the Premier League clubs have exploded, your teams in Scotland are growing, I think all around the world, whether it’s MLS, everything’s expanding and really opening-up and being more open to sports science as a support.

Rich Buchanan: My takeaway from what you had to say was that the fundamentals have somewhat remained the same, but the environment’s changed dramatically in terms of volume of people and having uber specialists in certain professional lanes. 

Do you think that that’s equally applicable in England, Scotland, and the US?

Anton McElhone: England from a staffing structure has elite level EPPP and so the actual structures and foundations are far greater in England than Scotland. However, Scotland is definitely developing – Celtic Rangers, Hearts, Hibs, Aberdeen, are improving, but it’s probably a few years behind. I think America, due to the finances, they’ve accelerated the standards and structures over there – the stadiums and training facilities were all first class. I think the US benefits from the support of having many different, innovative companies based there, like Zone7.

I think that’s been the big reason why the MLS is going to be bigger than the football league’s in other countries, because of the finances, but I think sport science practises are really is improving all round.

It’s worth saying again that the actual basics, the foundations, staffing structures are still the same, but I think people are becoming more. The most important things remain on the pitch – are players fit? are they available? That’s the most important thing for a manager, have you got your best players on the pitch to win enough games to ultimately be successful.

Rich Buchanan: So, as an individual and as a department, it’s essentially servicing the manager and the club’s needs and their goals? At Celtic, what would you say the biggest challenges are in that respect?

Anton McElhone: Probably two areas; relationships and communication. I think that’s the same for all clubs, no matter around the world, do we have a common language at the club? Do we speak football? At the end of the day, our job, whether it’s medical or sports science, is focused on finding fit players who are available to play and keeping them injury free.

The biggest thing is developing strong relationships between the management, coaching, and interdisciplinary staff, because we can all send an email, we can all send data, but, the nuts and bolts of it are actually sitting down, having conversations and doing the simple stuff, which is about what is going to keep a player on the pitch? Is it, they do less, they do more, what are we interpreting with the data? rather than just throwing it to the manager.

We still have to let the coaching management staff dictate, that’s their job, they’re here one year, two years, they’ve got a small time period, whereas we might be there longer, because we’re club employees, but we need to support the coaching staff as much as possible. We’ve got a football program in place, but also must make sure that it supports the manager’s philosophy. I think, regardless of the manager, we’ve always got to come in and re-educate ourselves, be adaptable, flexible, just like players have to be, you can’t just play one position, if there’s change at the club, like we’re going through at the moment, we need to be adaptive, what does the manager want, what’s the needs of the playing system that might evolve, and so on? We need to be on the front foot and make sure we’re adaptable.

Communication is huge as well as strong relationships. Rather than it just being an email, rather than just putting data out there, you have the small, simple conversations with players, coaching staff, management, and try to get a good culture at the club, I think that’s one of the key things at Celtic. There’s certain ways that you would like to do it, but can you get the input from the players, you still have to listen to them, you have to give a little bit back to them, rather than about what do we always want.

I think they’re two of the key areas for me, communication and relationships, and obviously they intermingle with each other quite a lot.

If you’re interested in hearing more of this conversation, the full podcast is available on all the major podcast platforms, just search ‘Zone7 Performance Podcast’ or you can watch on YouTube, here.

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