Dr Imtiaz Ahmad: How Sports Medicine and Performance Roles have Evolved within Football

Rich Buchanan was joined on the Zone7 Performance Podcast by Dr Imtiaz Ahmad, Head of Medical and Performance at QPR FC, to discuss trends within sports medicine and performance, as well as organizational and workflow challenges that he has faced.

In the most recent Zone7 Performance Podcast, our Performance Director, Rich Buchanan, was joined by Dr Imtiaz Ahmad, Head of Medical and Performance at Queen’s Park Rangers (QPR) FC, who have been a Zone7 client since 2021.

Having initially started out his journey in sport almost two decades ago working as a Team Doctor for England’s youth squads, Ahmad has also held roles as Club Doctor at Millwall FC and Development and Academy Doctor at Tottenham Hotspur.

In 2016, Ahmad joined former Tottenham colleagues Les Ferdinand and Chris Ramsey, at QPR FC as Club Doctor and has since progressed, first to Head of Medical and then, Head of Medical and Performance.

Buchanan (bold) begins the conversation by asking Ahmad about that transition from Head of Medical to also encompassing the Head of Performance role at QPR, as well as diving in deeper on trends that he has witnessed within sports medicine and performance, and organizational and workflow challenges that he has faced throughout his career.

From the background you have shared, it’s very apparent that your lane of expertise is sports medicine as a medical doctor. Do you find that has armed you with the skillset to fill this broader Head of Performance role as well, which also includes fields like sports science and S&C?

Dr. Imtiaz Ahmad: COVID was a big challenge because your traditional club doctor role expanded to cover all aspects of the club – that’s medical, non-medical, performance related, just everything. I think [that experience] put myself in a good position to take on a more expanded role [within the club].

For me, I’m not a sports scientist. You know that I’m very much a medic, but I’ve got a good understanding of the sports science side of things, having worked with some excellent people. I see [the most important aspect of the role] as being able to manage the department and make sure it runs smoothly, make sure that my team gets what they need, and that they get the support they need as well, so that they can achieve their potential. And of course, ultimately, the player’s potential.

The fact that I had been established within the team as a manager across different situations helped me make that transition. But I’m always, I suppose, a medic first – that’s my training, that’s my specialty, with a strong interest in the performance side of things.

Over the course of your career, how have you seen the sporting side of sports medicine or sports performance change? Are there any trends that you’ve witnessed that really stick out?

Dr. Imtiaz Ahmad: I’ve seen a lot of changes. The obvious big ones are personnel. When I first started out, the teams were quite small. And now they have become a lot bigger. Where you had one or maybe two physios, you now have got three or four. Similar to sports science, we did have someone initially [doing] very basic use of GPS and that’s expanded to where it’s essential to have someone just in that area, someone just in the gym, someone just for the pitch, someone overseeing things.

We should take that as a good thing, and the majority of it has been good, but there is something to say about a tight group that has all the ownership and all the responsibility. The buck stops with you when it’s a smaller group. As you get bigger, a lot of it is about communication, correct management, making sure that you’re all on the same page and on the same path. While you’re still welcoming other ideas to come in to enrich what you’re already doing, you want to make sure that everyone’s pointing and pushing in the same direction. That is harder with bigger teams.

Coming along with that, and probably part of the reason why we’ve got so many staff is the amount of things that we test and the data from pre-season, all the way right through to routine or regular testing during the season. These are things that we as a club have thought through quite carefully, we feel, and that we are only choosing things that we feel we are acting on or have to use. But there’s a vast amount of data, and that’s probably linked in quite nicely to my journey towards using AI to help with those areas.

Another thing is that with a lot of the media coverage and now social media, there’s a lot more pressure on medics than there used to be. I believe a lot of the medics nowadays have to make quite big, prominent decisions and as soon as you’re making decisions, you’re being scrutinized quite a lot.

I’ll start with the fact that you mentioned that the teams have expanded in terms of volume of personnel. I suppose that brings itself a degree of people management challenges, but alongside that, are there organizational challenges that you face?

Dr. Imtiaz Ahmad: Yes. I see some of our senior management roles, like what I’m currently in, as not only [about] developing players, [but] we’re also developing staff. And remember, those same staff that we’ve talked about have got massive interaction with the players. I’ve got one slide on a presentation I used where I say, ‘Staff development is player development.’ I think a lot more focus could be done on that, especially as the team [continues to] expand.

Once teams are expanded there are challenges arranging meetings. There are a lot of meetings in football and any high performing environments, but they are really important. It’s important to make them short, sharp, make them productive, and not just for the sake of it.

Being organized [also] comes with making sure you’ve got that culture within your team as well, because the last thing you want to be doing is always chasing up people to turn up to meetings or be on time. Those sort of ground rules are discussed quite early on within a season, and towards the end of the season, just to make sure that everyone’s still doing the right things, and that you’re not wasting time or energy chasing up organizational aspects that should flow more naturally.

How do you deal with the workflow challenges that come with having multiple practitioners as you talk about having meetings that are very succinct and to the point but also about integrating each professional disciplines workflow into something that’s more whole and meaningful.

Dr. Imtiaz Ahmad: That is a real challenge. It’s important to know the direction that you’re trying to go in with the team and what you’re trying to achieve. When the games come so thick and fast, it’s very hard to veer away from the next game and next game. I think that’s probably one of the biggest challenges about trying to achieve something together as a team.

You’ll hear many cliches in football and everyone will talk about the next game being the most important. And of course, it is at that moment… But if you’ve got three games in seven days, then they all become quite important.

We have to be that voice [for the manager] to talk about risks and talk about how to manage risk within the context of a few games. What we try and do [at QPR], is look at chunks. We’ll look at three games in seven days or seven in 28 days and try to manage that whole chunk. We’ll do summaries at the end of those just to see whether we’ve achieved what we set out to and what we can learn from those periods – because sure enough, those periods will come again later in the season.

If those seven matches in 28 days didn’t work out well, what was the reason? Did we take too much risk on certain players? Did we not emphasize recovery on other players that probably needed extra recovery? And how can we then communicate that with our manager, with the director moving forwards?

Moving away from just thinking about the next game and thinking about the bigger picture is important, but not to get obsessed by it, because if you get obsessed by it, then people will throw it back at you. [Ultimately, it’s about] getting that balance of things.

Later in the conversation, while discussing the process of making a business case for implementing an innovation within the department, Dr. Ahmad also added that…

Dr. Imtiaz Ahmad: You’re learning all the time through these chunks of matches. If you find that [chunk] went well, then great, you can take the good points and make sure it carries on. But, if it didn’t go well, then that can add towards your business case of why you need to have an additional piece of kit or an additional staff member or some other process coming in. We record and document things quite carefully and we’ll bring things up at the right time.

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.

YouTube video

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