Q&A with Beşiktaş Head of Sport Science, Jonny Northeast

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Jonny Northeast is a forward-thinking high-performance practitioner that is currently working as the Head of Sports Science for Beşiktaş JK in the Turkish Süper Lig. Starting out his career at Swansea City AFC, Northeast has previously held roles at Barnsley and West Bromwich Albion FC in the English Championship and DC United in the MLS.

In this Q&A, Zone7’s Performance Director, Rich Buchanan delves deeper into Jonny’s work, probes him on his philosophy, and aims to better understand how he goes about applying innovations.

Q: Who do you think have been the greatest influences on your career?

I am fortunate to have had the career that I have had to date. During my career, I have worked under and alongside many great managers and support staff. Each one of them has had an influence on my career and philosophy of how I work today.

I spent a big part of my career at Swansea AFC, where I was fortunate to work within a great multi-disciplinary team (MDT). The environment that was created there was one that still has a huge influence in how I work on a day-to-day basis. The ability to be challenged constructively and challenge others on a day-to-day basis ensured that the highest attention to detail was maintained and this helped me to develop personally and in turn have a positive effect on performance on the pitch.

During my time at Barnsley FC, I built a strong working relationship with the Head Coach, Valérien Ismaël. This relationship has influenced my recent career moves, moving with him to both West Bromwich Albion in 2021 and then Beşiktaş JK in 2022.

The opportunity to working within foreign leagues such as the Süper Lig, as well as the MLS, has exposed me to other cultures and helped me to keep an open mind and continue to learn. I have no doubt that these experiences have assisted in broadening my philosophy and my development both as a human being and practitioner. For this I am forever grateful.

Q: How have you seen the demands of the game change over your career to-date and how has that impacted your philosophy?

In the last decade the game has almost doubled in high intensity distance and sprint distance whilst it has also seen a decrease in total distance at the same time. This has led me to consider the weekly plan and, more importantly, the individual.

Are we delivering training sessions that physically and tactically prepare athletes for competition?

Can we train smarter to ensuring players are prescribed appropriate loading strategies that allow players to physically prepare and recover in the build-up to games?

More importantly, where does the individual athlete fit within this model? Each player is different – they respond to load differently, have a different training and injury history, and a different physical profile for every game. As such, are we aware of the needs for the athlete? And are strategies being put in place to allow the athlete to maximise full potential whilst mitigating the risk of injury.

Q: How have you assessed and implemented innovations

Consistent evaluation and reviews of practices is essential to avoid stagnation and being overtaken by competitors.

On a weekly basis my LinkedIn inbox is filled with new products and innovations. When assessing these innovations, I believe that is important to understand several areas:

  • Challenge

As Head of Sport Science, a big part of my role is to assist the coach, players, and club to provide best practice.

Whilst we have a consistent philosophy of how we train, it is also our role to be innovative and place evidenced-based methods into practice to ensure we provide the best care and service to the athletes that we work with.

The first question I will always ask when presented with an innovation is, how would this help us in meeting the organisational goals of the team? And could this innovation be similarly executed internally?

  • Collate and Evaluate

If an innovation passes this first stage, I would then research and evaluate other methods that are being used in the market by our competitors to meet this need.

Then, if it is the best-in-market, I would seek to understand if there is a place for it specifically within our organisation and if we have the resources and infrastructure to maximise and implement it. Ultimately, will the innovation give you positive gains for your investment or will it end up on the shelf gathering dust?

  • Implement

Finally, it is a case of implementing and rolling out the idea to ensure the key stakeholders are aware of the situation and protocols for its use. It is important to educate and involve players in this process.

Image: USA Today Sports, DC United Training with Wayne Rooney

Q: How do you see artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) such as Zone7 impacting the football environment in terms of performance optimisation?

Whilst I see a lot of scepticism regarding AI and ML from people within the game, I am a firm believer that AI can revolutionise the game and high performance for many years to come.

Using AI to help analyse performance data in greater depth, and then producing an easily readable traffic light system, can enable us [as practitioners] to generate informed discussions with the key stakeholders and drive quick, actionable measures that influence practice.

AI can create important discussions within the MDT that we may not have previously had. What is causing the alert? How can we best manage the player on the given day to get the best results? Does the player need more exposure or less? These are all discussion that can be had on the back of some of the alerts put in place. Whether you choose to act on them is down to the conversations that take place. However, having the information in the first place can put you in a position to make better informed decisions on how to best manage players in an effective and time efficient manner.

There can often be a misconception that the use of AI can prohibit and stand in the way of players training and cause barriers for coaches. However, the use of the AI alongside professional reasoning and context can be a really powerful tool to make change in professional sport, in my opinion.