So we are all delighted and enthralled with the monumental achievement of Leicester City upsetting the odds and winning the premier league only 2 years after promotion in 2014.
Nottingham Forest achieved a similar feat, winning the league in 1978 after promotion in 1977 and followed it up by winning two consecutive European Cups. However, it was thought to be impossible in the current climate where the financial power of the bigger clubs dwarf that of the smaller clubs. So how can the Leicester triumph be explained?
Firstly, their owners showed huge foresight when they took over the club with significant investment in sport science expertise. When Claudio Ranieri turned up as manager, there was one clause! The background staff were not to be tinkered with.
Much of what they do is also done in other clubs but maybe without the same level of follow through. Physios and sport science staff are held in high esteem by the club and this was carried on by new boss Claudio Ranieri. Ranieri listens and uses the sport science staff wisely unlike some other managers, many of whom only pay lip service to certain support staff. If certain players have trained too hard and sport science staff request them to be pulled out of parts of sessions, Ranieri is willing to listen. Everyone benefits as a result – team and individual. Knowledge is power.
This creates a very positive working environment for all staff and a positive motivational climate in which the players work. We saw the significant negative influence that Jose Mourinho’s shabby treatment of his doctor had on his staff.
Most of what the players do is monitored, including the density of the pitch to see if it is too hard or soft, with the length of the session adapted accordingly. In addition to this, players complete a daily online questionnaire around how their bodies feel after the previous day’s training. If trends or patterns are noted regarding muscle tightness or strains, this is noted and adjustments are made for the session the next time to avoid future injury risk. The questionnaire also asks about lifestyle factors – diet sleep, hydration etc and adjustments are advised to ensure players are maximising recovery.
Varying forms of recovery are used including a cryotherapy chamber that goes down to -135 degrees. This can help speed up recovery of any soft tissue injuries which has contributed to Leicester having little or no injuries this year. Another factor is that the support staff are listened to regarding recovery with a mandatory 48 hour rest after a 90 minute game with another day off during the week. As a result players are coming into games and training fresh and ready for action. They don’t suffer from fatigue in games like other teams might. This is not down to chance – more a result of good planning and optimisation of their resources. Sometimes less is more.
Ranieri also saw value in keeping his players happy – famously rewarding his team with pizza for clean sheets. Ken Way, a key member of the backroom team and the club’s performance psychologist recently described Ranieri as another psychologist in an interview with the BBC. He maintained that he spoke to the players like he spoke to the media and that the constant focus was on the process, never the outcome. Such a view always kept players on task and never allowed them to get ahead of themselves.
Way credits previous manager Nigel Pearson for assembling the backroom team and acknowledged that he played a huge role in their success. He saw them promoted in 2014 and guided them to safety with 7 wins from 9 games at the end of last season. However some of what psychologist Ken Way and Ranieri have added this year has enhanced group unity. Ranieri and Way have fostered a culture where players are accountable for their own actions. Sprint scores are presented to the whole group and its no surprise that Jamie Vardy often tops the poll. other data is also displayed. For example, 0n pitch player movements are recorded through a GPS system, which show how far players run, the level of intensity of various runs, acceleration, deceleration, and changes of direction. Players are known to have internal competitions on scores for some various aspects of the data.
This internal squad competition breeds fun but also a positive motivational climate that becomes the key driver of success. Such levels of data, when used appropriately in a smart way can only help managers.Small five-a-side tables are published and players watch clips of each other’s performances. Such initiatives offer huge transparency where nobody has any place to hide with the net result being that players are accountable to each other. This empowers the players to make good decisions for themselves. It really helps with the group culture and the fighting spirit notwithstanding the banter generated around the internal competition to mould the players into a happy cohesive group.
As a result of such screening, the backroom staff have a general understanding of exactly where all players are at. It gives them information when they talk to them personally on a regular basis to ensure that players are happy with progress. Such a structure and transparent dynamic puts ownership of player progress with the player, further enhancing a positive motivational climate.
Credit is also due to the support staff behind the physiological testing and profiling of potential new recruits. There is no doubt but that French midfielder N’Golo Kante and his extreme physical prowess was a major factor in them securing the title. To be able to pick him up for less than 500,000 from Caen, a lesser known French team shows that their scouts and sport science support staff are also working together, identifying and looking for the types of qualities befitting a holding central midfield player. In fact Ranieri jokes that assistant manager Steve Walshe was so impressed with central midfielder Kante when he first saw him that he kept annoying him about him; “He kept saying Kante, Claudio, Kante” as he looked for him to sign him.
Ranieri later joked that Walshe (responsible for recruitment) was adamant that they should play three in midfield during the course of the season – Danny Drinkwater in the middle and N’Golo Kante either side of him!
Rihad Mahrez was very much an unknown when scout Steve Walshe noticed him playing in the French league with Le Havre. Their scouts were also able to identify and sign Jamie Vardy from non league Fleetwood Town for 1 million euro – a non league transfer record in 2014. They both broke records this year and ended up winning the PFA players player of year and FWA player of year respectively in 2016.
Assembled now are a group of individuals who have real incentives. Little or none of their players had experienced the cotton wool wrapping bestowed among many top natural talents that neither have the work-rate or temperament to make it in the big league. Danny Drinkwater was let go by Manchester Utd because he was considered surplus to requirements. He went on loan in the lower leagues and struggled to make an impact until he decided himself that he needed to work harder to make it!
Kasper Schmeichel was released by Man City because he wasnt good enough while Robert Huth was considered a real talent during his early Chelsea years, but wasn’t mature enough to command a centre back position like he is now. Learning their trade in lower leagues has stood to them. They appreciate what they have and are willing to work hard to maximise their potential. Such a work ethic breeds success and an unbroken camaraderie honesty and respect among players.
That said, they have an incredibly astute manager. The tinkerman didn’t do too much tinkering this year. With Vardy up front with unnatural pace he could afford to play five players across midfield with the skilful Mahrez being the creative link to Vardy. He was ably supported with the excellent passing skills of Danny Drinkwater and an extremely honest, disciplined and hard working group of players. With fresh bodies and positive mindset for each game while working in unison, they were always going to be hard to beat. Nobody foresaw the level they would get to but as confidence grew with results, and with the optimal process oriented mindset applied, they were always task focused and the results simply followed.
What better way to celebrate than with Andrea Bocelli Serenading the Leicester fans with Nessun Dorma.
Lets hope they can have the same success next year!
Keith Begley is a member of BASES and an accredited sport psychologist with the Irish Institute of Sport.
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