We spoke to Head of Sport Science Alek Gross, as part of the Saints As One campaign, to find out how the club is staying on top of the players’ training schedules…
How have you found life in lockdown?
It’s obviously a change of pace from what we’re used to – we’re normally working week to week, with something to focus on at the end of each week, which is part of the enjoyment of the job.
It’s been different to that, and it’s come with challenges, both personally and professionally, in terms of dealing with the change. There’s also a bit of realism that, in the grand scheme of things, I’ve been pretty fortunate in terms of being untouched with sickness and illness.
There are lots of people who are in worse positions, and people who are doing critical jobs, so my job of staying away from people and making sure the boys are fit and healthy is relatively easy in comparison.
What does a typical training day look like now?
There are a couple of things we’ve tried to keep the same and a couple of things that have had to change. We’ve tried to keep to the schedule as much as possible because it’s good to keep people in a routine.
If we train in the morning, it means the players are getting out of bed, it means they are going to bed at the right time, they’re eating breakfast, they’re having a healthy lifestyle.
There are also players who, now that they’ve got children at home, might be teaching PE or Geography in the mornings, so we need to be aware that training needs to fit in around people’s lifestyles. We’re flexible on timings, but by and large it will be in the morning.
We’ve set up little pods of staff, so we’ve split the squad up into four small groups of around six or seven players, with a strength and conditioning coach, a sport scientist, a physio, a psychologist and a soft tissue therapist.
Then we’ll ring around the boys and make sure they’re happy with the session. At that point, some of the sessions might be one to one via Zoom or over video, just so we can do some coaching for some of the more complex aspects.
Some of it might just be a conversation for the running sessions. “Do you know where you’re going?” was a bit of a challenge to start off with, because it’s about finding out where’s best to go. Particularly for the more high-speed running sessions, you need a clear bit of space where you’re not going to bump into people.
You mention the pods, and grouping the players together to better support them. Is it helpful to have a few consistent voices for them to lean on for guidance and advice?
We’ve got a really strong group of staff. If you had one or two people looking after the players, you would be doing a disservice to the players but also to the staff, by not using their skills as required.
As in any other walk of life, there are certain relationships that are stronger than others among the people that you work with. Especially at the minute, when it is a difficult time for a lot of people, you need those strong relationships to open up about things they’re struggling with, that they might not ordinarily do with someone else.
We’re staff and players, but essentially we’re work colleagues like anyone else in other roles. As with anything, if you’ve got six people to look after instead of 20, you’ve got less chance of missing something – whether that be a social aspect, a fitness aspect or an injury-prevention aspect.
alek grosstheir application to the sessions has been unbelievable - some have been having to be restrained a little bit!
southampton fc head of sport science
How have the players been responding?
We know we’ve got good staff anyway, but this period has probably highlighted it even more. I think it’s the same for the players – they’re just taking it in their stride and they’ve been really flexible in terms of how they’ve gone about it.
They understand it’s not normal, but their application to the sessions has been unbelievable – some have been having to be restrained a little bit, partly because they’ve got a lot of time on their hands, but they have been really diligent with their work – not just from a training perspective, but also in their interactions with each other.
We’ve got WhatsApp groups and Teams sessions, and you can see they’re obviously supporting each other through it as well. We’ve got a couple of different leaderboards in my group – after the 5k sessions there’s a bit of jovial fun in there!
I think that’s why we’ve been comfortable giving them a bit of a rest period. We went really hard for three weeks, just because of the initial period when we might’ve been coming back to play, but it’s important to give the boys a bit of physical and mental rest and recovery, because we’ve got enough time to get them fit and ready to play again.
Looking forward, there might not be many opportunities for rest and recovery in the next year, so we need to take advantage of that.
There’s a little bit of healthy competition between the players then! Who’s on top?
It depends what it is. With any of the longer, more consistent running, the midfielders are pretty high up. For the interval-based ones, the full-backs are doing well and for the faster ones, it’s Mikey (Obafemi) and Longy who are up there, so it’s true to what we would normally see.
There have been a couple of people who saw themselves drifting towards the bottom in the first week, but they’ve picked up their efforts! In general they’re competitive people – otherwise they wouldn’t be professional footballers – so anything they can make into a competition they’re pretty keen to do.
How about group yoga and pilates via Zoom?
There are some people who need it as part of their programme, and some people who just do it because they want to.
There has been an increase in numbers over the weeks because it’s a touch point for the players – they see each other, which makes it interesting, and it’s testament to Steve (Wright) and the medical guys for putting those sessions on and keeping them involved, at a time that suits the players, and being flexible around that.
It’s probably in addition to what we would do normally at the training ground – a lot of that would be individual sessions, before or after training, so the change to a group session is slightly different. There are different abilities within that – some are better than others.
In this period when things are difficult, it’s come out as a real strong point and something that we could potentially take forward when things eventually go back to normal.
How are you finding the challenge of breaking through the monotony and maintaining focus?
There are two ways of looking at that. Firstly, that’s what training is like anyway – if you’re in a season, it is pretty similar week on week. There is some consistency with the training that brings a little bit of intensity and comfort, as part of your normal routine.
I think the other side is maintaining focus – setting short goals, like training hard for three weeks and then getting a reward with a lighter week.
There are competitions and leaderboards, and we’re changing some of the sessions as we go. Something Chris Lovegrove started off that we’ve followed is a little montage of his group training, and that type of thing keeps energy and motivation high.
The motivation isn’t too much of a problem, because we want to be back playing as soon as we can, and be as fit as possible to win as many games as possible. Whilst everyone has a down day in general, the motivation has been pretty high.
The players must be really missing that matchday buzz…
From the conversations I’ve been having, they want to be back training, because there’s always a buzz around the training ground – when it’s safe to do so.
As for matchday, they’re competitive people and as much as they’d love it to be in front of thousands of people at St Mary’s, if that isn’t the case, they still want to be playing football, competing and representing the club. They can’t wait to get back to it – same as all of us!
On top of the fitness aspect, how are you finding the mental side and pastoral side of it?
The welfare staff are dealing with some of the more specific issues around home life, but we’ve also got very capable and very experienced psychologists around the players.
There’s also more simple things we should all be doing. WhatsApp is fine for the odd check in, but I think calling people is important and face-to-face contact (via video call) is even more important than that.
There is loads of support, and it’s about being wary of changes in behaviour that might be a bit of an indicator of where they’re at.
How are the staff coping?
I know it’s a cliché, but we’re all a team working for the same thing. Whether you’re a player, a member of staff inside our department or a member of staff outside our department, I think it’s probably been evidence of what a really good group of people we’ve got.
They’re experts in what they do, but irrespective of that they’ve just been really good as people – pulling together, checking on others, making videos for people’s birthdays and trying to make everyone feel as involved as possible, which isn’t always easy when you’re not in the same building and things are moving relatively quickly in certain areas.
I know we’ve focused heavily on the first team, but I’m also responsible for other staff, and the Academy staff and the Girls’ and Women’s staff have all jumped on board and been really proactive in supporting each other. I think that’s been really important in giving us the energy to support the players.
What are the lessons learned that might prove valuable when we return to normality?
Make sure you know how to use video camera messaging for all meetings!
One that might come across a little cheesy is that I think we need to enjoy the good moments a little bit more.
We’re always a million miles an hour, but I watched the Inter Milan game on the website the other night, which was the first time I’d watched it back, and I remembered I was thinking at the time, ‘what are we doing for Sunday?’ because the next game was so soon.
We’re in a massive rush to go week to week, which we should be because we want to win every game, but a lesson for me is probably just to enjoy the good moments a little bit more on occasion.
Alek’s top tips for being in isolation…
- Maintain routine: Sleep is massively important for mental and physical recovery, and affects your mood for the rest of the day. Going to bed and getting up at good times is vitally important.
- Get your nutrition right: It’s easy to slip up on this in the current climate, but learning new skills around cooking is a good way of keeping on top of what you’re eating.
- Stay in control: Even if nothing else is going right, stay in control of your exercise, what you’re eating and how you’re sleeping. In a period where we’re not in control of everything, it’s good for your overall welfare to stay on top of the things that you can control.