Interview with Fergus Connolly
I know Fergus Connolly for quite some time now. We have met for the first time at the late Charlie Francis’ forum, somewhere around 2005. He has always been a pragmatic go-to guy and he is about to publish a book titled Game Changer, that I can hardly wait. So, I took this opportunity to pick his brain before while I am waiting for the book.
Mladen: Hi Fergus, thanks for taking your time to do this interview. For those who are not familiar with you and your work, can you share some info about who you are, what have you been doing lately and what is your current role?
Fergus: No problem at all and thank you Mladen for having me on. It’s humbling. I’m currently director of Operations & Performance for the University of Michigan football team here in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I work with Jim Harbaugh who I also worked with in San Francisco at the San Francisco 49ers.
I’ve worked for some great teams and big organizations across soccer, rugby cricket over the years, but I’ve never worked in a place quite like Michigan before. To see 110,000 excited fans here at every single game, and to have the history of this college, the winningest program in the history of football behind you – how could you not be excited to go to work every morning? And as you can imagine, with Jim Harbaugh, it’s never boring, and I keep learning every day, which is frankly, very unusual in sport. On a personal level I need that, I need to be challenged, I don’t accept complacency well.
Mladen: Your book will be available very soon. What made you write the book?
Fergus: I wrote a book I believe needed to be written for team sports. I’ve worked in every major field team sport around the world, and over the years learning from great physical preparation coaches like Ashley Jones, Dan Pfaff, Mark Bennett, Dean Benton, Craig White and then either working under or spending time with Sam Allardyce, Eddie Jones, or Brendan Rogers and others, I’ve developed a philosophy and methodology that works. I wanted to draw together the principles of winning in team sports to present in an honest model for coaches, strength coaches and sports scientists.
The industry now has so many aspects to it, the fundamental goal of winning games has become secondary to sports science, technology and careers – except in the best teams. I wanted to draw attention back to answer a basic question – “How do I win games”. Because, to be very honest, – that’s all I’m interested in.
Many years ago, and even while I was playing Gaelic football at home, in Ireland, I started writing notes about training and my preparation. I was always trying to understand performance and training. I have always read, written and diagrammed what I do. I’ve reached a point where I wanted to share some of my methodologies and philosophies in the way, so many great coaches shared and helped me. The other reason was to give back to, and to help preserve the integrity of what we do. In recent years there’s been an explosion in ‘fake’ sports science and people making things more complex than they should be.
Mladen: Who is it aimed for?
Fergus: David Epstein who wrote The Sports Gene, gave me a great piece of advice one time, he said “Write the book you would want to read”. When I was growing up there were no books for team sports players. I’ve read and studied plenty on Olympic sports and individual sports, but there’s no book out there written for team sports coaches and players by coaches or players in team sports.
I wrote the book for the younger me if you will. I get many emails from young coaches looking for help and they have the same problem I had. It’s something for the next generation to help refocus on how to win, not cryotherapy, GPS or a gadget of some kind.
Mladen: What was the most frustrating thing for you working in team sports? How did you overcome it?
Fergus: I love what I do! I love the frustrations, the challenge of team sports. I honestly can’t wait to get to work each morning and attack problems or challenges. This is what we do. It’s like the scene from Reservoir Dogs with Harvey Keitel. “I’m Winston Wolf. I solve problems.” Some are organizational, some are cultural, some are physiological, and that variety is what intrigues me.
I also love winning. When you work with like-minded people, winning in team sports is a thing of beauty. One challenge we all face in team sport, and I speak about it in Game Changer, is the synchronicity of a single effort towards one goal.
There are three secrets to winning. The Triple H rule. Honesty, Hard work and Humility. If those three are in your team, you won’t have any frustrations. You need to have a group of people who are not afraid to tell the truth, so they need to be able to take constrictive criticism and move on fast. Hard work is essential as no one gets anything done without that. And finally, humility is essential to avoiding complacency and the arrogance that trips up people who lose perspective, or get a small bit of success.
Mladen: There seems to be this dichotomy of physical preparation in team sports: either you go powerlifting/weightlifting style (in the States) or rehab/functional style (European soccer). What is your opinion regarding this and what should we do to cross the chasm?
Fergus: It’s like anything in life, the more extreme and fundamentalist the stance, the less sensible they usually are and the less adaptable they are. I think both mindsets are prehistoric to be very frank since neither is game focused. They are in some sense a legacy of Olympic coaches overly influencing training of team sports.
The single biggest impediment with, to use your term, physical preparation, is that, there is a completely unfounded belief fitness wins games. No it doesn’t. You need a ‘functional minimum’ of fitness to win games, but it’s not as important as some try to make you believe. Fitness is a factor. In Game Changer I speak about what I refer to as the 4 Coactives. Technical, Tactical, Physical and Psychological. These are NOT independent pieces, but elements that must be trained simultaneously as coactive. You cannot isolate them.
Mladen: My recent obsession is Agile Periodization where I am trying to implement planning strategies that are more robust in dealing with uncertainties in team sports training. I have experienced issues with physiology-based approaches of Matveeyev/Bompa/Issurin and I am happy to see recent emergence of tactical periodization approaches in team sports, where the emphasis is put on the tactical elements of the game, rather than biomotor qualities. How do you reconcile these issues yourself?
Fergus: Well you’ve come to this conclusion obviously because, like me, you’ve seen that the periodization approach doesn’t work. I’ve been saying this for years. It’ makes no sense in a long year with games every week. Dan Pfaff and I had this talk many years ago in Chula Vista, periodization doesn’t even work perfectly in track & field!
The key to any adaptable methodology are principles. This is what I based my book on. My second book which I started sooner than planned because of demand, are the techniques and strategies that are applied. But Game Changer is a book of performance principles that allow you to prepare to win games. It’s a principle and law based book that explains how you develop your own system.
One misconception I must clear up is that Tactical Periodization is related to physical preparation. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Tactical Periodization is about the tactic-technical development of a team sport athlete. Some people have misinterpreted it as a physical preparation method only. Nonsense.
Fitness is part of the Game, the Game is not part of Fitness.
Mladen: The late Charlie Francis was famous for developing High/Low approach in planning of the week with sprinters and I have seen it been implemented in team sports as well. What is your opinion about this model and do you see it usable in team sport settings and constraints? Another interesting model is Derek Hansen’s micro-loading approach. What are your thought about this and how do you approach weekly planning?
Fergus: Charlie was a great influence on me personally. Apart from his own concepts and methodology, his manner of thinking was what I learned most from. We thought in a similar manner about performance and with an equally critical eye.
His, what people refer to as a Hi-Lo approach, was the result of his understanding of the nervous system and its function. He had a model based on his experience.
What people often make the mistake of with Charlie, is that they take his techniques without understanding the principles behind them. Hi-Lo is the application. But the philosophy is about a systemic energy stress and distribution that allows athletes to maximize specific performance adaptations. Vitor Frade came to very similar conclusions from a team sport perspective and with a comparable understanding.
If you just follow the technique and not the understanding, you’re doomed to failure as you can’t adapt, and this is common in early adapters in team sports technology.
Mladen: There is recent emergence of “performance manager” and “athletic director” position within professional team sports, even colleges. What are your thoughts about these positions and what types of qualities should they have?
Fergus: I dislike any approach that focuses on roles and titles rather than responsibilities and deliverables. In any industry you need to identify the tasks and issues you need to address and find the best skillsets to do those. It’s foolish to simply look at things in terms of people, a role or title, look at responsibilities and skillsets needed.
Mladen: Trying to predict injuries in team sports is a Holy Grail. The most popular model currently in use is Tim Gabbett’s model of Acute:Chronic ratios. What do you do to help predict and prevent injuries from happening?
Fergus: Predicting Injuries is the snake oil of modern team sport. First of all, and you know this too, the majority of teams know that their sports science and performance data is not even accurate enough to use with any confidence. No team in any league submits accurate injury data publicly either, because that’d be giving away a competitive advantage, so any analysis of injury stat’s online is basically irrelevant. Next, the variables are too numerous to measure, social, family, psychological etc. Where do you stop? Not to mention, you will always intervene if an injury becomes apparent to the naked eye. What I’m really saying is that the only way to prove your system works is to allow injuries to happen that you predicted – otherwise you can’t prove it works. So, you can’t prove that any injury prevention system ever works.
At best with you can suggest probability of injury, but in the majority of cases any good coach would identify this by actually speaking with and observing his players.
But I will disagree with you on one thing. I don’t believe predicting injuries is the holy grail. I believe that winning games is. The link between injuries and wins is complex one. You can’t relate the two. The secret is injury avoidance in key players, but not across the board.
Mladen: How do you deal with different subgroup of athletes in your squad (starting squad, travel squad, reserves, injured, etc) as well as with different individual needs? In other words, what do you do to individualize?
Fergus: There’s many ways to do it. I’m a great proponent of managing the person, not the athlete. So you individualize lifestyle, diet, recovery, psychology and everything around training first, then address the individual athlete in practice last. This is more important because you have greater impact and a longer impact too over their career, not to mention there will always be aspects of games and practice you can’t control.
Mladen: What are your thoughts about the current technologies used in sports? What are the benefits and drawbacks and what should we look for? What is next on the horizon?
Fergus: The biggest issue with technology is not the technology but the models it’s used with. I don’t care how good your GPS unit is if you are not modeling the right things. Remember, a GPS unit is just like a calculator. It will always be right, but if you are typing the wrong numbers in then it doesn’t matter what you do.
Sports Technology is the same. The majority of teams have false or imbalanced model of performance. This is the first mistake.
The second mistake is having an incomplete model and thinking you have all the pieces. It’s like the five blind men around an elephant. One man is holding an ear and thinks he’s holding a tent. Another has his arms around a leg and thinks it’s a tree trunk, another holding the trunk, another the tail and so on. None of them have the whole view. This is what most teams are doing. They measure with GPS or HRV or something, but unless they look at the whole athlete, they are only measuring and affecting a minimal often insignificant aspect of performance.
The irony is that the NFL or NBA teams that invest the most in tech are the ones who win the least games. Seriously, you win 1 game last year and blow 15 games and you invest in cryotherapy, blue lights or eccentric flywheel technology – you really think that’s your problem?
Mladen: For the last question, I’ve left the most difficult one and pretty much the quite frequent issue when it comes to coaching: how do you deal with coaching stress, volatility of the position and profession in itself?
Fergus: Ha, well you know the business, it’s often the best sales person who gets the most noise, but little results. You’ve seen it yourself in the AFL, all noise but no results. On the other hand, you get guys like Andrew Russell at Hawthorn who just quietly goes about his business of winning repeatedly with no fuss like Tony Strudwick at Manchester United. So if you are a young person starting out in this business, use those two as your role models and you’ll do ok.
I have always believed that if you’re the best at what you do, you have nothing to worry about. I truly believe that. Remember I’ve never formally studied sports science or any sports science type course, but I’ve been fortunate to have a career across some of the biggest franchises in the world. I think most of all though you have to love what you do.
If you ask anyone who knows me they’ll tell you how much I love what I do.
Mladen:Thank you one more time for the insightful answers. Really looking forward to your book Game Changer.
Fergus: Thank you Mladen, and keep up your great work.