Meet the innovator who brought sports science to the Premier League

All of the game’s top managers have embraced sports science in recent years, but there was initial scepticism when it was first introduced to the Premier League
All of the game’s top managers have embraced sports science in recent years, but there was initial scepticism when it was first introduced to the Premier League

When Chris Barnes was handed the task of setting up a sport science department at Middlesbrough Football Club in 1997, his revolution was dismissed as a quirky side-show that would never become the norm.

Two decades later, every Premier League club have a sport science department at the heart of their football operations, with the statistics thrown up by GPS data and the constant stream of data flowing in the direction of top clubs now an invaluable part of their set-up.

Now Barnes is looking to take the PLAYR GPS data system produced by Catapult to a mainstream audience, with the new wearable designed to enable amateur footballers to prepare, perform and recover like the world’s best.

The innovator who has also worked with Newcastle, Everton, West Bromwich Albion and is currently with Nottingham Forest sat down with Yahoo Sport to take us through the sports science story in the Premier League that he could never have imagined would transpire when he set the ball rolling 21 years ago.

HOW DID IT ALL START AT MIDDLESBROUGH?

I joined Middlesbrough in 1997. Their chairman Steve Gibson (below) was a forward thinking man who wanted to introduce new ideas to his club. He was keen to look at the way some European clubs had started to use sports science to enhance their training set-up and we were the first club in England to have a department set-up for this purpose.

They took me on board and asked me to build the a team that was essentially the first sports science department at a Premier League club. I was at the club for the next 12 years and over that time, sports science was widely embraced by the whole of the football community. The kind of technology and information available to us grew at a pace and it was great to be part of that.

Boro chairman Steve Gibson was keen to see his club leading the way on the sports science revolution

HOW DID PLAYERS REACT TO THE INTRODUCTION OF SPORTS SCIENCE?

Initially, there was a lot of kickback and resentment to what we were trying to do and not just at Middlesbrough, as this type of operation quickly became popular in the Premier League. You would have managers who would have this statistical information and use it as a stick to beat players with, so inevitably, players did not like that.

HAS THAT ATTITUDE CHANGED NOW?

Completely. Modern footballers now are growing up in a world where this kind of technology has become the norm and it is now seen as a tool to help them rather than a device to expose them. They appreciate that technology can no undercover what makes them tick. Two players who are the same height, same weight and appear to be similar athletes may operate in a very different manner when we scratch under the surface and that is what sports science has brought to football, both in terms of preparation and recovery.

COMPARE THE FITNESS OF PLAYERS NOW TO WHAT YOU SAW IN 1997?

There is no comparison. The lads at Middlesbrough 20 years ago worked hard and the manager at the time, Bryan Robson, was open to what were were doing, but diet, science, technology and so much has changed in the years since. We now understand how an athlete’s body works and that was not possible before this kind of technology came in.

IS THERE A DANGER THAT SOME MANAGERS ARE GIVEN TOO MUCH ANALYTICAL DATA?

I have sympathy for managers who have so many people around them feeding physical and technical information and it must be hard to absorb it all. These people are there to help the manager, but sometimes they can feel snowballed by all the information coming their way. You need to give the manager the right information and not just feed him with data to make yourself or the sport science team look clever.

HAVE WE REACHED THE PINNACLE OF SPORTS SCIENCE NOW?

I don’t think we have even scratched the surface. There is so many more areas we can take this and there is an appetite to explore those both within professional sport and to a wider audience. Fitness has become so important to the youth of today and they will look at a variety of ways to enhance their own performance levels.

CAN THIS TECHNOLOGY BE TAKEN OUT OF FOOTBALL AND USED BY NON-PROFESSIONALS?

That is what we are trying to do with the PLAYR GPS device. Even if you will never be a top sportsman, there is a big interest in using the equipment sportsmen use at the top of their game. They want to see how this kind of technology can enhance their performance at the level they are playing at and that is why these devices have become mainstream.

PLAYR is available for purchase in the UK and Ireland. Want to find out more about PLAYR? Visit www.playrsmartcoach.com