John Hill is being photographed in the Riccarton gym for the benefit of these very pages.
Hearts’ sports scientist happily carries out the various poses requested from your Evening News snapper, but is slightly wary as he knows that the first-team squad are due to arrive for a session any minute and won’t hold back in ripping him to shreds.
When the first gaggle of players duly wander in, they erupt in laughter at the sight of Hill in front of the camera. Led by captain Danny Wilson and the ever-ebullient Adam Eckersley, the light-hearted mockery begins. Hill takes it well. At 26, he is very much one of the boys.
However, while he may be relatively unknown to the public compared to the players who are bantering at his expense, Hill is playing as important a part as any player or coach at the club in helping Hearts maintain a title push. The rampant Championship leaders pride themselves on their fitness and Hill plays a crucial role in ensuring that every player available to head coach Robbie Neilson is operating at their optimum.
“In layman’s terms, I’m here to support Robbie and the coaching staff as much as I can in terms of getting the lads in as good a physical condition as possible and preparing them for game day,” said the Englishman, outlining his role to the Evening News. “It involves making sure they’re as fit, strong and fast as they can be. I deal with exercise, diet, nutrition – a bit of everything.”
Hill moved to Edinburgh from his hometown of Wolverhampton in 2009 to do his Masters at Edinburgh University. After doing an internship with Edinburgh Rugby, he landed a part-time position in the Hearts academy in 2010, and from working with the 13-year-olds – some of whom are in the first team now – he worked his way up through the age groups before landing a full-time gig looking after the under-20s.
Having forged a close relationship with Neilson last season, Hill completed his rise when he stepped up to replace Dave Sykes as first-team sports scientist last summer. He spends his working week making sure every player is in peak physical condition. As a self-confessed “sports science geek”, he is humbled that the conscientious Hearts players have bought into his work.
“It’s a bit of a step-up working with the first team, but we’ve got a good, hard-working culture here which makes things a lot easier,” he told the Evening News. “A lot of the lads I’m working with, I’ve known since they were 13 or 14, the likes of Angus Beith, Sam Nicholson, Kevin McHattie. I’ve had them at every age-group coming through.
“I really love the job – I love the fact the boys are buying into what I do and that it seems to be working. It makes your job easier when you have guys like James Keatings coming and asking to do extra stuff.
“We’ve created an environment where everybody wants to get an extra edge. It’s important that you get the boys onside. You’ve got to be able to walk the walk as well, so I’m not scared to get in the gym and show them how to bench occasionally. You’ve got to practise what you preach.”
Hill’s role is all-encompassing when it comes to looking after players’ individual needs in terms of diet and exercise, while also liaising and mucking in with the coaching staff. “If the coaching staff highlight a particular weakness in a player, I’ve then got to come up with a way of improving it. I do a lot of monitoring for wellness, training loads, body composition and markers of physical performance, like speed, agility and fitness.
“I also help Robbie organise training loads in terms of the length of sessions, the size of pitch etc. He might do six-a-side games and there might be some players left at the side, so I’ll take them to do some more conditioning work. I’m just another pair of hands to help out with the physical side of things.
“Strength and conditioning is a big part of my role. I write the gym programmes which are individualised for all the players. We have three compulsory gym sessions a week for the first team and I take care of those. I’ll manipulate their training throughout the season to bring about different changes.
“I also work closely with the video analyst. We’ve got a dropbox set-up, where I put nutritional stuff or test results in and he’ll put their videos in, and we’ll use that information and work together with the coaching staff to get each player as prepared as they can be for the weekend. I have loads of interaction with the coaching staff. They’ve made us part of the backroom team. We’re a really close-knit team and the coaches will always ask my opinion on things and vice-versa.
“It’s a very busy job but it’s what I want to do. You get the benefits when you hear someone like Kevin McHattie, who is coming back from injury, telling you about how good he feels from doing some of the work you’ve given him.”
Having been involved with the club for almost five years, Hill has seen many players grow from boys to men. He takes pride from having helped youngsters like Dale Carrick transform himself from the lightweight he was when he first broke into the squad to the robust little striker who helped illuminate the second half of last season for Hearts.
“I was writing programmes for all the under-20s last year and helping Dave Sykes a lot in the gym when we needed to bulk up the young boys for Gary Locke’s first-team. I’ve seen all these boys go from boys to men. When I was studying, me and Dale Carrick used to get the bus in from town together. We had worked together through all the different age groups and now we’re both at first-team level.
“Dale’s worked really hard. He had been told that he needed to increase his size and he came to us and said ‘right, what do I need to do?’. We gave him a diet plan and a training programme, and, like the rest of the lads, he bought into it.
“Because I’ve worked with a lot of them right through the ages, I’ve got a good understanding of their make-up. As a sports scientist, it’s really important that you know your athletes.”
Neilson has regularly spoken of his desire to have good professionals at Hearts. Hill can vouch for this as he has encountered no problems with players over-indulging. “They’re not in here all the time, so you can’t be too restrictive about diet,” he explained. “It’s more educational from us. We’re fortunate that we haven’t got anybody who’s struggling with diet.
“They’re all good pros who know how to look after themselves. We don’t have anybody over-indulging. If somebody’s body fat increases, we can intervene, but we’ve got no problems in that regard. With diet, it’s just about pointing them in the right direction. We have regular one-to-ones with the players and tell them where they are in terms of raw data. We’ll tell them where we feel they can improve and ask them how they’re feeling physically. Some might want to put on a bit more weight and I’ll advise them how they can increase their muscle mass, or if they want to be a bit leaner, I’ll tell them what their choices are and what substitutes they can use.”
On a match-day, Hill is a prominent fixture in the Hearts dugout and is usually spotted taking warm-ups. “Instead of just sending out the guys to say have a little jog and a stretch, I feel it’s important to be out there individualising what they need to do in the warm-up,” he said. “Guys have specific things they like to do in warm-ups so I can facilitate that. I can supervise as well, which probably keeps them more motivated.
“I take the subs for the warm-up, while the game is going on, which is something a lot of the continental guys do. I noticed the Man City guys doing it in the friendly in the summer.”
Hill is constantly monitoring the latest developments in sports science. “It is a science, so you’ve always got to be on the front foot and aware of new scientific literature,” he said. “I’m fortunate that we’ve got a link with Heriot-Watt University, so I can go to conferences through them. They sent me to one in November where the sports scientists from Man United and Liverpool were there, so it was a really good learning environment for me with guys from the highest level. You’ve got to have an open mind and be willing to pick and choose things and see what works best and helps you deliver the best service.”
While Wolves are his boyhood team, Hill is also now a fully-fledged Jambo. “I’ve even got my girlfriend Natalie on board,” he explained. “Her and her family come up to games from England and my family have subscribed to Hearts TV. They’ve all really bought into the club.”