Tech secrets and talk-ins key to Scotland's Euro 2024 campaign

John McGinn will have his workload monitored ahead of Germany clash.John McGinn will have his workload monitored ahead of Germany clash.
John McGinn will have his workload monitored ahead of Germany clash. | SNS Group
Data and biomarkers augmented by honest conversation

The mountains of data, from blood markers to GPS stats on every imaginable measure of movement, are all incredibly important. But the art of actual human conversation? That’s where the really vital information can be gleaned.

As Steve Clarke prepares for Scotland’s final pre-Euro 2024 fixture and looks ahead to a match week involving travel, tension and selection headaches, he’ll share many of the same concerns as 23 other head coaches about to guide their nations into the tournament. Including one basic-yet-complex question surrounding match fitness, a semi-mythical state of readiness that is easier to recognise by its absence than its presence.

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How does he ensure that every single player – starters and subs alike – is in absolute peak condition when the whistle sounds at 8 pm, UK time, next Friday night? Getting that right makes everything else much easier to handle.

Stephen Smith, a fitness expert and CEO of Kitman Labs, has all sorts of insights on the sort of thing that the Scotland backroom staff will be factoring into everything from daily training loads to playing minutes against Finland at Hampden tomorrow night. He certainly believes that, in this context, it’s good to talk.

“For all the information available, talking to the player is really important,” said Smith, a former Leinster Rugby injury prevention expert now based in the States. “You’re talking about really experienced players. They know what it requires to play at a certain level. They know their own bodies, so you can have conversations with them.

“And a lot of them will look at the data themselves, so you can explain to them what they need, ask how they feel about training, adjusting it based on that. Some players will need more minutes. For some who have been injured, they’ll actually feel tactically and technically ready, so they can focus on recovery strategies.

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“For every player, there is going to be a slightly different mix. So for any international side, the bottom line is being able to have very detailed, meticulous conversations with each individual player, understanding their context, their environment, and where they’re trying to get to.

“There’s no bigger time for the squads heading to the Euros, and there is no doubt that it’s a really complicated problem for coaches, how to get everyone just right for the tournament. The amount of information they have can help them avoid injury, keep them healthy – but also make sure they’re in the right shape to perform and gel together. It’s a really challenging thing.

“That is precisely why organisations like ours exists, to help teams gather the information, to understand that information in the context of each individual player, and to balance the load for these athletes. How much recovery do you give them? How will they respond to specific training programmes? How do you take an individually tailored approach in a group setting?

“The load that they’ve had, and the load they’re used to, is a huge factor. They’re all coming into the Euros in different shape, right?

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“Some are coming in off the back of 50, 60 games, while others have played 20. Then you think about how much training time a player on 50 games has put in, compared to the player on 20, it’s significant.

“The number of clubs feeding into the squad is also a factor, because they’ll all have completely different training strategies, completely different philosophies, different workload process and normative behaviour, their habits etc. All of those things make it even harder for coaches.

“Because you’re bringing everyone together and trying to deliver a specific programme. But you have people who are used to completely different amounts of work on a week-to-week basis. How do you homogenise that while still taking account of individual differences?

“How do you ensure you don’t break some people as you work towards the tournament? But also make sure you don’t undercook some players, so they can’t deliver?”

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There are, of course, variables even within the most tight-knight squad, Smith explaining: “If you look at someone like Ryan Jack for Rangers or Liam Cooper at Leeds, their games this season were in the low 20s. And it’s not just the game, it’s about what those players are used to on a weekly basis.

“Scotland’s coaching team will be interacting with the staff at Rangers and Leeds. They will have a spin-out of the information on ALL of their training sessions over the past year, their game involvement, what a normal week looks like for them,

“They’ll then be comparing that to a John McGinn, looking at how many accelerations, decelerations, how much high speed running they’ve done. But they’ll also be thinking: ‘How does he normally respond? How stressed is that person, or how fatigued is that person, normally after playing X number of minutes, running X amount of distance? How is he moving?’

“You can get blood and bio-markers to give you even more information, so they’ll be looking to make sure things aren’t wildly different form the norm for a player. But also figuring out a plan for that player, maybe saying: ‘Well, actually, we need Liam Cooper to be way more involved than he is for his club. We need him to be capable of getting through this number of minutes, this amount of sprinting.’ And then they’ll be looking to graduate him up to that level in a short time before the first game, because they want them all ready for that.

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“It depends on what they’re investing in. But a lot of teams will be looking at testosterone and cortisone levels.

“The more cortisone in the blood, the more indication there is of muscular damage and fatigue. If they’re tracking that on a daily basis, they can understand risks better.

“Somebody who does 13 or 14 kilometres in a game, is there cortisone coming back down to normal levels quickly? They can intervene – get players in ice baths, get them a massage, flush some of those waste products out of their system.

“If the body can’t clear things quick enough, do they need nutritional support? The information from sleep, diet, nutrition, GPS, bio-mechanics, how mobile they are and how stiff they are … it’s all part of getting them finely tuned. It becomes a pretty complex web to manage.

“The international game should be the pinnacle. Players should feel like, if they’re going to play for their country, they get the best support.”